The Guitar Quintet: From Obscurity to Celebrity

Once a rarity, there are now over 300 works combining the guitar with string quartets


“Music for guitar and string quartet comprises some of the best, yet least performed, music in print.” So begins Richard Provost’s article in the February 1987 issue of American String Teacher. While the former part of the statement remains true, the appositive phrase does not. The repository of works for this chamber ensemble, born in late 18th century Europe, holds a deep, rich tradition, as evidenced by the growing body of 300-plus works making their way into the repertoire of artists around the globe.

Several issues plaguing the guitar quintet, including balance with the quartet and the scarcity of concert-worthy literature, have diminished. Balance issues are resolved by today’s high-quality microphones and sound reinforcement systems, while repertoire for the guitar quintet boasts hundreds of concert-level compositions contributed by highly decorated composers, including Luigi Boccherini, Antoine de Lhoyer, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Leo Brouwer, Alan Hovhaness, David Diamond, Carlos Guastavino, Michael Daugherty, Sérgio Assad, Gerard Drozd, Miguel Bareilles, and Gabriela Lena Frank. Guitar quintets can be found on programs by international artists ranging from Andrés Segovia and Julian Bream to Manuel Barrueco, Berta Rojas, Pepe Romero, Nicholas Goluses, David Tanenbaum, Stanley Yates, Dusan Bogdanovic, Sérgio Assad, Lily Afshar, Jason Vieaux, and Xuefei Yang.


The first appearance of the guitar quintet is traceable to the late 18th century by composers from France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. These include a small collection of period arrangements and “concertos,” which contributed to early efforts to usher the guitar out of the parlor and onto the concert stage. Much of our current understanding of early guitar quintets come from the writings of contemporary scholars Brian Jeffery, Erik Stenstadvold, and Stanley Yates.

One issue regarding these early guitar quintets is that of instrumentation. “Late 18th century/early 19th century works titled ‘quatour’ or ‘concertante’ are chamber works, one player per part,” says Yates. “Works titled ‘concerto’ imply—along with an exclusive focus on the instrument featured—at least more than one player for each string part.” Many early guitar works were labeled “concerto avec accompagnement, de deux violons, alto et basse,” where the term basse did not necessarily imply the double bass. All extant concertos can be performed as quintets, though the original intention may have been a concerto setting. Of the early works available, such as those by B. Vidal (d. 1800), Antoine de Lhoyer (1768–1852), and Charles Doisy (d. 1807), most are known today as guitar quintets.

Vidal’s Concerto pour la Guitarre, the first known guitar “concerto,” might surprise the modern listener with its integrity and beauty. This 1793 single-movement work retains elements of the Baroque concerto—such as having the soloist playing tutti sections, as well as solo sections—but it follows Classical period conventions with its long tutti introduction setting the stage for the entrance of the guitar and the “improvised” guitar cadenza. Guitar solo sections are lightly accompanied, allowing the guitar to penetrate; the guitar writing is virtuosic but idiomatic, with melodic figures shifting modes, rapid arpeggios, and scalar octaves.

The works of Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805), one of the major Italian composers of the late 18th century, contain a buoyant rococo appeal—shaped by the classical ideal of form and harmony—with Spanish folk inflections. Boccherini masterfully made use of the guitar, balancing the musical texture of the quartet and guitar to reveal the technical capacities of the guitar in this ensemble. Nine of his guitar quintets (G. 445–G. 453) survive, though in varying versions, and several have become staples of the guitar quintet literature, including the popular Quintet in D Major G. 448 (“Fandango”), the masterful Quintet No. 9 in C Major G. 453 (“La Ritirada de Madrid”), and the outstanding Quintet No. 1 in D minor, G. 445. All of Boccherini’s quintets are arrangements based on his earlier string or piano quintets dating from 1798–1799.

Charles Doisy wrote two concertos for guitar. The first, Grand Concerto pour la Guitare avec accompagnement de deux Violons Obliges, Alto et Violoncelle, was published in 1802; the second, Second Concerto, is in fact an 1804 adaptation of Concerto (No. 18) for violin by Italian composer G.B. Viotti (1755–1824). Yates comments that Doisy’s works are modeled after Viotti’s concerti for violin, which came to be known as the “Parisian” style.

Antoine de Lhoyer published his Concerto pour la guitare avec accompagnement de 2 violons, alto et basse in 1802 as a two-movement concerto, but it was released by Les Editions Buissonnieres in 2003 with a “reconstituted” second movement created by Philippe Spinosi based on Lhoyer’s adagio from his Guitar Duo Op. 31. As such, we now have a Classical-era guitar concerto with brilliant guitar solos and passage work, as well as part-writing for the strings that could pass for François-Joseph Gossec.

Mauro Giuliani (1781–1829) blended Viennese writing à la Mozart with the witty style of Italian opera buffa. His harmony, phrasing, characteristic figures, and rhythmic shapes follow Viennese style. We have four of his guitar quintets: opus numbers 65, 101, 102, and 103. Giuliani addressed the balance issue by using the alternating solo-tutti principle common in Baroque concerto grosso. Op. 65, a two-movement work including a set of variations on Giovanni Paisiello’s “Nel cor piu non mi sento” and a polonaise, was published
ca. 1814 in Milan. Opus 65 reveals the guitar in a mature role as soloist and accompanist with brilliant virtuoso solo passages. Opus 30 reads more like a concerto, with grand string gestures and sensational guitar work. Opuses 101, 102, and 103, originally published between 1820 and 1826 in Vienna by Cappi & Diabelli, are arrangements for terz guitar and string quartet based on Giuliani’s earlier solo guitar works.

Added to the works cited by Yates in his introduction to Doisy’s quintet are Rondoletto, Op. 4 by Michel Giuliani (1801–1867); Concert Polonaise pour la Guitare avec Accompagnement de Deux Violons, Alto et Violoncello by Francois Bathioli (d. 1861); Quintett für zwei Violinen, Bratsche, Cello und Gitarre by Joseph Ignaz Schnabel (1767–1831); Premier concertino pour la Guitare avec accompanement de deux violons, alto et violoncelle by Ivan Padovec (1800–1873); Quintetto in do Maggiore per chitarra, due violini, viola e violoncello by Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848); and Variations, Op. 7 by Siegfried Benzon (1793–1825). The literature also includes references to guitar quintets by Adolphe Steinfels, Friedrich Spina, and Louis Wolf, though their works are apparently lost.

There are no known guitar quintets produced between the 1820s and 1890s, but one of the more substantial chamber works of the late Romantic period comes from England. Ernest Shand’s First Concerto, Op. 48 for Guitar and Piano or String Quartet represents the first composition in this genre by a British composer. Presented in a traditional concerto format, the work evolves in the guitar-centric style traceable back to works by Fernando Sor (1778–1839) and  Mauro Giuliani, focusing on new melodic themes rather than developing existing ideas. The scoring for strings is light, with guitar always in the fore. Yates provides significant historical and musical information on Shand (1868–1924), stating he was “less interested in rigorously held formal design than with expressive melody and dramatic character—pathos, nostalgia, sentimentality and, above all, melodrama.” The work was premiered in England by Shand in 1896 and performed by Julian Bream in the mid-20th century in both England and the United States.


If there was ever a golden age for the guitar quintet, the international array of works currently available from South America, North America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Europe prove that we are living in it today.

The expansion of the repertoire for guitar quintet since 1950 is due to several factors: First, the introduction of two landmark compositions—Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s 1950 Quintet pour guitare et quatuor a cordes and Leo Brouwer’s 1957 Quintetto per chitarra e quartetto d’archi. Second, the inclusion of the guitar in academia, which widened both the audience for guitar chamber works and the field of prospective composers. Third, composers seeking a broader timbral palette for chamber works in the years of waning orchestral opportunities. And fourth, the crumbling of music’s cultural boundaries in the 20th and 21st centuries reflected in the guitar’s entrance into the hallowed world of the prestigious string quartet.

Brouwer’s Quintetto per chitarra e quartetto d’archi:


The breadth of composers writing for guitar quintet today is impressive, as shown by the number of works contributed by both celebrated non-guitarist composers, as well as renowned guitarist-composers. Today’s guitar quintet oeuvre is a microcosm of contemporary concert music, and the works are representative of most contemporary styles. But if the styles are divided into just two very broad categories, then revivalist and syncretist strains are evident. Revivalism attempts to preserve past traditions and includes works shaped to varying degrees by the language of the common-practice period. The syncretist strain contains works representing the diversity of current trends ranging from polystylistic, post-tonal, serialistic, as well as pop- and jazz-influenced music. Of note, too, are the contemporary works by female composers from Britain, Canada, U.S., Czech Republic, France, Germany, Japan, and Mexico.


Italy possesses a rich vein of works for the modern guitar quintet, with two dominant currents represented by the neo-Romanticism of Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895–1968) and the postmodern, polystylistic works of recent years by such composers as Angelo Gilardino (b. 1941) and Raffaele Bellafronte (b. 1961).

Building on the enduring guitarist/composer tradition are five talented Italians who have taken up the Tedesco mantel of neo-Romanticism: Vittorio Fellegara (1927–2011), Simone Iannarelli (b. 1970), Bruno Battisti D’Amario (b. 1937), Giacomo Susani (b. 1995), and Giorgio Mirto (b. 1972).

With its impressionistic, extended harmonies that mix melodic modes with whole-tone scales, Susani’s Quintet for Guitar and String Quartet might remind listeners of Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major. The hymn-like second movement contains ethereal string-writing, and the third movement, “Omaggio a Castelnuovo-Tedesco,” confirms Susani’s link to the Tedesco tradition. Triste Solitario y Final (Omaggio Osvaldo Soriano), by Mirto—another young touring artist/composer—illustrates the influence of cinematic style on concert music. Using jazz and impressionistic harmonies (and often harmonically organized around circle of fifths progressions) the accessible, lyric quintet has wide appeal. D’Amario’s Quintetto No. 1 per Chitarra e Archi also mixes film-score techniques with 20th century concert music. Iannarelli, composer of the charming Italian Caffe series, contributes a nostalgic quintet honoring Barrios, Valse Brilliante (Hommage a A. Barrios Mangoré), and Fellegara pays tribute to Fauré in his Elegia: per Chitarra e Quartetto d”Archi (Omaggio a Gabriel Fauré).

The strong tradition of experimental and dodecaphonic works in Italy established by composers such as Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–1975) and Luciano Berio (1925–2003) is preserved in recent guitar quintets by Raffaele Bellafronte, Claudio Scannavini, Marco de Biasi, Guido Santórsola, Antonio Giacometti, and the noted composer and musicologist Angelo Gilardino, who was awarded the prestigious Guitar Foundation of America Artistic Achievement Award for his monumental contributions to the classical guitar.


Argentina is another country rich with guitar quintets, where many works reflect the country’s colonization, political strife, and mixed musical inheritance. Colonized by Spain and England, and fraught with a turbulent 20th century of brutal military rule, repressive “dirty wars,” dozens of disposed presidents, and persistent problems with economic instability, hyperinflation, and political unrest, Argentina has a past that presses into the present. Outstanding works by such composers as Alberto D’Alessandro, Jorge Cardoso, Miguel Bareilles, and Máximo Diego Pujol up hold a mirror to Argentina’s history.

Historical revisionism is evident in works by D’Alessandro (b. 1947) and Cardoso (b. 1949). D’Alessandro reaches into history by reshaping folkloric music and retelling the “other” side of history regarding Argentina’s original people. His interest in the counter-hegemonic version of history affected his selections of source material in his Guitarra y Cuarteto de Cuerdas: Lenguajes Ill, Música Argentina. With programmatic titles on all ten movements, the narrative progresses from “Milonga” to “Pedestre” (pedestrian) to “El Enjercito” (the army) to “Requiem” to “La Historia se Repite” (“history repeats itself”). Stylistically, the work begins with music in folkloric molds of the milonga and chacarera and progress through international forms ending with the fugal finale “La Historia se Repite.” Cardoso’s El Cordobazo revisits the 1969 popular revolt against the repressive military government of Juan Carlos Onganía in the city of Córdoba. Like D’Alessandro, Cardoso evokes a national spirit in folkloric lamentations derived from traditional Argentine musical forms.

Bareilles (b. 1974) is concerned with global political issues. His work Agua is a polystylistic quintet shaped by a political-musical narrative tracing the historical relationship between humans and water. Bareilles comments that his composition addresses “the critical situation of water scarcity in the world,” the issues of the indiscriminate use of resources, and climate change effecting water shortages. The work is intricately structured, employs graphic notation elements à la fellow countryman Alberto Ginastera (1916–1983), and summons a wide spectrum of sonorities and styles. These varying styles are not a disparate pastiche but are absorbed into a fluid, seamless single-movement work. Agua embodies the 21st century guitar quintet aesthetic, combining postmodern integration of musical styles, a keen awareness of the interaction of past and present, and virtuosic, challenging music enveloped into rhythmically charged writing.

Miguel Bareilles’ Agua:

Pujol (b. 1957), one of the most widely performed composers for classical guitar today, has authored six guitar quintets, ranging from the popular Suite Buenos Aires to the deeper works Tangata de Agosto and Guernica. Pujol’s writing is indebted to Astor Piazzolla’s nuevo tango, blending traditional tango elements with jazz harmonies, passacaglia techniques of circulating bass, counterpoint, and sequencing of fast/slow/fast/slow sections. The fast sections are angular, dance-based tangos with incisive melodies, and slow sections are sentimental lyrical passages, a form Piazzolla equates with “tango + tragedy + comedy + whorehouse.” The musical language of Suite Buenos Aires is neo-Romantic, and Pujol’s highly idiomatic and accessible writing appeals to a wide range of guitarists. His music is a crystalline rendering of Piazzolla’s language, and while just shy of Piazzolla’s masterworks, Pujol’s quintet delivers all the romance, nostalgia, and popular appeal of the new tango.

Although his inspirations remain nationalistic, the compositions of Carlos Guastavino (1912–2000) lie in stark contrast to those of his contemporaries. His conservative style sets the personal and romantic Las Presencias No. 6 (“Jeromita Linares”) apart from his countrymen and links him more strongly to European composers such as Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909). The first movement of Las Presencias, for example, is based on the chacarera, a dance that originated in Santiago del Estero, Argentina, and is a genre of folk music that serves as a rural counterpart to the cosmopolitan tango. The work continues to be one of the more popular quintets appearing in recitals and recordings.


The first guitar quintet by an American composer is the undated, unpublished Spain (El Mundo Suite) by Zarh Myron Bickford (1876–1961), probably written before 1940. Since then, U.S. composers have written more than 50 original quintets, mostly by non-guitarist composers—a fact that has altered the nature of the compositions. These works span the spectrum of 20th- and 21st century styles, from neo-Romantic and post-tonal to polystylistic and postmodern. A few of the country’s most celebrated 20th century composers—including Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895–1968) and Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000)—produced remarkable early guitar quintets. Some composers (David Diamond, Albert Harris, Samuel Zyman) preserved the tonal tradition, while others (Giampaolo Bracali, Elias Tanenbaum, Bryan Johanson) used new musical languages; still others (Michael Daugherty, Aaron Jay Kernis, Ralph Towner, Gabriela Frank) embraced postmodernism. Along with the great guitar concerti, these quintets have brought the classical guitar to a broader audience.

At odds with contemporary trends, Castelnuovo-Tedesco—who escaped Italian antisemitism by moving to Hollywood in 1939 (and becoming a U.S. citizen in 1946)—wrote consonant harmony and lyrical melodies when it was fashionable to follow the new techniques of serialism. Perhaps he resisted those influences due to the persistent (and lucrative) demands of Hollywood’s film business. Tedesco embraced a neo-Romantic language, and rather than attempting to rebuild the past, stepped into a gap created by the upheaval of early 20th century music. With Andrés Segovia’s encouragement, he released the seminal Quintet pour guitare et quatuor a cordes in 1950.

Tedesco’s quintet uses the form of the standard classical string quartet developed by Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) and reflects Classical and Romantic elements: periodic phrasing, functional harmony, frequent changes in mood and texture, traditional forms, and developmental techniques à la Haydn. And while the work reveals national interests (Spanish, Italian, and Austrian), Tedesco’s musical language is that of resistance Romanticism. His quintet established an ensemble benchmark and has become a solid fixture in the repertoire for guitar chamber music. It remains one of the most widely performed and recorded guitar quintets and confirms the strength of neo-Romantic language in contemporary guitar literature.

Guitar Quintet, Op. 143:

Samuel Zyman (b. 1956) contributed his Guitar Quintet 60 years after Tedesco and took up the neo-Romantic language with a biting edge, using standard classical forms but with popular Latin rhythms and cinematic harmony, including such devices as startling direct modulations of a half-step or tritone removed. The use of Phrygian mode, rasgueado, and Andalusian cadences strongly evoke flamenco music. The second movement is marked 12/8 but Zyman interjects witty touches of the characteristic Latin speech rhythms, shifting between 3/4 and 6/8, accentuated by asymmetrical syncopations. 

David Diamond (1915–2005), Elias Tanenbaum (1924–2008), Giampaolo Bracali (1941–2006), and Ludmila Ulehla (1923–2009)—all part of the forgotten generation of great American composers—contributed substantial works in the late 20th century, rarely performed today. All were well-known composers/professors whose works employed 20th century compositional traits, revealing a learned style, formal clarity, concertante writing, and (excluding Diamond) post-tonal harmony.

Weave of Sunlight by Bryan Johanson (b. 1951) intertwines ad-lib sections with conventional notation, creating musical indeterminacy in a texture paralleling that explored in Hovhaness’ 1972 quintet Khorhoort Nahadagats, a rare work delving into mysticism and spirituality. Both works provide each quartet member a sequence of notes to be played freely, as the guitar delivers its cadenza-like melodic lines, often spun in a free tonal web.

Like Tedesco, Albert Harris (1916–2005) and Jeff Beal (b. 1963) are known for their film and concert works, and their guitar quintets are influenced by American popular music. Harris worked in Hollywood as a composer and orchestrator for major film studios and for such pop icons as Barbra Streisand and Roberta Flack. He won the National Composer’s Award and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his irrepressibly optimistic quintet Concertino de California. The monothematic first and third movements reveal Haydn-inspired developmental practices coupled with Gershwin-like jazz harmonies.

Winner of five Emmy awards, Beal has established a solid reputation as a composer for film, television, and concert music. His Six Sixteen for String Quartet and Guitar, like many guitar quintets, approximates a guitar concerto with its three-movement format and the guitar’s prominent virtuosic presence. Within this clearly-defined classical structure, Beal balances the formality of classical organization with jazz rhythms and harmonies. Asymmetrical meters and rhythms propel the music forward, creating a gently exciting tension underpinning a polished surface beauty.

Ralph Towner (b.1940) is listed on most inventories of all-time greatest jazz guitarists. Seeing his Shadows for Guitar and String Quartet on a list of classical guitar quintets might surprise some, but the work is a fresh contribution to the literature. The tradition of blending jazz with classical has roots traceable back to Gershwin and Bernstein, and Towner’s 17-minute extended work is representative of the Third Stream style. The work has been recorded by Slava Grigoryan from Australia, another country with a sizable list of guitar quintets incorporating modern, popular styles with classical.

Two of America’s most frequently performed composers are Michael Daugherty (b. 1954) and Pulitzer Prize-winner Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960). Both are Grammy winners who compose populist, accessible Americana and have been commissioned by some of the country’s foremost performers and orchestras.

Kernis’ music is full of variety and dynamic energy and brilliant instrumental color. His 100 Greatest Dance Hits for Guitar and String Quartet is a postmodern crazy-quilt of American music, a stylistic polemic not lacking in irony. His use of popular music from the 1970s through the ’90s has helped propel him to a prominent place on American concert stages. Kernis deploys popular idioms in a manner comparable to Classical structures, and if there is a populist representative for guitar quintet, here it is!

Daugherty’s works are emblematic of Americana, with subjects including Ernest Hemingway, Elvis Presley, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Grant Wood. Daugherty was commissioned by Music Accord to write a piece for Manuel Barrueco, whose family were political refugees from Cuba. Daugherty refers to that work, Bay of Pigs, as an elegy; he views Leo Brouwer’s homeland through the lens of Hemingway’s Cuba, writing about Cuba from an American perspective and using the voice of rock-influenced guitar (including power chords, as well as melodic quotes from Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” and the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm”) to paint a portrait of “el cocodrilo,” as the island is sometimes called.

Included in the Washington Post’s 2017 list of the 35 most significant women composers in music history is Latin Grammy-winner Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972). Frank’s Inca Dances combines Andean sources and her Peruvian heritage with modern classical idioms. Her absorption of South American folk gestures will recall the practices of other Western composers, such as Béla Bartók and Chou Wen-chung, known for drawing on folk materials. Bartok outlined principles for how folk music influences classical music, and Frank’s music displays two of these: the free invention of folk-like melodies, and references to folk history. Her work, for example, alludes to the huayno, a prevalent song and dance of the Andean people, especially among the Quechuas and Aymaras, that originated in the Inca Empire.


Starting from a small collection of 19th century guitar chamber pieces, then expanding to include over 300 works by an international array of established composers, the guitar quintet is approaching its zenith. This genre has shaped the guitar’s journey out of the salon and small concert hall into larger settings with broad-based audiences, and it has helped solidify the instrument’s acceptance into the chamber music world, as heard today in such venues as Concerts from the Library of Congress and Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Guitar quintets are being performed and recorded with established string quartets from North America (Kronos, Emerson, Turtle Island), Europe (Medici Quartet, Zemlinsky Quartet) and South America (Cuarteto Latinoamericano). The genre greatly expands the chamber literature for guitar, with an inventory of concert-quality compositions distinctive for their consistently refined craft and extensive breadth of styles.

Dr. Kevin Garry holds a doctorate in guitar from the University of Colorado Boulder and is the author of Essential Acoustic Guitar, the internationally sold guitar method from eMedia. He is director of the music program at Front Range Community College in Westminster, Colorado. Recent recordings include Amelie Quartet (2018) and Amoroso Duo: Music of South America (2017).

Story author Dr. Kevin Garry fronts a quartet during a lecture on this very subject at GFA in Denver, 2016. Photo: BJ