Segovia: A Centenary Celebration Part VII, Segovia and His Edition of Sor’s ‘Studies’

segovia sor studies classical guitar book

In the post-war years from 1945 onwards Andrés Segovia did not neglect an important aspect of his life’s work which flourished alongside his recitals, recordings and the acquiring of new compositions. This was the matter of editing music for publication, whether transcriptions, editions, new music from his chosen composers, or the direct promulgation of his ideas in periodicals such as Guitar Review.

Note: This is part 7 of a 17-part series from the Classical Guitar archive.

In 1945 Segovia published his edition of Sor’s Twenty Studies for the Guitar, which became over the years one of the best-selling book of studies in the 20th century. Over the last few years there has been some criticism of both Segovia’s editing and of his playing of these pieces.

Such criticism is as pointless as blaming Wanda Landowska for playing on a harpsichord that was historically less authenticated than those built today or Julian Bream for giving us magnificent Dowland in the 1950s and 1960s on a Rubio lute that was heavier (and therefore had greater sostenuto) than the original Elizabethan lutes. Segovia was rooted in the historic evolution of the guitar in the early part of this century and his actions carried their own intrinsic logic and rationale.

Frank Koonce in his edition of The Solo Lute Works of Johann Sebastian Bach (Kjos, California, 1989) mentions the four types of editions of published music—”Performance, Facsimile, Urtext or Critical.” In Segovia’s case, as with other great performers of his era, his interest was primarily and exclusively in the “performance edition” which Koonce describes as follows:

A Performance Edition adapts the original text, providing technical and musical solutions for the performer while taking the capabilities and limitations of a particular instrument into consideration. Although performance editions often are helpful in learning new literature, they nevertheless reflect the opinions of their editors and tend not to distinguish between original and edited material.

Nowadays a frisson of horror often accompanies the concepts of the “performance edition” in the realms of academia, though for the grass-roots guitarist such an edition is often a good investment in terms of the learning curve. A different approach, if not an entirely different psychology, characterises a performance edition compared to the other forms possible. In the category of performance editions (of a wide variety of works) can be included series over the last 30 years by Julian Bream, John Williams, Siegfried Behrend, Vladimir Mikulka, Narciso Yepes, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, and Kazuhito Yamashita.


In Segovia’s prime, the word “musicologist” was an insult when applied to a recitalist. (In his autobiography he uses it in clear disparagement [Page 119] when he mentions Pujol, “not the musicologist but the managing director of the Palau.”) Nowadays of course musicologists are more esteemed members of the community, daring sometimes even to criticise Julian Bream for lifting his lute from its case and performing with nails! In rare instances, instrumentalists move towards becoming respected as musicologists as well as recitalists, a progression that proved difficult, if not impossible, for musicians of the old school such as Tortelier or Menuhin, Richter, or Horszowski, etc.

Segovia’s perennial concern was performing on the guitar to large audiences. But he was, in himself, of extreme musicological interest, representing within his art most, if not all, of the beliefs and performance conventions of the early decades of the 20th century. For better or worse Segovia cared more for his public than he did for scholarly opinion of a theoretical kind. His principles of performance practice on the guitar, inherited and developed from late Spanish romanticism, were very clearly defined for him.

The principles of the historical approach of Segovia’s generation to the art of interpretation are analysed in a recent publication entitled Early Recordings and Musical Style, Changing Tastes in Instrumental Performance, 1900–1950 by Robert Philip (Cambridge University Press, 1992). This book, of extraordinary scholarship and insight, is a useful antidote to those who judge past performance practice by the application of a new regime of applied regulations recently written into a mythical rule book, from which no performer, ancient or modern is permitted to deviate without censure. Robert Philip delves into early recordings to find out how people played and what their concepts of performance were, to compare with performance practice today, and to warn against too dogmatic a stance when deciding on matters of authenticity in performing music of the time before recordings were possible:

The performances of the early twentieth century, therefore, are volatile, energetic, vigorously projected in broad outline but rhythmically informal in detail. Modern performances are, by comparison, accurate, orderly, restrained, deliberate, and even in emphasis. When we describe early 20th century performance in this way, we are describing the performances of, among others, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Bartok, Stravinsky and Poulenc. Given the clear links between the performance practice on early recordings and the descriptions of the late 19th century, we can also be sure that early recordings take us quite close to the practice of Mahler, Brahms, Debussy, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky. Late 20th century musicians, with their interest in constructing the performance practice of the past, are bound to ask what one should do with this information.

Early 20th century recordings and documents demonstrate that any literal reconstruction of the past is impossible… On the whole, modern musicians who try to reconstruct the styles of the past adhere quite closely to modern notions of clarity and control, however much they may apply certain rhythmic rules of particular periods… (Op. cit. Page 235).

Segovia’s deep-rooted concepts of performance practice, founded on early 20th century stylistic considerations, influenced his edition of the Sor Studies in specific ways. One outcome was to seize upon the Studies as a cornucopia of possibilities for technical progress allied to worthwhile music “achieving the right balance between the pedagogical purpose and the natural musical beauty,” (from Segovia’s preface to the Sor edition). He also identified the latent technical aspects which his point of view as virtuoso performer seemed essential to maintain dexterity and daily mastery:

The studies of Sor which are published here can be used not only for the development of the technique of the student, but as well for the preservation of it at its height for the masters. They contain the exercises of the arpeggios, chords, repeated notes, legatos, thirds, sixths, melodies in the higher register and in the bass, interwoven polyphonic structures, stretching exercises for the fingers of the left hand, for the prolonged holding of the cejilla and many other formulas which, if practised with assiduity and intelligence will develop vigour and flexibility in both hands and will finally lead to the better command of the instrument. (from Segovia’s preface to the Studies, 1945)

Complaints have sometimes been voiced that Segovia’s edition gives an unbalanced view of Sor, who after all wrote many more than just 20 studies. However, the selection of these studies, which in recital terms had evolved since Segovia’s early days in Granada, is a worthy representative selection of some of the best concert studies. Many young players proved the efficacy of Segovia’s edition and choice in laying the foundations of an impeccable technique. John Williams, for example, recorded all 20 studies as in the edition, on “A Spanish Guitar,” HMV CLP 1702/Westminster WST 14138, issued in 1963, a recording precedent followed by other guitarists including Lucien Battaglia, Jose Luis Gonzalez, David Tanenbaum and Narciso Yepes (who included a few more). Guitarists who recorded either individual studies or a selection from the Segovia catalogue are myriad, but Bream, Diaz, Almeida, Caceres, Santos and Per Olaf Johnson are a few of the many. Segovia gave practising guitarists a precious inheritance in 1945 when his edition was first published, and its effects have been incalculable on thousands of aspiring players throughout the world.

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