The Guitar, the Harpsichord, and a Wedding Present from Ponce: A Saga About a Sonata, Segovia, and Paris in the 1920s
Left, Manuel Ponce. Right, Andrés Segovia and Jesús Silva in 1972, one year before publication of Ponce’s 'Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord'
BY JOHN PATYKULA | FRPM THE FALL 2018 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
“The guitar is an expressive harpsichord.” —Claude Debussy
Paris in the 1920s was the artistic center for all of the arts in the Western world. It was also the place and time for an explosion of new music composed specifically for the classical guitar. Composers who were living or studying in Paris added to the instrument’s repertoire. In fact, the guitar compositions of Manuel M. Ponce, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Joaquín Turina, Manuel de Falla, and others laid the foundation for the modern guitar repertoire.
It was a time of rebirth not only for the guitar, but also for the harpsichord, and it is fascinating to see how these two very different instruments followed parallel paths in their acceptance as legitimate concert instruments by the general public and by the musical elite. Through the talent and tenacity of two great artists—Andrés Segovia (1893–1987) and Wanda Landowska (1879–1959)—the guitar and the harpsichord each appeared more frequently in concerts, and it was only natural that a work specifically composed for those two instruments would eventually follow. That work was Manuel M. Ponce’s Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord,which was written in 1926 while the Mexican composer was studying in Paris. The work remained without a dedication until 1940. For many years, there was nothing in print about Ponce’s Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord;indeed, it remained in manuscript form until its publication in 1973. However, information obtained from the Mexican guitarist Jesús Silva (1914–1996), use of the autographed copy of the sonata, and information in The Segovia-Ponce Letters shed new light on this work’s obscure past. The circumstances behind the creation of this work and its ultimate dedication provide a fascinating tale of the rise of the guitar and the harpsichord in the 20th century.
During the 1920s in Paris, both the guitar and the harpsichord slowly began to appear on the concert scene. The guitar was championed by Miguel Llobet, Emilio Pujol, and, most importantly, Segovia. According to one writer, Segovia’s “official Paris debut in 1924, attended by the city’s musical elite, created a sensation. At that time, few had heard Bach played on the guitar, and Segovia’s performances of his own Bach transcriptions were revelations of his talent and the instrument’s potential.” Simultaneously, Wanda Landowska was elevating the harpsichord to prominence. One writer wrote that Landowska “was responsible for the wide-spread public acceptance of the harpsichord in Europe and the United States, and was one of the first artists to demonstrate the feasibility of sustaining a livelihood with the instrument.”
However, both Segovia and Landowska faced major challenges in their efforts to gain the acceptance of their instruments. Each wanted to increase the repertoire, especially by contemporary composers. But first, each had to acquire an instrument that could be heard in a large concert setting and capture all of the nuances of their artistry.
Segovia’s quest for a concert instrument began in 1912 when he arrived in Madrid and visited the guitar shop of Manuel Ramirez (1864–1916), considered one of the finest guitar makers. Segovia had initially hoped to rent one of Ramirez’s guitars for an upcoming concert. However, after hearing Segovia play in his shop, Ramirez gave him one of his best guitars, stating (Segovia wrote): “Take it, it’s yours. Make it flourish in your hands with your good work. And don’t worry about the cost. Pay me back with something other than money. You understand?” Segovia would concertize and record with that guitar from 1916 to 1937. Today, it is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Landowska had an even more difficult road to travel in her search for a concert instrument. Harpsichord historian J.A. Richard wrote, “Her first task was to obtain a reliable instrument for her recitals, and her dream was to re-create a harpsichord which would speak with the grandeur and brilliance of the old instruments, which then lay ignored in museums.” The traditional (authentic) harpsichord was a quiet, delicate instrument that would easily go out of tune when picked up or moved—certainly not practical for a touring artist or the concert stage. Landowska worked with the Parisian piano maker Pleyel to construct a modern harpsichord using piano technology, creating “an instrument which had sufficient power to be heard in a concert hall and that was robust enough to withstand frequent moving.” The Pleyel harpsichord, with Landowska’s specifications, made its debut in 1912.
Landowska with her Pleyel concert harpsichord was a key in the rebirth of that instrument in the 20th century, just as Segovia with his Ramirez guitar was a key in revitalizing the long-dormant music of the classical guitar. It is important to note that Segovia and Landowska were each essentially alone on their mission to make their respected instruments accepted on the international level. Segovia would later state, “I found the guitar almost at a standstill—despite the noble efforts of Sor, Tárrega, Llobet, and others—and raised it to the loftiest levels of the musical world.”
Even though these great artists were making a deep impression with their performances of the music of past masters, especially the music of J.S. Bach, both wanted to enlarge and enrich the repertoire of their respective instruments with new works. Manuel de Falla (1876–1946) was the first to provide a masterpiece for each instrument. Falla completed Pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy, his only work for the guitar, in 1920. It has since become a standard in the classical guitar repertoire. According to Segovia, who was a very good friend of Falla, the composer’s initial fears about writing for the guitar had been dispelled by the success of Danza, composed by Federico Moreno-Torroba (1891–1982). Danza was the first piece composed for Segovia, and would later become part of Torroba’s Suite Castellana.
In 1923, Falla began composing his Concerto for Harpsichord (or Pianoforte). It is a major work that took three years to complete. Falla was so impressed with Landowska’s virtuosity and her desire to raise the harpsichord from obscurity that he dedicated the new work to her. It was first performed in Barcelona in 1926, with Landowska as the soloist and Falla conducting. Falla himself gave the premiere of this work in Paris in 1927; he played the work twice—first on the harpsichord, then on the piano. The concerto’s title—Concerto forHarpsichord (or Pianoforte)—is significant. Falla realized that since Landowska was the only harpsichordist touring internationally, there would be very few performances of his work with the harpsichord, so the piano was the “approved alternative.”
With these two masterpieces by Falla, interest in the classical guitar and the harpsichord started to grow, and more composers began writing for each of these instruments. However, it was Manuel M. Ponce who was the first to write a work pairing the two instruments, with his Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord.
Ponce first met Segovia in 1923. That year, Ponce wrote a review of Segovia’s first concert in Mexico City. A strong friendship developed between the two artists that would last until Ponce’s death in 1948. At their initial meeting, Segovia encouraged Ponce to write something for the guitar. Ponce obliged with a short work titled De México—Pagina para Andrés Segovia. This piece would later become the third movement of Sonata Mexicana, the first major work Ponce composed for Segovia.
In 1925, at the age of 43, Ponce travelled to Paris to enroll in the composition class of Paul Dukas at the Ecole Normale de Musique. In this same class was the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo. This stay was to last seven years. Ponce absorbed the compositional techniques of Dukas, who was a close friend of Debussy. During his time in Paris, Ponce wrote many important works for the guitar, including several sonatas, preludes, suites, and variations, and the first sketches of his guitar concerto. Almost all of these works were dedicated to Segovia. It is interesting to note that Ponce did not play the guitar—he was a brilliant pianist who had studied with a student of Franz Liszt. Like Torroba, Ponce instinctively knew how to write for the guitar. However, Segovia would often have to make modifications to the music, with Ponce’s consent, in order to make it more adaptable for the guitar.
Ponce’s Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord was completed in Paris in 1926. In a letter to Ponce, dated August 21, 1926, Segovia wrote,
I have begun to study the Sonata for Harpsichord and Guitar… [Raymond] Moulaert [a well-known Belgian pianist, composer, music critic, and teacher] has heard your works and has been truly surprised and enthusiastic . . .he has taken the Sonata for Harpsichord and Guitar to his room and has studied it for long periods. . . . Yesterday he picked-up a pen and wrote to the piano teacher at the Brussels Conservatory, who is an enthusiastic musician, telling him to reserve a date around the 16th of December to take part, as harpsichordist, in the presentation of your work. It will thus be played in Brussels before Paris, which, as I believe, is undoubtedly an advantage. Moulaert will speak to his friends, and the climate preceding the hearing will be an interesting one.
In subsequent letters sent in 1928 from New York and Genoa, Italy, Segovia tells Ponce that he is trying to find a good harpsichordist for performances in New York and Geneva. Whether any of those performances took place is not known.
There was no additional information about the Sonata for Harpsichord and Guitar until 1940, when it was presented as a gift to two of Ponce’s students, guitarist Jesús Silva and pianist Amanda Cuervo; both were students at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico. Silva studied harmony and aesthetics with Ponce and had developed a close relationship with the composer and his wife. Ponce would later dedicate two works for solo guitar, Verpertina and Matinal, to Silva. Silva was also a protégé of Segovia, having had his first lesson with the maestro in 1933 in Mexico City.
Ponce presented Silva and Cuervo with a manuscript of the Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord, dedicating the work to the couple as a present for their upcoming wedding. The inscription on the autographed copy reads: “To my dear friend Chucho Silva and his esteemed future companion Amanda Cuervo, very affectionately, hoping to hear you both play this sonata soon. Manuel M. Ponce, Mexico, Dec. 14, 1940.”
Silva and Cuervo studied the sonata and played it for Ponce, who, according to Silva, “appeared pleased with the results and even suggested placing a large strip of paper over the strings of the piano in order to imitate a little the effect of the harpsichord.” As with Falla’s Concerto for Harpsichord (or Pianoforte), Ponce had no problem with this work being performed on the piano instead of the harpsichord.
Sometime later, in a conversation with Segovia, Silva learned that the first public performance of this work had actually been given by Segovia with the Spanish pianist and harpsichordist José Iturbi (1895–1980), who was a student of Landowska.
Since its publication in 1973, there have been numerous performances of the Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord, along with several recordings. Some of these performances feature the piano as the alternative to the harpsichord. The published version does not include the dedication to Silva and Cuervo, presumably because the publisher used another manuscript of the work and was not aware of the dedication.
The Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord may not be one of Ponce’s best-known works, but it is widely considered to be one of his finest. It is an excellent example of Impressionistic harmonies combined with Baroque contrapuntal techniques. Jesús Silva, who often spoke and wrote about his time with Ponce, stated that Ponce’s “musical imagination is really special . . . great inspiration. . . . It’s nothing violent. It’s strong because it’s subtle. It goes deep into the performer and the audience.”
The Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord is not only a reflection of the soul of a great composer, but also a reflection of the spirit of the guitar and the harpsichord in Paris in the 1920s, when both instruments were striving to attain worldwide recognition as concert instruments.
John Patykula is Assistant Chair and Coordinator of the Guitar Program in the Department of Music at Virginia Commonwealth University. He was a student of Jesús Silva for many years.
(To view performances of the piece’s three movements, played by the Chordis Duo—Matilde Oppizzi, guitar; Riccardo Lorenzetti, harpsichord—see below. Also for those looking for a fine recording of it, check out the version by Adam Holzman and Stephanie Martin on the Naxos disc Manuel Maria Ponce: Guitar Music Vol. 2. —BJ)
Sources for this article include:
Andrés Segovia. Dir. Robert K. Sharpe. Perf. Andrés Segovia. An Encyclopedia Britannica Film, 1964.
Crane, Janet. “Latin American Legends.” BBB Music Magazine. November, 2016.
Crichton, Ronald. Falla. London: British Broadcasting Corporation publication, 1982.
Gonzalo, Amero and de Persia, Jorge (editors). Manuel de Falla: His Life and Works. London: Omnibus Press, 1999.
Henahan, Donald. Obituary of Andrés Segovia. New York Times. June 4, 1987
Kottick, Edward L. A History of the Harpsichord, Volume I. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, (Reissue) 2016.
Ponce, Manuel M. Sonata for Guitar and Harpsichord. Autographed, hand-printed copy.
Richard, J.A. “The Pleyel Harpsichord.” The English Harpsichord Magazine. Vol.2, No. 5 (1979). Also available on web site: Segovia, Andrés. An Autobiography of the Years 1893–1920. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1976. The Segovia-Ponce Letters. Edited by Miguel Alcázar and translated by Peter Segal. Columbus, Ohio: Editions Orphée, Inc., 1989.
Silva, Jesús. Personal letter to John Patykula. 1981.
Wirt, John. “Jesús Silva and the Spirit of the Guitar.” Classical Guitar (UK). January, 1985.
Special thanks to Shaun McCracken for her help in editing this article.