The guitar has never had it so ubiquitous. In its Iberian heydey when, after a battle between Spaniards and Portuguese, the losing army took to the hills, and left, it was said 11,000 guitars upon the battlefield. In the process of becoming universal, the guitar has lost most of its social connotations and extra-musical overtones.
To have played the instrument in 1550 would have identified you as a Spanish ”gracioso”, perhaps as a Don Juan. If you were playing one in 1620 and were not Spanish, it would have stigmatized you as belonging among ” the charlatans and saltimbanques who use it for strumming, to which they sing villanelles and other foolish lumpen-songs”. Around 1820 a guitar would have marked you as a nature-loving romantic of Keatsian tendencies.
During the 1930′s, on the other hand, possession of a guitar was prima-facie evidence that you belonged to a Young Marxists’ Chowder and Marching Society. Today, the meaning is fragmented into diverse forms of self expression ranging from the traditional to the futuristic, passing through the sonic. From a psychological standpoint, however, the guitar is still a very powerful symbol. There are many associations associations that derive from the mystique of the foot-loose and fancy-free guitar, an image to which the serenader, the range rider, Huddy Ledbetter, and the French gypsy jazzman Django Reinhardt have all contributed their share.
Yet the deeper, subconscious significance of the twang is much older than that, and apparently lies buried in the earliest aural experiences of the human race. The original ancestor of all plucked instruments, is the hunting bow that does double duty as a musical bow, like the one shown in a cave drawing at Les Trois Freres, in France. Also, it has not escaped the mythologists that Apollo the god of archers is also Apollo the god of music, a circumstance that might reasonably be explained by the dualism of the bow.
But the history of what we call the guitar begins at the point where the form of the instrument takes on the shape of a woman’s body;softly rounded at the shoulders, curving inward at the waist, and concluding with another gently rounded curve at the bottom. Its outline is simply the classic admiring gesture of man delineating the form of woman. All of which creates the link between guitar and libido. As Segovia, once told it, the guitar was invented when Apollo was pursuing Daphne, ”he embraced her, Daphne was changed into a laurel, and from the wood of the scared tree the first guitar was made”.
When the guitar finally reappeared in the fashionable drawing rooms of Western Europe, it had the charm of an exotic novelty, after a long sejour lingering in the the barbershops of Spain. In Europe, a low E string was added, the idea of which seemed to occur to different people in different places at the same time. In any case, the guitar of 1800 was no longer an elongated, elaborately inlaid plaything; its shoulders had filled out appreciably, the curve at the waist was more pronounced, and in place of the old double courses there were now only single strings; , three of gut, three of silk wound with silver wire.
Upper class England was caught up in an outburst of guitar fever chiefly because
ington’s officers in the Peninsular campaigns against Napoleon had acquired a taste for it. Far from endangering the posture of young women, as had the lute, the guitar was now held to be a salubrious employment for the weaker sex. Despite the affinities of form and feeling, all of the serious work on the romantic guitar continued to be done by men through a generation of concert virtuosos from Italy and Spain who established a new image for the guitar.
The best known and most influential of the Italians was the Bolognese Mauro Giuliani ( 1781-1828 ) He lived for many years in Vienna where he helped Beethoven introduce the Battle Symphony. He was likened to Paganini on guitar because of his similar power of expression. Giuliani’s leading rival, Fernando Sor ( 1778-1839 ) was born in Barcelona, but came to Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. His admirer’s liked to call him ”the Beethoven of the guitar”; he was capable of turning out an occasional small masterpiece on the guitar, but it was on the concert stage that he made an unforgettable impression.
Although he rose to fame on the violin, Paganini himself was also a formidable virtuoso on the guitar. Those who heard him on both instruments had difficulty deciding which one of them he played better. His ”Duetto Amoroso” consisted of a rather cynical succession of nine episodes; Beginning, Entreaties, Consent,Timidity,Satisfaction,Quarrel,Peace,Love Pledges, and Leave-taking. Paganini wrote almost as much music for guitar as for violin; nearly everything he published during his lifetime contains at least one guitar part.
The natural enemy of this kind of music making was the grand piano. The piano was not so much an instrument as a vested interest, as immobile as a piece of real estate. It was also a triumph of mechanical engineering, a thing of levers and bolts and hammers, utterly insensitive to the difference between being struck by a finger or the end of an umbrella. Against this massive machine and its minions, a small hand plucked box can make little headway, and in the second half of the nineteenth century the guitar is once again driven from polite society and relegated to the saltimbanques and garlic eaters.
The guitar retreated to its native country, Spain, and eventually French and Russian composers came during the days of Victorian opulence, impelled by an awakening interest in folk music, and to observe the guitar in its natural habitat for the first time. Here the Gypsy musicians hired to play in the Granada cafes developed increasingly dazzling ways of attracting customers. Many foreigners were overwhelmed to find a Spanish way of life predicated on two guitars, five or six dancing gypsies, and a cask of manzanilla sherry. The great flamenco guitarists like Paco El Barbero were said to be able to shatter wine glasses at daybreak.
The West African slaves brought to America were accustomed to playing many of the same twanging instruments as the Moors and Berbers north of the Sahara. They brought over a skin covered gourd instrument called the ”bania”, soon to become better known as the banjo and henceforth indispensable to a dozen forms of American music; the banjo player from Africa meets the guitar player from Europe, and the result is that instruments, as well as styles are exchanged. For blues pioneers like Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, there was something tactile and responsive about the guitar that makes it the ideal blues instrument, something a piano could never achieve with its eighty-eight note span.
The unamplified classic guitar of Sor and Giuliani also evolved, beginnig with the great Spanish revival at the turn of the century. Franciso Tarrega awakened the latent possibilities of the concert guitar by writing a new romantic repertoire for it, and by making more than a hundred transcriptions from Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann and Bach. Segovia, almost self taught, established a sovereign place for the guitar in the twentieth century as a new and exciting sound by expanding the horizons and repertoire of the guitar in terms of original composition. It was Segovia who accustomed international audiences to the idea that one could spend two hours in a concert hall listening to someone playing the guitar.
Segovia did not play like an orchestra; his instrument moaned not, and neither did it wail. It was at all times nothing more nor less than a transcendently well played guitar; an honest and affecting sound because it is a beautifully handmade thing, in which one hand knew exactly what the other hand was doing. And that, in the last analysis, might be the point and purpose of the whole art of the Apollonian twang.