Classical Guitar Historian, Music Publisher (and Controversial Gadfly) Matanya Ophee is Dead; Remembered by Colleagues
On November 6, Matanya Ophee, the esteemed, influental and sometimes controversial scholar and founder of the music publishing house Editions Orphée, passed away at the age of 85. Israeli by birth, he lived on a kibbutz for several years, enlisted in the Israeli Air Force in 1952, and in 1955 began studying classical guitar with a series of teachers in various countries. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1965 and became a naturalized American citizen in 1970. For most of his professional life he worked as a commercial pilot in the U.S., but he seemingly devoted every waking moment away from that job to the classical guitar—playing it, teaching it, researching its history, writing about it, commenting on it in various periodicals (and eventually a blog), and, starting Editions Orphée.
Ophee wrote many articles and reviews for Classical Guitar beginning in the mid-1980s, educating and occasionally infuriating readers (and some of CG‘s other writers) with his often frank and always very confidently expressed opinions and commentary. Below, you’ll find a few reflections on Matanya Ophee from a few CG “regulars,” as well as some short online tributes plucked from Facebook, and, to wrap up the package, a fascinating extract from some 1999 issues of CG titled “Matanya Ophee Talking,” which is exactly what the title promises. An interesting guy, for sure! —Blair Jackson
MATANYA OPHEE (1932-2017)
A Tribute by CG‘s Graham Wade: The passing of Matanya Ophee is a sad occasion for the entire guitar world. Matanya, one of the great guitar scholars of our epoch, opened up areas of previously undiscovered music, published superb editions of many historic composers, and provided a trenchant supply of critical comment encompassing a wide range of aspects, many of which became controversial.
Matanya Ophee’s contribution to guitar literature was immense and immeasurable. As a publisher—he founded Editions Oprhée in 1978 and was active with the company until his death—he issued around 200 diverse publications, including guitar solos of many eras, Russian music in abundance, guitar duos, trios, and quartets, guitar-and-voice, chamber music, concertos, lute books, methods (such as the four-volume School of Guitar by Emilio Pujol), and other seminal texts (such as The Segovia-Ponce Letters). Throughout the years, he kept up a running commentary in copious essays published on the internet about a host of relevant guitar topics.
Before turning his attention fully to the guitar in the1980s, Matanya pursued a career as an airline pilot, following earlier service as a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. His indefatigable energy and meticulous intellect thus metamorphosed from a life of extreme adventure to the very different world of music. He loved the guitar profoundly and threw himself into the 20th century mainstream study of the instrument’s history with a unique sense of breadth and intensity.
His aggressive instincts were legendary, and it was said by some that Matanya could start a fight in an empty telephone box. But such passion and devotion to the subject are essential if great achievements are to be realized. Looking back at his massive contribution, we now know how much scholarship he undertook and how revolutionary (in the finest sense) his creative energies now appear.
In the 1980s Matanya and I conducted an ongoing correspondence in the pages of Classical Guitar magazine. Some of it became quite overheated. But when I eventually met Matanya, I was impressed by his charm and composure. He was a man of natural authority, confident in his abilities, superbly articulate, and with a hawkish eye and ear for detail. His desire to move the guitar on from the quagmire of intellectual stagnation and the overfamiliar repetition of repertoire was deeply genuine. Most of all, he came over as warm and likeable, as well as being utterly formidable.
Matanya was unique by his background, experience, and personality. We remember now not only the sheer individuality of such a man, but also the tremendous labor he undertook on behalf of the guitar. This scholar changed and shaped our attitudes and our direction of thought. We shall miss him very deeply.
Maurice J. Summerfield (founder/former publisher of Classical Guitar magazine): I was fortunate to have known Matanya Ophee for over 40 years. In 1978, my music distribution company (Ashley Mark Publishing Company) became the first UK distributor for his Editions Orphée music and books. I would meet him annually at the Frankfurt Music Messe for many years and was always impressed by his enormous passion for the classical guitar and its repertoire. When I founded Classical Guitar magazine in 1982, he quickly volunteered to contribute articles and comment. However, after a few years he said he did not like or agree with some of the reviews that had appeared in Classical Guitar and told me he did not want to be associated with the magazine anymore.
Matanya was a man of brilliant intellect. The fact that he could succeed in a career as a jet liner pilot, speak and write in at least seven languages, and play the guitar to a high standard is alone more than most men or women can achieve in their lifetime. His passion to seek out the music of 19th century guitarists, such as François de Fossa, Russian guitar music, and more would have drawn the admiration of a Sherlock Holmes. The quality and presentation of his music publications has not been surpassed. The guitar world owes him a great debt for these; without his endeavours the repertoire would be much poorer. I particularly admired the fact if he liked a piece of music he would publish it, even if he knew there would be little or no demand for it.
However, this passion, dedication, and brilliance did make him at times a complex and difficult character. He was so convinced that his opinions and judgements were the right ones, he fell out with some of his contemporaries who “dared” to disagree with him. When Classical Guitar and some other magazines refused to publish some of his critical letters and articles, he began his own online blog. It was beautifully produced and of course gave him the freedom to say what he wanted about anybody and anything. And this he did!
At the same time, Matanya had a genuine warmth of character, could tell a good story, and I looked forward to his stimulating company whenever we met. The last time I saw him was the GFA Convention in Louisville, Kentuucky, in 2013. He told me then that he had recently had a new laser treatment for prostate cancer and that this seemed to have cured his problem. He looked well and told me he was planning to give concerts with his seven-string guitar. While there, we got together each night with other guitar personalities who were attending the convention. One night, he insisted that his opinion was correct about some topic that had come up and I said, “Matanya, you cannot always be right.” He responded in typical fashion with a big smile and twinkle in his eyes and said, “Oh, but I am.”
The guitar world will miss this brilliant, unique, and irreplaceable academic and musician. My thoughts and condolences at this sad time go to his wife Margarita Mazo, his siblings, and his children.
Tim Panting (CG writer and former Reviews Editor): As Reviews Editor and simply being involved with the classical guitar my paths crossed many times with Matanya. He was indeed a character. He let you know pretty quickly if he thought something was not correct and he almost certainly had intellectual back up due to his tireless research and investigation as a musicologist. There are probably hundreds of people with stories to tell regarding their relationship s with Matanya. I think I didn’t offend him too much although there was always the review that got his ire due to some terrible gaffe by a reviewer or by their attitude etc.
Julia Crowe (CG writer): I met him at Towson University a million years ago at the First World Guitar Congress event and then I saw him again in Buffalo, New York, one year at the JoAnn Falletta Guitar Concerto Competition. I cannot say I knew him as well, but we definitely did meet. I’d been prefaced first by someone else about him. Whenever someone prefaces you before meeting someone, then this image or shadow looms forth, larger than life. However, I always found him to be amiable and down-to-earth in person; kind. Online and in print is where he held court. And yes, both online and in print, he could be a cantankerous, provocative buzzard, a preeminent puncturer of pretentiousness. He enjoyed stirring the pot, but he was devoted to classical guitar in a way that reminds me of a protective father who believes no suitor is made of the right stuff to propose to his daughter. And if he dares to think so, then Matanya would be the one to put him through the paces.
Some Tributes on Facebook:
Frédéric Zigante: A dear friend and a musicologist to whom everyone who loves guitar literature owes something.
Robert Trent: R.I.P. Matanya Ophee. Your sharp tongue prodded all to think, speak and write clearly and articulately. Your generosity with discovery and resources were unparalleled in guitar research. Rest well on your laurels.
John Saldivar: Sad to mark the passing of a colleague who was one of the guitar’s great scholars and personalities: Matanya Ophee. He was often outspoken and controversial, but always passionate about his chosen instrument. Our small community of the guitar is poorer for his passing but enriched by the many fine editions he introduced to the world, which will surely be his lasting legacy.
Cristiano Porqueddu: It is thanks to Matanya Ophee that I found the courage to write guitar music. It was the [Editions Orphée] “Gorod na Kame” [composition competition] in 2010 that allowed me to publish [Il Silenzio del Pendolo]. He was a friend for many years and a valuable contact in countless cases. His contribution to [exposing] the music of Russian authors was fundamental.Despite the fact that I only met him three times, he was one of the very few people I met with whom I immediately established a strong bond; a bond that was constantly fed by mutual, immediate, silent availability, in every circumstance.
Eduardo Fernandez: R.I.P. Matanya Ophee—controversial, intransigent, and questioning. We will miss you.
MATANYA OPHEE TALKING
Over the course of six consecutive issues beginning in April 1999, Classical Guitar magazine printed a series of articles consisting entirely of Matanya Ophee’s thoughts, transcribed from an interview conducted by CG’s Features Editor at the time, Colin Cooper. The series was called “Matanya Ophee Talking” and it provided a wonderful window into the mind of this brilliant and interesting man. Below, edited into one piece, you’ll find the first three installments of the series, which cover a lot of interesting ground, including much on his own background, some deep history of the link between the guitar and the military, and all sorts of interesting and entertaining tangents. —Blair Jackson
First, here’s Colin Cooper’s introduction to the series:
Few guitar personalities have so many identities as Matanya Ophee: publisher, musicologist, researcher, arranger, performer, ex-airline pilot (used as a term of disparagement by certain of his critics), a stimulating and controversial writer. A man who can be both enlightening and infuriating, sometimes at the same time, he is one of those strongly-etched personalities without whose presence the guitar world would be greatly impoverished: generally benign but sometimes prickly, always ready to inform, a polemicist, quick to argue, and tireless in the pursuit of self-appointed goals which may or may not appeal to the general guitar public—and certainly public indifference has no effect on his energetic promotion. There is, for one thing, his advocacy of the chamber music repertoire over the solo repertoire. His reasons are as much commercial as artistic: There is money in chamber music, more than there is in playing for guitar societies. His stated wish to destroy certain concepts about the guitar, including what he calls “the facile manipulation of history for personal gain so often exercised by guitarists in their promotion,” has, needless to say, not endeared him to those who fall within the scope of his disapproval. His views have often provoked shock and horror, along with a certain amount of personal abuse, all of which he takes with imperturbability.
In our discussion, he immediately picked up on the word “identities” …
MATANYA OPHEE: I have only one identity, and that’s me. I do many different activities, but they’re all interrelated into one thing: simply, my curiosity about the things that concern all of us, particularly the history of the guitar and its practice today. Whether it happened yesterday or 200 years ago, it’s just as important to us. I always consider that these personalities of the past were exactly that—they were people, they were personalities, they were living beings, not just names we encountered in dusty books or pages of music. They were people with many of the same concerns as ours.
The implication of that is the great debate we’re having about how to interpret music of the past, particularly that which is found in printed editions. So, with my involvement with the publishing trade, I found something that is very simple: The technologies have changed, the way we put symbols on paper, the way we reproduce them and sell them to the public have changed; but the basic function has not changed at all. A composer writes a piece of music on paper — that’s a manuscript. He gives it to the publisher, who has it engraved by whatever technology happens to exist at the time. Sometimes the composer gets a chance to make corrections, sometimes not—even today. For example, with my publishing of Russian music, it is not always possible to get the composer to examine it. One has to do the best one can to represent in the final edition what one thinks the composer meant to write, not what the composer had written. So this has not changed at all over the centuries. It’s still the same process.
And when you consider that a person like Fernando Sor was someone with a real personal involvement with bodily functions, with emotional attachments to other people, to family friends, wives, mistresses, children—legitimate or illegitimate—and so forth, one can get a much clearer idea what this music is supposed to mean to us today, since we cannot talk to him. So the question of research is an overblown concept. “I am a researcher, I am a musicologist, I am a PhD, I have a dissertation”—these are artificial limits people put on something very simple: the quest for knowledge. Curiosity. And that has nothing to do with who one is or was. Or with training. It’s a matter of a personal quest for knowledge.
I do research, yes. But the purpose is not research by itself; the “publish or perish” syndrome is of no use to me. I shall not perish if I do not publish. It’s simply a matter of wanting to know. I want to know what happened. So I engage in activities that label me as a musicologist, although I have really no official training as a musicologist. All my training is something that I did myself. I found out how to find out information. Sometimes I was lucky. It’s really a question of luck, the things I did discover, more than anything else. But it’s still the same person. The fact that I was flying airplanes at the same time doesn’t mean anything besides the fact that I needed to make a living. I need to feed my family. Some people do it by flying airplanes, some people do it by teaching in college, some people do it by getting involved in all sorts of commercial activities. One does it the best way one can, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people even do it by playing concerts!
I don’t mind being called an ex-airline pilot, because the reason I was an airline pilot is that it was a much more efficient way for me, at the time, to provide for my family than to struggle as a guitarist—which, in the early ’60s, was very difficult. It was a personal choice, and I feel no shame about it; it’s a profession like any other. What I do resent is the implication that because I had a day job which is not directly related to music, somehow the results of my work are tainted.
Look at the beginning of the 19th century — people like Fernando Sor, for example. He was a professional musician when he came out of Spain. Before that, he was a professional soldier, but when he left Spain, he had to earn a living and he chose to do it as a musician, by giving concerts, by teaching—not only the guitar, but mainly teaching the piano and singing—and by publishing and selling music. One statement that he made in his guitar method is a heart-rending cry, if you read beyond the dryness of the Merrick translation. He quotes Carulli, and apparently what he’s doing is quoting something that must have transpired in personal conversation between them, although he doesn’t say that. Carulli had told him that an author must live. You have to live, because if you don’t live you cannot create. So you do whatever it takes. Carulli’s way of doing it was by publishing reams and reams of silly material for mass consumption, among which are a few choice jewels of human inspiration.
Fernando Sor also did that: He found patronage when he could get it. Patronage was already very much on the way out. Some princes and potentates still maintained their households, particularly in Russia—which is probably one reason why he went to Russia, like many others of the time. That was the last vestige of royal patronage of the arts in Europe. And he got himself into very good circles in Russia; he got to the point where he was even invited to write the funeral march for Tsar Alexander. There’s a very good story behind it—the Tsar didn’t really die; the person on the bier was someone else! Nevertheless, he was well received by Russian royalty and well provided for, but it didn’t last long. After a while, it seems that patronage dried up and he had to leave. Maybe his girlfriend, wife, mistress, whatever, kicked him out; she stayed behind. But all the way to Russia and on the way back, he did what everybody else did at the time—stopped in various cities, organized concerts, played, sometimes to full houses, sometimes… we don’t really know.
Franz Liszt had a concert in one town, and there were only five people in the audience. So instead of playing the concert, he took them to a restaurant, where they all had a good meal. And I’m sure this sort of thing happens today, to many artists, as it happened then. Giuliani produced a huge amount of material for commercial purposes. Some of it is good, some of it is not so good. The idea was to sell paper and to get royalties, or whatever was the way they did it in those days; a lump sum from the publishers. And to give lessons, to teach privately. The guitar was never part of any conservatory until well into our century.
Roughly about the middle of the 19th century, the guitar lost out to the piano. And those guitarists who still wanted to play the instrument—who were still enamored by the sound and by the repertoire—had to do it privately. All of a sudden, you see that all the great virtuosos of the late 19th century had other occupations. They were doctors and lawyers and army generals. Ferranti was a librarian. As a matter of fact, his major contribution to human knowledge has nothing to do with the guitar; he was a translator. He translated the works of Lamartine into Italian. He was also very much involved with the Risorgimento in Italy, which was one reason why he had to leave and go and live in Brussels. Then he went to America for a while. And what he did in America is what the other traveling Italian musicians did: play concerts and publish music, and stay for a couple of years until it dried up and they went back. But they did do other things besides being full-time musicians. The idea of a guitar scholar, somebody who studies the history of the guitar, did not really come into being until late into the 19th century, when people, mostly Germans, started studying the history of the guitar, collecting and assembling unknown pieces. If you look at the membership of the International Guitar Society of 1901 in Munich, they were all lawyers and doctors and military officers and merchants, and in a sense you would say that they were not professionals; they were amateurs.
There’s a pejorative sense attached to the word “amateur,” but I don’t find that. The very first article I ever published, on guitar matters in Soundboard in 1975, was titled “Guitar Chamber Music—Why? The View of an Amateur.” Because I considered myself an amateur, based on the word “amore.” I love it. And I think the important thing is not whether one makes a living with it or not. That’s not the issue. Jacques Barzun once said, in one of the most important articles about the guitar ever published (“The Indispensable Amateur,” a reprint from The New Yorker magazine), that what really defines the professional is only one thing: He can do his job well even when he doesn’t feel like it. That’s all. How much money he earns from it is beside the point. So when people call me an ex-airline pilot, that’s fine. I am an ex-airline pilot. I spent 23 years of my life flying airplanes for a living. So what? But I also spent a great deal of the same time doing some work on the history of the guitar that was never done before—by anybody.
Look at the history of music in general. Marin Marais was a physician by profession. Giovanni Granata was a barber by profession. And, of course, it’s so easy to throw in the example of Charles Ives, the insurance salesman. And Borodin, the chemist; Rimsky-Korsakov the naval officer.
One thing I always find fascinating is that the great majority of the real talent in the guitar world [before the 20th century] were military people: François de Fossa; Antoine de l’Hoyer; Fernando Sor himself, and his brother Carlos; the person responsible for the Regondi Etudes—Ivan Andreyevitch Klinger, a Russian Tsarist army general, passionately involved with the guitar, a composer who, while being a general, published a huge amount of guitar music. Most of it has survived in the Royal Library in Copenhagen. But he was a military person. Does it have to do with the long, boring, garrison life when there’s nothing else to do? Why the fascination for military people? I suppose it could be something to do with the fact that most military units always had a band, a musical band that belonged to the regiment. Of course there’s no record of the guitar ever being part of a military band! But it was portable; you could even take it on the battlefield.
We were lucky to have a few of these military people who wrote some of the best guitar music available. You know, the Napoleonic wars, in which François de Fossa was deeply involved on the Spanish side, were bloody things: hundreds of thousands of people could be killed in one day. So how to pass a moral judgment on someone’s activities and then listen to his delightful guitar music? How do you reconcile this? How do you reconcile Segovia with his anti-semitism? Or the real noise that was going on in the musical world about Wilhelm Furtwangler and his involvement with the Nazis? Or the Wagner family’s involvement with Nazism? I don’t know. Was François de Fossa ever involved in killing people? I don’t know. I know he took an active part in several battles. When he went over to the French side, he was part of the expeditionary force to Spain in 1823, and he became a commanding officer of the region of Barcelona. Were there any atrocities committed by him or in his name? I don’t know. He then was involved in a war in Algeria in 1830. Was he involved in any massacres of the infidels? Who knows?
Coming back to what we were discussing, we really must separate guitarists from their actual occupations. Sometime in the 21st century, somebody’s going to write a dissertation, God forbid, on me. And they’re going to come up with something very interesting. Because I was an airline pilot, because I had access to free air travel, I was able to do a few things in discovering guitar music that no one else had. Does someone have access to enlarging our common knowledge because one is a doctor or a lawyer? Probably. There’s a strong possibility that this is the case. Because he’s a doctor, because he’s financially well off, because he has access to large amounts of money and is able to buy material that has survived. There are a few cases of this in the history of music. Somebody bought it and prevented it from being lost. Because someone had money, because someone was a doctor. Not necessarily a doctor of musicology with a Ph.D, on the meager salary of an institute of higher learning that depends on university and government grants to make any move.
The contributions of people who do not earn their living directly by music is enormous, and to discount it with a pejorative—“Well, I couldn’t possibly allow British children to be exposed to guitar music edited by an airline pilot”— this is silly. Of course, I took offence. Not because of the insult to my person, but the insult to the work that I’ve done. The work should stand on its own, regardless of who wrote it and how the person earns a living.
For 20 years I have been a music publisher. I started for one very simple reason—nobody else wanted to do it for me. So I started what was really a vanity press. I’m not a composer, but I thought there were a few things to do; nobody would do them, so I did them myself. Because I was an airline pilot, I had some extra cash lying around that I could spend on that. And I became a publisher. I must say that if it were not for the assistance given to me by Brian Jeffery at the beginning of this, it would have been a lot different. His help at the time I started was extremely valuable in making the process smoother. He shared with me a great deal of his intimate knowledge of the trade, and I owe him a great deal. However, we started off with the same motivation: our own vanity. We had something to say, and nobody would finance it, so we did it ourselves. It holds true of every single guitar specialist publisher.