Throughout its history, the guitar has periodically surged in popularity, as seen in the proliferation of electric garage-rock in the 1960s, the Hawaiian guitar craze of the 1930s, or the infamous rivalry between followers of Ferdinando Carulli and Francesco Molino in early 19th century Paris. One of the earliest and most enduring examples of such “crazes” spread across European courts in the 1600s. From France’s Louis XIV to Charles II of England, a veritable who’s who of monarchs succumbed to the exotic appeal and addictive simplicity of the five-course baroque guitar—much to the chagrin of several contemporary commentators, who considered the lute the only suitable instrument for a proper gentleman.
One traveling musician was at the center of this musical and social happening: the Italian Francesco Corbetta, born in Pavia, near Milan, around 1615. Building upon the work of previous composers, such as Giovanni Paolo Foscarini (who published five popular guitar books between 1629 and 1649), Corbetta furthered the hybridization of the two prevalent compositional styles, the battuto (strumming) and the pizzicato (plucking), resulting in novel and mesmerizing textures that could reward novices and virtuosos alike.
Although many details of his life and travels are now lost, we can place Corbetta at the courts of Mantua, Madrid, Brussels, Hanover Versailles, and London, through the publication and dedication of at least six books of tablature, five of which survive today. English diarist Samuel Pepys records the arrival of Corbetta at the court of Charles II in 1660, and the ensuing enthusiastic adoption of the virtuoso’s instrument of choice by courtiers of all ranks and both genders. The Whitehall court was the setting for a notorious scandal around Lady Chesterfeld, her husband the Earl of Chesterfeld, and the Duke of York; key roles in the affair were played by the Earl of Arran, an enthusiastic guitarist, and a particular sarabande by Corbetta, which everyone at court was trying to learn. While the intrigue itself is amusing (involving a scorned husband and a broken guitar), I find the picture described by visiting Frenchman Antoine Hamilton particularly telling: “Francisco had composed a sarabande, which either charmed or infatuated every person; for the whole guitarery at court were trying at it; and God knows what a universal strumming there was.”
Corbetta’s second book La Guitarre Royalle, published in Paris in 1674 (the first came out in 1671), and dedicated to the Sun King himself, contained a series of 14 duets which were written specifically for Louis XIV’s enjoyment. The guitarist/composer’s presence and influence even inspired these few verses, excerpted from a 1673 gazette by one of the followers of journalist and poet Jean Loret, who chronicled social and artistic events of Parisian life in the mid-1600s (my translation):
But the best [concert], and among the rarest, Was, dear reader, one of two guitars, Even though it is the instrument Most ungrateful and least charming, But I dare to say without any risk That when the famous Francisque [Corbetta], This dear Milanese Orpheus, Touches it with his slender fingers There is no Lute, Theorbo, or Lyre That has upon the Ear greater Empire.
Corbetta’s legacy resonated through following generations of guitarists-composers (François Campion, Robert de Visée, Gaspar Sanz, and others), who adopted elements such as the integration of strummed and plucked playing, the development of more intricate polyphonic writing, the stylization and standardization of dance and variation forms (especially the sarabande, passacaglia, and chaconne), and the grouping of pieces into suites of like character and key. Even composers who were not guitarists, such as François Couperin and other French harpsichordists, adapted textural and harmonic conventions that can be traced back to Corbetta’s works.
Today, his works are an essential part of the repertoire of the five-course baroque guitar, as popularized by historical instrument performers Paul O’Dette, Jakob Lindberg, and Rolf Lislevand. Though some of Corbetta’s music has been arranged for the modern six-string guitar, much of its inventiveness and delicacy relies on the re-entrant tuning and lighter timbre of the baroque counterpart. On the other hand, guitarists can adapt to different “versions” of the instrument with relative ease; as such, Corbetta’s books make the perfect introduction to the infectious sound that swept Europe 500 years ago.
Here’s Jeffrey McFadden performing a suite from Corbetta’s La Guitarre Royalle (1671) at the Great Lakes Guitar Festival in 2011.
Giacomo Fiore is an Italian-born guitarist and musicologist who lives in San Francisco.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.