Segovia: A Centenary Celebration Part X, Segovia’s Zenith (1955-56)

BY GRAHAM WADE | FROM THE NOVEMBER 1993 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR

In 1955 the image of Andrés Segovia received a particular boost by the publication of a book about him by Bernard Gavoty, musicologist and (at the time) music critic of the Figaro. Entitled Segovia and issued in the Great Concert Artists series (published by René Kister of Geneva), it was one of a series of books commemorating such luminaries as Artur Rubinstein, Wanda Landowska, Wilhelm Kempff, Yehudi Menuhin, Maria Callas, Isaac Stern, etc. It ran parallel with another series, Great Painters, which included Picasso, Miró, Chagall, Braque, etc. Segovia’s inclusion in the series was in itself an acknowledgement that the Maestro had truly achieved eminence in the pantheon of great 20th century instrumentalists.

Note: This is part 10 of a 17-part series from the Classical Guitar archive.

The prose style of the books (translated by F. E. Richardson) was quite purple and deeply respectful with a touch of sincere awe, but memorable and perceptive also. The description of Segovia’s recital in the castle of La Brede, near Bordeaux, in June 1954 is as follows:

…he comes forward, carrying his guitar. His prelate­like gravity and natural grandeur accord perfectly with the throne on which he takes his seat. With his left foot on the stool, like a needlewoman, he sets the guitar on his thigh and turns it towards his breast… Segovia contemplates his guitar before beginning to play. She is an elderly queen whom he has unceremoniously laid across his knees: the gleaming light varnish disguises like greasepaint the face of a centenarian coquette who won’t admit to her age, a much-travelled woman no longer capable of surprise…

But has he really begun? That arpeggio sketched by the ball of his thumb has not really stirred the guitar. But he has quietly opened the door to a secret world where everything it caresses, murmurs and silences, a miniature world of which Segovia is the magician…

The atmosphere of a Segovia recital is beautifully evoked here but Gavoty’s final peroration excels all in the probing of that mysterious division when words cease and music takes over:

Where Segovia leaves the tale the music takes it up, leading up in a dream to a place which human words cannot attain. What adjectives can ever bring Granada before us? But let those wise fingers be employed on the six taut strings: they will call up the chirping of the grasshopper, wing-shells rubbing together, the rasping saw of the cricket, the toad’s golden blisters, the nocturnal fairyland of the slumbering gardens—and Granada, like a rose in the night, rises, swaying under the silvery moon.

It is perhaps during these years that he reached the zenith of his achievements.

For many readers at the time such an introduction to the guitar would have been something of a revelation, as the instrument was not invariably associated with this kind of sensibility. But Gavoty’s book was also important in its presentation of a letter by Segovia in which the Maestro set out his artistic credo:

…Few people suspect what the study of an instrument demands. The public watch the music-miracle in comfort, never dreaming of the ascesis and sacrifices which the musician must perform in order to make himself capable of accomplishing it…

A great number of creative artists in our time make a show of taking more trouble with their work than they do in reality… composers who hunt up parasitic dissonances with which they take all melody from music and turn it into a grievous punishment for the ear—because even if God has touched their foreheads with His finger they slothfully refuse to seek originality through perseverance…

Segovia’s attack here is directed at pretense, insincerity and lack of artistic integrity and perseverance. But his actual focus is concentrated on the instrumentalist’s art and the dedication needed to achieve true artistry, moving from the realm of the technical to the more complex aspects of interpretation:

But as for us pianists, violinists, cellists, and guitarists—how many hours of pain and self-abnegation, how many weeks, months and years do we spend polishing a single passage, burnishing it and bringing out its sparkle? And when we consider it ‘done to a turn,’ we spend the rest of our life persevering so that our fingers shall not forget the lesson or get entangled again in a brambly thicket of arpeggios, scales, trills, chords, accents and grace notes! And if we climb from that region of technique to the more spiritual sphere of interpretation, what anguish we experience in trying to find the soul of a composition behind the inert notation, and how many scruples and repentings we have before we dare to discover what does not lie hidden in the paper!


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In the second half of the 1950s, buoyed up as ever by his uncompromising artistic beliefs, the career of Andrés Segovia moved inexorably forwards, and it is perhaps during these years that he reached the zenith of his achievements. He now possessed a repertoire after the years of struggle, a string of substantial recording successes, an unchallenged international reputation and, as ever, a remarkably full engagement book.

As a musical instrument in its own right the classical guitar was not yet out of the woods of obscurity, but it was gaining ground. Following Len Williams’ foundation of the Spanish Guitar Centre in London during the early 1950s, there was at last a lively pedagogic movement which would attract many players. In the world at large the recitals and recordings of Presti-Lagoya, Julian Bream, Narciso Yepes, Rey de la Torre, Luise Walker, Laurinda Almeida and a very youthful John Williams were attracting attention during the mid- and late-1950s and building up audiences and enthusiasm for learning the guitar. Moreover, in popular music the guitar had become a familiar instrument for accompaniment and solos as well as an icon of adolescent liberation, and all these elements would become even more spectacular as time passed. From the phenomenon of the guitar in popular entertainment such as skiffle groups, rock groups, and even traditional jazz (enjoying a great vogue at this time) a number of players would eventually find their way by various migrations into the classical ranks.

The year 1956 was an eventful one for the world, being the year of the Suez fiasco and the Russian invasion of Hungary. Segovia began this somewhat tortuous year with a broadcast of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Quintet for Guitar and Strings from Hilversum, Holland on 11 January, with the Rontgen Quartet. From here he departed for the USA for his customary winter tour, performing at the Pacific Lutheran College, Tacoma, Washington on 27 January. (See Guitar News, No. 31, June/July).

In February 1956, Segovia premiered the Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra by Villa-Lobos, with the Houston Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. Simon Wright, in his excellent monograph on the music of Villa-Lobos, offers the following comment, which complements the passage from Turibio Santos (quoted in our previous column) concerning the genesis of the Concerto:

After Villa-Lobos’ long association with Segovia, it is not surprising that the Spaniard eventually commissioned a concerto. Villa-Lobos responded in 1951 with a Fantasia concertante, which disappointed the guitarist because it contained no cadenza. Segovia refused to play the work for several years, his agitation coming to a head when he heard Villa-Lobos’ Harp Concerto, complete with cadenza. Villa-Lobos was persuaded that he had no option but to provide a cadenza (a separate unit between second and third movements), and re-title his work ‘Concerto.’ The delighted Segovia gave the work’s premiere on 6 February, 1956, in Houston under the baton of the composer. Traces of this genesis can be seen in the fact that the cadenza is published even today as an ‘insert’ in Eschig’s printed score. It is difficult, however, to imagine the work without it.

(Villa-Lobos, [Oxford Studies of Composers], Simon Wright, Oxford University Press, 1992, page 123).

Guitar News No. 31, June/July 1956 duly reported that on 25 February, during the second of two New York Town Hall recitals, Villa-Lobos was present to hear Segovia perform his Etude No. 1 and Prelude No. 1.

On 6 and 7 April, Segovia played two performances of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Concerto for the Cincinnati Society of the Classic Guitar. At this time the Society paid homage to Segovia on behalf of guitar societies in the USA and presented him with a specially designed medal, inscribed “In recognition of your superlative artistry.” Before a capacity audience of 3,600, the mayor of Cincinnati presented the Maestro with a number of compositions including a duet from Joaquin Rodrigo, Twelve Preludes from Richard Pick, Introduction and Fugue and Ronde from Jeno Takacs and from Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco himself a second Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra and a solo, Tonadilla. In the Cincinnati press, Henry Humphreys wrote the following:

Segovia cares as little about flamboyant showmanship as a master wood engraver cares about having his meticulous designs blown up into billboard poster size. His is an intimate art, balanced on toes as gossamer-light as any sprite out of Shakespeare or Shelley. The audience dearly loved it.

In July Segovia travelled to Gibraltar to give a concert for the Gibraltar Society for Musical Culture. He had first played there in 1923 and later in 1925, so this was his first recital there for over 30 years. The Gibraltar Chronicle commented:

This guitar had the still small voice of conscience, speaking to each man individually, which is still the only worthwhile way to address human beings. It is hard to capture, hard to record, but, believe me, it was memorable and unique.

From Gibraltar, Segovia travelled to Siena, Italy, for the annual Summer School at the Academia Musicale Chigiana. Albert Valdes-Blain, a guitarist from the United States, wrote an enthusiastic report in Guitar News (No. 35, Feb/March 1957):

It would be impossible to relate everything that happened during this particular session or during the four weeks I attended the Segovia classes. However, I will say, first of all, no one showed more interest or worked harder than Maestro Segovia himself. He was indefatigable. He was made of iron. The classes were held every day. The duration of each class was about two and a half hours and on Sundays when the Academy was closed, the Maestro would invite us to his rooming house and conduct the class in his rooms. The total number of students attending the course was about 30 and from this number Maestro Segovia chose nine as his pupils. The students who were not chosen attended the classes conducted by the concert guitarist and pupil of Segovia, Alirio Diaz; and, of course, everyone who enrolled in the course was permitted to watch Segovia teach.

Valdes Blain also comments on the method of Segovia’s tuition, procedures which have since become well known but at the time were unfamiliar territory to many guitarists:

What Maestro Segovia stressed was not technique, was not tone production, was not the position of the hands or any matter of this nature: the pupils he selected were supposed to be good instrumentalists and equipped with a sufficiency of technique. What Maestro Segovia stressed was the music itself and what he taught was musical interpretation. The numbers we prepared and played for him were taken apart note by note and from Maestro Segovia’s comments and criticism on such matters as phrasing, dynamics, tone colour, tempo, style and fingering, we would learn how to improve the interpretation and performance of a composition… He knew to the minutest detail every number played by his students and even in the pieces which he himself had not reviewed in years, he was able to recall without hesitation the notation and the fingering of every passage. If a mistake was committed by the student, for example, a note omitted from a chord or a wrong note played due to faulty reading or memorisation, the Maestro would stop the player, look for the passage in the music, and bring the fault to the student’s attention.

Among the students enrolled at Siena that year were John Williams (aged 15), Emilia Corral Sancho (destined to marry the Maestro in 1962), Gustavo Lopez and Jesus Silva Valdes (Mexico), Manuel Cubedo (Spain), Dimitri Fampas (Greece), Pieter van der Staak (Holland), Ruggero Chiesa (Italy),  and Theodore Norman, Dan Grenholm, and James Yoghurtijan (USA), all of whom were destined to create their own niches in guitar history one way or another, whether as virtuoso recitalists, teachers, composers or scholars.

Another significant avarice for the guitar came when the guitar was placed upon the programme of the 12th International Competition for Musical Performers held 22 September to 6 October 1956 at the Conservatory of Music, Geneva. Henri Gagnebin, Director of the Conservatory, commented that “this instrument is enjoying a remarkable renaissance, due for the most part to the renown and talent of Segovia.” (cf. Guitar Review, No. 19, 1956, page 32).

In February 1957, the editorial of the periodical BMG formally acknowledged one of the historic surges in the guitar’s popularity:

One cannot be a reader of the national press without realising that the guitar is enjoying a wave of popularity unprecedented in the instrument’s history. Newspapers, national and local seem to vie with each other in recounting the number of guitars being imported and sold throughout the country… 

It is true that thousands (yes, thousands!) of guitars are being sold every month in Britain… Quite a lot of these instruments are wire-strung ‘skiffle’ (so called) guitars but the larger proportion are nylon-strung Spanish guitars and the people who buy them do intend to study the instrument seriously.

 A prospect of a golden age for the guitar seemed at last to have come into being and at the age of 63, Segovia could look backwards and to the present with a considerable sense of fulfilment. Yet his career still had 31 years to run, and the history of the 20th century guitar was now entering its most remarkable era.