On the eve of his 90th birthday, Colin Cooper and David Russell caught up with the master guitarist, who was still actively touring and enthusiastically advocating for new works.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 1983 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.
“ANDRÉS SEGOVIA: STILL ON THE ROAD”
by Colin Cooper
Segovia Plays Albéniz’s Leyenda
One of the incredible things about the incredible Andrés Torres Segovia is that, on the eve of his 90th birthday, he is still undertaking concert tours that would exhaust a performer half his age. Moreover, not only does he perform to packed houses, he performs to large packed houses, so potent is his legend. Every ticket had been sold for his Barbican concert, the first time he had performed there. Colin Cooper and David Russell went to see him the following day.
We naturally asked him about the concert. The audience had been highly appreciative, a standing ovation at the end.
But there had been some trouble with the footstool, which had collapsed. It was terrible to be distracted by that kind of thing, said the Maestro, because the fingers were accustomed to the discipline, and as soon as the discipline was relaxed, the fingers could not perform their task. But he had enjoyed playing at the Barbican.
“The acoustic may be a little better than the Festival Hall’s, where people come once but not any more if they don’t hear the guitar very well. There, I was always looking to see if people were applauding. If they weren’t, it was because they couldn’t hear. It was a phenomenon in all the concerts there.
“Last night there were two or three coughs, on my left. You know, I was once playing the Suite by Bach – the Sarabande, a long movement, expressive, then …” (he coughs realistically to illustrate his point) ” …then I stop. I look at the place where I hear the cough, and … ” (here followed a handkerchief-to-mouth mime, designed to effect an instant cure for bronchitis). “Everybody laughed – but no more coughs. A handkerchief to the mouth disturbs neither the neighbour nor the artist.”
At the beginning of his career Andrés Segovia had set himself four aims: “To redeem the guitar from flamenco and other folkloric amusements, to persuade composers to create new works, to show the real beauty of the classical guitar and to influence schools of music and conservatories to teach guitar at the same dignified level as the piano, violin and cello”. Did he feel that he had achieved those four aims?
“I think I have succeeded in my purpose. Because first I redeemed the guitar from the captivity of the flamenco apart from Timega, because Timega did not give concerts frequently, not in concert halls or theatres. He was, rather, surrounded by several friends , and he played for them. He received a very modest remuneration. It was a difficult life.
“I did not know Tarrega. I was a little boy when he died. He intended to come to Granada, where I was living, because a friend of my family wrote to him. He answered and said he would come. But in the meantime he died.
“The second goal was to create a repertoire which was not a repertoire by guitarist composers – with the exception of Sor and Giuliani. Tarrega was not a big composer; and the other composers were not very musical. I began to ask the real composers – symphonic composers – to help in creating the repertoire for the guitar. The first to answer positively was Torroba, who died recently (about 15 days previously). He was then a young composer of great talent. The first composition he did for the guitar was the dance. in the Suite Castellana.”
After that, many composers who heard Torroba’s work played on Segovia’s guitar were stimulated to produce their own guitar pieces. Torroba himself went on to produce 200 or so. Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote more than 120 pieces, Turina only about a dozen but of the best quality, VillaLobos many – including a concerto – and of course Ponce and Tansman. “This was achieved. Between, I had the transcriptions that I made from vihuela and from harpsichord and from piano, and the pieces that had been composed by real composers foreign to the guitar. The repertoire had 300 or more pieces. This broke the vicious circle the guitar was in. Because there were no composers, there were no artists. And there were no artists because there were no composers.”
Segovia was also concerned about projecting the sound of his guitar, since both Tarrega and his brilliant pupil Llobet both thought that the guitar could not be heard beyond a very short distance. He played his first concert in Granada at the age of sixteen, then went to Seville, where he performed many times despite the limitations of his repertoire at that time. From Seville he went to Madrid, and thence to Barcelona. It was here, at his second concert, that he decided to make the experiment in sound that opened up the way for concert guitarists ever since.
The first Barcelona recital had been given at the Sala Granados, where incidentally he first met the young woman who was to become his first wife. It was, he says in his autobiography, of a great significance to guitarists throughout the world. The Palau de la Musica Catalana held over a thousand people -an unheard-of audience for a guitarist – and when Segovia announced that his farewell Barcelona concert would be held there, he was greeted with howls of derision from what he calls the ‘simple minds’ of those who had taken Timega’s opinion at its face value.
“Llobet thought that I had lost my mind. But I made the experiment in this way. I told the manager of the hall, ‘Go throughout the hall and tell me if you hear this -” Segovia clicked his fingers several times, not very loudly.
“He said yes. I said, ‘All right, now go over there while I do the same thing’. And I noticed that the quality of the sound was exactly the same throughout the hall. The Palau was almost full for the concert. The public was happy. And I was more happy.”
The story of how, in Madrid, he had gone into the workshop of Manuel Ramirez has been told often. Ramirez, after hearing him play, put a good guitar into his hands with the words: “Pay me without money”. The debt must have been repaid many times. In every concert Andrés Segovia gave, he played the Ramirez guitar, and people knew it was by Ramirez.
Later came Hauser and Fleta. In recent years Segovia seems to have alternated between Ramirez and Fleta to some extent. Was there some particular reason for that?
Fleta, explained Segovia, built his guitars in one of the most humid towns in Spain. The wood absorbed moisture, so that when you took the guitar to places that were drier – he mentioned Scandinavia, North Germany, Canada and the United States, possibly having in mind the intensity of the central heating in some of those places – severe damage could be caused to the guitar as the wood dried out.
Ramirez, aided by the drier climate of Madrid, had to a considerable extent contrived to extract the moisture from the wood before manufacture. Segovia loves the Fleta sound especially for intimacy, he says – but an experience in the United States two years ago, when his Fleta actually became unglued, caused him to turn again to Ramirez.
“The Ramirez guitar was stronger, more resistant to the heat, to the change of temperature. Two years ago I took a Fleta to the States. Before the concert, in Washington, I had to telephone my wife in Spain and ask her to send me a Ramirez guitar by our airline, Iberia. I received it only a few hours before I was to give the concert.
“Now there is another inconvenience – the strings. Dupont made the first nylon strings for me in 1947. They were superb. I had them for eight months before changing them. But about three years ago I telephone Dupont to say that their strings were very bad. They told me that when I came back to New York they were going to send me the head of the plastics section.”
Had he said the head of the head of the plastics section, we would not have been surprised. However, Segovia received him in New York: “Then I called Augustine, because Augustine had made the strings. And the head of the plastics department told me that the quality of the nylon they had sent to Augustine was not so good on account of the crisis in petroleum. He told me that as soon as they got out of this crisis they would send me a better quality of nylon. The petroleum crisis – can you imagine!
“I practice two hours with the same strings, and already they do not sound very good. Absolutely. It is a case of ‘Very well, I am going to change the second and the first’. ”
In spite of that he still used Augustine strings. “Many others have taken up the possibilities, of making nylon. But it is the same situation. I have no obligation with Augustine.
1 never accept any obligation, either with strings or with the guitar. No, no, never. But 1 have to admit the truth: that the best strings are Augustine.”
We talked then about his autobiography, the first volume of which appeared in 1976. When were we going to see volume 2?
It appeared that he had been having trouble with his New York publishers. He now had a new publisher William Morrow – and everything seemed set for the second volume – and more. “Now I am going to begin the publication of my second, third and fourth volumes.”
Originally his publishers had wanted to confine his autobiography to a simple index of concerts and musical success. But, as he said with a chuckle, “My life has been not only long but broad”.
“I enjoy writing very much. But I erase more than I write. My writing is in Spanish. I always look for the word that is just the right one, you know, the one that carries the meaning that I want. I know my language very well, and I like to write well in it, Perhaps I ought to have been a writer.”
We wanted to know why so many of his old records were so hard to get, and whether any arrangements were being made to reissue them – perhaps in tribute to his 90th birthday in February 1983. He did not know the answer to that. He agreed that his older records sound ‘very nice’ adding that he never played them himself – but was far more interested in the possibilities of making new recordings.
It was not easy to find the time.
“Last July I was in Japan. I had to give three different programmes in Tokyo. That represents about 50 pieces that had to be memorised, practised and performed. I did not have the time to prepare one record, apart from the one that has the little pieces by Schumann, which are very nice on the guitar.
“Soon I am going to do the Fantasia for piano and guitar by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, written for my former wife, who died. I am going to do it with a friend of mine who is a very good pianist. That will be one side. On the other side – solos.”
He talked about his old friends Falla and Ponce. “The sonata by Ponce – the first sonata – is very beautiful. The theme of the Sonata Clasica was deliciously put by Ponce. And then the Sonata Romantica: I remember the great French composer Paul Dukas, who played the piano.
He deciphered the Sonata for piano and told Ponce: ‘This is good Schubert – but without the divine length’. The Andante is deep poetry. And also the Moment Musical, the Intermezzo. Very nice. Sometimes I play it with the other intermezzo. Because the Sonata Mexicana was the first thing he wrote for me, in Mexico. The first thing Ponce wrote for the guitar was the little serenade, in the Sonata Mexicana. But this is, how shall I say, a little shy, a little timid, you know, because it is the first thing he did. When he wrote the Sonata with three movements I told him, please put that intermezzo in. But later on he wrote the other one.
When Falla and I were together, he wanted to hear this little intermezzo. It is beautiful. “Ponce has been magnificent for the guitar. He was a real composer. Everything he did – the preludes he did for me, for instance – was first class. He did not have the least intention of appealing to the public. His aim was to use the poetry of the guitar. He composed one sonata that I have lost, because I lost my entire house in Barcelona at the beginning of the Civil War. I lost many things by Ponce because, you know, he used to send me the original without making a copy. I told him about this many times.
“I lost seven or eight pieces in this way. A sonatina I asked him to write in homage to Tarrega disappeared and the worst of it is that the first movement was a very big emotional thing. Great emotion. But still I think that the greatest thing he composed for the guitar was the Theme, Variations and Fugue on La Folia.”
Segovia played a little joke on Ponce in the matter of the variations. Ponce had sent him the variations, telling him to reject the ones he didn’t like. Segovia wrote to the composer to say that he couldn’t do much with the variations, apart from four or five at the most. Ponce concealed the disappointment he must have felt, but was delighted when Segovia turned up with the printed music, which Schotts had meanwhile published, of all 20 variations together with the fugue.
Segovia had spoken to Falla about Ponce, arousing his curiosity. Falla was to conduct at the Venice Festival, where Segovia was also due to perform. From Geneva Segovia telephoned Falla, who was in Barcelona at the time, offering to pick him up at the frontier and drive him to Venice, departing 15 or 20 days beforehand so that they could enjoy themselves in every place they liked between Barcelona and Venice. On the journey they talked about Ponce. “I was speaking about him in a very tender way, because 1 knew Ponce very well. He was a spirit, you know, who never took a single step for himself. And Falla, after hearing my description, had a great sympathy with Ponce, but still didn’t know anything by him.
“In Venice 1 was practising the Theme, Variations and Fugue – not all the variations because the work was too long for the concert 1 was to give. While 1 was practising, Falla said ‘What is that?’ Further on he said again, ‘What is that? It’s very good, that’. Finally, when 1 played the fugue, he said, ‘What is this? This is very good’. And 1 said, ‘Do you know, it is by Ponce’. And he said, ‘I am very glad to unite the estimation of the music to the sympathy of the person’.”
COLIN COOPER PHOTO
This article originally appeared in the January/February 1983 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.