Andrés Segovia

1893 1987

Andrés Segovia

Composer • Guitar


Widely recognised as the father of the modern classical guitar, Andrés Segovia stewarded the instrument’s tradition from the Romantic era into 20th century concert halls around the world. He was, for half a century, the most visible proponent of the instrument in performances of music from all periods, ranging from transcriptions of Renaissance lute works to major pieces commissioned from notable 20th century composers. Perhaps his greatest legacy, and not without controversy, was his teaching, with multiple generations of classical guitarists studying under him, and countless more imitating his technique and musicality after first encountering the instrument through his performances.

Segovia was born in the small city of Linares, in southern Spain, and soon moved to Villacarrillo, where he was raised by his aunt and uncle, who were responsible for his first music lessons on the violin. Beginning with the guitar at an early age, he was largely self-taught, with early lessons and musical experiences primarily in the context of flamenco guitar, under the disapproving watch of his family. It was in a concert of the guitarist Gabriel Ruiz de Almodovar, that Segovia first heard the music of legendary Spanish guitarist and composer of the Romantic era,Francisco Tárrega, who would become his greatest inspiration. The two never met, and Tárrega died in 1909. The students and fans of the Tárrega School were initially skeptical of Segovia, who, despite his professed love of Tárrega’s work, played with a significantly different musical sensibility and technique, notably by using nails, which was a point of particular historical controversy.

Segovia began performing professionally in 1909, and over the next decade went on to perform throughout Europe and tour South America. In these early years of his career, Segovia set out four ambitious goals: “… the first to redeem the guitar from the folklore; second, to go to every part of the civilised world to show that the guitar is worthwhile to be on the concert stage; the third to create a very good repertoire for it; and the fourth, to influence the authorities of conservatories and musical academies and universities to teach guitar properly.”

The modern repertoire for the guitar undoubtedly has its roots in the works that Segovia commissioned, primarily from non-guitarist composers. The first to respond, in 1921, to Segovia’s call for new music were the Spaniard Federico Moreno Tórroba and the Polish-French Alexandre Tansman. The two other major names associated with the Segovia repertoire are Manuel Maria Ponce, who had a career-spanning friendship with the guitarist and who wrote some of the most iconic guitar works of the era, and Heitor Villa-Lobos, the most modernist-leaning composer which Segovia embraced. Segovia was artistically dominating in his collaborations, not hesitating to give instructions to composers and frequently making bold revisions to works. Many composers, some very significant, sent manuscripts that were lost for decades when he decided that they weren’t to his conservative tastes. Among the spurned wereFrank Martin , Darius Milhaud, and Cyril Scott.

Several works dedicated to Segovia and recorded by him are especially remarkable. The Sonata (1934) byMario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, an homage to classical-era composerLuigi Boccherini, is a large-form four movement sonata with formal classical elements – there are some clearly non-classical harmonies, but the charm and beauty of the era is very much present. Manual Ponce’s Sonata III (1927), written while the Mexican composer was studying with Paul Dukas in Paris has, particularly in the first movement, very bold and pianistic elements in a darker, impressionistic style, uncommon for the instrument. The 12 Etudes (1940) ofHeitor Villa-Lobos represent the most modernist point of Segovia’s repertoire, perhaps made more palatable by the idiomatic instrumental writing, with many parallel chord shapes and sophisticated use of left hand techniques. The music, with influences from Brazilian traditional music, modernist composition, and early music, is colourful and filled with contrasts; in their efficacy as true concert pieces the etudes have been compared to those ofChopin. The most widely recognised guitar work, and the most performed concerto of all time,Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, was a notable exception as a work that was not written for Segovia, written instead for his fellow Spaniard Regino Sainz de la Maza. However, Rodrigo later dedicated his second concerto,Fantasia para un gentilhombre, to Segovia.

Within the significant body of transcriptions made by Segovia of early music are included works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, Robert de Visée, Johann Jakob Froberger, Domenico Scarlatti, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Henry Purcell, John Dowland, Luis de Milán, Alonso Mudarra, and Gaspar Sanz. By far his most iconic transcription is the legendary Chaconne, from the 2nd violin partita of Johann Sebastian Bach, which Segovia first performed in 1935 and recorded in 1947 and 1955.

Segovia also tried his hand at composition, writing a large number of works, all miniatures and in a very conservative Spanish Romantic style. The most well-known isEstudio sin luz (1954). The expressive work pairs the expected Romantic harmonies and lyrical melody with some surprising references to flamenco and even Renaissance polyphony and ornamentation.

Nearly every major guitarist in the 20th century studied with Segovia at some point, either privately or in his legendary masterclasses. He was known to be very strict, demanding that students copy his idiosyncratic phrasing and fingerings. This dominating style led to several public defections, but insured that his aesthetic has remained an important influence in the contemporary guitar world.

The ancestors of the guitar in Renaissance and Baroque times had been cornerstones in the development of music. However, with the development of keyboard instruments and orchestras throughout the 1700s, the guitar found itself relegated to parlor and folk styles. Although many other performers and composers contributed beautiful additions to the repertoire and technique, Andres Segovia almost singlehandedly returned the guitar to the spotlight of the modern world. His legacy in the creation of new works, transcriptions, teaching, and his uniquely expressive recordings continue to form the heart of the instrument’s repertoire and style.