The Guitar in the Baroque

by Thomas Siemens

The Guitar in the Baroque

by Thomas Siemens

The guitar as we know it today has a history of at least 500 years. On its long journey, it has undergone numerous changes and developments, so that when we hold a guitar from today next to one from 300 years ago, we clearly recognise both as guitars, but the two instruments are still very different. This also applies to the guitar in the baroque period.

If we, as contemporary observers, look at a baroque guitar, the first thing we might notice is how small it is. It is much more delicate and slender than today’s instruments. The sides are much less flanked, the back is pear-shaped. The pegs do not yet have a mechanism but are plugged in, like on the violin. The fingerboard often has no metal frets, but gut-bound ones. The sound hole is splendidly decorated, often with a paper rosette that covers it completely. If you look at the head of the guitar again, you might notice the large amount of pegs. The baroque guitar had only 5 strings, not 6 like today’s guitars, but the baroque guitar was double strung, each string was double. So the guitar had between 9 and 10 single strings, depending on whether the first string was also double-course. There were no wound strings like today, so they were usually made of gut. According to the different construction, the sound of the baroque guitar was also quite different. Compared to today’s instruments, they sounded much quieter and less full and with a silvery timbre.

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We are at the beginning of the 17th century. The great flowering of the vihuela at the Spanish royal court is over. Its successor, the baroque guitar, was not able to connect with high art music to the same extent. The style and taste in the baroque period had changed and the baroque guitar was not able to take on the same role as the vihuela in the renaissance. One reason for this was that the guitar lacked the range for this. It could not accompany melodies with low basses at the same time, as the taste of the time demanded. In the field of plucked instruments, the lute with its many strings and enormous range was in the foreground. The guitar found its niche above all in chord accompaniment. The strings were bowed, not unlike western guitars and flamenco today. This style of playing was called “rasguado” in Spanish and “batteries” in Italian. In Italy, a chord notation developed called “alfabeto”, similar to the chord symbols that are common in pop music today. In the course of the epoch, the playing of the baroque guitar changed. It went back to polyphonic, plucked playing, also called “punteado”. However, the guitar could not come close to what the lute was capable of or what the vihuela was able to do in the Renaissance. But the guitar was certainly in use as a basso continuo instrument.

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For guitarists today, works for the baroque guitar present a certain challenge. Not necessarily because of the technical difficulty. The reason is that different tunings were common for the baroque guitar. The strings were tuned to the same notes as on today’s guitar, but the octave in which the string was tuned could vary. The double strings were not necessarily tuned to the same octave. This, in combination with the fact that the baroque guitar was notated in tablature, makes it sometimes difficult today to translate the tablature into notes. Even if it is clear what has been picked, it is not always possible to say exactly what the sounding note is, unless one knows the exact tuning used by the composer. This circumstance, combined with the fact that the baroque guitar is very different in its tonal character from the modern guitar, has meant that its music has hardly found its way into today’s repertoire. And so today we hardly hear of masters such as Gaspar Sanz, Francesco Corbetta or Robert Visé.

History continued to turn in the course of the 18th century, and while the guitar made the transition to the classical era, its competitor, the lute, fell into oblivion and finally disappeared.

To make the leap into the new age, however, some changes were necessary. The double stringing changed to single strings as we know them today and a 6th string was added. The construction also changed somewhat. The guitar was still smaller than today, but was already more similar to what we know today. It was also important that guitarists began to notate music in musical notation, as was now common for all other instruments, and no longer in tablature. Last but not least, the guitar benefited from the fact that sound ideas and artistic ideals changed again during the classical period. There was no longer a demand for deep, heavy music, but rather for light and elegant music. The guitar was able to meet this demand, and so the guitar continued on its path through history.

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