The Classical Guitar in Classical Music

Mattias Schulstad performing with Metropolis Ensemble at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York. Photo: Sasha Popov

Looking back over the past three centuries, what we today consider to be mainstream classical music covers a wide and remarkable range — Bach and the harpsichord, Mozart and the clarinet, Messiaen and the electronic ondes Martenot, and much else. At any given moment during those years, there might not have been big indications of immediate development, but when seen over longer periods of time, a principle of continuous evolution of both style and instrumentation becomes clear. Certainly, immortal musical works and settings remain over time, yet as they are discovered by new generations, they are heard in their current context. And as seen through the rearview mirror, this evolutionary principle might even be what defines mainstream, as opposed to marginalization. As a guitarist today, I have often wondered how the guitar fits into this picture. To be clear, I love the guitar and would like it to be heard a lot, and could certainly stand to gain from that. Similar interests may be found among composers, critics, music lovers, guitar aficionados and active players around the world. But those may not be reasons for someone else to share a favorable view of the guitar. So in order to explore the topic, below is an attempt to look at the guitar in the context of classical music, through four different perspectives.

Some say that the guitar lacks qualities like the legato and richness of the violin, or the polyphony and power of the piano — that it doesn’t function very well. Let’s take a look. In 1844 (English translation 1858), Hector Berlioz wrote about the guitar in A Treatise upon Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration:

Composers employ it but little … Its feeble amount of sonorousness … is doubtless the cause of this. Nevertheless, its melancholy and dreamy character might more frequently be made available; it has a real charm of its own, and there would be no impossibility in writing for it so that this should be made manifest.

One difference between then and now, is that the microphone has been invented and developed in a significant way. And the guitar’s “feeble amount of sonorousness” happens to be well-suited to close-up microphone placement. In 1951, Villa-Lobos endorsed microphone amplification for his guitar concerto; with today’s technology, the guitar’s “melancholy and dreamy character,” as well as its “real charm,” can be expressed across a wide dynamic range, in recorded and live contexts, without sacrificing intimacy.

Others say that the guitar’s repertoire lacks significant original works. That’s largely true among major composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Schubert, Berlioz and Paganini were familiar with and did compose for the guitar to a certain extent — Sor wrote a great deal — but neither Bach, nor Mozart or Beethoven wrote a single note.

In the twentieth century, however, composers such as Britten, Schönberg and Boulez wrote works for the guitar that have remained in the repertoire. A work that had impact was Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje (pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy), commissioned and published in 1920 by La Revue musicale alongside works in tribute to Debussy by Bartók, Stravinsky and Ravel. Falla served as mentor to Mompou and Rodrigo, whose Concierto de Aranjuez, written in Paris 1939, is described by Gramophone as “one of the most original masterpieces of the 20th century” and “one of the most popular concertos of all time.” (Stravinsky sought to write for Andrés Segovia, to no avail.)

Today, the guitar is oftentimes a natural and even liberating choice for composers of the Millennial generation. And as music of the twentieth century is increasingly becoming standard repertoire, the guitar might reasonably be heard to a corresponding extent to music from that period that features the guitar. In other words, if there is repertoire, why not play it?

Another reason to dismiss the guitar could be about prestige. After all, classical music is often seen as exclusive, and the guitar is often seen as inclusive. Like the human voice, the guitar is highly accessible, with a sound that can move us and capture our imagination. As a result, it’s often used by non-professionals, accompanying children’s songs; by the camp fire; with the music lover at home — areas where the guitar certainly has a natural role. But that doesn’t mean it’s rational to use those areas to look down on the classical guitar in a trained setting: Because the guitar is easy at first, does not mean it’s easy to master.

It’s true, of course, that since the guitar — in some shape or form — is used in virtually every genre, including anti-establishment milieus, its range of associations is unusually wide. And within an exclusive environment, it might be vital to keep a distance from many of those associations. That being said, I don’t think a reasonable person would dismiss Opera because they don’t like the singing used in Punk. And in the same way, the classical guitar can only be fairly estimated by its own specific merits.

In smaller contexts, we often face either-or decisions. In those circumstances, such as a particular season in a smaller concert series, perhaps the guitar would be heard instead of something else. And as true as that may be, things can look a bit different in a bigger context. For example, as the guitar began attracting the interest of established composers in the twentieth century, those composers didn’t stop writing for other instruments; as the guitar was included in leading institutions of higher education, those institutions didn’t close other departments; as guitar recordings earned respect by critics and audiences, classical music became more, not less, recognized; and as the guitar — like the solo cello and Early Music movement — began appearing in the concert hall, that could be a reason to expand, not reduce, society’s support of the arts.

One consequence, however, of today’s global accessibility, is that a musical performance doesn’t only compete within its own specific niche, but also competes with just about anything we can imagine: other kinds of music, television and film, books and magazines, theater and dance, the visual arts, games, you name it. Certainly, any professional musician or musical organization faces immediate pressure to focus on a specific, pre-packaged, niche in pursuit of competitive advantage among peers. But what I believe sustains a performance over time, is the quality of that performance, not on which instrument the performance is made.

A Swedish classical guitarist who has made recordings, performed as soloist with orchestra, and developed the guitar’s repertoire.

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