by Thomas Stiegler
Ferdinando Maria Meinrado Francesco Pascale Rosario Carulli, Ferdinando Carulli for short, was an Italian composer of the early 19th century and one of the most important guitarists of his time.
Born in Naples, the capital of the kingdom of the same name, the son of a famous writer and secretary of the Neapolitan courts, Michele Carulli. This bourgeois background made it possible for him to study music theory and cello playing as a child with a priest.
He also came into contact with the guitar early on. At that time it was not the classical solo instrument as we know it today, but was mainly used for accompaniment to songs and was extremely popular with the people; night after night in all the streets of Naples it sounded to the serenades that lovers played for their loved ones.
Carulli was fascinated by the possibilities she offered, so at the age of 16 he decided to devote his life exclusively to her studies. But like so many other virtuosos, he did not find a teacher and was forced to develop the entire playing technique himself.
He went to work with such enthusiasm and made such rapid progress that even in his early twenties he was considered the most outstanding guitarist of Naples. So he decided to leave Naples and seek his fortune outside the narrow borders of his hometown.
Sources from this time are unfortunately quite sparse, but it seems certain that he spent some time in Augsburg and Milan. In 1807 he published some of his earliest works there in the then already existing publishing house “Casa Ricordi”.
After a short time in Venice and Vienna he was drawn to Paris, the “music capital of the world”, which he was never to leave again.
Sources from this period are unfortunately quite sparse, but it seems certain that he spent some time in Augsburg and Milan, where he also published some of his earliest works in 1807 in the then already existing publishing house “Casa Ricordi”.
After a short time in Venice and Vienna he was drawn to Paris, the”music capital of the world”, which he would never leave again.
“The artist arrived in Paris in April 1808, gave several concerts and had overwhelming success, soon becoming a homme à la mode, both as a virtuoso and as a teacher” (François-Joseph Fétis, “Biographie Universelle“)
Within a short time he was able to introduce the upper class of the French capital to the guitar and to show a hard to impress audience the possibilities of virtuosity and musical expression that the guitar has in the hands of a gifted player, making him the first guitarist of the city in the aristocratic salons.
Records from that time tell us that he was not the most stirring musician and that he lacked the temperament of his compatriot Giuliani, for example. But his playing was characterised by absolute purity and safety and the newspapers reported of his extraordinary mastery of the instrument.
Characteristic for his style is the still unusual use of virtuoso techniques from violin and piano literature, especially the most tricky arpeggio figures, fast scales over the entire fingerboard, glissandi or harmonics.
He seemed to be able to do all this effortlessly and even with double grips, scales over several octaves or entire chord cascades he always remained the cool master of his instrument.
He was also one of the first guitarists to grow the nails of his right hand so that he could no longer strike the strings with his fingertips alone.
Carulli remained the king of the Paris guitar scene for many years, even though he was joined by other popular guitarists such as Matteo Carcassi and Francesco Molino.
A younger generation felt more attracted by the depth of Sors’ works and his modern playing, so that Carulli concentrated more and more on teaching and disseminating his works.
For Carulli was also an extremely fruitful composer who wrote more than 400 works for the guitar.
Unfortunately, many of his most beautiful pieces were rejected by the publishers as too difficult for the average guitarist, resulting in the loss of a whole series of his masterpieces, so that the vast majority of the works known today belong to a direction that can be confidently described as beginner literature.
This undoubtedly played a role in Carulli’s decision to become a publisher himself. But still most of his great works were never published and for this reason Carulli thought throughout his life that he did not deserve his good reputation as a composer.
But there are some works that prove the quality of his music, such as the Six Andantes Op. 320 (dedicated to Matteo Carcassi), or the “Improvisations Musicales” Opus 265, which consist of 45 very brilliant preludes in different keys.
But his most important pieces are certainly his works for guitar duo, where his rich inventiveness is combined with his feeling for the gallant form and his innate Italian musicality.
Worth hearing are the three Serenades op. 96 or the six Nocturnes op. 128.
But the main task of his life was to perfect himself on the guitar and to advance its technical development.
The fruit of this work was his “Méthode Op. 27”, which underwent four editions during his lifetime and was later transformed into his Op. 241. It was the first complete teaching method for the guitar and not least due to this work his reputation as an important teacher grew to the far corners of Europe.
As a result, many guitarists traveled to Paris from the 1830s onwards to study with him, making his teaching method a model and standard for classical guitar lessons.
Apart from the technique of playing the guitar, he also dealt with its instrument-specific aspects and thus became one of the pioneers of its classical form.
Apart from the playing technique of the guitar, he also dealt with its instrument-specific aspects and thus became one of the pioneers of its classical form.
In the early 19th century, the us well-known form of the guitar known to us did not yet exist. Carulli’s first instrument probably resembled a lute and had five pairs of strings, which produced a powerful sound when chorded, but was not suitable for playing classical music.
In addition, the body of the instrument was smaller and produced a less resonant sound that resembled that of a ukulele.
After the double stringing was abandoned during Carulli’s time in Naples and musicians experimented with different forms, he later continued these efforts together with the French instrument maker René François Lacôte.
They gave the guitar a flatter body and emphasized the bulges on its side, giving it a larger surface area and improving its volume and sound.
Together with Lacôte he also developed a ten-string guitar (décachords), i.e. a guitar with four additional bass strings, for which he also wrote a textbook.
Carulli remained highly respected for the rest of his life and died, known far beyond the borders of Paris as a guitarist and teacher, on 17 February 1841.
His work is available in numerous recordings, probably the best known being the Duet for Guitar and Flute op. 190, the most beautiful recording in my opinion by Alexander Lagoya and Jean-Pierre Rampal.
His duo in G op. 34 has also been recorded repeatedly, for example by Julian Bream and John Williams.