by Thomas Siemens
The Guitaro- mania
by Thomas Siemens
An engraving from 1825 shows a confusing, or perhaps even disturbing image. It shows a group of people in a hall arguing and fighting with each other. What is striking is that some of them are armed with guitars and are going at each other with them, holding the guitars as if they were baseball bats. A truly disturbing image. The engraving is signed “Discussion between Carulliists and Molinists”. In fact, the picture is supposed to depict a historical event when followers of the guitarist Ferdinando Carulli and Francesco Molino were so much at odds over whether it was better to strum a guitar with fingernails or with the fingertip that they went at each other and got physical. The picture comes from a period that today is also called “guitaromania”. We are talking about a phase at the beginning of the 19th century when the guitar was at the centre of social attention as never before and never since. We also speak of the golden age of the guitar. But what happened that the guitar was suddenly in the limelight and no longer had to eke out a niche existence, as it still did in the baroque era?
The guitar owes this primarily to the rise of the bourgeoisie. They wanted to express their wealth and power, among other things by indulging in a rich cultural life and thus expressing their superiority over the nobility. It was the time of salon music and of guitarists who roamed the European metropolises to impress the new and spendthrift public with their music. Well-known virtuosos of this period were Ferdinando Carulli, Matteo Carcassi, Fernando Sor, Luigi Legnani, Dionisio Aguado and Francesco Molino. From them we have preserved a tremendous treasure of entertaining and pleasant music with which they entertained the public. Some of their works are rather virtuosic with the aim of impressing people with his technical skills. Works like these are, for example, the “Grande overture op. 61” by Mauro Giuliani or the “Gran Solo Op. 14” by Fernando Sor. Other works consisted of variation movements on themes known to the public, such as the Variations on the “Marseillaise” op. 330, or opera paraphrases and fantasies on melodies from operas. A large part of Matteo Carcassi’s published works consists of such music. The advantage here is that the audience is closer to what it already knows. So the musician could easily cater to people’s tastes. Furthermore, there were a lot of rondos or social dances like waltzes and the like. But these were not only there to be played by virtuosos. Just as it was fashionable to listen to the virtuosos in the salon, it was also fashionable to learn the instrument yourself. The many guitar schools published by almost every great guitarist bear witness to this. After all, this was also an important part of the musicians’ income. They benefited here from the fact that the middle classes saw themselves as an educated class and that musical training was also part of this.
The quality of the guitar schools, however, varies greatly. Some are no more than a few scales and chords with strumming patterns, labelled with the name of a famous musician. They are perhaps even to be understood as a kind of fan article, more for adornment than for learning with.
Others are so well thought out and of such high quality in their teaching material that they still play a role today. The best example of this is the “Methode completet pour la guitare” Op. 59 by Matteo Carcassi. With it and with his Etuden Op. 60, whole generations of classical guitarists have been trained. Another pearl from this period is the guitar school by Fernando Sor. It is less suitable for learning the guitar from scratch, but it consists of a detailed reflection on guitar technique that could almost claim to be a scientific work.
So-called house music was also part of the social life. This was understood to mean light music that was not intended for performance or concert but for one’s own entertainment or for occupation among friends. It was therefore not allowed to be too demanding and should be playable at sight. Every guitar virtuoso of the time wrote pieces that met these criteria. The king of house music for the guitar is someone who never became known as a great virtuoso. We are talking about Leonhard von Call. He was a civil servant all his life and pursued music as a hobby. His compositions enjoyed great popularity and were widely performed. Although he lived in Vienna, reviews of his works even appeared in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung Leipzig. He knew how to write music that was as beautiful as it was simple, and thus managed to meet people’s needs exactly.
Looking back on that time today, it is striking that all this took place in a short period of less than 50 years. So much that is important for the classical guitar took place here in one spot. As if the history of the guitar had been compressed and concentrated on one point. In a way, the guitar shares a similar fate to its predecessor, the vihuela. Its heyday was short and intense and was very dependent on the social developments and circumstances of its time. Today, the golden age of the guitar has been largely forgotten in the general consciousness, so that people are very surprised when they discover how much classical literature there is for the guitar. The great treasure of this music remains hidden for most people and is still waiting to be discovered.