Narciso García Yepes



by Thomas Stiegler

The Legend


A Spanish fair, early 1930s. With shining eyes a little boy stands in the midst of the hustle and bustle and can’t take his eyes off an old guitar. Until his father approaches, puts a warm hand on his shoulders and nods to the salesman.

And finally, now he holds her in his arms!

From now on, the little boy is put on an old donkey three times a week, led miles to the next town and there the scarce money is spent on his lessons.

It almost seems as if the father would suspect that the slim boy would one day become one of the greatest guitarists of his century.

This or something similar is the legend of Narciso García Yepes, the musician who is often mentioned in the same breath as A. Segovia and M. Llobet. But unlike the two, the critics seldom agreed on his playing.

Some raved about his clear, unromantic style:

“…his playing is characterized by a clarity of detail.” 1

“We consider Yepes to be the most comprehensive guitarist of our time.” 2

“…his interpretations are solidly constructed and not influenced by the slightest trace of emotion.” 3


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But you also read words like:

“…his playing has little of the refinement that English listeners associate with the classical guitar.” 4

“Yepes can be downright unmusical in his pedantic interpretations of some pieces.” 5

“Yepes often seems determined not to make this music exciting or romantic.” 6

For in contrast to the eternal late romantic A. Segovia, he tried to bring a sober interpretation approach to the guitar world.

Which he succeeded in doing: “… we finally have a real departure from the Segovia style, no echo.” 7

But who was he really, this man with the strong glasses, who took the stages of this world by storm with his ten-string guitar?

Who was the musician who initiated a departure from the Segovia style and tried to establish the guitar as a serious member of the instrument family?

The story of N. Yepes

If you are interested in N. Yepes and his way of playing the guitar you can’t help but take a look at his musical background and the way he was educated.

He received his first lessons at the age of six from Jesús Guevara in Lorca, a small town in southern Spain. Due to the Spanish Civil War, his parents moved to Valencia in 1936, which gave him the opportunity to start studying at the local conservatory at the age of twelve.

He attended courses in music theory and composition, but was unable to find a guitar teacher there.

Instead he joined the class of Vicente Asencio, a pianist who did not have a high opinion of the guitar. In his eyes it was not an instrument to be taken seriously, as it was not possible to play it as fast and legato as a piano or violin.

“If you can’t play like that,” he said to Yepes, “then you have to learn another instrument.”


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Yepes began to practice doggedly and finally managed to overcome the limits of the traditional technique. When he first presented piano scales to his teacher on the guitar, the teacher laconically said: “So it is possible on the guitar. Now play at the same tempo in thirds, then in chromatic thirds.”

Allan Kozinn remarked on this teaching method: “Thanks to Mr. Asencio’s encouragement, Yepes learned to play the music the way he wanted to, not the way the limitations of the guitar dictated.”

The young Yepes spent his free time with various flamenco singers, which helped him to improve his technique and rhythmic feeling and gave him important stimuli for his later interpretations of Spanish works.

After graduating from the Conservatory he travelled to Madrid to take lessons with J. Rodrigo. There it was also where he made his debut in 1947 with the “Concierto de Aranjuez”.

The evening became such an overwhelming success that he soon began touring Italy, Germany and France. During this time it was mainly thanks to him that this work became so popular.

In 1950, after a performance in Paris, he began studies with the violinist George Enescu and the pianist Walter Gieseking. Again, it was not a guitar study in the usual sense, but an extension of his knowledge of music and the possibilities of its interpretation.

It was also here that he met Maria Szumakowska, a young philosophy student and daughter of the Polish ambassador. They married in 1958 and had three children, Juan de la Cruz, Ignacio Yepes, (orchestra leader and flautist) and Ana Yepes (dancer and choreographer).


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It was also the year in which he had the most significant transcendent experience for him. One evening, leaning over the railing of a Parisian bridge and watching the Seine River flow by, he unexpectedly heard a voice asking him, “What are you doing?”

For a quarter of a century he had been an unbeliever convinced that there was no God or afterlife.

But this question, which he understood as a call from God, changed his convictions and he became a devout Catholic for the rest of his life.

In 1952 he was commissioned to write the music for the film “Forbidden Games” (Jeux interdits) by René Clement. He arranged and played it himself and had a resounding success.

Ten-string guitar

Due to his unusual education he was used to thinking music abstract without the limitations of the guitar and soon felt restricted by its form.

So he looked for ways to solve this dilemma and found them by having a 10-string guitar built in 1964.

In this way he not only extended the range of the instrument and adapted the guitar to his wishes, but also began transcribing works originally written for the baroque lute.

Since then he has toured all inhabited continents and played in more than a hundred concerts a year.

In addition to his life as a travelling virtuoso, Yepes was also an important scholar. His research into forgotten manuscripts of the 16th and 17th centuries led to the rediscovery of numerous works for guitar or lute. He was also the first to record the complete lute works of Bach on historical instruments.

In addition, he was intensively engaged in the history of the guitar and published little known compositions from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Despite his many critics, Yepes was a musician of worldwide renown and received many honours, including the Spanish Gold Medal for Art, awarded by King Juan Carlos I.

He was a member of the Academy “Alfonso X el Sabio”, honorary doctor of the University of Murcia, was awarded the “Premio Nacional de Música” of Spain in 1986 and was unanimously elected to the “Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando”.

After 1993 Narciso Yepes had to retire due to illness. He gave his last concert on 1 March 1996 in Santander (Spain).

One year later he lost his long fight against cancer.


2 Musical America –

3 El Mercurio, Santiago de Chile –

4 The Times London, 22 May 1965

5 Klassische Musik: Der Begleiter des Zuhörers von Alexander J. Morin, Harold C. Schönberg; ISBN 0-87930-638-6)

6 American Record Guide; Steven Rings; 1 September 2003

7 Musical America Dec. 1964 –

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