Segovia: A Centenary Celebration Part XV—’Platero Y Yo’ & The Maestro’s Take on The Beatles

BY GRAHAM WADE | FROM THE APRIL 1994 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR

During Segovia’s customary North American tour in the early months of 1963, during which he celebrated his seventieth birthday, he was invited to perform for the President’s cabinet under the honorary chairmanship of Mrs. John F. Kennedy.

Note: This is part 15 of a 17-part series from the Classical Guitar archive.

The concert, entitled An Evening with Andrés Segovia, took place in the State Department Auditorium on 18 March, 1963. The printed programme, embossed with the American Eagle holding thunderbolts and olive branch, was illustrated with an ornate guitar in gold. The appreciation of Segovia inside the programme concluded:

By the devotion of a lifetime Andrés Segovia has restored the guitar to its high and proper place as a member of the family of stringed instruments.

Guitar News (July/August 1963) reported that the concert was the sixth in a series and attracted the ambassadors of Spain, Turkey, Lebanon, Venezuela, Chile, South Africa, Jordan, Burma, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Malaya. The concert was also attended by Sophocles Papas who had been friends with the Maestro ever since the USA debut in 1928.

The programme was as follows:

  • Three Pieces (Galilei)
  • Gavotte (J. S. Bach)
  • Two Studies (Sor)
  • Prelude in E (Villa-Lobos)
  • Danza (Granados)
  • Melancolia-Primavera from Platero y Yo (Castelnuovo-Tedesco)
  • Romance y Danza (Torroba)
  • Torre Bermeja-Sevilla (Albéniz)

In an earlier recital in the same tour on 24 February at the Pasadena Community Church, St Petersburg, Florida, Segovia performed other pieces from Platero y Yo, including La Arulladora (Lullaby) and El Canario Vuela (The Canary Escapes). Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Platero y Yo, Op. 190, originally intended for narrator and guitar, was composed in 1960. The 28 pieces on selected passages from Juan Ramon Jimenez’s lyrical prose episodes on the life and death of Platero, the Andalusian donkey, were a substantial contribution to the guitar repertoire. But the work, perhaps because of its structure and genre, has never quite achieved the reputation or popularity of other pieces by Castelnuovo-Tedesco. (Eduardo Sainz de la Maza’s Platero y Yo Suite in eight movements (publ. Union Musical Espanola, copyrighted 1972), not played by Segovia, has succeeded in establishing a more secure niche in the recitalist’s repertoire).

Segovia himself did magnificent work on his composer’s behalf, in due course recording (on his renowned Hauser guitar) ten of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s most tempting movements and performing these favoured items at many recitals. Unfortunately Segovia did not publish an edition of these pieces, and so the history of Platero y Yo becomes somewhat tantalising. An edition was eventually published in 1973 as an “original text in its integrity” (i.e. without fingering or scrupulous editing) by Angelo Gilardino and Berben. As Gilardino comments in his Foreword, by the time of publication, “an enormous quantity of manuscript versions of these musical compositions” had come into circulation one way or another, a reference to the fact that many recitalists had acquired copies of the works in one way or another and sometimes performed them.

The situation arose in which Segovia launched these new pieces but did not reinforce the process of disseminating Platero y Yo world-wide with a published edition. Perhaps Segovia wished to select only a few pieces from the 28 and clearly it would be preferable for the entire work to be published. But Segovia on occasion produced editions of pieces that he did not perform (Rodrigo’s Tres Piezas Españiolas, published in 1963 and referred to later in this article, provide a good example, Segovia performing only the Fandango from the tryptich).

It is perhaps worth mentioning that Platero y Yo was not dedicated to Segovia but to Aldo Bruzzichelli, though the Maestro’s commitment to the essence and quality of these richly romantic idylls was total and the chosen movements of Platero y Yo ideally suited Segovia’s temperament and musical needs.

A memorable solution for posterity would have been an edited version of the ten pieces that Segovia played. But whatever the precise circumstances, pirated copies roamed the earth, and the problem was eventually partially resolved by Gilardino’s very welcome publication over a decade after the pieces were written. Gilardino expresses his ideas on the matter forcefully in his foreword:

…the existence of an enormous quantity of manuscript versions of these musical compositions has engendered such a confusion that it has become all the more necessary to publish the original text in its integrity… A determined denunciation of the hundreds of interpolations which, unfortunately, are circulated abusively throughout the world, is then within the aims of this edition that carries out above all the exact will of the author.

Unfortunately the score as published, carrying out “above all the exact will of the author,” needs further editing and is, at times, a fascinating example of how unrealistic Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s own writing for guitar could be before editorial work by guitarists tidied up his unplayable chords and unreachable notes.

andres segovia Platero y Yo classical guitar record

Segovia’s first recording of pieces from Platero y Yo (Platero, Melancolia, Angelus, Golondrinas, La Arulladora) on Brunswick AXA 4510 (mono)/5XA4510 (stereo) was favourably reviewed in The Gramophone in February, 1963. The recording also featured Passacaglia, Corrente (Frescobaldi), Fantasie (Weiss), Studies Nos 3 & 17 (Sor), Dolor (Donostia), and La Fille aux cheveux de lin (Debussy).

A further recording of music from Platero y Yo was reviewed in The Gramophone in December, 1964. Manuel Ponce’s Sonata Romantica (in homage to Schubert) was paired with Retorno, El Pozo, El Canario Vuela, La Primavera, and A Platero en el Cielo de Moguer, on Brunswick AXA 4527/SXA 4257. The reviewer described the music of Platero y Yo as “entirely charming,” but added the comment that “Segovia’s performance of course contributes much to the charm of both composers and so does Brunswick’s recording, impeccable in either of its forms.” This recording was later reviewed by Discus in BMG (September, 1965), praising Segovia but lukewarm about the composer:

Only when the last sounds die away does one realise the frailty of this salon-type music of Tedesco—and to what extent it is hidden from us by the spell-binding of this master magician and poet now in the richness of his seventies. There is little Segovia cannot thus transmute and there is none of it on this record.

(Segovia’s recording of ten pieces from Platero y Yo is now available on compact disc, Vol. 8 of the Segovia Collection, MCA Classics).

Another significant event of 1963 was the publication of Segovia’s edition of Rodrigo’s Tres Piezas Españolas by Schotts in the Segovia Archives Series, a veritable milestone in the development of the repertoire. But its riches were not to be fully appreciated by recitalists or the public for several years. (Several of Rodrigo’s finest solo works seemed to lie dormant for some time before players were able to focus on the intrinsic merit of the pieces and bring them into recitals and recordings). The following year Segovia’s edition of Fantasia para un Gentilhombre was also published by Schott & Co, bringing another guitar concerto fully and finally into the public domain.

The Gramophone reviewed yet another new recording by Segovia in June, 1963. The album (Brunswick AXA4512) featured Eight Lessons (Aguado), Studies Nos 10, 15, 19 and 6 (Sor), Canción, Canción y Paisaje (Ponce), Granada (Albéniz), Mazurka (Tansman), and Spanish Dance in E minor (Granados). The reviewer was not entirely complimentary:

Segovia plays with all his old style and skill, though with a rhythmic freedom, particularly in the Spanish pieces, that seemed to me to hold up the progress of the music, somewhat. Conscious of uttering a very great heresy, I should now hastily add that the recording of the disc is certainly very good.

At the Chigiana Academy, in Siena, Italy, that year, Christopher Nupen interviewed Segovia and made several recordings for BBC radio entitled Segovia and the Revival of the Guitar. In one of the interviews Segovia placed a definite chronology on his early years, saying that his first recital in Granada was in 1909, followed by concerts in Seville, Madrid, and Barcelona. In 1917 he had toured Spain and two years later visited South America for the first time with concerts in Buenos Aires, Mexico, etc. In master classes Segovia was recorded in action, advising, “Listen and improve the sense of your sound—correct the acidity—otherwise the guitar has not charm.”

If 1963 was a most worthwhile year for the guitar, the following year was to prove even more auspicious. On 12 June, 1964, Julian Bream premiered Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal at the Aldeburgh Festival. The next day it was announced that Bream, at the early age of 31, had been awarded the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, a remarkable recognition of his significance in British musical life and the first for any guitarist.

I have heard of these Beatles but what they play is strange to me. I do not think it is anything to do with art as I know it. I do not like the movement of the boys, the loud electric guitars, the cries, the way the girls go crazy. —Segovia

The mid-1960s saw of course the rise to fame of the Beatles and a new prominence in the media for popular music in general. The passing of the years has given the pop stars of this decade an almost invulnerable status as icons of an era. But in 1964 this process had not taken place and many, especially Segovia, regarded Beatlemania as little more than a manifestation of an essentially ephemeral triviality.

Even George Melly, a sympathetic critic of the pop world, implied in The Observer in November 1963 that because “the average age of the fanatic Beatles fan today is about twelve,” the Liverpool sound did not have much longer to run. As had happened with various pop idols of the recent past, it seemed reasonable to conclude that a transient phenomenon was occurring which had less to do with music than with haircuts, novelties, images and personalities with whom the very young could identify.

But as Beatlemania, with all its implications, became both widespread and apparently durably endemic, journalists who interviewed Segovia grew inordinately interested in his views on the Beatles (and pop music generally). On 23 May, 1964, Segovia gave an interview with David Ash of The Daily Express in which the ideological clash between the old values of the classical artist and the rising stars of pop was well expressed. Segovia commented:

I have heard of these Beatles but what they play is strange to me. I do not think it is anything to do with art as I know it. I do not like the movement of the boys, the loud electric guitars, the cries, the way the girls go crazy.

I distrust quick popularity. An artist should concentrate on his guitar with all his life and let his public come later. We guitarists—or any serious musicians—need the stern discipline of life-long practice, many years of self-denial.

Many hours and weeks polishing a single passage, burnishing it to bring out its true sparkle. The creation of beautiful imagery demands the cares of gestation and the pains of childbirth.

I like everyone to listen to the lovely natural voice of the guitar. A guitar should be shaped simply and with a feminine quality, like an honest woman. It should be built to produce many voices, many colours.

Segovia’s comments about the Beatles having nothing to do with art as he knew it was totally true to both his own beliefs and those of the majority of classical musicians at the time. Pop culture with its stress on the immediate and the visually colourful with its noisy participative audiences seemed the very opposite of the artistic values of classical music with its years of solitary practice, the images of evening dress, silent attentive audiences of predominantly mature years, and the undemonstrative performing gestures of the recitalist. Stephen Walsh, reviewing a recital by Segovia in The Times on 30 October, 1965, described the experience in the following terms:

He plays for himself. And as he does so you can hear a pin drop, even among three thousand people…

But Segovia’s magic is to draw his listeners into a web of silence and for this only the insubstantial and elusive will suffice.

In the 1960s it was difficult to reconcile this concept of music as an art to attend to in silent homage with the hordes of youngsters who screamed their way through a Beatles concert. But since 1964 various definitions have undergone structural modifications. George Melly examined the theme of the Beatles and art in a book about the pop phenomenon, published some years later, and squared the triangle by seeing the Beatles as pop artists who reject traditional definitions of art:

While themselves admitting to being interested only in what they are up to at a given time, they have succeeded in producing a body of work which has illuminated a whole landscape and enlarged the horizons of a whole generation. The comparisons with Mozart and Schubert seem to me irrelevant; the Beatles’ aim is different; “art” is a concept which, as Beatles, they reject. They remain pop artists, but there is nothing to say that pop may not, in retrospect, turn out to have been art after all. (Revolt into Style, The Pop Arts in Britain, George Melly, London, 1970).

While the pop juggernaut of the 1960s roared from climax to climax in an apparently unending crescendo, Segovia’s Festival Hall recital of 20 May, 1964, was received with less than rapturous critical acclaim as the “insubstantial and elusive” qualities mentioned by Stephen Walsh veered towards the inaudible. Even the ever-faithful Wilfrid M. Appleby, to whom adverse comment about Segovia was anathema, was not pleased by the small volume of the guitar in the huge auditorium, though he chose to blame the acoustics of the hall rather than the artist’s choice of the hall:

We met several friends, found our seats, and by the time Segovia entered with his guitar the hall was completely filled. The welcoming applause subsided, Segovia toyed with his guitar until quietness was achieved, then Handel’s noble, folia-type Aria opened the programme. We soon began to notice the difference between the acoustics of this great hall in comparison with those of the smaller and more intimate Wigmore Hall where we had heard our last London recital. We knew that Segovia was producing subtle tone colours which were practically inaudible to us in the centre of the fifteenth row from the platform. They would have been clearly heard in the Wigmore Hall. (“Segovia in London,” Guitar News July/ August 1964).

The critic of The Times was also disappointed by the sound quality received and commented that “Everything Segovia offered was just simple, black and white music,” a judgement which an undaunted Wilfrid Appleby absolutely refused to accept.

Later in 1964 Segovia gave his first master class at the University of California, Berkeley, from 20 July to 14 August. Young performers on the course (necessarily under 30 years old on 1 July to be eligible) included Guillermo Fierens (Argentina), Oscar Ghiglia (Italy), Michael Lorimer (USA), Ako Ito (USA), Aldo Minella (Italy), Christopher Parkening, and George Sakellariou (USA).

While pop music consolidated its hold on the imagination of thousands of youngsters world­wide in 1964, younger generations of classical guitarists were evolving their artistic identity and future ambitions. In Britain the bulk of the population and the media may not have been entirely aware of Julian Bream’s OBE, or the rapidly developing concert career of John Williams. But the classical guitar was now established and forging ahead. While the storm of pop publicity clamoured outside, the small voice of the concert guitar was indisputably a potent force in music, attracting the attention of leading composers. Those who cared deeply about the instrument had much to be excited about. As if to emphasize the point, Segovia took off in September for his second tour of Australia, giving three recitals at Sydney Town Hall on 23, 25 and 28 September, each time to capacity audiences.