SoloDuo CICGF Classical Guitar Recital: Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 8pm, Cleveland Institute of Music

Change is the premise of this evening's program. Whether it’s apt for a guitar concert may seem a curious question. So let’s begin with Wallace Stevens’ 1937 poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” Here are the lines with which many guitarists are familiar:

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

If all we know of the poem are these lines, then we’re left with a snappy conclusion tied in a bow. But change is an unfolding mystery that doesn’t fully reveal itself at a glance. What’s more, guitarists often deal with change, perhaps more than other musicians. This evening's program challenges us to think more deeply about the changes guitarists make, and the changes composers themselves impose on guitarists.

One example is transcriptions. Guitarists are a larcenous breed when it come to repertoire. They’ve long raided other instruments to expand our performing programs. Even before the guitar as we know it today, fretted instruments have a long history of arranging music from other sources. Renaissance lutenists often made instrumental reworkings of purely vocal music—indeed, many of John Dowland’s best known songs were equally popular as lute solos. Transcribing music from one medium to another, however, isn’t something to be taken lightly. We always ask ourselves if the result works. After all, a transcription shouldn’t do violence to the original, which is why we’re unlikely to hear Handel’s Messiah arranged for solo guitar. But even when a transcription works, it inevitably changes the original.

Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909) is an obvious example. So frequently does his music grace the programs of guitarists that it’s a bit of a shock to realize he was a virtuoso pianist who never wrote a note for the guitar. But then Albéniz is often not what he appears to be. His engaging diary—an apparent treasure trove of biographical information—shape-shifts whenever the bright light of scholarship shines on it. For example, Albéniz wrote of a meeting with Franz Liszt:

“He received me in the most amiable manner. I played two of my Etudes and a Hungarian Rhapsody. To all appearances he was much pleased with me, especially when I improvised a complete dance on a Hungarian theme which he gave me. He asked me all sorts of questions about Spain, my parents, my religious opinions, and, finally, about music in general. I told him quite frankly and decidedly that I gave no thought to any of those things, which seemed to please him.”

This is an entertaining encounter often quoted in biographies. Unfortunately, it probably never happened. Albéniz said it happened in Budapest, but Liszt at the time was living in Weimar. (It’s possible Albéniz fabricated this encounter to impress his father, who was paying for the trip to Budapest.) This and other doubtful tales led one music historian to dryly note: “Therefore his diary, though undoubtedly helpful in studying his character, is peppered with several passages that require a certain scrutiny, or at least an ability to separate fact from fiction.”

Though Enrique Granados (1867-1916) doesn’t present the same problem of separating fact from fiction, he’s also a composer who repeatedly shows up in the programs of an instrument for which he never wrote. He too was a virtuoso pianist. Early on his compositions weren’t particularly Spanish in sound, and might be mistaken for those of any European composer. But he later fell under the spell of nationalism, and drew on traditional Spanish dances for his sound palette. It’s not surprising that the guitar finds its way into Granados’ soundscape—if not literally, then at least in spirit. Indeed, with both Granados and Albéniz, it’s sometimes said that transcribing their piano music to guitar restores it to its spiritual home.

With Claude Debussy (1862-1918), we can’t be so sure. Once again, we’re faced with a pianist who never composed for the guitar. Yet some of his music works surprisingly well on the guitar. It helps that Debussy himself was ambivalent about the piano. In fact, he seemed to imagine it as something other than what it was, saying “one must forget that the piano has hammers.” His quest for a different sound led him in eclectic directions—at the 1899 Paris Exposition, Debussy was enchanted by Javanese gamelan music. Of it, he purred approvingly: “despite the troubles that civilization has brought, there still are some wonderful people who learn music as easily as one learns to breathe.” All this affected his own playing. A contemporary wrote of Debussy’s singular approach to the piano: “How can you forget his flexibility, the caress of his touch? While floating over the keys with a curiously penetrating gentleness, he could achieve an extraordinary power of expression.” With his popular Claire de Lune, it’s not far-fetched to say that
a guitar transcription better conveys Debussy’s aspired delicacy than the piano for which it was originally written.

With Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), however, guitarists are on shaky ground. We have on record that he reacted acidly when it was suggested that an aria from his opera Fidelio would benefit from a guitar accompaniment. We also know he took a dim view of transcriptions—in a letter to a publisher, he opined that only the composer himself should undertake the task of transcribing a work to another medium. Further, his piano music is intimately grounded in the sonic capabilities of the piano itself. In fact, Beethoven often wrote his piano music to highlight the instrument’s technological advances. After acquiring a new piano that offered cleaner repeated notes, Beethoven eagerly exploited this improvement in the first movement of his Waldstein sonata. So it’s hard to imagine he’d approve of anything to do with his music reworked for guitar. On the other hand, he was friendly with the Italian guitarist Mauro Giuliani, and supposedly said “the guitar is a miniature orchestra in itself.” (Though documentation for this quote is lacking, so he probably never said it.) And in the diaphanous Adagio sostenuto of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata, we’re confronted with music that seems to suggest the guitar. The late 19th century guitarist Francisco Tárrega thought as much, and he transcribed this movement for solo guitar. Beethoven might have tolerated it, or even approved. Whether he’d approve of the other two movements transcribed to guitar is hard to say. Considering his volcanic temper, maybe we shouldn’t ask, and rather be content to hear this very familiar work in a new guise.

Transcription, of course, brings obvious change. But when a non-guitarist composes directly for guitar, the change isn’t so obvious. Nonetheless, composers who take on the guitar must alter their working methods. Often they know little or nothing about the instrument. For some composers, this means they must compose with a guitarist close at hand, something they seldom need to do wth a more familiar instrument. Or they can write what they want and leave it to guitarists to puzzle over passages that may well be unplayable.

Into the latter category fell Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999). Some guitarists grouse that Rodrigo took perverse pleasure in writing music that doesn’t suit the guitar. Not surprisingly, there’s a cottage industry among guitarists in working out solutions for Rodrigo’s thornier passages. Curiously, this may be a case where a stubborn composer raised the standard of guitar playing. One could argue, for example, that the uncomfortably high scales in Concierto de Aranjuez forced guitarists to improve this aspect of their technique: either play the scales as written, or change them and tacitly admit that one can’t play what the composer wrote in this popular concerto. So getting closer to what the headstrong Rodrigo actually composed has been a rite of passage for aspiring concert guitarists. It should be said, however, that an equally headstrong player occasionally could coax Rodrigo into being more reasonable—in his Fantasía para un gentilhombre, the composer for once bent to the will of the imperious Andrés Segovia.

In his own quiet way, André Jolivet (1915-1974) set out to change how guitar music was written. “It’s quite evident that although I appreciate the guitar, I’ve never tried to compose in a certain style of ‘sui generis.’ On the contrary, my aim was to introduce new harmonies and expressions from the contemporary syntax up to now unknown to the guitar.” His first work for guitar, Sérénade, was dedicated to to the Presti/Lagoya Duo in 1959. Somewhat neo-classical, it’s a four movement work for an instrument that only rarely sees four movement classicism.

Change, as today’s program implies, takes varied forms. It can be delightful or disturbing. But most tellingly, it recasts the familiar in an unfamiliar light. So rather than ossify into comfortable routine, maybe guitarists have the right idea. Returning to the Stevens’ poem referenced earlier, it’s well to consider these less familiar and more elusive lines:

How should you walk in that space and know
Nothing of the madness of space,
Nothing of its jocular procreations?
Throw the lights away. Nothing must stand
Between you and the shapes you take
When the crust of shape has been destroyed.
You as you are? You are yourself.
The blue guitar surprises you.


About the Author: With over 30 years teaching experience, Tom Poore has taught at the North Carolina School of the Arts Community Music Center and the Cleveland Institute of Music Preparatory Department. His background in teaching children includes Suzuki training, outreach programs through the Broadway School of Music and Passport Program, and the Cleveland Public Schools Arts in Summer Education Program. Tom and his students have performed for WCPN radio and WVIZ television. Former students of his have gone on to earn scholarships and degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, The Juilliard School of Music, and others. Tom earned his bachelor’s degree at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he studied with Aaron Shearer, and master’s degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he studied with John Holmquist. He was also the editor for Aaron Shearer’s three volume “Learning the Classic Guitar,” published by Mel Bay. Currently he teaches in the greater Cleveland area at the Solon Center for the Arts, Western Reserve School of Music, Avon School of Music, and from his home in South Euclid.