From the Fall 2017 issue of Classical Guitar |  BY THÉRÉSE WASSILY SABA

This year, the Belgian classical guitarist Raphaella Smits is celebrating her 60th birthday. Her extensive discography not only reveals her broad tastes in repertoire, but even more reflects her deep love for performing on historic instruments—on which she is deeply musically expressive, matching musical content with timbres and tone colors. I spoke to the great maestra about her early years of study in Belgium, summers in Spain with José Tomás, her contact with Andrés Segovia, her favorite instruments, and her 60th birthday recording release.

CLASSICAL GUITAR: Raphaella, when you play, your phrasing feels very natural. I know you sang a lot when you were young. Do you think this is part of the secret of your expressiveness—because you started in music in the right way: with musical expression rather than with the instrument?

RAPHAELLA SMITS: Oh, yes, it’s true. I still think that the voice is the most important instrument in any music—that if you can sing it, you can play it; also to be able to use words, to use the musical line that on its own makes phrasing already, without even the knowledge of how the music should be interpreted. I was almost 13 years old when I got my first guitar, but I was already singing well before that.

In primary school, I went to a Rudolf Steiner school, which was founded in Belgium by my mother, Caroline Van Giel. In that education system, even in primary school, you get a lot of art, voice, choir, all kinds of flutes, theater. Of course, it is not aimed at a professional level, but it is just included in the education. Therefore, I knew music and I knew about singing. I do have a kind of good voice, so then a few years later, I went to the children’s choir of the Flemish opera in Antwerp where I was living; that was also my first stage experience.

My very first teacher, Ward de Beer, was not a guitar teacher. He gave me a book to learn from with songs written in two clefs: bass and treble; a German guitar method but with piano scoring. So I was playing very simple chords but like a piano player on the guitar, and of course I had to sing the melodies. When I am playing, still now, I hear all the different voices, where they are coming from and where they are going to, and often, it is like an instrumental choir. That is also how I am teaching.

CG: Do you think that that is quite unusual for a guitarist? When students come to you, do you notice that they don’t have that facility as a natural quality?

SMITS: Yes, absolutely, but some of them do have it and I love them! Most of the young players, or my students, are so focused on the instrument that it becomes an issue rather than a tool.

CG: Can you change people?

SMITS: Yes. Sometimes, when the score is complicated for them, I play with them, so that they are playing one voice and I play the other voice, or I let them sing. Some of them don’t dare to sing, but I say, “You have to sing, because then you will feel how the phrasing is going.” Also it is the physical feeling of even very simple things, when the music is going higher or lower, you feel it physically easier when you sing it, rather playing it on the guitar. So I think I can change them.

Also what is very important for me, which is how I was educated and what I try to pass on to my students, is the rhetoric in the music—telling the story with all the emotional possibilities; I think it is very important to be able to put this into your fingertips. But most of the time, I just really think about the music, about the phrasing, about where the voice is going.

CG: I noticed, for example, that when you play the Bach Chaconne, you have the full drama all perfectly planned. It always feels as though it is moving forward and just about to arrive at a climax, but it doesn’t climax, and yet you don’t drop the energy. Playing large-scale pieces is hard but you do it very naturally.

SMITS: I think that’s true, and thank you for saying that. But this is really because when I am playing I am always thinking about the future, and I feel in the present, and my memory is on the past—so I am really in the middle of that past–future and I am in the present. I think this is what you feel when I play those large pieces.

CG: Did you go to the Conservatorium after high school?

SMITS: I went first to the Royal Conservatory  in Antwerp, and studied with Victor van
Puyenbroeck, and later, just for my concert diploma, I went to Brussels to study with Albert Sundermann and Jef Goor. Beginning when I was I was 16, I went every summer for a couple of months to José Tomás [in Alicante, Spain], from July to September more or less. I started with José Tomás in 1974, I think.

CG: When you won the Tárrega competition [in Benicàssim] in 1986, was that your first big competition win?

SMITS: It depends what you call a big win. I think it was in 1981 when I went to Granada for the competition on the interpretation of Spanish music. Andrés Segovia was the president of the jury. I didn’t get the first prize there, but I got a very nice third prize from the University of Granada. I was still very young of course; I was still a student in my early twenties.

CG: Did you play on a six-stringed guitar for the competition?

SMITS: No, I was already playing on the eight-string guitar. I was playing the guitar that I played on for my most recent recording—the John Gilbert guitar from 1980.

CG: When you were in Granada with Segovia, did you have masterclasses with him as well?

SMITS: I met him a couple of times and we had some conversations and he expressed his admiration: He really liked my playing a lot. So it was a very moving encounter, but I never took classes with Segovia; he was never my teacher. There were some rumors saying, “When you go to the competition, do not play on an eight-string because he doesn’t like it!” But there was no sign of this problem with my instrument when I played for him—absolutely not!

At that time in the Granada competition—and it was the same in Benicàssim—there were so many participants. Things have changed now, but at that time, there were very few competitions, so we were over 100 competitors. It took three or four days just for the elimination round, then two days for the semifinal, and then one day for the final. It was a very long process for everyone—for the jury, of course, and for us who had to wait for so many days in the Spanish heat in beautiful Granada.

Anyway, Segovia said to me: “You gave me the best moment of the whole week, listening to your performance of those Tárrega pieces.” So I only have good memories of that Maestro.

Later in that same summer, I went to Palma de Mallorca, where I was awarded the second prize. Then one year later, in 1982, I went for the first time to Benicàssim and I won the second prize; it seemed as if everyone thought I deserved the first prize. So that was really a big success because all the newspapers and the television—everyone was speaking about it.

It was only in 1986, when I had already been giving a lot of concerts that one of my colleagues, Hubert Käppel, and I were teaching master classes in Netherlands, and he said, “You just have to go back to compete in Benicàssim!” I was reticent, but I began practicing the obligatory pieces eight hours a day and put my program together. And I enrolled, I went, and I won.

CG: If you play something like María by Tárrega on the eight-string, do you add anything to the music or is it simply that it offers you greater resonance?

SMITS: In a piece like the Tárrega, we don’t need the seventh and eighth string. So they are just there. But equally, it is not in every piece nor in every moment that you are using the fifth and sixth strings either when you play a six-string guitar.

CG: Do you feel that you have an increased resonance, even if you are not using those extra bass strings? What pitch are you tuning strings seven and eight to?

SMITS:The seventh string is most of the time tuned to the low D, and for the eighth string, it depends on the piece; it might be C, C-sharp, A, B-flat—it can be anything.

CG: Is that approach to tuning the same as what José Tomás used to do?

SMITS: Yes, so it is just diatonic, on the lowest string you have the lowest pitch.

CG: What inspired José Tomás to play the eight-string guitar? It was an unusual choice during his era, wasn’t it?

SMITS: Yes, that’s right. Well, you know, I never asked him, so I cannot really tell you—I can only guess. José Tomás was very much a fan of Renaissance and Baroque music and of course, you have much more possibilities when you add the bass strings. He was also great at making transcriptions of Granados or Albéniz. Of course, if you are working from the piano score, you can use a little bit more of those bass notes, to make it more complete. I can only make a guess, but probably for him, it was the same as it was for me when I started.

CG: Did you have to change your thumb technique to accommodate playing the bass notes?

SMITS: For me, I found that the best solution was to always have the same reference. So my reference is the fifth string and not especially the sixth string. In that way, it doesn’t make a lot of difference. The only thing that we have to learn is to damp the basses when they are making too much resonance, and if we don’t want it. Of course, you have the same story with the six-string guitar. Sometimes guitarists who are playing the six-string guitar forget to damp and it can be very annoying to be playing in C and to hear the D chord still resonating.

CG: After Benicàssim, did you start to tour a lot? Is that when your international touring career began?

SMITS: It had started before that, in the very early 1980s when I played my debut in New York at the Lincoln Center. From there, I had a huge tour including San Francisco, Los Angeles;  all the big cities. At that time, I was already playing in the Netherlands, in Germany, of course in Belgium, and sometimes in England—I was playing with David Russell in England at that time. We made two recordings actually—one with the music of Castelnuovo-Tedesco and the other with the music of Sor. After winning the Benicàssim competition—I must say it was most important for my own country; that was really big news—then everyone started to pay attention to me, and also I could start working with Accent Recordings with whom I made so many records.

CG: What was your first recording with them?

SMITS: Romantic Guitar—Music by Giuliani and Mertz. But I was playing on my Gilbert guitar in about 1986 or 1987. By coincidence, my very first solo guitar recording was recorded by the same sound engineer, Andreas Glatt, who had recorded my very first solo album, which was entirely dedicated to music by Coste. It was very  special because at that moment, Coste, just like Mertz, was absolutely unknown.

CG: For those you played on your eight-string Gilbert guitar, and of course, with Coste you need the lower basses, so you could play things no one else could?

SMITS: Yes, exactly. There are a couple of recordings on my six-string Ramírez, but that was in 1977; I was just 20. My first recording was of old Flemish songs with the tenor Guy de Mey; he is still one of the big stars, with a beautiful tenor voice. My six-string guitar was a very, very beautiful Ramírez, but after that I got an eight-string Ramírez, which José Tomás bought for me, that was really too big for me and too difficult for me to play.

CG: When did you start playing on historic guitars?

SMITS: When I was in high school, I heard that there was an auction in London, of all places. There was a collection coming in, so I went to see the collection and I just chose one small guitar, which is a Lacôte-type guitar. They said to me, “But there are others which are beautifully ornamented.” I said, “I’m not interested in that; I am just interested in the sound.” There is no Lacôte label inside, but it is very much like a Lacôte guitar and it sounds very, very beautiful. That was my first Romantic guitar. It had to be cleaned up a little, but it was in very good condition.

I really love music because of the sound. That is why I think a certain sound can be perfect for one kind of music, and other sounds could be better for different kinds of music. That is why the instrument has to fit with the music. And that makes you look for different instruments.

Raphaella Smits Classical Guitar Pull Quote

CG: Most people would like to have a different instrument for a different period of music, but for example, on your all-Mertz Le Romantique recording, you play a Roudhloff, your seven-string Mirecourt, and your eight-string Gilbert guitars, so even for Mertz, you needed three different guitars to express what you feel in his music.

SMITS: Actually, it was Accent  in Germany who decided to put together my very first Mertz recording on my Gilbert guitar together with the later Mertz recording on period instruments. So at that moment in 1986, I didn’t play the Romantic 19th-century guitar yet.

CG: So now, if you had to record those Mertz pieces again, which instruments would you choose?

SMITS: I would choose my eight-string Mirecourt. If I have to choose one guitar for the 19th-century repertoire, it would be that. It’s a very particular instrument; it’s very French. The Lacôte-style guitar, the very first one I bought, is also a French instrument, typical for Sor. With that difference, some of these beautiful Romantic guitars are excellent in a room and could be fantastic for a recording, but wouldn’t be so great in a big concert hall. My Mirecourt guitar, built around 1827, is fabulous in a concert hall, as well. The two low basses were added later by the German builder Bernard Kresse.

CG: Is that the reason you play Bach on it as well, because if you are travelling, you can’t take too many guitars?

SMITS: Yes, I have stopped taking two guitars when I tour. I did it many times with two guitars, but I don’t do it anymore. And I have to say that the Bach sounds really so beautiful on the Mirecourt; it’s stable and reliable and the type of sound fits very well with old music. Of course, from a musicological point of view it’s not correct, but at least it is more than one hundred years closer to the original.

CG: What type of strings do you use on that guitar?

SMITS: It’s always low-tension strings; the lowest tension that I can find is the best. I use six-string guitar strings on the seventh and eighth strings. Even on my John Gilbert
guitar, the sixth, seventh, and eighth are all sixth strings. I think that is why they sound so transparent and they stay so well in tune. I’m not so keen on the strings that are thicker because they lose some of their brilliance. I am very fanatical about strings, so it depends on the material that the string is made from. If there is more silver, they can have more tension there, more like a normal tension string. I would never put high-tension strings on. 

CG: You have released a recording in celebration of your 60th year [Guitar Recital; Soundset Recordings]. Would you have released it anyway?

SMITS: Well, I thought it was a good occasion to do something special. I really wanted to record these pieces that I never had before. That is the approach that I always take with my recordings—I always ask myself, “If this would be my last recording, what would I regret not having realized?”

CG: I assume that the Suite Compostelana by Mompou is something you studied with José Tomás and therefore, it is extra special repertoire for you?

SMITS: Yes, let’s say that the whole recording is filled with music that I have always wanted to play but never did. I had forgotten that I had played a couple of movements of the Suite Compostelana by Mompou a long time ago, but I never had played the whole suite. I also have a kind of feeling that sometimes when something is too indoctrinated, I have an aversion to it and I don’t want to do it. There were a couple of things that I didn’t like so much in the edition by Segovia,
but I didn’t know why until later when I got the manuscript.

CG: Was the Suite in A minor by Ponce something you studied with José Tomás?

SMITS: No, I never did. I understand why you are asking, because it was a standard work when I was studying in Alicante. But there again, I really like to play things that not everyone is playing. Also, I am very happy that I didn’t play it then, because then I would be playing it like someone else. At that time, I was at the age where you are very influenced by what is around you, and you also like to embrace the knowledge of someone else; that is why you are going to study with someone.

For many years now, and even as a student, I really liked to have this blank page and then make my own story with whatever I could find within the piece of music. So I never played what everyone was playing. Of course, the score of Ponce I have was the working score that Tomás was using at that time, and I am very happy about that.

CG: And then the Barrios. I know you have made some fantastic recordings with the singer Liliana Rodríguez, and with Jorge Cardoso as well. Is this all part of your strong connection with Latin American music?

SMITS: Yes, absolutely I do have a strong connection with Latin American music and for different reasons: for the music and also because I really love the countries and the people and how they are surrounded with music; how the guitar is part of their lives. With the Barrios, again the pieces which I choose are not the most popular. The Leyenda Guaraní is rarely played because it  is almost unplayable, so I rearranged it. It is  really an arrangement for my eight-string guitar. I don’t know if you know the story of that Barrios piece, but some parts of the piece were lost, so I took the score as I found it and reworked it as I thought in the style of Barrios. It is a different Barrios than the popular Barrios; it is kind of classical, but you can feel the influences—that he went to Buenos Aires, and you even feel the mixture of Europe and Argentina and Paraguay and Uruguay. You feel wherever he has been in that piece. Leyenda is such a deep piece. You even feel some Liszt, like the ending—it is unbelievable that it was written by Barrios.

CG: You always have a very busy schedule: traveling, visa organization, and teaching.

SMITS: Yes, I have been traveling so much and it has been beautiful. I had a Japanese tour which was heart-warming, and I am very happy that my new recording will be sold in Japan. Then there were quite a few concerts in Belgium, which is also really nice, as we have a small country. I can leave home at 5 p.m. and be home by 11 p.m., and it’s nice to play for your own public. Then I had a big tour to the United States for three weeks and performing or giving master classes almost every day. It was a really nice trip.

CG: How do you keep going and keep your stamina up? You look bright and you certainly don’t look exhausted, but you have such a heavy schedule and even just the traveling is exhausting. It’s not easy, is it?

SMITS: No, it is not easy. I think the secret is to do with [putting] all your energy [into] whatever you have to do at that moment, and try not to worry too much about the next things that are waiting to be done. 

CG: Every teacher has favorite topics. Are there special points that you focus on with your students?

SMITS: It depends whether you are asking about my students at the university where I have them for five or six years, seeing them very week. What you would tell them is very different, as it is in the long term, or if you go for four days, as I did in February to Finland to give master classes, or to the United States. For my last students, who I have really worked with until their finals, I like to be a teacher who becomes unnecessary once they leave me. I want to help them so much that they don’t need help any more. It takes a lot of energy, but I really love to do it, mainly through trying to find the strengths of each one of them. In the Bachelor’s degree, they have to work on their weaknesses. If they move onto a Masters, then I really like them to focus on what they are good at and to develop that as much as they can. They are able to do that by being secure enough and happy enough with themselves, that they can put their own personality into what they are doing. If they are able to do that, like a real humanist can, then they can follow their own path; that is mainly my message. I guide them in a way they do not notice how much they are changing, but they are changing incredibly. At the end of the course, besides this, they need to have a good technique.

For me, sonority has the priority. You can be as good as you want, a fantastic musician, but if you have a bad sonority, for me, that is very annoying. It is very hard for me to listen for more than ten minutes to a bad sonority.

Also they need to stop being selfish and to open up to make the music as important as it can be. For instance, ego, where you put yourself above the music, is a big mistake. If you always are focused on showing how great you are on your instrument, that is not what we are looking for. We need people who are so great on the instrument that they can overcome that and then be at the service of the beautiful music and to give the music as a present to your audience and to yourself.