From the Spring 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY KATHLEEN A. BERGERON
It goes without saying that any Antonio de Torres guitar is, by definition, noteworthy. Those listed here, however, have unique aspects that make them stand out. The designation “FE” is for “First Epoch,” the period from 1852 up to the early 1870s, when Torres briefly retired from guitar-making. The second epoch (SE) began in 1875.
FE 04 ‘La Leona’
Made in 1856, Torres’ most famous guitar is also the only one he named: “La Leona.” The name translates as “the lioness,” although the guitar was given its name to compare it with the full volume and sound quality of the male lion. However, because the Spanish word for guitar is in the feminine gender, it could not be given a name with the masculine gender such as león (lion). This is the only guitar that Torres would not part with during his lifetime, and he sometimes referred to the plainly appointed guitar as “La Fea,” meaning “the ugly one.” Still, it is the earliest known instrument in which Torres incorporated most of the innovations he would employ in his guitar making. It has been speculated that La Leona was his pattern or guide for all his later guitars, and it was the sound that set the instrument apart. At a November 1992 memorial ceremony honoring Torres on the centenary of his death, a monument was unveiled in Almeria, Spain. It included a bronze bust of Torres as well as a white marble statue of a guitar with the head of a lioness at the top, symbolizing La Leona. La Leona is currently in a private collection in Germany, but can be heard on recordings.
FE 08 ‘La guitarra cumbre’
Torres won a bronze prize for this guitar at the Sevilla Exhibition in 1858. Although Torres rarely went in for decoration, this has been called his magnum opus, demonstrating his mastery of woodworking. Spanish guitarist and teacher Domingo Prat, a pupil of Miguel Llobet, referred to this instrument as La guitarra cumbre (“the supreme guitar”). FE 08 has a four-piece back of birds-eye maple with matching wood for the sides and a two-piece spruce top. The soundboard, back, and ribs have herringbone inlays. It also has a rosette with mother-of-pearl lozenges alternating with a checkerboard pattern; a highly ornamented bridge; solid silver T-shaped frets and silver nut; and a mother-of-pearl plaque (rather than a paper label) engraved with his name and the date.
FE 14 (papier-mâché)
The most unusual Torres guitar is the one he made in 1862 using papier-mâché. For Torres, this instrument was an experiment to test his theory that the soundboard is the most critical aspect of the guitar’s sound, and that the woods used for the back and sides were not as important. The soundboard itself is of spruce, and, rather than wood, the back and sides are made of papier-mâché, reinforced with cedar and pine. The instrument is owned by the Museu de la Musica, in Barcelona.
FE 17 (Torres’ personal instrument)
Guitarist and teacher Emilio Pujol (1886–1980) regarded this as the best guitar he had ever heard. This was Torres’ personal instrument, made in 1864, and is the guitar he sold to Francisco Tárrega in 1869 when the young guitarist visited the luthier’s shop in Sevilla. Its soundboard is spruce, and the back and sides are of matched flamed maple. It bears cigarette burns in several places, due to Tárrega’s habit of smoking while he played. He used the instrument constantly for several years, and, because of how worn it became, he eventually purchased another Torres guitar to replace it. After Tárrega’s death, the instrument was sold to a wealthy family in Argentina and given to a ten-year-old girl. Pujol came across the guitar fairly late, and by that point it had been abused—pieces broken, the machine heads replaced by cheaper ones, and a number of pieces of the rosette missing. The guitar sold at auction for $157,000 in 2007.
SE 99 (Celedonio Romero’s)
This instrument has a spruce soundboard and three-piece cypress back and sides. It is a wonderful instrument in and of itself, but perhaps most noteworthy for its backstory.
Decades ago, when virtuoso guitarist Celedonio Romero was touring in Spain, he would stop by the Madrid guitar shop of his good friend Santos Hernandez. The relationship between the two was a long-standing one—a Spaniard himself, Celedonio had attended school in Madrid and gave his first public recital there. When the guitarist would visit the shop, the two would often spend the afternoon together, each continuing with his work—Romero writing or arranging compositions and Hernandez building or repairing instruments. Periodically, Celedonio’s effort would hit a dead end, and he would crumple up a used sheet of notation paper and toss it in the trash. Hernandez would later retrieve the paper to use in his guitar repairs—it was common practice to use paper as reinforcing strips when gluing joints together. Torres himself had used paper for joints on at least six of his guitars.
Years passed, and in 1943, Santos Hernandez died. In the late ’50s, Celedonio moved to California and became the patriarch of a world-renowned family of guitarists (Los Romeros) and also collected instruments. Fast-forward decades to 1996, to find Celedonio, now 83, in a hospital bed, fitted with an oxygen mask. He was dying of lung cancer. One day, his son Pepe came to visit him and mentioned that a Torres guitar had become available for purchase. The old man raised up, removed the oxygen mask, and said, “Cómprala!” (“Buy it!”), and then lay back down and replaced the oxygen mask. His son replied, “But it is expensive, Father.” The old man raised up again, pulled off the mask once more and said, in Spanish, “Sell a Fleta!” “Father,” said Pepe, “It is very expensive.” The old man raised himself up a third time, removed the mask and said, “Sell two Fletas!”
Pepe called the owner of the Torres from the hospital that same day, and shortly after, he sold the two Fleta guitars to pay for the guitar that was built in 1886. When the new acquisition arrived, Pepe made an interesting discovery: Placed inside SE 99, where a guitarist could easily view it through the soundhole as he played, was a small clipping of paper. Celedonio’s used notation paper had been re-purposed by Santos Hernandez all those years before, to repair the instrument! Pepe had heard stories from his father about how he spent hours in his friend’s shop, and he knew immediately what he was looking at. The Romero family still owns this instrument.
SE 114 (Francisco Tárrega’s)
This was the last guitar owned by Francisco Tárrega, and, according to his widow, his favorite. She sold it in 1920 for 5,000 pesetas. Made in 1888, this guitar has a two-piece European spruce soundboard and Brazilian rosewood back and sides. Tárrega was perhaps the most important person in the spread of the Torres school of guitar-making, for, as a teacher, he promoted an improved style of playing, along with more comfortable posture, all based on this type of instrument. Unfortunately, he was also a heavy smoker, and, as with FE 17, this instrument bears several burn marks from his cigarettes. Nonetheless, the guitar’s owner, Sheldon Urlik, states that, “Talented guitarists have played SE 114 and have commented that the sound is warm, balanced, melodic, and calm.” And in a previous story in Classical Guitar (Summer 2016), he noted, “That great guitar can really transport you… One virtuoso player was here and he started playing pieces by Tárrega on it and he kept commenting, ‘At last, I know how to play Tárrega!’ It’s really something special… To me, that is the most collectible, precious guitar there is.”