Manuel de Falla and His Love of the Guitar

Though he wrote only one piece for the instrument, its voice can be heard in many of his works


In November of 1919, a correspondent for The Times of London wrote of his meeting with the great Spanish composer Manuel de Falla in Granada:

Granada itself is explained by its music and guitars, not in the music of fatuous gypsy entertainments got up for strangers, but that which is performed in private houses and gardens. One evening Señor Falla took me to a house just outside the Alhambra. In the patio, the fountain had been muffled, but not altogether silenced, by a towel; there was a light murmur of water running into a cistern. Don Angel Barrios (who is part composer of a delightful “Goyesque” opera, El Avapiés) sat there, collarless and comfortable, with a guitar across his knees. He had tuned it in flats so that in some odd way it harmonized with the running water, and his father now and again sang one of those queer, wavering melodies of Canto flamenco, with their strange rhythms and flourishes so characteristic of Andalucia, while Señor Barrios accompanied him with amazing resource and variety. . . . Señor Falla, of course, has long realized what sort of music and what instruments are most suited to the gardens of Spain . . .

That correspondent was the British author J.B. Trend (1887–1958), who would later write Manuel de Falla and Spanish Music, an important book which offered rare glimpses into the life of the composer and his deep understanding of and love for the guitar. Trend, an expert on Spanish history and culture, corresponded frequently with Falla, and, over the years, was able to spend time with him. According to Trend, “Falla always treated the guitar seriously; and when the editor of the Revue musicale invited him to send something ‘pour le tombeau of Claude Debussy,’ he wrote his Homenaje for the guitar, and it was first tried over in his room at one of the meetings I have described. . . . It is an extraordinary work, full of that passionate seriousness which is characteristic of Falla’s music and of all things which are really and truly Spanish.”

For guitarists, Manuel de Falla (1876–1946) remains an enigma. Although he was surrounded by the sound of the guitar and was friends with many guitarists, both classical and flamenco, he only composed that one short, yet exquisite Homenaje (Pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy) for the instrument. However, there is no doubt that the guitar played an important role in Falla’s development as a composer. And it was not just the flamenco and popular Spanish guitar that asserted an influence on his music—it was also the music of the 16th century vihuelistas and the Baroque guitarristas that left a deep impression on the composer, due in large part to his early studies with Felipe Pedrell.

Pedrell (1841–1922) was a composer, musicologist, teacher, and, perhaps most important, a guitarist. Pedrell has been called “the keystone of the arch upon which modern Spanish music rests.” He was the most important figure in Spanish music during his time, not because of his compositions, but because of the enormous influence he had in awakening the spirit of Nationalism in several important Spanish composers, including Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados. Beginning in 1901, Falla studied with Pedrell for three years in Madrid. During this time, he became aware of the importance of the music of Spain, from the great music of the Renaissance and the Baroque eras to the abundance of folk music from the various regions. According to music historian Gilbert Chase, Falla “emerged aesthetically fortified, and with a vivid realization of the creative values inherent in the music of Spain.” Falla’s interest in the early ancestors of the guitar undoubtedly inspired his friend Trend to write Luys Milan and the Vihuelistas, an important book published in 1925 that explored the life and music of this Renaissance composer and his contemporaries.

As a composer, Falla felt that the guitar was the perfect instrument for the contemporary music of his day. He stated that the “Romantic times were precisely those in which the guitar was at its worst. . . . It was made to play the sort of music that other instruments played, but it was not really suitable for 19th-century music, and so it dropped out. It is coming back again, because it is peculiarly adapted for modern music.” Falla also asserted that the tuning of the guitar in fourths with a third in the middle made it more suitable for the harmonies embraced by Debussy and the other composers of his time, and that instruments tuned in fifths like the violin were “not particularly apt for modern music.” In reference to the modern harmonies of Falla’s time, Trend wrote that the guitar “in the hands of quite an ordinary player, can be made to do astonishing things. The effects of harmony produced unconsciously by guitarists in Andalucía are among the marvels of untutored art.” In addition, the rhythms produced by the guitar and were always “at the back of the composer’s mind.” 


t is well-known that Falla had a deep love and respect for flamenco. He had become concerned that the traditional flamenco songs and style of singing, which had its roots in the music of India and other Eastern countries, were disappearing and that this art form had become too commercialized. Trend wrote that the “truth seems to be that except for some few cantaores [singers] and one or two who have grown too old to sing, that which remains of the primitive Andaluz folk-song is only the shadow of what it once was.”

Not only were the flamenco traditions of singing disappearing, but the art of true flamenco guitar was also vanishing. In a 1977 interview, the great Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia (1893–1987), who was a close friend of Falla, explained that the “flamenco guitarist of today has removed his attention from the ideals of yesterday, when this noble art was prized for a depth of emotion which could be produced by a certain simplicity of approach. . . . What they do has absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing to do with flamenco. They play chords that are altogether foreign to the character of flamenco. Besides the theatrical technique [is] in such poor taste.”

Andrés Segovia and Manuel de Falla on an excursion, Granada, 1923. Photo courtesy of Archivo Manuel de Falla

In 1922, Falla organized El Concurso de Cante Jondo, a competition of traditional flamenco singing held in Granada near the Alhambra. Segovia stated that this event was planned in “collaboration with personalities of that divine city and with young artists of the pen, the brush, and music, among whom they included me, Fernando de los Ríos, the painter Ignacio Zuloaga, and the poet Federico García Lorca. . . . The motivating idea behind this concourse was to prevent, as far as possible, the withering away of the noble tradition of cante jondo.”

The competition drew performers and listeners from Spain and abroad. There were strict rules that each competitor had to follow. Segovia was one of several distinguished judges. The great flamenco singer Antonio Chacón was also a judge. In addition, Segovia and the legendary flamenco guitarist Ramón Montoya, uncle of Carlos Montoya, assisted Falla with various guitar aspects of the competition. Music historian Suzanne Demarquez wrote that “after rigorous preliminary elimination, the jury selected the cantaores and tocaores [guitarists] entitled to take part in the final contest.”

Although much has been written about the “singing” portion of this competition, the importance of the guitar’s role for this event has often been overlooked. As a prelude to the competition, Segovia gave four concerts in Granada’s Alhambra Palace Hotel. These concerts were followed by a benefit performance given by Segovia and the poet Lorca to help the great French composer Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) attend the competition as a guest. Ravel, whose mother was from the Basque region of Spain, was a good friend of Falla. Segovia and Lorca gave this special concert about a month before the competition in the Alhambra Palace Hotel. Before a large audience, Lorca recited his poetry and Segovia gave a rare performance of flamenco with a soleares, utilizing his own falsetas, along with some composed by Paco de Lucena, one of the great flamenco guitarists of the late 19th century. In the end, Ravel had to decline the invitation, so the proceeds from this concert were donated to help defray some of the expenses of the competition.

One cannot overemphasize how much the guitar influenced many of Falla’s compositions. For example, themes from the Baroque guitarist Gaspar Sanz (1640–1710) were used by Falla in Master Peter’s Puppet Show (El retablo de maese Pedro), a one-act opera featuring puppets composed in 1923. In his Sonnet to Córdoba for voice and piano, the influence of the vihuelist Luys Milan (ca., 1500–1561) can be heard in the piano accompaniment. The orchestra imitates the rasqueados and punteados of the flamenco guitar in The Miller’s Dance from his ballet The Three Cornered Hat. Trills, ligados, and the gutsy sounds from the bass strings of the guitar are transformed into refined and idealized flamenco for the orchestra in Falla’s famous Ritual Fire Dance. (Falla also did a brilliant arrangement of this piece for piano.) One could say that Falla “played” the guitar through the orchestra and through the piano.

In 1933, Falla beautifully summed up his love for the guitar in the prologue that he wrote for Emilio Pujol’s guitar method:

It is a marvelous instrument, as austere as it is rich in sound, and which now powerfully, now gently, takes possession of the soul. It concentrates within itself the essential values of many noble instruments of the past, and has acquired these values as a great inheritance without losing those native qualities which it owes, through its origin, to the people themselves.


John Patykula is Assistant Chair and Coordinator of the Guitar Program in the Department of Music at Virginia Commonwealth University.