Segovia: A Centenary Celebration Part I

classical guitarist andres segovia

We celebrate this month the centenary of the birth of Andrés Segovia. He was born in the year of Tchaikovsky’s death, four years before the death of Brahms. Sibelius was a young man of 28, Elgar was in his 30s, and Verdi celebrated his 80th birthday year by composing Falstaff. Rachmaninov was a mere 20 years old, one year older than Richard Strauss, Stravinsky was 9, and Picasso 12. Arnold Schoenberg, one of the major influences on 20th century music, was already a student of 19.

Note: This is part 1 of a 17-part series from the Classical Guitar archive.

Segovia was born a year after the demise of Antonio Jurado Torres and 16 years before the deaths of Tárrega and Albéniz. Granados was 26 in 1893 and Turina 11 while Manuel de Falla, the great man of 20th century Spanish music, was 17. Emilio Pujol was seven and Miguel Llobet 15.

Though Segovia’s birth was so long ago, to many people Segovia seems very much our contemporary, especially in view of his longevity. Without his inspiration there would have been no vibrant international framework within which to pursue our guitar studies and the instrument might have remained for many decades more marooned in the backwaters of Spanish musical history. For many of us there would have been no guitarist’s vocation to attend to, very little repertoire, if any, from non­guitarist composers worth considering, and many great players such as Julian Bream and John Williams may not have fulfilled their high destiny as guitar recitalists.

Segovia’s legacy to the world of the guitar is so rich and complex that it takes time to unravel its multiple strands. That legacy incorporates:

  • Guitar virtuosity and the art of producing beautiful sound
  • The universal establishment of the guitar as a worthwhile recital instrument
  • The commissioning of new works by non-guitarist composers
  • Researching the original repertoire for fretted instruments ancient and modern
  • Further developments in the art of transcription
  • Many aspects of guitar pedagogy
  • The history of recording the guitar
  • The development of 20th century guitar music publishing
  • The introduction of guitar studies into the conservatories of music and schools
  • The establishment of the guitar as a worthwhile musical profession
  • An analysis of spanish and south american culture
  • The internationalising of the guitar’s role in world music
  • The development of new generations of recitalists
  • A bringing together of many guitar traditions over the centuries
  • A new appreciation of the guitar among the general public

Segovia’s labour in all these areas provided a secure foundation to build from. His achievements will stand the test of time because they work directly through the lives of all players, teachers, scholars and aficionados of the classical guitar. The following offers some thoughts in this centenary year on Segovia’s life and work.

Classical guitarist Andres Segovia
Segovia at the Westbury Hotel, London, 25th April, 1986. Photo by Graham Wade.


Segovia’s musical and spiritual development in his formative years was rooted in Granada. J. B. Stone, a 19th century traveller, offers a grim and unromantic picture of the city as he perceived it:

Granada is the poorest of all the poor cities of Spain … All the troubles and fated misery which are the unfortunate inheritance of the lower classes of Spain are concentrated in tenfold force upon the pitiable inhabitants of the city of Granada … How natural it is that a race of people, shut up as it were within a charmed area, should treasure the remembrance of former greatness … What wonder is there that such untutored people should believe in enchantments hanging about the hills and valleys around them, and be tempted to neglect the weary duties of an anxious life to search for the hidden treasure, which tradition says was concealed to a fabulous extent by the conquered Moors, before they finally quitted Granada. This pining after the shadow of the past, with the want of a healthy activity of mind and body, has naturally a baneful effect upon the place and the people. (Page 99, A Tour with Cook through Spain, J.B. Stone, London, 1873).

J.B. Stone adds a further twist to his vision of the Third World nature of Spain at this time:

… There exists in Granada a colony of people whose wretchedness, poverty and misery, far exceed the lamentable conditions of the lowest of Spaniards. These people are the Gitanos or gypsies … No district in Spain has offered greater attractions to the gypsies than the wild and secluded hills and valleys of Granada … So numerous and so lawless have these bands been at times that special codes of law have been framed to curb their actions, and attempts have been made to drive them out of the country, and even to exterminate them … the whole region is a perpetual anxiety to the Government.

Segovia’s attitude to Granada in his autobiography is romantic and poetic, putting aside the unpleasant realities of life in the city itself for the dream of the Alhambra:

… it was in Granada that my eyes were opened to the beauty of life and art … Many were the hours I spent in dreamy meditation, hearing the murmurs of the streams of the Alhambra in harmony with the rustle of the old trees of El Bosque and the passionate song of the nightingales! (Page 9, Segovia – An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, Macmillan, New York, 1976).

Yet the pattern of Segovia’s early inner life was surely a process of discrimination between what could be seen and heard, and the hidden reality of the imagination. Part of his genius was his ability to dream beyond the immediate and every day, to undertake a quest in unknown territory.

On the face of it the guitar itself did not have a lot to offer a young musician at the time. European folk music generally at the tum of the century was not especially admired by the polite middle classes, and only a very few musicians such as Pedrell, Bartók, Grainger, Sharp and Manuel de Falla, took steps to ensure its research and preservation. Segovia was very close to the popular guitar of Granada but many barriers lay between himself and flamenco.

On his first encounter with a strolling flamenco player, presumably gypsy, Segovia claims to have fallen over backwards from the violence of the chords, though he was moved by the soleares “as if they had penetrated through every pore of my body.” Segovia soon revealed to his friends that “my devotion to the guitar went further than flamenco.” When he heard Gabriel Ruiz de Almodóvar perform some Preludes of Tárrega, Segovia “felt like crying, laughing, even like kissing the hands of a man who could draw such beautiful sounds from the guitar,” (Page 6), and this was prima facie evidence, among other things, of a secret repertoire in existence somewhere waiting to be discovered. Also significant was the “sudden wave of disgust for the folk pieces I had been playing,” which came over him.

Yet the popular guitar was all around him, and Segovia pays a compliment to that indigenous gypsy guitar of which he must have heard a considerable amount: “But even in the hands of common people, the guitar retained that beautiful, plaintive and poetic sound unmatched by any other instrument, stringed or keyboard, with the exception of the organ.” (ibid, Page 8).

Classical guitarist Andres Segovia
Andrés Segovia, his son Andrés, and Elizabeth and Graham Wade at the Westbury Hotel, London in 1985.

Segovia’s life indeed tells us of his search for a “hidden treasure,” mentioned by J.B. Stone, but in this instance the Eldorado was nothing less than the secrets of the guitar of old, the hidden classical repertoire, the European tradition as it must have expressed itself at given points through an ancient instrument. The centrality of Segovia’s formative years is this quest for a classical guitar repertoire contrasting against the flamenco and folk music elements which inevitably dominated his early relationships with music and the guitar.

This tension between the received music of the instrument, (flamenco and its variants in the popular culture of Granada), and the potential expressive force of the guitar implicit in a written literature, took considerable time and energy to resolve. By 1909, the occasion of Segovia’s debut in Granada, the fundamental direction had been charted. But for some years, for a variety of reasons, Segovia remained on the periphery of the flamenco world, playing the occasional popular composition, such as a solea, in his recitals. The vital interchange between Segovia the player who flirted with flamenco and the purist who distanced himself from its limitations was possibly 1922/1923 following Manuel de Falla’s flamenco festival, the Concurso de Cante Jondo, at which Segovia’s reputation among the ranks of aficionados at that time:

All the members of the Rinconcillo were great aficionados of the cante and gypsy dancing. Among these were Manuel Jofré, an extraordinary guitarist and the maestro who taught flamenco dances to Andrés Segovia, before the hostility which he showed later, inexplicably, to that kind lover of the guitar. The desertion by Segovia as he moved towards a cult of the guitar which escaped from the popular, created a certain suspicion (more than was justified) towards him among the group. (Page 148, Manuel de Falla, Historia de una derrota, by Manuel Orozco, Barcelona, 1985).

For one of the recitals performed during the Concurso, Segovia, according to Manuel Orozco, gave the first performance of Falla’s Homenaje, “Le Tombeau de Debussy,” at the Hotel Palace de la Alhambra. (Ronald Crichton’s Manuel de Falla: A Descriptive Catalogue of his Works, London, 1976, gives the premiere as being performed by Emilio Pujol in the Salle du Conservatoire, Paris on 22 December 1922). Felix Grande in Memoria del Flamenco Vol. 2, (Madrid, 1979, pages 495/6), refers to Segovia’s playing of four recitals at the Concurso, and comments that on June 7 Segovia performed a soleá, Jofré played a petenera and siguiriya, and Federico García Lorca read part of his Poema del Cante Jondo. Segovia gave his own account of this event many years later in Guitar Review (though he omits any mention of Jofré!):

Back in 1922 the great Manuel de Falla organised a competition of cante jondo (deep singing) in Granada 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 Rios, the painter Ignacio Zuloaga, and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca … Federico and I announced a joint programme, consisting of recitation on his part and playing the guitar on mine … This gathering took place one evening in the little theatre of the Alhambra Palace Hotel. First Federico recited his poem dedicated to Silverio (a true master already disappeared from the cante jondo) and then I began to strum the guitar, rasgueado a soleares with ‘farsetas’ composed by me for this occasion, and with others of Paco Lucena. The little theatre was full of people. We were showered with bravos, shouts, wisecracks, and teasings, and the concert was transformed into an unceremonious juerga, since the public was composed of friends and acquaintances. (Guitar Review 42, Fall 1977, from a letter by Segovia dated February 5, 1977, from San Francisco, California).

Some farsetas (the Andalusian pronunciation of falsetas) are published in the same issue of Guitar Review in Segovia’s handwriting. Though not particularly challenging or even interesting in flamenco terms, they do represent the kind of variations played on possibly the last occasion when Segovia performed any kind of flamenco on a public stage.

In the immediate aftermath of Falla’s Concurso, Andrés Segovia’s long journey was to take him to destinations and ambitions reaching beyond the confines of Granada and Spanish culture, a migration which may have cost him even more friends in Spain. Segovia had already in 1919 travelled, like Christopher Columbus, in search of the new world of South America. (His son, Andrés, was born in Argentina in 1919, a fact omitted in the published autobiography).

But the voyages of 1923 to Cuba and Mexico were to put a great psychological distance than ever between Segovia and the aficionados of Granada as the artist truly spread his wings. Now in his early 30s, another aspect of his genius had to be realized—the creation and implementation of a substantial contemporary repertoire. After 1923 the situation in terms of guitar literature changed radically. It was a watershed in the instrument’s existence and after this there was no going back.

In 1923 Segovia was in Mexico where his first recital was reviewed most sympathetically by Manuel Ponce. From this encounter many new works for the guitar were to see the light of day. Once a secure basis of compositions was established for Segovia’s guitar, apologies for the instrument or relapses into its past mediocrities would be unnecessary. A letter to Ponce in 1923, shortly after Segovia had premiered Ponce’s Sonata Mexicana, expresses the following:

Quiero tambien decirle mi alegría al ver que los más interesantes compositores de este viejo mundo, estan colaborando a mi afán reivindicativo de la guitarra.

(I want to tell you also of my happiness at seeing that the most interesting composers of this old world are collaborating with my eagerness to revindicate the guitar). (Page 3, The Segovia-Ponce Letters, ed. Miguel Alcázar, transl, Peter Segal, Editions Orphée, Columbus, 1989).

Classical guitarist Andres Segovia
Left to right: Alexandre Tansman, Segovia, Robert Vidal, and Alirio Diaz.

Segovia goes on to identify composers keen to collaborate in this task and cites Roussel (who had produced a “small beautiful work”), Ravel, Volmer Andreas, Suter, Schoenberg, Weles, Grovlez, Turina, Torroba and Falla. (Clearly some names in this group faded away in terms of composing for guitar and it may be of some considerable surprise to find Schoenberg cited in the list approved by Segovia. The fact that Ravel did not eventually produce a guitar composition is perhaps the greatest imaginable loss to the instrument at this time). But overall events of the early 1920s made it clear to Segovia that a new repertoire for the instrument was now a real possibility and that he could and would approach all kinds of composers with confidence.

On 17 and 19 June, 1917 at the Alhambra Palace Hotel, Granada, Segovia had given two recitals. These two programmes give a good indication of the kind of repertoire available in the first stages of his career, a mixture of original works for guitar from Sor, Coste, and Tárrega, and a body of transcriptions based on the work of Tárrega and Llobet.

17 June, 1917



  • Minueto en mi, Tema con Variaciones (Sor)
  • Serenata (Malats)
  • Scherzo-Gavota (Tárrega)
  • Capricho Arabe (Tárrega)


  • Loure (Bach)
  • Claro de Luna (Beethoven)
  • Berceuse (Schumann)
  • Vals (Chopin)


  • (a) Lo Mestre (b) L’Heureu Riera (Llobet)
  • Granada (Albéniz)
  • Cádiz (Albéniz)
  • Danza (Granados)

19 June, 1917


  • Minueto en la (Sor)
  • (a) Allegretto (b) Final (Sor)
  • Allegro en D (Coste)
  • Estudio (Tárrega)


  • Bouruée (Bach)
  • Sonata, Patética Andante (Beethoven)
  • Au Soir (Schumann)
  • Romanza (Mendelssohn)
  • Canzonetta (Mendelssohn)


  • Allegro an la (Vieutemps)
  • Mazurka (Tschaikowskj)
  • Danza (Granados)
  • La Maja de Goya (Granados)
  • Sevilla (Albéniz)

(The spelling of the original programme has been preserved).

Only a few years later Segovia’s musical horizons were able to extend far wider. Now he must have appreciated to the full how “revindication” for the guitar would be mainly forthcoming through the repertoire provided by contemporary composers, supported naturally by the best of what was available from the past, and by the art of transcription whether from Tárrega, Llobet, or Segovia himself. The basis of the new repertoire was systematically pursued, during the 1920s going from strength to strength and producing the following works in an amazing short period of time, Manuel Ponce being the most prolific of those who wrote for Segovia:


Danza in E (Suite Castellana): Federico Moreno Torroba

Homenaje, ‘Le Tombeau de Claude Debussy’: Manuel de Falla


Sonatina: Torroba.

Sevillana: Joaquín Turina, (premiered 17 December, 1923)

Sonata Mexicana: Manuel Ponce


La Valentina: Ponce


La Pajarera and Par ti mi Corazon: Ponce

Segovia, Op. 29: Albert Roussel, (premiered 25 April, 1925)

Fandanguillo, Op. 36: Joaquín Turina, (completed 4 June, 1925)

Prelude: Ponce

Mazurka: Alexandre Tansman


Prelude for Guitar and Harpsichord: Theme, Variations and Finale: Ponce

Serenade: Gustave Samazeuilh


Alborada and Canción Gallega: Sonata III: Ponce


Sonata Romantica: Ponce


24 Preludes: Variations and Fugue on Folies d’Espagne: Suite in A (under the name of Weiss): Ponce

Douze Etudes: Heitor Villa-Lobos

By any standards the commissioning and premiering of so many works in such a short space of time was an unprecedented achievement in guitar history. If the first stage of Segovia’s career had seen the development of confidence in the very concept of putting on such an unusual event as a guitar recital, the second stage was to liberate the instrument fully from the constraints of a limited repertoire. Thus the period between the Concurso of Granada in 1922 and the end of the decade saw the composition of some of the most characteristic and valuable contributions to the guitar’s 20th century literature. At the same time Segovia’s technique and vision of the instrument’s potential was expanding considerably to accommodate an entirely new range of possibilities.

Classical guitarist Andres Segovia performance poster
Poster from a 1933 performance of Andrés Segovia

The guitar’s developments in repertoire were matched hand in glove by great strides in the advancement of Segovia’s international reputation. These achievements can be summarised as follows:


Debut in Paris, 7 April


Recitals in Switzerland, Germany, Austria


Recitals in Russia, 2 March and Britain, 7 December. First publication of Guitar Archives – Edition Andrés Segovia (B Schott’s Sohn, Mainz)


Recital in Denmark, 29 April

First recordings for HMV


Recitals in United States

Bach transcriptions first published


First meeting with Joaquín Rodrigo

Recitals in Japan

It is instructive to compare the programmes of 1917 printed previously with the recital given a decade later on 29 January, 1927, at the Wigmore Hall, London. The inclusion of works composed for him now has a high priority and out of 11 composers selected, four represent the new wave of creativity which Segovia was inspiring:


  • Andante et Rondo (Sor)
  • Danza (Moreno Torroba)
  • Improvisation (Pedrell)
  • Tonadilla (Granados)
  • Serenata (Malats)


  • Sarabande (Handel)
  • Gavotte et Musette (J.S. Bach)
  • Loure (J.S. Bach)
  • Canzonetta (Mendelssohn)


  • Theme varié et Finale (Ponce)
  • Serenata (Samazeuilh)
  • Granada (Albéniz)
  • Cádiz (Albébiz)