Remembering Classical-Guitar Composer Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000)

by Maria Isabel Siewers

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.


CARLOS GUASTAVINO was born in Santa Fe, Argentina. He studied music with Esperanza Lothringer and Dominga Iaffei and later with Athos Palma. A talented pianist, he performed his piano works in London in 1947, 1948, and 1949, invited by the BBC and as a recipient of a scholarship from the British Council. During these years, the BBC Symphony Orchestra premiered the orchestral version of his Tres Romances Argentinos. Later Guastavino toured the USSR and China, performing his pieces for voice and piano.

One of the foremost Argentine composers of the 20th century, his production amounts to over 400 works: 150 songs for voice and piano, numerous piano solo pieces, choral works, school songs, and chamber music. His reputation was based almost entirely on his songs. Some of them, for example Pueblito, mi pueblo, La rosa y el sauce (The Rose and the Willow) and Se equivocó la paloma (The Dove Was Wrong) became national favorites. Guastavino has sometimes been called “the Schubert of the Pampas.”

Guastavino’s musical style marked a strong contrast with the works of Argentine contemporaries such as Alberto Ginastera, revealing the influence of the European composers Albéniz, Granados, Rachmaninoff, de Falla, Debussy and Ravel, but is also inherited from the 19th century Argentine nationalist composers Alberto Williams and Julián Aguirre.

The poets whose works he set to music include Rafael Alberti, Leon Benaros, Hamlet Lima Quintana, Atahualpa Yupanqui, Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral and Jorge Luis Borges, among others.

Guastavino received many important awards, among them the prize from the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Music Council, as recognition of his outstanding creative activity.


Many famous performers, such as Teresa Berganza, Martha Argerich, Gidon Kremer, Kiri Te Kanawa, Patricia Caicedo, have included works by Guastavino in their programs.

Guastavino´s friendship with several argentine guitarists (María Luisa Anido, Eduardo Falú, Roberto Lara, Horacio Ceballos, and María Isabel Siewers) contributed to his understanding of the instrument and to the motivation to write for it.

During a visit to Buenos Aires late in the ‘80s John Duarte met Carlos Guastavino. He was deeply impressed by the composer´s ascetic personality and expressed it later in the linear notes of the CD Carlos Guastavino—Guitar and chamber music:

“Jars containing chemicals lined the walls of Carlos Guastavino’s small apartment in Buenos Aires, souvenirs of his early studies as a chemical engineer. He lived somewhat reclusively, writing his music between four and 11 o´clock each morning; his interest in science and his love of music and nature (to both of which he reached with deep emotion) protected him from any sense of loneliness. In his own words: When I realize that I have written what I want, I stand, make gestures, laugh or cry, and thank God. Music doesn’t grow by itself, I don’t carry the responsibility; a part of my brain has music. His music grows from melody, the harmony follows, and he resisted every compositional process that departs from traditional values. For this reason he was long undervalued by those who believe that new bath water requires a new baby, a thing that saddened him but never deflected him from what he always regarded as the right path. In recent years he has been vindicated by the rapidly increasing number of recordings of his chamber, solo instrumental and vocal music. His path is proving to be no less right from the many who are captivated by music of immediate beauty, ‘spoken’ with the Argentine ‘accent’ that is more Italianate and demonstratively expressive than that of any other South American country.

“Music reflects the character of its composer, and that of Guastavino is an eloquent example of this. He led a largely solitary social life, but through his music he spoke to more people than do most of those of a gregarious nature—and without compromise.”

Further John Duarte describes Guastavino´s pieces for guitar:

“The two Cantilenas, Santa Fé antigua and Santa Fé para llorar, carry the name of Guastavino’sbirthplace; the Bailecito (a little dance) does notrefer to the Argentine ‘ handkerchief ‘ folk dance ofthat name. All three pieces were originally writtenfor the piano, arranged for the guitar with thecomposer’s approval, which was also given toMaría Isabel Siewers’ arrangements of the three Cantos populares (popular songs) for violin andguitar. The first has some feeling of the habanera, which influenced the Argentine milonga, the secondis a lively gato, and the last is overtly romantic.

Sonata No.1 (1967), the ‘masculine’ one of the three, is dedicated to Guastavino’s brother José Amadeo, who died suddenly as the first movement was completed—hence the profound sadness of the Andante. The opening movement is in traditional sonata form; since Guastavino was not a guitarist he didn´t hesitate to venture into ‘remote’ keys that are uncommon in the instrument’s repertory.

Sonata No.2 (1969), the ‘feminine’ member of the group, is dedicated to the Argentine guitarist Roberto Lara. The first movement is strongly influenced by the rhythm and feeling of the zamba, a dance in which a man and a woman, carrying and gracefully flourishing handkerchiefs, dance in decreasing circles and finally embrace. Although it contains many elements of recapitulation it is not in conventional sonata form. The second begins in quasi-improvisatory vein, shifts gently into an intimate “parlato“(as though spoken) mode, and leads to the brilliant, concluding Presto.

Sonata No.3 (1973) is dedicated to another Argentine guitarist, Horacio Ceballos. Once again, the first movement is ‘non-standard’ in form, migrating from the opening key of E minor to the tonic-major key of E, in 9/8 time and dominated by a gently dotted rhythm. It is followed by a deeply expressive Adagio and a dancingly, virtuosic and somewhat ‘folkloric’ Allegro in 6/8 time unabated by the hemiolas that mark so much of South American music.

Guastavino had intended to write a further series of Cantilenas but his publisher did not like the title, so he changed it to ‘Las Presencias’ (characters); as he said: ‘it is not easy to find names for over 400 pieces!’. Jeromita Linares is the sixth of the Presencias, named after an old Spanish lady, a neighbor of Guastavino when he lived in his native, quiet and peaceful Santa Fe. She lived in a very modest rancho, surrounded by poultry and by plants and flowers which grew in old oil cans; as a child Guastavino used to go there to buy eggs. The title of his work in no way implies a portrayal of her character; Guastavino simply loved the phonetic sound of the word ‘Jeromita’—and no doubt retained fond memories of this lady of his childhood. The work was written as a quintet and it achieves a skilful balance between the guitar and the string quartet. It is in one continuous movement, with a slower section at its heart, and, like so much of Guastavino’s music, is entirely enjoyable without the benefit’ of analysis.”

Twenty years have passed since these notes were written. Guastavino’s music lives on not only through transcription by guitarists including Víctor Villadangos, Eduardo Isaac, Carlos Groissman and María Isabel Siewers, but also through recordings by remarkable singers such as Anna Netrebko , Bernarda and Markus Fink, José Carreras, Mario Villazón and José Cura, and popular singers like Joan Maunel Serrat , who made Se equivocó la Paloma one of the most popular songs in Spanish speaking countries.

In 2011 Carlos Guastavino, the composer, a book written by the argentine musicologist Dr. Silvina Mansilla, was published by Gourmet Musical Editions in Buenos Aires. A long friendship with the composer documented in interviews and a profound analysis of his work allow Dr. Mansilla to offer us here a very accurate portrait of the composer.