Francisco Tarrega

by Thomas Siemens

Francisco Tarrega

by Thomas Siemens

Francisco Tarrega

by Thomas Siemens

Francesco Tarrega – the path to modernity

When we think of classical guitar today, we almost automatically think of Spain. This goes so far that people sometimes use Spanish guitar as a synonym for classical guitar, and it also shows in the fact that many terms of classical guitar technique come from Spanish. Think of the tirando or apoyando touch.

That the guitar was so associated with Spain was not always so and is not self-evident. The first heyday of the classical guitar at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century took place mainly in Paris and Vienna. Although Spanish names such as Fernando Sor and Dionisio Aguado were also represented, their work also took place mainly in Paris. In addition, Italian names such as Ferdinando Carulli, Mauro Giuliani, Matteo Carcassi and Luigi Legnani were the most important in this epoch. After this golden period, however, the guitar fell into a valley for the time being and had problems finding its way into the 20th century.

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The one who was to help the guitar there and who set the course for the focus on Spain was Francesco Tarrega. He was not only the starting point for a new heyday of the guitar but also shaped some of its most famous melodies.

Francesco Tarrega was born in 1852 in Villarreal, Spain. Even as a child, Tarrega showed a pronounced musical talent. After the guitarist Julian Arcas heard the young Tarrega play in 1862, he was so enthusiastic about the boy’s talent that he took him to Barcelona to train him. His next big step was in 1874, when he won a rich merchant as a sponsor, who sent him to the music school in Madrid. Here Tarrega completed his education.

In the following years he became famous at home and abroad. He played in Paris and London, among other places, and delighted audiences with his virtuoso skills. Without his work, the transition of the classical guitar into the 20th century would have been unthinkable. That he was able to do so is partly thanks to an ingenious guitar maker. The reason why the guitar was somewhat forgotten at that time also had to do with the fact that the construction of the guitar of the 19th century was more filigree and light than the one we know today. Compared to today, the body was smaller and the fullness of sound was therefore less. However, the guitar could not keep up with the demands of the public from the Romantic period onwards.

Antonio Torres was a Spanish guitar maker who was active in Spain during Tarrega’s time. He made some decisive changes to the construction of the guitar. Among other things, he built his instruments with a larger body, which allowed them to be louder. In 1869, Francesco Tarrega bought a Torres guitar which helped him to make his breakthrough on the stage.

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Another reason why Tarrega succeeded in bringing more attention to the guitar again was that he managed to meet the taste of the time with his pieces. Part of his work consisted of subtle, short pieces such as Lagrima or Tango Maria. On the other hand, he wrote works of impressive virtuosity. Here, for example, his variations on the “Carnival of Venice” theme by Paganini should be mentioned. In this way he placed himself in the tradition of the great late romantic virtuosos. When listening to this work, one will certainly have thought of Franz Liszt, who had arranged the same theme on the piano. Thus Tarrega was able to show that the guitar deserved a place in the music of its time.

There is an interesting anecdote concerning Tarrega’s compositions. Unknown to many is the fact that he is the originator of the well-known Nokia ring tone. The melody actually comes from Francesco Tarrega’s Gran Vals in A major. Even though the whole piece will probably remain unknown to most people, it can be said that Tarrega’s music has been widely disseminated in this way. Tarrega’s concern to establish the guitar in serious music is also evident in the 120 transcriptions of his music that have survived, including transcriptions of music by Beethoven and Chopin.

Perhaps Tarrega’s most profound mark on history, however, was left by his pupils. Above all, the three students Emilio Pujol, Miguel Llobet and Daniel Fortea were responsible for passing on Tarrega’s achievements as a teacher and virtuoso to the next generations. It was Miguel Llobet who influenced the young Andres Segovia, who was to become the most important guitarist of the 20th century. Thus Francesco Tarrega rightly occupies a great place in the history of the classical guitar, for without him, someone like Andres Segovia would have been inconceivable, and without Segovia, there would probably be no classical guitar in today’s concert life.

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