Historical Perspectives on the Guitar Ensemble

Historical Perspectives on the Guitar Ensemble
Los Romeros, the Munich Guitar Quartet, and the Presti-Lagoya Duo

Nowadays, throughout the world, whether amateur or professional, guitarists are getting together to perform in duos, trios, and quartets, as well as larger units of players. Historically this is not a new phenomenon. Ensemble music is, for most musicians, the staple means of earning a living, and always has been. The social contexts of music, ranging from the dance hall to religious ceremonies, from the court to the salon, have usually involved a variety of instrumentalists performing together.

The essence of classical ensemble music evolved to include instruments of every timbre, from percussion to brass and high-pitched woodwind, with the gamut of bowed instruments filling in the texture. Over the centuries, composers expanded their resources to make concert halls magnificent cathedrals of sound.

The history of lutes and guitars lies at the other end of the spectrum—that of the private gathering, the palace boudoir, the compact salon, the smaller concert hall. At the same time as professional performers plied their trade, perhaps with an aristocrat as their patron, plucked string instruments were also popular at the grass-roots level, particularly for song accompaniment. Unfortunately, the centuries of folk song and improvised social music-making are available to us now only insofar as such influence was transmitted through those composers who wrote down their compositions.

For the Elizabethan lute in England there are remarkably few duo works. These are along the lines of Thomas Robinson’s Toy for two lutes and Dowland’s arrangement for two lutes of My Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home (also for two performers on one lute!). More significantly, through the recordings of the Julian Bream Consort we can glimpse the sheer joy of ensembles that included lute parts in the 16th century. Thomas Morley’s First Book of Consort Lessons (1599/1611) anthologized various composers who wrote glorious music for the “Broken” Consort—a combination of plucked and bowed instruments with the addition of a flute.

The Baroque era of Francesco Corbetta, François de Visée, Gaspar Sanz, Santiago de Murcia, etc., provides little evidence to show how this music was used by ensembles. But the lutenist Paul O’Dette has explained how the “solemn, carefully constructed Fantasias of the 16th century vihuela [Spanish lute] repertoire were superseded by a more extroverted style of improvised dance music on the new five-course guitar . . . . Accounts from 17th and 18th century Spain often describe performances of the new dances on several guitars with castanets or tambourines.” To illustrate the point, O’Dette’s recording entitled Jácaras (on Harmonia Mundi) presents the music of Santiago de Murcia with Baroque guitars, harp and psaltery, and percussion, thus linking the published pages of historical scores with the concepts of dance traditions.

Moving to the early 19th century, we find the beginnings of authentic traditions of guitar performance in duos, trios, and quartets. One of the earliest was the German guitarist Christian Gottlieb Scheidler (1747–1829), whose Sonata in D for two guitars is one of the minor popular classics of the repertoire. (The Abreu brothers made a superb recording of this, now available on YouTube.)

Born 20 years after Scheidler, Austrian guitarist Leonhard von Call (1767–1815) wrote pieces for guitar duos and trios as well as music for guitar with combinations of other instruments. At the same time, French guitarist Antoine de l’Hoyer (1768–c.1836) published pieces for two guitars and Trio Concertant for Three Guitars, Op. 29 (1817, Paris) and Air Varié et dialogue for Four Guitars. (The latter is believed to be the first publication for guitar quartet.)

L’Hoyer’s contemporaries—in particular Carulli (1770–1841), Sor (1778–1839), and Giuliani (1781–1829)—created renowned solo repertoire but also wrote excellent guitar duos. The pick of the bunch includes Carulli’s Serenade in A, Op. 96 and Duo in G, Op. 34, Sor’s L’Encouragement, Op. 34, and Giuliani’s Variazioni concertante, Op. 130, recorded by Julian Bream and John Williams. (These little masterpieces can all be heard on the RCA Victor album Together: The Ultimate Collection). Sor, as is well known, played his duos with Aguado (1784–1849), thus bringing together two of the finest performers of the epoch.


Of the same generation, Anton Diabelli (1781–1858) wrote useful pedagogic duo material such as Variations on a Favorite Theme, Op. 57, Grand Trio in F, Op. 62, and Grand Serenade for Two Guitars, Op. 100. Unknown by many classical guitarists is the music of Marco Aurelio de Ferranti (1801–1878). His Concertante for two guitars, Op. 22, and Polonaise Concertante for three guitars, Op. 27 indicate the high level of accomplishment during this period of the instrument’s development.

Following on with the ensemble tradition was Johann Kaspar Mertz (1806–1856), who made an enormous contribution to the guitar duo by increasing its emotional range. Mertz’s music for two guitars has until recently been neglected by leading duos. This may be because Mertz’s duet scoring is usually for a guitar with the normal string length and tuning plus a terz guitar, a smaller instrument with higher tuning. Johannes Möller and Laura Fraticelli have recorded 13 of Mertz’s duos, including the deeply moving At the Grave of the Beloved, on their Naxos Guitar Duets album.

Equally neglected are the three virtuosic duos of Napoléon Coste (1805–1883), who, according to Simon Wynberg’s research, performed in a duo with Sor on at least one occasion and possibly wrote duos “stimulated by Sor’s compositions in the genre.” (Grand Duo can be heard on YouTube in a superb performance by Judicaël Perroy and Jérémy Jouve.)

It may seem surprising that the leading maestro of the second half of the 19th century, Francisco Tárrega (1852–1909), was not deeply involved in composing for ensemble. He did, however, put together a tiny Waltz for two guitars and offered similar treatment for a Mazurka (also known as Petit Minuet). On the other hand, Tárrega was industrious in arranging classical works for two guitars. Emilio Pujol’s biography lists Tárrega’s work in this category with music by Beethoven, Bizet, Bretón, Chapí, Gounod, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Schubert; 20 transcriptions in all.

This precedent may have guided two of Tárrega’s most eminent pupils: Miguel Llobet (1878–1938) arranged works for two guitars by Aguirre, Albéniz, D’Aquin, Brahms, Chavarri, Falla, Granados, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Rogatis, and Tchaikovsky; while Emilio Pujol (1886–1980) completed the same for pieces by Albéniz, Bizet, Broqua, Cervantes, Cruz, Falla, Granados, Poulenc, Ravel, Rodrigo, and Villa-Lobos. (Pujol also transcribed Bizet’s Minuet from L’Arlésienne for three guitars.) Both artists immeasurably enhanced the appeal of the guitar duo in the early 20th century—Llobet with María Luisa Anido (1907–1997) and Pujol with his wife, Matilda Cuervas (1888–1956)—and the brilliance of their respective recordings remains undiminished. The guitar duo as an artistic medium was later immortalized by the Presti-Lagoya Duo, universally acclaimed as peerless pioneers in the art of the duo. Ida Presti (1924–1967) and her husband, Alexandre Lagoya (1929–1999), remain the finest historical examples of duo playing, with many recordings existing to inspire later generations.

In his essay Heinrich Albert and the First Guitar Quartet (available on the internet), Allan Morris traces the history of the guitar quartet. Historian Fritz Buek founded the Munich Guitar Quartet in 1907, a significant first in the instrument’s development. The performers were Buek, Heinrich Albert, Hermann Rensch, and Karl Kern. They solved the potential problem of the guitar quartet’s sonorities—that of using four standard guitars—by bringing in diverse instruments. Thus they used a Terz Bogengitarre (tuned a minor third higher than a normal guitar with sympathetic strings), a Lyra-Terzgitarre (with 24 frets and a number of sympathetic strings), a Quintbassogitarre (tuned a fifth lower than a normal guitar) and a Wappenformgitarre (shaped like a large mandolin). They gave their first concert in 1909 in Munich and continued through the 1920s. When Heinrich Albert left the quartet, his place on first terz guitar was taken by none other than Hermann Hauser (1882–1952), destined to become one of the great guitar makers of the century.

In the 1960s, Los Romeros—Celedonio Romero (1913–1996) and his three sons, Célin, Pepe, and Angel—established an international reputation as the supreme guitar quartet (they were often called “The Royal Family of the Guitar”) and also as remarkable solo performers in their own right. Like the Presti-Lagoya Duo, Los Romeros set the standard for technical and expressive achievement for their genre. Their many recordings and close association with Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto Andaluz for four guitars helped distinguish them from other quartets of the era. (Rodrigo also wrote pieces for Presti-Lagoya.)

One of the most popular and influential modern ensembles is the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet:

The underappreciated Cinderella of guitar ensembles appears to be the guitar trio. Yet outstanding trio groups have created significant reputations for musicianship and entertainment value. I was fortunate some years ago in Holland to hear the Amsterdam Guitar Trio, whose transcriptions of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, as well as their interpretation of Falla’s El Amor Brujo, were exquisite as well as virtuosic. The work of the guitar trio is nowadays being carried forward by groups such as the Mobius Trio, formed in 2010 by guitarists Robert Nance, Mason Fish, and Matthew Holmes-Linder while they were studying at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. They have been described by Sergio Assad as “the most inventive and exciting young guitar ensemble today.” Their 2016 performance at the International Guitar Research Centre Conference at the University of Surrey, England, of specially commissioned works and the music of Ravel was a thrilling experience.

Mention should also be made here of the phenomenon of the guitar orchestra, which has gained in popularity over recent years. On the whole, most of these are more fun to perform in than to listen to as an audience. The repertoire is often intended to cater to amateurs, and while some established guitar orchestras are steadily raising the level of their technique, the pieces you tend to hear emphasize participation rather than musical perfection. For many years, guitarists have seemed to be less competent than other instrumentalists at sight-reading and ensemble activities, but efforts are being made to remedy the situation.

A fully professional guitar orchestra is yet to be founded, but eventually such an enterprise will be undertaken. Perhaps they will start with something such as Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, which represents a point in guitar ensemble history where a true breakthrough was indeed achieved.