Andrés Segovia (1893-1987) was one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century. Perhaps the greatest testament to what he accomplished for the guitar was the renaissance in music composed for it by important composers,
He established the guitar as an important concert instrument, made prolific recordings, and inspired generations of guitarists. Many composers began using the instrument in their works, including Manuel de Falla, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Manuel Ponce, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Joaquín Turina, and Joaquín Rodrigo. This astounding enrichment of the guitar's repertoire stands in stark contrast to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when practically none of the major composers—like Mozart, Hayden, and Beethoven—wrote music for the guitar.
Renaissance of the Guitar
In the first part of the nineteenth century, the guitar, which for centuries had been considered an accompanying instrument for singing and dancing, staked out its own territory as an appropriate instrument for music in the classical style. The Spaniard Fernando Sor and the Italian Mauro Giuliani were the two most important figures for the renaissance of this instrument, both of whom were virtuoso performers and prolific composers.
But by 1840 both Sor and Giuliani were dead, and the guitar seemed to be languishing along with them. In Segovia's own words, "the guitar was caught in kind of vicious circle: there were few guitarists because no music was being written for it, and no music was being written for it because there were so few guitarists."
Yet the tradition survived, thanks to at least one major figure in the succeeding generations who kept the spirit of Sor and Giuliani alive. In the 1840s and 1850s the Frenchman Napoleon Coste performed and composed for the guitar, and toward the end of the century the Spaniard Francisco Tárrega composed important works of a more national character for the instrument, in addition to transcribing the music of Bach, Mendelsohn, and Albéniz for the guitar.
In the first part of the twentieth century, though there were guitarists of renown, like Tárrega's disciple Miguel Llobet and the Paraguayan Augustín Barrios, Segovia was by far the predominant figure in the renaissance classical guitar enjoyed. Segovia added to the repertoire with important transcriptions—Bach's "Chaconne" being perhaps the most famous—and discoveries of forgotten composers— like the seventeenth-century lutenist Robert de Visée. In addition, he achieved a status for the guitar that it never was able to attain in the nineteenth century: that of an appropriate and even majestic concert instrument.
"Don Quijote de la Guitarra"
Segovia's rise to success was remarkable considering the obstacles he was forced to overcome. Born into a very humble family in Linares in the South of Spain in 1893, he was brought up by his Uncle Eduardo and Aunt María, and spent most of his youth in Granada. His family opposed his interest in music, and as Segovia explained, "Since I had to fight against the stubborn opposition of my family, I had to forego teachers, conservatories, or any other accepted method of instruction." Segovia taught himself not only the rudiments of his instrument, but the ability to read music as well. "From that time I would be my own master and disciple," he commented.
He gave his first concert at the "Círculo Artístico" of Granada in 1910, at the age of 16. Concerts followed in Seville, and then the young Segovia departed for Madrid. In his autobiographical writings Segovia neglected to assign dates to many key events, but he must have been 17 or 18 years old when he made this trip to the Spanish capital. While on the train, Segovia told of a conversation he had with his traveling companions, during which he put forth an eloquent defense of the guitar. "First, no string instrument offers such complete harmonic potential; second, it is light and can be transported effortlessly from one place to another; and thirdly, its sound is naturally melancholic and beautiful." As they left the train, one of the passengers said, "So long, Don Quijote of the Guitar, may the world restore your sanity."
Concerts in Spain and Abroad
After some difficulty in Madrid, Segovia enjoyed his first great stroke of luck: not the concert which had been arranged at the ateneo of Madrid, but rather his encounter with the guitar maker Manuel Ramírez. In what became a famous anecdote, Segovia offered to rent a guitar from Ramírez for his concert, much in the same way a piano would be rented locally for touring musicians. Yet when Ramírez heard the young Segovia play one of his guitars, he said, "Take it; its yours."
The concert took place in 1913, and though it received mixed reviews, it attracted considerable attention to Segovia and his instrument. Concerts followed in Valencia, where one reviewer praised Segovia for "bypassing the guitar's hackneyed repertoire and playing instead works by Debussy, Tchaikovsky, and other 'strangers' to the instrument." Perhaps more significant than these concerts, Segovia met and befriended Miguel Llobet, the most important disciple of the great Francisco Tárrega. Llobet invited Segovia to follow him to his native Barcelona, where he helped arrange recitals for the 25-year-old Segovia, the most important being in Barcelona's famous Palau or "Palace." The large hall was filled to capacity. "In a night abounding in emotions," Segovia recalled, "the one that moved me most was the realization that I had broadened the scope of the guitar and proved it could be heard from any stage."
Until 1920, Segovia continued giving concerts all over Spain, played for the Queen, and met the impresario Quesada, who was to act as his agent until 1956. Quesada organized Segovia's first venture abroad, a South American tour which began in 1920. Yet before his departure, he had secured an important landmark for his instrument. "For the first time, a composer who was not a guitarist wrote a piece for the guitar. It was Federico Moreno-Torroba [who] in a few weeks came up with the truly beautiful Dance in E Major…. That success prompted Manuel de Falla to compose his very beautiful Homage, and Joaquín Turina his splendid Sevillana." Even before Segovia left Spain, these compositions had elevated the rank of the guitar to a level that it had not reached in a century.
Segovia's successful pattern of playing concerts while continually broadening his instrument's horizons continued in Latin America. Once again he showed the guitar to be an immensely appealing concert instrument, while inspiring composers who heard him to direct their efforts to the guitar. In Mexico he made the acquaintance of Manuel Ponce, who would go on to become one of the guitar's greatest composers. Segovia said of Ponce's Folías de España that "it is the most important work that has been written for the solo guitar."
But perhaps the event that sealed Segovia's success was his Paris debut. It took place on April 7, 1924, in the concert hall of the Conservatoire and was attended by a capacity audience. One of the pieces on the program was a newly composed virtuoso piece called "Segovia" by Roussel. Rarely had a performer enjoyed such a prestigious public. Present at the recital were Paul Dukas, Manuel de Falla, Albert Roussel, Joaquín Nin, and even the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who heard the recital from Madame Debussy's box. This recital came to be considered one of the most important musical events of the century, perhaps after Igor Stravinsky's debut of The Rite of Spring in the same city ten years earlier. After a European tour that led him through England, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and the Soviet Union, Segovia's next great success was in the New York Town Hall on January 8, 1928. This was followed by concert tours of Japan, the Philippines, China, and Indonesia.
The Spanish Civil War, and then World War II, interrupted Segovia's residence in Barcelona, and he spent those years in the Americas, especially in Mexico, Uruguay, and New York. He resumed world touring afterwards, and began pursuing intensely a routine of university teaching, especially at the Academia Chigiana in Sienna, Italy. He also gave classes at the University of California at Berkeley, and held annual master classes at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Thousands of guitarists received instruction from him, and the greatest of the following generation, including John Williams, Julian Bream, Alirio Diaz, Oscar Gighlia, and Christopher Parkening, were largely indebted to him for their stature.
Segovia continued playing, teaching, and recording— almost 30 records with Decca and several more with RCA—up the to end of his life in 1987. He received numerous awards and honors during his lifetime, including an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Oxford University in 1974, being made Marquis of Salobrena by a royal Spanish decree in 1981, and the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society of London in 1985.
Further Reading on Andrés Segovia
Clinton, George, Andrés Segovia, London, 1978.
Grunfeld, Frederic, The Art and Times of the Guitar, London, 1969.
Segovia, Andrés, Andrés Segovia: An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920.
Guitar Review ("La guitarra y yo"—a series of autobiographical articles by Segovia), Nos. 4 (1947), 6 (1948), 7 (1948), 10 (1949), 13 (1952).