Virtuosity on Strings from Baroque to Modern Music

G.L. Giustiniani - Honours Bachelor of Recording Arts - Middlesex Univeristy - SAE Amsterdam


This study is aimed to discover the roots of virtuosity on finger-picked strings solo instruments like the lute during the Baroque age in the seventeenth century, and in its further development into the twentieth century, which have been essential to establish the importance of the guitar in modern music.
While the use of small portable instruments based on the principle of vibrating strings appears since the early days of human civilization, the first documented tablatures for lute, showing the fingering technique on the instrument, appear in music history only in 1500, as transcriptions of vocal chants.
The musicians that have been chosen for this analytical report are Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the most significant exponents of the Baroque period and one of the greatest and innovative composers in the classical music history, and Andrés Segovia, the most celebrated classical guitarist of the twentieth century, who transcribed and arranged for classical guitar an invaluable number of different compositions from the classical era, including J.S. Bach, creating a significant line of continuity between the opera of Bach and the modern world.
Particularly, the Suites for solo lute, written by Bach between 1708 and 1740, will be analyzed, representing some of the first relevant compositions ever created for a solo and portable instrument of smaller stature like the lute, and the American Recordings from Segovia, recorded for Decca in New York between 1950 and 1955, when the guitarist produced unparalleled interpretations of many classical pieces, making the modern Spanish guitar become a deeply expressive and protagonist instrument, as it had never been done before.
It is essential to analyze the historical period during which the two artists lived, so to understand why they have been so unique and their operas could not have been as such in different eras, and why they are so relevant for following and contemporary generations of musicians.
The first historical aspect to be pointed out here is the way their music heritage has been transmitted in our culture. The knowledge acquired for all the classical music, until early twentieth century, is only based on documents and scores, either written by the same authors, or transcribed by researchers who came after them. While for modern artists of the post industrial era, like Segovia, tape and vinyl recordings of their compositions have been inherited, giving a more complete picture, and less subject to misinterpretations.
Johann Sebastian Bach and the Baroque

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in Eisenach, Germany, in 1685, from an esteemed protestant family from Thuringia, the same region of revolutionary Martin Luther. Germany at the time was still struggling to resurrect from the Thirty Years War, one of the most disastrous wars ever happened, first started as a religious dispute, then became a war for power and dominance in Europe. In lack of comforts but with plenty of character, knowledge and human abilities, German people contributed like never before and after to the civilization of the western world during the seventeenth and eighteenth century.
Bach received musical training from his father and, after his death when the boy was just ten tears old, from his older brother. It is easily understandable how the young Johann Sebastian was raised up if considered that, at that time, music composition, singing and playing multiple instruments were a rooted and mandatory part of children's education, so it was common practice in daily social life to meet and improvise on harpsichord, flute, violin, or take part in the church choir.
As a custom inherited from earlier medieval times, despite the Protestant clergy ordinances to attempt to put an end to this practice, the church was not only the house of prayer and meditation, but still the main gathering place for the local community. It was the place where business men would discuss their contracts, housewives would drop in for neighbourhood gossip, and lovers would meet.
It was in fact in the school and church of Saint Michael in Lüneburg where Bach, aged fifteen, got his first remunerated job as a choir singer for all sorts of different occasions and events.
A couple of years later he was offered to play violin in the private orchestra of the Grand Duke of Saxe, in Weimar. He stayed there not very long, to move the same year to Arnstadt, where finally the young man had the opportunity to play his favourite instrument, the organ, in the local church, where he was soon invited to remain as official organist, because of his impressive improvisation ability.
It was certainly very important for him, as a craftsman on charge of entertaining the demanding court masters, to be able to embrace different genres of music, and to excel in each of them.
Bored to serve the Arnstadt city council, Bach obtains a grant for a short term absence leave, and takes the occasion to visit Lübeck, which was becoming the musical centre of the whole Northern Europe, thanks to the renowned organist Dietrich Buxtehude, who used to perform successful evening concerts there.
He overstayed and obviously suffered the consequent formal charges from the Arnstadt authorities, who accused him of negligence, and also for misbehaviour for having in earlier occasions sneakily allowed a woman, his cousin and fiancé Maria Barbara, in the church choir. That was considered an offense from the respectable Lutheran authority, for the role that was supposed to suit a young maiden.
Bach, already famous as a virtuoso organist and innovative composer, soon responded these accusations by marrying Maria Barbara in 1707, after having gained success and wealth from an impressive organ concert in the city of Mühlhausen, which turned into a permanent commission as organist there. Having a wife and a steady reputation, immediately his social position changed, he would have not been an apprentice any longer, but a "master".
In his compositions, Bach, although deeply religious and always inspired by religion, kept pushing the boundaries of the strict musical traditions stated by the Lutheran church, indulging multiple expressive embellishments and unusual tonal effects, soon to be considered a rebel, but the times were mature for an enthusiastic acceptance and admiration for his work by the local fertile cultural world. In 1708, the Duke of Weimar, Wilhelm Ernst, invited and appointed him as court organist, soloist, and orchestra concertmaster.
It is during this new period that Bach becomes internationally known mostly as organist, as well as expert organ builder and repairer. But he is capable to play and compose on multiple instruments, and is constantly collecting inspirations from all the musical currents of the time.
This is the Baroque era (1600-1750), where richness, complexity and virtuosity are the elements of all forms of art of the period, focused more on the technical performance than on emotions. Science is gaining a new rational form as well, abandoning older models and assumptions, while basing new theories on observation and experimentation.
Baroque music compositions are extravagant, highly elaborated and increasingly polyphonic. New musical instruments are built and developed in the research of new musical expressions. The virtuoso instrument schools flourish and, due to the fact that performances are patronized by the aristocratic class at court, with a limited audience in limited spaces, instruments are built to sound fully coloured and rich in small halls. It is the new emerging form of chamber instrumental music that will become fundamental for the development of modern music, for the high level of technicality and detail.
Italian musical forms were the most innovative at the time, and it was in Italy that the language of technical musical terms was being created, later to become universal. Bach acquires familiarity with these forms, such as the "cantata" (piece to be sung by human voice), the "sonata" (piece to be played on an instrument), and later the "partita" (solo instrumental piece) and the "opera" (complex theatrical composition). He will initially transcribe, collect and emulate these new compositions, to quickly absorb and develop them into new experimentation.
After some political accidents and one month of imprisonment for insubordination, in 1717 the rebellious Bach is allowed to resign and finally leaves the Weimar court, moving to the more open Calvinist court of Cöthen, where conditions were more prone to let him develop his innovative genius. While he had to abandon the organ for a while, as it was not present in the Calvinistic service, there was plenty of freedom, with the only exception of Sundays, to play different instruments and write melodies, which were mostly forbidden in the Lutheran cult.
Bach becomes the most powerful exponent of solo instrumental music, he produces innovative harmonic compositions for multiple instrument ensembles, where each instrument is capable to show levels of virtuosity never reached before. Some harmonic solutions will appear so unusual and advanced to later transcribers that they will be erroneously corrected.
Some of the solo lute compositions were already written by Bach during these particularly productive years, mainly devoted to melodic instrumentals, the rest of them produced after he moved to Leipzig in 1722, as cantor in the school and church of St. Thomas, where he finally returned to play the organ and composed some of his greatest inspired religious themes.
The court of Leipzig was full of artistic talents, there was the famous university with students of the calibre of Richter, Fichte, Schelling, a stable opera and a theatre hosting important actors and writers like Lessing and Goethe. This was the environment where Bach spent the rest of his life until 1750, year that the music historians stated as the end of the Baroque period, to underline how Bach was an anticipator of the further times to come.
The Suites for Solo Lute: BWV 996-998

With these compositions for solo lute, approximately fifteen minutes long, an instrument producing such a small amount of volume, ancestor of the classical guitar, begins to gain a central protagonist position in the musical entertainment form. Bach was able to exalt the expressive capabilities of the lute to such a level that still today his compositions are some of the most important in classical guitar training, for both technical solutions and remarkable melodies.
The musical style of Bach is specially known for the contrapuntal idiom (multiple playing voices harmonically related but different and independent in melody and rhythm), but it is the richness and complexity of melody lines, and the resulting daring harmonies that make him one of the most inspiring and imitated composers nowadays in modern sophisticated arrangements for guitars, strings, and keyboards.
As noted before, there are obviously no physical recordings of classical lute compositions, and most ancient lute works have been successfully adapted to classical guitar executions. In order to analyze the solo lute compositions from Bach, the execution from Bream (1994) will be used, as it is considered one of the most faithful transcriptions of these works on classical guitar.
The solo lute works reflect all the main elements of the late Baroque, and Bach's peculiar sense of completeness, balance, and a sort of mathematically exact structure that he gives to the music. The audience experience expands from this little instrument and spreads among a wider panorama for the richness of the multiple melodic and rhythm lines being performed, as if, instead, there were multiple instruments playing.
There is a "basso continuo" as a constant and melodic bass line spine, textures of "arpeggio" and accented and sustained notes, melting together the main melody line and the accompaniment.
Very important is also the sense of rhythm, as if derived from a dance, that forms a very balanced mood, almost letting the listener imagine the elegant choreography of the aristocratic courts.
Constant and varied major-minor harmonic passages upon which the melody creates sometimes dramatic tones. Fast triads of harmonic scale notes appear repeated along the pieces, building the sense of ornamental virtuosity.
Crucial part of these executions is to reproduce the sustain of the notes forming the melody, which typically lead the listener to an analogy with his compositions for solo violin in Zehetmair (1982). Violin and lute compositions from Bach have often and successfully been adapted and arranged by later composers indifferently on violin, guitar, and flute as well, indicating that a typically shorter sustain instrument as the classical guitar can be as dramatically effective and lyrical as longer sustain sound producers like the violin or flute.
Andrés Segovia and the Spanish Guitar

First appearances of the classical guitar are found in Spain already in the sixteenth century, but the first important composers belong to the eighteenth century during the Romantic period, with the first study method written by Fernando Sor (1778-1839).
Andrés Segovia was born in Linares, Spain, in 1893, and is recognized as the greatest and most influential exponent of the Spanish classical guitar.
He starts showing interest to playing very young, despite his family disapproval and attempts to divert him away from an instrument that was just disregarded and considered too folk and futile. He studied violin and piano at the Granada Institute of Music, mostly self-taught as a guitarist, as this instrument was not present in the conservatory study program.
Segovia gave his first concert in Granada, Andalucia, in 1909, then Madrid in 1913, South America in 1916, following Paris in 1922, Berlin, London in 1924, and his debut in the United States of America in 1928. He became popular in Italy and South America, Uruguay, where he lived while forced to abandon his country during the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
His mission was to elevate the guitar from minor accompanying instrument for popular folk songs and dances to seriously respected solo instrument for relevant classical music performance. He could achieve this only touring extensively all over the world, spreading his unique classical music knowledge applied to the guitar, and teaching as well in the most important music academies worldwide, such as the University of Southern California, the Accademia Musicale Chigiana (Siena, Italy), the Royal Music Academy of Stockholm, the Accademia di Santa Cecilia (Rome), the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando, the Fine Arts Santa Isabel of Hungria (Seville), the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Nuestra Senora de las Angustias (Granada).
Segovia can be considered a pioneer of classical guitar for his times, deeply exploring the instrument capabilities, he quickly assumed an excellent reputation as interpreter and virtuoso, mainly adapting and arranging classical compositions originally written for other instruments, rarely creating his own compositions from scratch.
Most notably his transcriptions comprise many suites and instrumental compositions from Bach, which Segovia distinctively arranges adding the aesthetic components of Romanticism, creating some of the most epic and intense reinterpretations of classical music pages.
As an artist of the twentieth century, Segovia is exposed to the growing availability of technology, being able to use the new recording media as an addition to his extensive touring. His first recordings are made in 1927 for the British label HMV, to be released on 78 rpm vinyl records. Later in the forties he records for Musicraft and Decca, always on a 78 rpm format. These works are remarkable interpretations, for the first time ever being produced on vinyl, of Bach, Mendelssohn, Haydn, Rameau, Purcell, Scarlatti, and other classical composers.
As the guitar suffered to be underestimated in concert halls for its modest size and sound volume, Segovia worked constantly with luthiers to develop and craft better resonant guitars, in order to give better performances and capture the required audience attention. Thanks to Segovia, his native Andalucia became the home of some of the most renowned classical guitar factories in the world.
Being a purist of classical style, he never assumed exhibitionist attitude, neither approved the amplification of the modern electric guitar style, that was being developed by Les Paul and Leo Fender around 1939-1941, adopting electromagnetic pickups detecting the vibration of steel strings (as opposed to nylon in the classical guitar) and a solid body design in order to minimize feedback resonance. Nevertheless, the incessant opera of Segovia to make the guitar known and acclaimed as a solo instrument has most surely prepared the field for the popularity of the modern electric guitar, which was coming from different cultural origins as the American folk and jazz currents.
Music conservatories, only after Segovia influences toward the education authorities, introduced for the first time in the late twentieth century stable guitar tuition courses in their curricula, finally at the same level of other already well respected instruments, like the violin or the piano. The only publishing media he had available during his career of performer and teacher was the international journal Guitar Review, that was responsible for diffusing his principal works and technical articles, filling the lack of guitar literature at the time.
In his mature years he recorded the particularly acclaimed Decca American sessions during the fifties in New York, where he lived for many years before returning to Spain.
He continued teaching and touring intensely until the very last days of his career, before dying in 1987 in Madrid.
The American Recordings and Other Works

Andrés Segovia is mostly known as classic interpreter, he rarely composed his own material, the two most known compositions are 5 Anecdotas (Powis, 2004), published by Guitar Review in New York in 1947, and Estudio Sin Luz (Segovia, 1969), recorded for Deutsche Grammophon in 1958.
The first work is a set of five pieces, for a total time of ten minutes, narrating different moments of alternating mood. It opens reflective and technical; following the second upbeat and serene moment; a third one very sad, intense and lyrical, continuing in the forth moment, to conclude with a happy and uplifting moment.
The second work, literally translated "study without light", is a beautifully sad piece, less than four minutes long, coming from an intimate state and feelings, as it was written while recovering his sight after eyes surgery, for this reason dedicated to his doctor Jose Rubio.
These works are deeply inspired by the Romantic period and supremely expressive, characterized by his pristine technique, strong and full sonority, which impressed a very wide audience, from classical music estimators to pop music consumers.
European Romanticism in the nineteenth century, in the search for new tonal expressions and unconventional instruments and timbres, had already discovered and celebrated the colours of folk music. Segovia is affected by this heritage as well as by the southern european and latin atmosphere and sounds.
Flamenco and traditional Spanish folk songs using the guitar as rhythm instrument are part of Segovia native environment and education, and naturally influence his style. His own compositions and his classical reinterpretations can live together melting very harmonically the classical world and the new folk and personal life inspirations.
The American Recordings in Segovia (1955) and the following published volumes of the same series, during his New York stay, are recognized as the greatest classic interpretations for guitar ever made in the twentieth century. They are relevant not only as representative of the previously unknown guitar performance capabilities, but also as fundamental guitar teaching media for the composers and researchers after him.
These epic interpretations of classics from Bach, Handel, Haydn, contain important innovative elements of the late romantic nineteenth century, such as "tenuto" (note holding), "rubato" (note length stolen from following note in the phrase), "ritardando" (gradually slowing down the tempo), but still retaining some typical aspects of the antique music, like rolled chords, quick vibrato and light and delicate pronounced phrases.
The multiple voices arranged on guitar by Segovia are essential to give the sensation of an ensemble harmonic execution, made of rhythm, chords, main theme, counter melody. Very important is his way of moving the right hand which picks the strings at different distances from the bridge, to create subtle or more drastic timbre changes for the different voices of the arrangement, as if they were different instruments.
Influences in the Contemporary Music

Looking at nowadays music, it can probably be said that the extravagancy of the Baroque has never ended, or at least has established solid roots and models to rely upon. The modern figure of virtuoso musician, often more focused on dazzling techniques of execution rather than on inspiring emotions from the soul, capable to entertain and keep the audience in a shocked and almost hypnotic state of admiration, is definitely an heritage of the Baroque.
Bach is cited as inspiring many famous musicians of progressive rock from the sixties to our days.
Electronic musician Wendy Carlos produced two albums of classical compositions on synthesizer, Switched-On Bach (1968), and The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (1969), inspired to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.
Ian Anderson recorded in 1969 his flute version of the popular Bourée, from the well known Suite in E Minor BWV 996, including it in the Jethro Tull's album Stand Up of the same year.
Keith Emerson, of Emerson Lake & Palmer, strongly influenced by Bach and his contrapuntal technique, produced several interpretations of classical pieces on Hammond organ and electronic synthesizers.
Hard rock guitar hero Yngwe Malmsteen wrote several instrumental pieces inspired by Bach, like for example Coming Bach (1984) and Trilogy Suite Op.5 (1986).
In terms of Spanish guitar music and Segovia influences, there are many contemporary classic, jazz, fusion guitarists to mention: John Williams, Julian Bream, Paco De Lucia, Al Di Meola, Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, Lee Ritenour.
These artists contributed to transmit the heritage of the classic composers, and making it popular during our days, through the modern recording technology and media, the same way Segovia did at his times with his guitar concerts and seminars.


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Kozinn, A. (1986). 'Segovia's Legacy: Half a Century of Guitar Disks'. In: The New York Times, 6 April.
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Segovia, A. (1955). 1950's American Recordings. Volume 1. Decca, Naxos (sound recording: CD).
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Thornburgh, E. (no date). Baroque Music.
Van Loon, H.W. (1949). The Life and Times of Johann Sebastian Bach. London: George G. Harrap.
Wade, G. (2001). A Concise History of the Classic Guitar. Pacific: Mel Bay.
Zehetmair, T. (1982). J.S. Bach. Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. BWV 1001-1006. Teldec, Warner (sound recording: CD).

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