Classical Guitar Method: How to Play Tárrega’s Challenging ‘Recuerdos de la Alhambra’
BY RHAYN JOOSTE
Have you ever wanted to play Tárrega’s evocative homage to Granada’s Alhambra Palace? Did you find it a bit daunting after that first read-through? Well, hopefully we can help you come to grips with Recuerdos de la Alhambra. We will look at facilitating learning the chord shapes and shifts, along with adding some insight into the tremolo technique. Micro studies (see our Method piece on Villa-Lobos’ “Etude No. 1”) are utilized to help you get closer to performing this celebrated piece.
Francisco Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra is arguably the most iconic composition in the classical guitar’s solo repertoire—it’s a piece nearly every guitarist aspires to play. Alas, it can also be extremely frustrating to instigate, since plenty of practice is required before the aural illusion intrinsic to the music succeeds. Described by Emilio Pujol, in his biography of Tárrega, as a “piece whose strange enchantment only the guitar can express,” Recuerdos was initially drafted in 1896 after Tárrega and his patron, Doña Concha Martínez, took a stroll through the Alhambra. Tárrega exploited the tremolo technique to capture the sound of the famous water fountains within the keep, thus ensuring the piece’s renown and its challenging nature.
It should be understood this is not going to be an article on tremolo technique, although as you will see below, there are two studies to help with nurturing this skill. Why? Well, there is already a wealth of information for preparing and maintaining tremolo out there. (One highly recommended source is Scott Tenant’s Pumping Nylon. He offers detailed instructions to learning it and explains why he advocates sequential planting for the tremolo to really take off.) If tremolo is still fresh in your arsenal, take into account that the final objective for learning any new technique is to have it established in “muscle memory,” which takes mindful repetition. With that in mind, let’s dive in with some fundamentals.
Tremolo should be practiced with sequential planting, at a slow tempo with a metronome. Aim for even tone, rhythm, and control. Micro Study 1 is a great starter exercise and warm-up for tremolo, employing broken rhythms to spotlight each right-hand finger and its placement. These rhythms facilitate right hand independence and fine control. In all examples, the fingering should also be reversed to supplement hand development.
Micro Study 2 has an array of aims, so focus on securing each individual aim before moving on. The first deals with the fine motor control that is required from your right hand to bring out the inner melodies within Tárrega’s piece, which he marks with an accent in the score. The ability to control the thumb volume as it plays each string in the study is essential; you should not hear the difference in the notes being played. The second item to work on is string crossing. The third part deals with speed bursts across strings. A final consideration for practicing Recuerdos is to play through the piece with a five-note and six-note tremolo pattern. (See supplement at the bottom of this page). This will build up stamina and speed.
Recuerdos de la Alhambra is in binary form (A B) with a coda. Tárrega employs A minor and its parallel major to great effect in each section. The best method of learning the chord progression is to break it up into segments and practice these individually—however not with the tremolo technique. Yes, that is correct: no tremolo! The first great secret to playing this piece, and any tremolo piece, is that your left hand’s technical (and mental) demands need to be almost zero: like playing through the first piece you ever learned, super-easy.
When performing Recuerdos, your awareness should be on right hand control, maintaining an even tremolo, and, of course, musicianship. Only commensurable concentration should go towards the left hand or its technique. By practicing the chord shapes separately, focusing first on finger placement and then shifting, as Micro Study 3 demonstrates, you gain left hand proficiency ahead of a performance. Note: this micro study illustrates grouping chord changes and is just a template for tackling the rest of the piece. Once you have the hang of the fingering and chords for that segment, move on to the next and then the next, until you have played through the entire piece as a simple waltz.
When practicing the piece at a slow tempo, your shifting has to be fast—at-full-speed fast. In most cases, tremolo begins to work as an aural illusion around 120 BPM; this means your shift will be between two 32nd notes at that speed. When playing through the micro studies and Recuerdos at slow speeds, concentrate on shifting between chords at that higher tempo. Considering and exploiting guide fingers is essential to facilitate these shifts. Therefore, a good edition is indispensable for learning this piece.
Micro Study 4 will help with shifting practice and those dreaded left-hand slurs in Recuerdos. The slurs will require some accuracy and strength from your little finger, so isolate these ideas and practice them slowly.
Even though this piece is generally considered advanced, it is possible to get some enjoyment out of playing it even if you haven’t reached that stage of development yet. The central tenet of this lesson concerns utilizing segmented practice to work on proficiency and technique. So regard playing this piece akin to running a marathon—try not to sprint in the beginning. Build up to a performance slowly and surely, a little bit each day. Saturated in the temperate tones of the Alhambra fountains, consider this concluding counsel from Tárrega: “The guitar’s voice should be something in between what is human and what is divine.”
Segovia playing Recuerdos from a recording made in the 1950s:
Some additional thoughts on playing Recuerdos:
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.
(Editor’s note: In the print version of this article, the Micro Study Supplement on page 75 is incorrect. The correct one, covering five- and six-note tremolo, is printed here.)