Segovia: A Centenary Celebration Part XVII—Celebrated in Concert Through Age 94, and Surprising Posthumous Criticism

Segovia in 1924

The final two decades of Andrés Segovia’s long life coincided with many developments in the contemporary repertoire and a sense of change generally in the structure of guitar recitals. In particular the influence of the Early Music movement, at the peak of its progress in the 1970s and 80s, made it rather unfashionable to perform music of the vihuela or baroque guitar eras, let alone music for the renaissance lute, on the modern guitar. Many players began to perform recitals on vihuelas, actual or reproduction baroque guitars, and Panormos. Lute virtuosity, whether renaissance or baroque, hitherto rare, became an available commodity, including continuo and accompanying skills.

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

In the new repertoire compositions by Tippett, Henze, Carter, Brouwer, Reich, Takemitsu, Koshkin, Nobre, Rak, etc, brought about a new aural landscape and unprecedented perspectives for recitalists. In concerts performers jettisoned the chronological approach ranging from the Renaissance to the present day, and shaped their presentation differently, often, like pianists, preferring one or two large works in each half rather than a packed programme of shorter items racing across the spectrum of styles.

Through the years of intense change, Segovia continued a punishing routine of recitals, recordings, world travel, master classes and overall artistic activity. In public life he was immensely honoured by many nations. He was elevated by King Juan Carlos to become Marquis of Salobreña in 1981, and his accolades included many Grand Crosses of Merit, Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun, a score of Gold Medals (plus one from the Royal Philharmonic Society of Britain), the Key of Gold from four American cities, many doctorates honoris causa, and, throughout Spain, at least a dozen streets named after him. In his birthplace, Linares, a huge statue was erected in tribute, and Segovia was present at its unveiling, a rare phenomenon as heroes, whether artistic, military or political, usually have to depart this life before such monuments are built. A multitude of other honours were bestowed on him, so numerous in fact that a book entitled Andres Segovia: Sintesis Biográfica, by Alberto Lopez Poveda, (Linares, 1986) listing the accolades, run to 40 pages.

Each year Segovia returned to Britain to offer five or six recitals, usually culminating in a London recital at the Festival Hall. From the 1970s onwards, the critics tended to write in valedictory mode, as if expecting Segovia to retire from active music making at any moment, and nearly always giving his age. A fascinating catalogue of responses to Segovia’s playing during these years can be built up by a selective reading of such reviews. Peter Stadlen, for example, writing in the Daily Telegraph (October 19, 1973) makes this response:

The vast audience was there on sufferance while Segovia, prince of guitarists, and now in his 81st year, communed with his instrument at the Royal Festival Hall last night. He tunes inaudibly and all but invisibly.

When he does seem to be tuning, the piece has in fact started and it is up to us to adjust to a small tone. Yet one never longed for a smaller hall, such is the lure of his deceptively take-it-or-leave­it interpretations.

They are made up of an infinite variety of touch and nuance, applied with tantalising unpredictability. There is no telling whether the next note will be hit dead centre or glissandoed up to, whether the next phrase will contain a vibrato and where, whether a run will sound silvery or hollow.

Almost invariably it is after the event, not until a given episode has been concluded that one comprehends what he had been aiming at. Thus. unlike the familiar extrovert type of guitar virtuoso. this noble artist leaves one exhausted, not emotionally, but whether or not one realises it intellectually.

This may usefully be compared with Keith Horner’s review for The Times two years later (21 October, 1975):

Undoubtedly now in the twilight of Segovia’s career, one responds more to the spirit than the letter of the music-making. Yet. over the past five years anyway, only Segovia’s memory has become frailer and this caused timely retuning during the music and a softly murmured “excuse me,” during a Bach fugue. But his gentle, intimate way of performing, eyes invariably on the fingerboard, his free, improvisatory rhythm serenely untroubled by the discipline of the bar­line, still possesses an inner strength and cannot fail to leave one unaffected.

Segovia seldom plays above mezzoforte, yet the range of tone-colour in the Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Albéniz was wide. He appears not to tire, and even at the end of the recital we had generous glimpses of the former deft fingerwork. Still, if the constituent musical phrases no longer add up to smoothly flowing paragraphs, Segovia’s sheer musicianship and presence alone are enough to gratify audience expectation. After his final chord and flicker of a smile to the audience, the resulting burst of genuinely felt applause is something towards which all performing musicians must surely aspire.

Several years later, and a few months before Segovia’s 90th birthday, the recital venue had shifted from the Royal Festival Hall to the Barbican. On this occasion (25 October, 1982), The Times made use of the services of Max Harrison, a critic who could on occasion be somewhat scathing about the guitar, its repertoire and its performers:

At this stage one obviously does not expect innovations from Mr. Segovia, but no matter how incomparably he plays it, his repertoire does now seem old fashioned…


Such reflections, however, come afterwards, being silenced, for so long as the concert lasts, by the profound musicality of Mr. Segovia’s performances. One manifestation of this is the insight with which he colours his phrases: the actual range of colouration may be small but as a pair of Rameau minuets showed almost infinite divisions are possible within it. And at all points this delicacy is matched, still, by a comparable deftness.

Max Harrison was thus won over by the “profound musicality,” manifested especially by the variety of colours within the phrases. Half a decade on, and shortly before his death, Segovia was still wooing critics and audiences. Howard Reich in The Chicago Tribune (23 March, 1987) wrote a fine review which in retrospect, as it concerns one of Segovia’s final recitals, takes on a special historical significance:

At 94, the grand old maestro can still bring an audience to its feet.

Granted, the standing ovation given guitarist Andres Segovia Sunday afternoon in Orchestra Hall was as much a tribute to his long and brilliant career as to the exquisite concert he had just concluded. But surely the crowd, so large that it had to be accommodated with stage seating had been touched by some of the most delicate, carefully wrought guitar playing one could hope to hear.

Though he walked onto the stage slowly, leaning on a cane, Segovia had only to sound the opening theme of Frescobaldi’s Aria con Variazioni to prove his art is still very much intact. The trademark singing tone, gentlemanly tempo and elegant melodic embellishments remain the envy of guitarists half his age…

But only Segovia can create so many colours and moods while playing, barely above a whisper. Like many another old master, his is an economical art, with every gesture fashioned for maximum impact.

At his best, the Spanish guitarist seemed to defy the limitations of his instrument, as he did in Fernando Sor’s Andante and Minuet. One would hardly have guessed that its melodies had been plucked on strings, so seamlessly did Segovia spin one silken phrase after another…

Sadly the recital’s final piece, Manuel Ponce’s Canción and Allegretto, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, was “broken by spells of coughing, but he went on like an old trooper.” Robert C. Marsh also observed the brevity of the concert and that it “Was incredibly quiet—like concentrating on a wisp of smoke”:

He seems to have decided that so long as the public wishes to hear him, he will go to it and play. At his best, in the Bach fugue that opened the second half of the recital, he is still incredible, and that is why the public is there. You savour those golden seconds and wonder when you will hear their like again. (Robert C. Marsh, Chicago Sun-Times, 23 March, 1987).

On 11 April, 1987 The Times announced in a bulletin from AFP in New York that Segovia “was in a satisfactory condition in hospital and undergoing tests for what his doctor called cardiac irregularities.” According to the New York Times, in an article by Donal Henahan (4 June, 1987), Segovia had been admitted to Cabrini Hospital because of “heart irregularities,” three days before a scheduled recital at Carnegie Hall. A pacemaker was implanted and Segovia returned to Spain.

Segovia died on 2 June, 1987. According to The Times, “the maestro… died from a clot on the lung while watching television, his doctor indicated yesterday.” The Chicago Sun-Times (4 June, 1987) ran a similar story:

Mr. Segovia was sitting in his favourite easy chair watching television on Tuesday with his third wife, Emilia Corral and their son Carlos Andres, 16, when he slumped over, stricken by a heart attack.

“It was a quiet and peaceful death,” his doctor, Angel Castillo, said in a phone interview from his apartment in downtown Madrid.

As with the dates of Segovia’s birth, never clearly documented, there were also differing reports in the press about the day and time of his death. The Guardian said it was during the afternoon of 29 May while the Neue Zürcher Zeitung said it was during the evening. Today commented that it was late at night on 2 June while The Star, The Daily Express, and Le Monde offered 3 June. Segovia would no doubt have been highly amused by such confusion.

In the immediate aftermath of the sad news, a host of tributes were published in the international press. There was a universal acknowledgement that one of the great artists of 20th century Spanish culture, comparable with Picasso, Casals, Miro, and Lorca, had departed and that this was the end of an era.

Since June 1987 the evaluation of Segovia’s achievement has not progressed very far. In the March editorial of Classical Guitar, Colin Cooper wrote that in the Segovia centenary year, “it was impossible to escape a certain atmosphere of uncritical approval of the Maestro’s work” and told us to “beware of canonisation.” “Canonisation” is the process by which the Roman Catholic Church declares a person to be a saint and is thus admitted to the canon of saints.

Far from Segovia being “canonised,” by church or public, quite the opposite has happened since his death. In fact Segovia has been criticised in just about every possible way since 1987, despite the centenary year.

In Cordoba in 1993, when I gave a lecture at the Guitar Festival, there was intense questioning after the lecture about Segovia’s antagonism to flamenco. This followed a very brilliant scholarly article, “Andres Segovia y La Guitarra Flamenca” by Eusebio Rioja, Director of the Cordoba Festival, in the periodical La Cana, Revista de Flamenco (No. 4, Winter, 1993) revealing the full extent of Segovia’s dislike of modern flamenco. Eusebio Rioja’s research is thorough and cogent, and regards Segovia’s inability to give flamenco its rightful due as “traumatic and sad” and “surprising and inexplicable” in view of Segovia’s early life in Granada.

Nearer home, there has been criticism of Segovia’s role as a teacher, especially by John Williams, and this was covered to some extent in this series in December 1993. Segovia’s editions have also been criticised for various reasons by a number of contemporary scholars of the guitar in a variety of contexts. The publication of The Segovia-Ponce Letters (published Orphee, 1989) also unleashed a considerable amount of criticism of Segovia’s political views in the 1940s, revealing material which had remained hidden from the public domain during Segovia’s lifetime.

“Canonisation” is therefore not on the agenda at the moment. Colin Cooper’s comment that “soon it will be impossible to criticise Segovia for anything,” is, in my opinion, almost the reverse of what has actually happened over the last seven years where a tidal flood of criticism has been loosed.

However, this series has attempted to set out the fullness and the richness of Segovia’s contribution to the music of the guitar, nothing more nor less, and I am grateful to the editor for allowing me the privilege of writing this tribute to Segovia over the past year.

In the meantime Señor Alberto Lopez Poveda, the founder of the Segovia Museo in Linares, has embarked on a huge biography of the Maestro. When I last visited him in Linares in the summer of 1993, he had reached the year 1980, drawing on huge resources of documentation to give the fullest possible account of Segovia’s artistic life, and pressing ahead towards the conclusion of this monumental work. It may well be that in terms of our understanding of the achievement of Andrés Segovia, the best is yet to come.