A Love Letter to the Spanish Guitar: A Bold and Beautiful Book Traces the Evolution of the Instrument

Authors Jérôme Casanova (L) and Françoise and Daniel Sinier de Ridder
BY KATHLEEN A BERGERON | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR

Françoise and Daniel Sinier de Ridder had been repairing antique musical instruments, especially guitars, for museums and private collectors for more than four decades before they decided to publish a book about their work. In it, they described a select group of instruments and the luthiers who made them, and outlined how repairs were made, through description, drawings, and photographs. That first book, focused exclusively on instruments made in Paris, quickly sold out. Two similar books, also on French guitars, followed. (See Classical Guitar, Spring 2016, for more on those books.)

When the couple announced some years back that they planned to do a volume on the guitars of Spain, expectations were high. That book, The Spanish Guitar, 1750-1950, is now available (sinier-de-ridder.com). Like the other three books, it is beautifully designed and printed. But there, similarities end. Longtime colleague Jérôme Casanova was added as coauthor. There is a new publisher, Camino Verde. And, where photographs of guitars in previous books were like elegant police station mug shots—front, side, back, perhaps a close-up—those in the new book are more artistically presented, with three-quarter angles, several two-page spreads, and some photos so dramatically close up that the individual tiles in a rosette are easily counted. Instead of a table of drawings with measurements for each guitar in an appendix in the back, the new book features woodcuts, engravings, and paintings that illustrate how the Spanish instruments looked at various times in history. In all, there are 420 images spread across the book’s 208 pages.

Instruments featured in the previous books, while significant in their own right, were also restoration projects, so the hidden secrets of construction, like joints and bracing, were exposed to the camera. The guitars in the new book are chosen not only as examples the builder’s innovation or craftsmanship, but also for their particular role in the evolution of the Spanish or classical guitar through two centuries. Many of those instruments are from the collection of Marian and José Romanillos (the noted luthier and author of such books as Making a Spanish Guitar and Antonio de Torres: Guitar Maker—His Life and Work), and their contributions, both in instruments and knowledge, were significant enough for the authors to dedicate the book to them.

an 1818 instrument made by noted woodworker Juan Riudavets for Spanish King Fernando VII

Yet, says co-author Françoise, “All the guitars presented in this book passed through our hands, sometimes just for an examination, sometimes to learn, sometimes to restore, but always to delight.”

That, in fact, is the chief difference between the two types of books by Sinier de Ridder: The earlier ones are, in effect, elegantly published documentation on specific instruments of significance. The Spanish Guitar (La guitare espagnole in French) is a gorgeous love letter to the instrument’s evolution from vihuela, bandurria, and lute to today’s classical guitar as first imagined by Antonio de Torres 200 years ago.

It is noteworthy that Torres began making an impact at precisely the midpoint of the span of this book, around 1850. And he is clearly the book’s star, with 22 pages on nine Torres guitars, including “La Leona,” built in 1856 and considered by some to be the first “modern” Spanish guitar. There is also a two-page spread of Torres’ famous papier-mâché guitar, which lives in the Museu De La Musica in Barcelona. Françoise explains the selection process: “We wanted to take a guitar of each material—cypress, maple, mahogany, and rosewood, plus some rare pieces from museums.”

 

There are also many other familiar names among the luthiers in this book, including Contreras, Arias, Simplicio, Fleta, Ramirez, and Santos Hernandez, to list just a few. One name that might be a surprise is that of Christian Frederick Martin, the same C.F. Martin whose name appears on the headstock of thousands of steel-string acoustic guitars today. These days, the American company makes very few Spanish-style guitars, and the guitars it does make are not typically hand-made by specific luthiers; they are what might be called industrial or factory-made instruments. Françoise explains that in Europe, luthiers were designing and modifying their instruments to fit the customers in their cities or villages. Martin, after immigrating to the United States, modified the concepts he learned in Vienna to fit the requirements of a much larger constituency—an entire country. For example, the Viennese style of guitar, with its Stauffer-style curved headstock and figure-eight body, gave way to something more akin to the classical guitar we know today. But eventually, this, too, changed. The particular Martin instrument featured in the new book was built in 1842 and looks like a typical Spanish guitar, with gut strings, rosette, and fan bracing. But within a year, Martin would begin experimenting with X-bracing to better support the greater tension that steel strings would bring. And that divergence from the straight line of the evolution of the Spanish guitar into something new was so significant that the authors felt it needed to be recognized.


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Françoise and Daniel have been examining and repairing instruments like these for half a century, and they have seen and worked on virtually every type of fretted instrument—from horribly abused vihuelas to the only existing playable guitar built by Stradivari. Operating in Europe (France), rather than America, they have the wide perspective and respect among their peers to be able to say that the work of C.F. Martin is significant enough to have a place in a book on Spanish guitars.

They also ask questions that the less knowledgeable among us might be too uneducated or self-conscious to ask, much less propose an answer. A case in point: After noting that they could find no actual examples of guitars of 17th or 18th century Spain, and only one Spanish Baroque guitar, they ask why. The theory they offer is that perhaps the Spanish Inquisition ordered their destruction. They follow their theory with examples of similar efforts—how Oliver Cromwell ordered the destruction of Celtic harps in Ireland, how the Netherlands did the same with bagpipes, and Norway with violins. Incidentally, the authors have repaired all three of those types of instruments, as well as hundreds of guitars from France, Spain, Germany, Italy, and England, among other places.

In some regards, this might be considered the couple’s ultimate book, a culmination of sorts. It would fit nicely in the library of the most dedicated aficionados of the classical guitar, as well as be a source of knowledge for those who know nothing of the instrument but wish to learn.

Will this indeed be their final book? Apparently not: “We still have a big project,” says Françoise, “but of course it’s complicated. We would like to write the ‘Weisshaar & Shipman’ for the restoration of guitars.”

What she’s referring to is Hans Weisshaar and Margaret Shipman’s book Violin Restoration: A Manual for Violin Makers, widely regarded as the definitive book on violin repair. First published in 1989, it has 42 chapters, 125 photographs, and 60 drawings. Find a shop that repairs violins and you will probably find that book.

“We already have a lot of material [for the book]; some chapters are almost finished, like, for example, on worms and their damage. But we do not yet know in what form to edit this book—maybe some notebooks posing problems and the solutions we propose. No books exist that can help a young restorer find solutions to all the potential problems. For us, it’s extremely important to preserve and restore guitars with the same care and, rigor as violins have been for more than two centuries.”

Such a volume (or multiple volumes if required) would be a true magnum opus for Sinier de Ridder.

We can hardly wait.

(You can order the book through Guitar Salon International (GSI) or, more easily in Europe, through Sinier de Ridder or Camino Verde online.)

Below: Rob MacKillop talks about and demonstrates a rare c. 1870 Spanish guitar: