From The Archive (1991): Segovia’s Rhythmic Interpretation

BY GRAHAM WADE | FROM THE DECEMBER 1991 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR

Analysing various aspects of Segovia’s style in Guitar magazine in November, 1982, Professor Reginald Smith Brindle related his experiences of taking down from a recording of Segovia some of the movements from Ponce’s Suite in A minor. In this process of aural dictation he encountered Segovia’s “quirks of style,” which seemed “erratic and highly capricious.” Certain notes were exaggerated “seemingly without musical reason” and because of “the delays and onward rushes” the exact rhythmic designs were difficult to grasp. The results seemed “against musical tradition” and with other instruments would have been regarded as “blatantly erroneous.” Moreover several guitarists who admired Segovia’s work were perpetuating “some of his eccentricities.”

This extreme reaction against the performing practices of early 20th century musicians, their interpretative credos and their musical philosophy, has been a significant feature concerning the practitioners of many instruments. Over a shorter time scale there has been a similar response on the part of purists to the lute playing of Julian Bream, who regard what he does with Elizabethan music as “unauthentic” and historically questionable. There is a gulf too between the contemporary exponents of the harpsichord and the founding mother of 20th century harpsichord studies, Wanda Landowska; and between the interpretation of Bach’s Cello Suites by Pablo Casals (1876–1973) and modern renderings is a similar immutable gulf. The present day opera superstar, while admiring Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), does not base his interpretations of the great roles on the master’s recordings. And listening to Sir Edward Elgar conduct his own work emphasises the canyon of difference between what orchestras do now and what they did then.

The works of Andres Segovia is particularly prone to the tidal wash that occurs when currents meet, if only because of his longevity as an artist.

In each instance Smith Brindle’s objections could be successfully lodged; the intensities, orthodoxies, and philosophies of one generation become the heresies of the next. The same dictates may apply also to other performing arts, especially acting. Yesterday’s great actors of the stage, whether Bernhardt or Irving, if transported intact to the modern theatre, might appear to be hamming it up, lost in a charming exaggeration.

In all human life, style is essentially a sense of period. Neville Chamberlain, giving a speech on film for mass consumption in the 1930s, with his hands gripping his lapels, becomes a figure of the distant past, antiquated not only in his overdramatic posture, but also in the too carefully enunciated nature of his words. The wartime rhetoric of Churchill, as well as his written prose, so much admired in his lifetime as self-evident examples of mastery of spoken and written English, have now been consigned to the category of the merely historical. Similarly, the aggressive and sinister movements of Hitler, as seen on old films, now smack of the comic if one can forget what was going on behind the scenes.

Perhaps in an age of crossed t’s and dotted i’s, the Segovian freedom with rhythm, the “unexpected exaggeration of certain notes,” and the total difference in musical outlook represented a type of expressiveness for which people yearn.

The works of Andres Segovia is particularly prone to the tidal wash that occurs when currents meet, if only because of his longevity as an artist. To hear him play, according to Smith Brindle, in terms that are “blatantly erroneous” was however more attractive to the general public than the more “correct” minor artists who vie for fame among small audiences. Naturally some of the audiences in the United States and Europe who queued for returned tickets and took every seat in large auditoriums sat there purely to witness the living legend of Segovia himself. But the repetition of packed halls suggests that Segovia’s art was, though its integrity and flow, immediately accessible to audiences. Perhaps in an age of crossed t’s and dotted i’s, the Segovian freedom with rhythm, the “unexpected exaggeration of certain notes,” and the total difference in musical outlook represented a type of expressiveness for which people yearn.

However, the argument about style and interpretation is one that has dogged many great artists of the past. The comment that a musician’s timing is deficient in as much that it does not follow the exact value of each note in relative terms, is a charge laid at many a musician’s door, not just Segovia’s. Adam Zamoyski, the biographer of the great pianist Paderewski (1860-1941), puts it this way:

“It was on this very point of timing that he was severely criticised by many people. It was said by many that his use of tempo rubato—poetic license with regard to rhythm—was exaggerated, even outrageous. Judging by recordings of his playing, his use of the principle whereby tempo can be varied was indeed often too outre for modern tastes, which demand a more meticulous observance of the printed instructions. This was not so in the 1890s, when Paderewski’s dictum that “a musical composition, printed or written, is, after all, a form, a mould; the performer infuses life into it” was not merely acceptable but accepted.” (Adam Zamoyski: Paderewski, London 1982)

Zamoyski goes on to quote Paderewski’s own opinions on rhythm, adding, “few people would disagree, but it is a question of degree and that changes with the prevailing fashion.

“Rhythm is the pulse of music. Rhythm marks the beating of its heart, proves its vitality, attests its very existence. Rhythm is order. But this order in music cannot progress with the cosmic regularity of a planet, nor with the automatic uniformity of a clock. It reflects life, organic human life, with all its attributes, therefore it is subject to moods and emotions, to rapture and depression … There is no absolute rhythm. In the course of the dramatic development of a musical composition, the initial themes change their character, consequently rhythm changes also, and, in conformity with that character, it has to be energetic or languishing, crisp or elastic, steady or capricious.”

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Most contemporary performers would be in profound disagreement with Paderewski’s judgement. In the computer age, when man can measure time to unimaginable fractions of a second, the “cosmic regularity of a planet” or the “automatic uniformity of a clock” is often transferred to a piece of music. Much popular music today has the regular drum-beat of a machine, and the mechanical application of exact units of rhythmic pulse is often the primary requirement. Except in specifically romantic music by composers such as Chopin or Tarrega, the application of a variable rubato is considered totally incorrect. Artists of the old breed applied the broad strokes of freedom of rhythmic interpretation to all periods of music. The cult of freedom permeated all expressive music making. Paul Moor describes a recital by Pablo Casals at the 1950 Bach Festival in Prades:


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“He plays with such freedom that at certain moments, during lyrical passages, he seems almost to be improvising…” (as quoted in Pablo Casals A Biography, by H. L. Kirk)

Stokowski says a similar thing in Brouwer’s Piano Mastery: “A great artist’s performance of a noble work ought to sound like a spontaneous improvisation; the greater the artist, the more completely will this result be attained.” (as quoted by Adam Zamoyski)

For Segovia the guitar, far from being seen as the means of musical exaggeration or rhythmic license, was considered as the instrument of understatement.

Just as a great actor’s words should seem spontaneous, unpedantic, and unrehearsed, so a musician’s renderings should have this immediacy and freshness of approach. The early 20th century school for interpretation therefore concentrated very intensely on the performer’s personality, on what he could bring to the music. His interpretation was paramount, and the audience hung with bated breath on individual application to the music’s problems. The attention was riveted on the performer just as much as on the music.

Yet strangely enough, Segovia, despite his roots in the early part of this century, did not pursue the image of the eccentric performer of personality. Whereas Pachmann, Casals, and Kreisler were prone, like many other artists of their day, to appear on stage slightly larger than life, Segovia toned down the personal touches in his actual appearances.

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He allowed no facial expressions to obtrude, did not flaunt any exhibitionist movements towards the audience, kept quite still while playing, and bowed only as appropriate with no extravagant flourishes. Segovia’s reticence as a performer on stage is matched by his lack of flamboyance in his manner offstage. Other artists of his era, such as the pianist Arthur Rubenstein, courted the audience’s favours with showy pieces, two-handed bravura, and a princely demeanour. Segovia by comparison, was modest, disarming, self-effacing, putting all into the music, and drawing his massive audiences into the small circle of sound produced by the guitar in a large theatre or concert hall. Many would have seen Segovia not as the archetypal romantic artist, but as a recluse, a classicist, concentrating on the Apollonian not the Dionysiac. For Segovia the guitar, far from being seen as the means of musical exaggeration or rhythmic license, was considered as the instrument of understatement, the orchestra viewed down the wrong end of the telescope. In retrospect, the dislike of Segovia’s freedom of expressiveness, is in itself a gentle irony.

Moreover, compared with the available recordings of other early 20th century guitarists, such as Barrios, Llobet, or Sainz de la Maza, Segovia’s interpretations are far less subject to rhythmic distortion, gratuitous personal inflections or eccentricities. Barrios’s versions of Tarrega’s Capricho Arabe, Schumann’s Triiumerei, Beethoven’s Minuet, Yradier’s La Paloma, Bourree by Bach, and Sor’s Minuet in A, reveal extravagances in every department of interpretation which would be considered nowadays to be grotesquely excessive. Recordings by Segovia’s close friend, Miguel Llobet, of his arrangements of Catalan Folk Songs, Sor studies, and the Bach Sarabande, reveal the same tendencies. Even recordings by later Spanish players of standard repertoire items, can also show Segovia in quite a “modern” light when it comes to interpretation.

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In other instruments the shift from romanticism to the less wayward style of the present day has been carefully charted. Harold Schonberg examining the pianistic shifts in interpretation sees the divide between the old and the new focused in the work of Prokofiev (1981-1953):

“Young Serge Prokofiev, the pianist of steel, came raging out of Russia, playing his own music and startling the West with his vigour, his exuberance, his wild rhythm, his disdain for the trappings of romanticism. The anti-romantic age was under way.

“As a pianist Prokofiev was the New Man of the century. He had little in common with the past, and his playing was completely original. His influence upon the century’s piano philosophy was profound. This was the kind of approach needed to play Bartók, Stravinsky, and the other moderns. It was functional pianism, stripped clear of artificial device, bleak and powerful, unpadded.

“The brittle, anti-romantic style was the one that attracted the most comment. It was of the avant­garde; and in the 1920s and the 1930s the young composers flocked to the avant-garde.” (Harold C. Schonberg: The Great Pianists, London 1964)

At this stage of development, Prokofiev was stating that there could be piano recitals without including any of the music of Chopin. Thus, for the first time, the dominating soul of the 19th century in pianistics and the entire romantic movement, were being resisted.

Yet in Spain, and in the realm of the guitar, romanticism triumphed a little longer. This was because the guitar’s only powerful guru was Tarrega, an imitator of Chopin, and the founder of a substantial school of followers among whom were numbered Miguel Llobet and Emilio Pujol. Segovia resisted various aspects of the Tarrega-ites and encountered considerable opposition from them. In particular Segovia went against their credo by insisting that the guitar could, and should, be played not only in the salon, but in the larger concert halls of the world, a decision which contradicted at its roots the traditional concept of the guitar as a drawing-room instrument fit only for the coterie of aficionados.

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