Segovia: A Centenary Celebration Part XI, 160 Performances Per Year (1958–59)

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At the beginning of 1958 Segovia celebrated the 30th anniversary of his debut in New York (8 January, 1928), with a recital at Carnegie Hall on 12 January. His programme included Sonata by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Roussel’s Segovia, Fandango by Rodrigo, and Madronos by Moreno Torroba. On 29 January Segovia played Ponce’s Concierto del Sur and Castelnuovo­Tedesco’s Guitar Concerto at the Brooklyn Academy, backed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra.

Note: This is part 11 of a 17-part series from the Classical Guitar archive.

One of the most significant guitar events of 1958 was Segovia’s premiere of Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un Gentilhombre. Victoria Kamhi de Rodrigo gives a short account of this in her book Hand in Hand with Joaquin Rodrigo (Latin American Literary Review Press, Pittsburgh, USA, 1992, p 175):

We left for San Francisco the 27th of February, 1958, and on the 6th, 7th and 8th of March, Segovia presented the Fantasia para un Gentilhombre in the great Opera House of that city.

At the San Francisco airport, Andrés Segovia was waiting for us, with Enrique Jordá and his wife, Audrey, and some reporters. They took us to the Francis Drake Hotel, where we had a short time to rest. The rehearsal began at once, for only a few days remained before the premiere.

Then followed the rounds of the press, interviews, parties, dinners with the artists and the critics. Nothing was omitted that would characterise this premiere as a great event. And the success was complete, unanimous, enthusiastic. In all three of the successive concerts, the audiences who filled the hall applauded the soloist and the composer with fervour. During the intermissions people surrounded us, with radiant faces, to congratulate us, to request an autograph, a photo. It was thrilling!

Several weeks later Segovia recorded the Fantasia para un Gentilhombre in New York, with the Orchestra of the Air, under the direction of Jordá.

During these years (and into the 1960s) the career of Andrés Segovia was perhaps at its most remarkable, achieving both an unprecedented supremacy in the guitar world and the status of instrumental greatness in the wider musical arena of the international concert halls.

The actual dates of the concerts, according to the concert programme, were 5th, 6th and 7th March, the last one being a matinee at 2:15. Segovia also performed Gavotte and Musette by Bach, Prelude and Study by Villa-Lobos, and Albéniz’s Torre Bermeja. Alfred Frankenstein, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle commented:

The fantasy is a virtuoso piece for all concerned, and it was given an enchanting performance. Since the guitar is inevitably a trifle under wraps when playing with an orchestra, Segovia also presented some solos. As always, he played them gorgeously, but only one of them, a gavotte and musette by Bach, was of the substance and quality one expects at a symphony concert, solo or no solo.

During these years (and into the 1960s) the career of Andrés Segovia was perhaps at its most remarkable, achieving both an unprecedented supremacy in the guitar world and the status of instrumental greatness in the wider musical arena of the international concert halls. On all fronts his labours could now be seen to be coming to fruition. The decades of struggle were rewarded by universal distribution of his recordings and his perennial dedication to giving as many recitals a year as he could manage.

Meanwhile (as mentioned in previous columns), his publications proliferated in the post-war years and he embarked on prestigious teaching schedules, influencing the younger generation of every continent. On the Siena Course of 1958, Segovia’s students included Oscar Ghiglia (Italy), Gustavo Lopez (Mexico), Per-Olaf Johnson (Sweden), and Emilia Corrál and Miguel Rubio (Spain). On 10 September John Williams gave a recital on the course, performing works by Sanz, Weiss, Bach, Sor, Torroba, Granados, and Tansman (mentioned in Guitar News No. 45, Nov­-Dec 1958).


Segovia’s visit to Britain that year took place in the autumn with a Royal Festival Hall recital on 10 October. The programme included Rodrigo’s Fandango, Ponce’s Sonata Meridional, Espla’s Levantine Pieces, and Sevilla by Albéniz. The five encores were Study in A (Alard, arr. Tárrega), Study in B minor (Sor), Study No. 1 (Villa-Lobos), and Torre Bermeja (Albéniz).

It is fascinating to reflect how a number of players who grew to maturity from the 1950s onwards under the shadow of Segovia’s greatness used his accumulated successes of half a century as an incentive for their own careers while forming and retaining their own individual musical identities.

At this time Segovia was acknowledged as supreme among guitarists in terms of international fame and what had been gained for the instrument by his efforts. His achievement was a rock on which budding recitalists could build but also an Everest which challenged to the ultimate. Such a context could destroy aspirations as well as stimulate ambition. In retrospect it is fascinating to reflect how a number of players who grew to maturity from the 1950s onwards under the shadow of Segovia’s greatness used his accumulated successes of half a century as an incentive for their own careers while forming and retaining their own individual musical identities.

As the years passed, Andrés Segovia had become ever more mindful of the need for continuation in the traditions of guitar performance at the technical and spiritual levels which he had established. In the 1950s there were few possible young contenders with the qualifications, on his terms, to be a rightful heir. The 1920s generation of guitarists such as Alirio Díaz (b.1923), Ida Presti (b.1924), and Narciso Yepes (b.1927), were no longer young and had already made known their presence in the guitar pantheon by the late 1950s. (The “second generation” after Segovia included Laurinda Almeida [b. 1917], Rey de la Torre [1917], Abel Carlevaro [b.1918]).

Thus, it was that Segovia gave his famous/notorious blessing to John Williams on the occasion of the young artist’s first major recital at the Wigmore Hall, London, on 6 November, 1958. The following commendation was printed among the programme notes:

A prince of the guitar has arrived in the musical world: John Williams, born in Australia 17 years ago. He lives and studies in London, and since 1954 has been perfecting his instrumental technique at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana of Siena, and moving fast towards artistic maturity. God has laid a finger on his brow, and it will not be long before his name becomes a byword in England and abroad, thus contributing to the spiritual domain of his race. I hail this young artist of merit on the occasion of his first important public performance, and make this heartfelt wish that success, like his shadow, may accompany him everywhere.

This particular quotation had far-reaching implications reaching up to the present. In a recent edition of the BBC programme Talkback, John Williams expressed his innermost feelings about Segovia’s praise for him at that time, remarking that the Maestro’s commendation “dogs me unto this very day” and was “more a millstone than an accolade.” At one time in the mid 1960s Williams had “a solicitor send out letters to record companies and publicity people” banning any further quotes from Segovia’s comments.

John Williams’ objections were, according to the broadcast, founded on two aspects. For one thing he disliked being singled out among guitarists as “the favourite of the great Maestro.” But a more stringent objection was that the quote put him, “very much, in the public light, in Segovia’s debt… it seemed as if everything I had learned, everything that one could learn on the guitar, had been learned from Segovia, and I was lucky enough to have done it that way. That wasn’t the case!”

Between the age of 4 and 13, all John Williams’ learning had been acquired from his father, “and my father was a great teacher… so that was the most important part of my teaching, not with Segovia!”

With Segovia it was a great inspiration for a young person. But Segovia as a teacher (I could say now, but would have hated to have said it when he was alive), was not a good teacher—he was a rather bad teacher. He was very simplistic and authoritarian, and it was all done by inspiration which could be a great experience in a class, where you may be inspired by the example that is being set, but it doesn’t help actually develop you as a musician. So, in that sense, all that business of those quotes and what flowed from it, has been a big drawback.

John Williams’ recital programme, the occasion for Segovia’s words on behalf of the young player, had in itself constituted an eloquent tribute to the Maestro’s contribution over the years, consisting as it did of a repertoire that was extremely Segovian:

  • Gallardas (Sanz)
  • Gavotte (A. Scarlatti)
  • Suite in A minor (Weiss)
  • Prelude, Allemande, Bourree (J.S. Bach)
  • Variations on a Theme by Mozart (F. Sor)
  • Sonatina (Torroba)
  • Mazurka (Tansman)
  • La Maja de Goya (Granados)

(The musical public [or at least some of them] eventually found out that Scarlatti’s Gavotte, allegedly “discovered by Andrés Segovia in a manuscript in Naples Conservatoire” [record notes for John Williams, Guitar Recital, Second Album, ECB 3151 by John W. Duarte] and Suite in A minor by Weiss were composed by Manuel Ponce, an example of Segovia’s little musical jokes being perpetrated through the younger generation of players. The error has been lovingly repeated on many sleevenotes ever since, and most recently on a 1993 reissue on compact disc of part of John Williams’ debut recording, copyrighted by Karussel UK, on BELART 450 008-2. The liner notes, by Martin Furber, provided interesting information on Alessandro Scarlatti but not a hint of the Scarlatti/Weiss/Ponce hoax!)

The strands of guitar history interacting between the euphoria of the late 1950s and the cold revisionism of our present decade are in themselves fascinating and complex. By comparison the beliefs and enthusiasm of the 1950s seem, at least in retrospect, pleasingly straightforward. But even in the 1950s the sheer individuality of John Williams’ own style of playing was observed. Terry Usher, reviewing John Williams’ debut recording in November, 1959, commented:

In Suite No. 3 in C (J.S. Bach transcribed for guitar by Duarte) John Williams still shows the influence of Segovia, who did so much to help him reach his present place as one of the few great players of the world, but he will quickly grow out of that influence and become himself alone, that is clear: an artist in his own right. Indeed, it is now but rarely any echo of Segovia is heard in his playing.

Segovia’s career meanwhile continued with the impetus of a juggernaut, reaching in 1959 new levels of fame and adulation. His tour of the United States and Canada in 1959 followed this itinerary:

  • March 1: Buffalo, NY
  • March 2: Niagara Falls, NY
  • March 3: Buffalo, NY
  • March 7: Washington DC
  • March 9: Durham, NC
  • March 18: Berea, KY
  • March 22: Boston, MA
  • March 29: Chicago, IL
  • April 2: Whittier, CA
  • April 5: San Francisco, CA
  • April 7: Sacramento, CA
  • April 9: Berkeley, CA
  • April 11: Los Angeles, CA
  • April 15: Fort Worth, TX
  • April 18: Midland, TX
  • April 21: Wellesley, MA
  • April 25: New York Town Hall
  • April 28: Toronto, Canada

In his 67th year Segovia’s concert schedule continued unabated, apparently inexhaustible. The magazine BMG announced in May, 1959, that Segovia was scheduled to perform 120 concerts during the year.

From 24 August to 24 September, 1959, an International Course on Spanish Music was held at Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The tutors for composition were Oscar Esplá, André Jolivet, Federico Mompou, Xavier Montsalvatge and Joaquín Rodrigo. The tutors for interpretation were Victoria de los Angeles (singing), Gaspar Cassadó (cello), Jose Iturbi and Alicia de Larrocha (piano), and Andrés Segovia (guitar).

Nineteen fifty-nine was the Golden Jubilee anniversary of Segovia’s debut in Granada in 1909. A Jubilee party, hosted by Sophocles Papas, in honour of Segovia’s fifty years of guitar concerts was held on 7 March in Washington after a commemorative concert there. Guitar News (No. 49, July/August 1959) describes Segovia as being “at his genial best, chatting animatedly with the guests and occasionally relaxing with his beloved pipe.”