Before the 20th century, the guitar was seen as a humble if not inferior instrument. So how did the instrument become so immensely popular around the world, in a relatively short span of time? The answer to this question involves several musical and cultural developments, a bunch of guitar builders, and Andrés Segovia. He’s been called “the father of the classical guitar.” Beatle George Harrison once paraphrased this when he said, “Segovia is the Daddy of us all.”
To explain how Segovia managed to both popularize the guitar and upgrade its status to that of a highly-regarded instrument, we need to take a brief look at the history of the guitar, to picture the situation Segovia found himself in when he set out on his mission in the early 20th century to be “an ambassador for the guitar.”
There are many early precursors for the guitar, like the guitarra latina, the guitarra morisca, the gittern, the oud, the lute, the vihuela, the baroque guitar and so on. It took until the late 18th and early 19th century for guitar-like instruments to emerge in Spain that used six single gut-strings. In the 1850s the legendary Spanish guitar builder Antonio de Torres Jurado built the first instruments that looked like modern classical guitars.
By the late 19th century, flamenco guitars started to differ from classical guitars, but while flamenco music and flamenco players could be found on pretty much every street corner in southern Spain, the Spanish classical guitar movement remained relatively small and elitist. It was this Spanish arena that Andrés Segovia stepped into, and from which he managed to turn the classical guitar into a worldwide phenomenon.
Andrés Segovia Torres was born 21 February 1893 in Linares in Jaén, a province of Andalucía. From age two he was raised by an uncle and aunt, and started playing piano, cello and violin when he was eight, and the guitar not long afterwards. However, his father, a lawyer, was not impressed. “I was told the guitar wasn’t respectable,” recalled Segovia. “My father broke three guitars to stop me from practicing.”
Segovia’s uncle decided to move to Granada to further the young prodigy’s education, and perhaps also to him get away from an overbearing father. However, unable to find teachers, the 10-year old had to continue his guitar education by himself. Segovia never met the great Spanish guitar player Francisco Tárrega, but the teenage prodigy did become close friends with some of Tárrega’s pupils, which must have helped him greatly in his development.
Segovia explained later that his first aim at the time was to dissociate the classical guitar from the flamenco guitar, his second aim was to create a classical guitar repertoire, his third to create an large audience, and his fourth to place the classical guitar amongst the pantheon of other great classical instruments, like the piano, the violin, and so on. Despite needing to overcome ignorance, prejudice and ridicule, he achieved all his aims.
Segovia made his public debut in 1909 in Granada, at the age of 16. His family was still against him playing the guitar, and he was criticized for his unorthodox technique. However, while nobody knows exactly how he achieved it, Segovia quickly became known as a guitarist whose technique was, as a contemporary wrote, “superior to that which was being taught at the time.”
Segovia invented several new right-hand techniques, one being to play closer to the bridge, and not with the hand over the sound hole as had been customary, and, according to the latest research, to play with only nails, rather than a combination of flesh and nail, or flesh alone. This allowed him to create a larger sound, that projected further, and to play with a greater variation in tone. Nails have to both strong and soft, for the right tone, explained Segovia, adding, “If nature has not given you strong nails you need to give up playing the guitar.”
Tough luck for those with weak nails, and not everyone was prepared to give up because of this. To get nails with the right quality, that also are strong enough to withstand extensive use, a whole industry of nail enhancement techniques and materials has sprung up, often using beauty salon materials. The whole issue of nails has continued to be a subject of intense and heated debate. As one guitarist ruefully remarked, “You start off playing guitar to get girls and end up talking with middle-aged men about your fingernails.”
Segovia’s virtuosity, musicality, novel technique, the new repertoire he played, and his unusual personality all combined to quickly turn him into a living legend. Some of his personality is illustrated by an anecdote from 1912. On arrival in Madrid, the 19-year old visited the shop of the famous guitar builder Manuel Ramirez. In addition to his trademark, round, horn-rimmed glasses, Segovia was wearing, he recalled, “a scarf, a black velvet vest, with its silver buttons all buttoned up, a grey blazer, striped pants, patent leather shoes, and a walking stick to defend myself.”
When he entered the workshop, Segovia explained that he wanted to rent a guitar for a concert, as he did not have the money to pay for one. Apparently, those present, Ramirez included, just laughed at him. However, when Segovia performed for them, Ramirez was so impressed by the prodigiously talented youngster, that he gave Segovia his best guitar, and refused payment. Reportedly, he said, “Pay me for it without money. Take the guitar with you through the world and make it flourish.”
Segovia did exactly that, and played the Ramirez guitar for 25 years, until 1937, when he started playing a guitar made for him by the German luthier Hermann Hauser Sr. Segovia’s aristocratic and slightly snobbish air, which also comes across from the Ramirez anecdote, undoubtedly added to the image of him as the ultimate maestro, and helped to convince audiences that he was not playing something inferior, but instead the noblest of all instruments.
As Segovia and his Ramirez guitar went out around the world, sceptics changed their minds. In 1923, a critic for The Times was reluctantly sent to review a Segovia concert in London, for he considered the instrument “inferior.” However, he ended up writing, ““we remained to hear the last possible note, for it was the most delightful surprise of the season.” Audiences were stunned into silence, and it was the beginning of what became known as “the Segovia hush.”
After a concert in the Town Hall in New York in 1928, a similarly sceptic critic for the New York Times, wrote, “’The appearance of Mr. Segovia is not that of the trumpeted virtuoso. He is rather the dreamer or scholar in bearing, long hair, eyeglasses, a black frock coat and neckwear of an earlier generation.” But, the critic added, “Segovia belongs to the very small group of musicians who by transcendent powers of execution and imagination create an art of their own that sometimes seems to transform the very nature of their medium.”
As Segovia travelled the world as the ultimate ambassador for the guitar, he also found time to fulfil his other aim: to greatly enlarge the repertoire for the instrument. While he wrote very little music himself, many composers composed for him, including Alexandre Tansman, Manuel de Falla, Federico Moreno Torroba, Manuel Ponce, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Joaquin Rodrigo, and John Duarte.
Segovia also became known for transcribing music from the baroque, classical, and romantic eras in classical music. Among his transcriptions are works by the likes of Albéniz, Handel, Haydn, Schuman, Schubert, Mendelsohn, Grieg and especially Johann-Sebastian Bach. Segovia’ legendary transcription of Bach’s famous Chaconne in D minor, from the 2ndPartita for Violin, a 15-minute long, extremely challenging tour de force, emphatically settled the debate over whether the classical guitar was a serious instrument.
In his role as ambassador for the guitar, Segovia was lucky to be able to ride the wave of the technological advances of the time. Air travel made international touring possible, and his playing and reputation also spread via radio and recordings. His earliest recordings were in London and date from 1927. His recordings were released on labels like HMV, Doremi, Allegro, Fonomusic, Columbia, Deutsche Grammophon, and mostly on Decca.
Segovia spent most of the Spanish civil war and the entire second world war in exile in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. He returned to Spain after the war. Until the end of his long life he continued to tour and record—by this stage using nylon strings. Segovia also regularly gave masterclasses. Among those that studied with him were two young guitarists who became household names: Julian Bream and John Williams.
Giving actual form to Segovia’s aristocratic demeanor and snobbery, he was ennobled in 1981, when he received the hereditary title of Marquis of Salobreña from King Juan Carlos I. Other accolades that he received during his life include Ph.D, honoris causa from ten universities, the Danish Sonning Award in 1974, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize in 1985, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986.
Segovia died in 1987, at the age of 94. He continues to be remembered as one of the greatest Spanish artists of the 20thcentury, in the company of greats like Pablo Picasso, Manuel da Falla, Pablo Casals, Joan Miro, and Salvador Dali.
While Segovia’s path was very different and ran parallel to the development of the guitar in America, with steel-string and electric guitars having a greater and more direct impact on popular music, the classical guitar was and remains a big influence on folk, jazz, and rock players the world over.
When looking back over his achievements, and asked why the classical guitar had such a huge impact, Segovia noted that, “the guitar has more variation of colour than the piano, and it is the only other genuine solo instrument that can play harmony and melody at the same time.”
On another occasion he commented, “It is like an orchestra. Every instrument is inside the guitar, it has many different colours and timbres. Listening to guitar is not just listening to music, it is dreaming with music.”
Over the course of a career lasting a stunning eight decades, the dandy-looking young dreamer from Andalucía didn’t only continue to dream until the end of his life, but, nail issues notwithstanding, he managed to convince much of the world to dream with him…
© 2021 Paul Tingen.
Watch the video below to learn more about Andrés Segovia!