Andres Segovia, the most celebrated classical guitarist the world has ever known, is unquestionably acknowledged as the founding father of the modern classical guitar movement. Through his performances on concert stages worldwide, arranging and commissioning of new works for guitar, and teaching activities, Segovia gave the guitar new stature. He changed the guitar from an instrument of popular entertainment into a vehicle of serious classical music, thus inscribing his name in the annals of music history.
Segovia was born February 21, 1893, in Linares, Jaen, in the region of Spain known as Andalusia. Because his father, a lawyer, found it difficult to support his large family, Segovia was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Granada at age ten. It was the uncle who introduced Segovia to music, and the boy studied piano and violin at the Granada Musical Institute. While he was little interested in these instruments, he was attracted to the guitar upon hearing it played at a friend’s home.
Because the guitar—used to accompany folk songs and dances in taverns—was not a well-respected instrument, Segovia had to learn to play on his own. Thus, he was largely self-taught, applying what he had learned of classical music theory and history in general to the guitar in particular. As a result he developed his own technique, which is characterized by a beautiful sonority, supreme expressivity, and the eliminating of extraneous sound and movement.
In 1909 at age 16, Segovia made his public debut at the Centro Artistica in Granada. His recital was so well received that he began to perform throughout Spain, and in 1916 he made a successful tour of Latin America. From this early in his career, Segovia aspired to elevate the guitar from the noisy and disreputable realm of folkloric amusements, where it was held in contempt by serious composers of classical music. Throughout his career Segovia never lost sight of this goal, which he knew could only be realized by distinguished performances of serious pieces. Since the repertoire was extremely limited, Segovia looked to the works of the great composers for pieces suitable for transcription, and during his lifetime he produced dozens of transcriptions and editions of works.
Segovia’s 1924 debut in Paris, France, was attended by many distinguished dignitaries of the music world and gave direct impetus to the composing of new guitar works by major composers of the era, such as Manuel de Falla and Manuel Ponce. Many composers did not know enough about the guitar’s capabilities or limitations
For the Record…
Born Andres Segovia Torres, February 21, 1893, in Linares, Jaen, Andalusia, Spain; died of a heart attack June 2, 1987, in Madrid, Spain; father was an attorney; married first wife (divorced, 1962); married Amelia Corral Sancho; children: (first marriage) Beatrice, Andres; (with Sancho) Carlos.
Made debut in Granada, Spain, 1909; made debuts in Paris, France, Berlin, Germany, and London, England, 1924; made American debut, 1928. Taught guitar at schools and universities throughout the world, including the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and the Academia Musicale Chigiana, Siena, Italy.
Member: Royal Music Academy of Stockholm, Sweden; Academy of St. Cecilia, Rome; Academia Filarmonica of Bologna, Italy; Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando, Madrid; Fine Arts Santa Isabel of Hungria, Seville, Spain; Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Nuestra Senora de las Angustias, Granada, Spain.
Awards: Grammy Award, 1958, for Segovia: Golden Jubilee; received grand crosses, gold medals, prizes, and honorary citizenships from numerous cities, regions, and countries throughout the world; received honorary doctorates from numerous universities, including Oxford University, Autonomous University of Madrid, University of Granada, University of New Orleans, University of Florida, and University of North Carolina.
to compose works for it without Segovia’s direct assistance. New pieces heard in concert inspired the writing of others, gradually building the body of literature for classical guitar.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Segovia’s popularity rose with his repertoire, with country after country being captivated by his performances. While at first many thought that the guitar would not be able to be heard in a large concert hall, Segovia proved otherwise, demanding and getting complete silence from sell-out crowds of often more than a thousand. “The real music lover wants to hear the small instrument speaking straight to the heart of the people,” he once said.
When civil war erupted in Spain in 1936, Segovia was forced to leave the country. He resettled in Montevideo, Uruguay, from where he made tours of South America. He later resided in New York City for many years, before returning to southern Spain.
Segovia began recording works as early as 1925, eventually recording the majority of notable works for guitar, including pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Enrique Granados, Isaac Albeniz, Manuel Ponce, Federico Moreno Torroba, and Heitor Villa-Lobos, among others. In his book Segovia, Graham Wade provides an extensive discography of Segovia’s more than forty long-playing albums.
To perpetuate the playing of the guitar as he created it, Segovia aspired to provide a unifying medium for those interested in the guitar. He did so through his contributions to the international musicological journal, Guitar Review, in which he published many technical articles and in which his autobiography first appeared in serial form. He also tried to influence the authorities at conservatories, academies, and universities to include the guitar in their instruction programs on the same basis as the violin, piano, cello, and other instruments. By the late 1980s more than 1,600 schools of music in the United States offered guitar in their curricula.
While Segovia worked regularly at various universities, taught many master classes, and gave numerous private lessons, he never systematized his technique in guitar method. Views on such matters can be found in the numerous prefaces to editions of music or have been detailed by others, such as Vladimir Bobri’s Segovia Technique or Charles Duncan’s The Art of Classical Guitar Playing.
A man of regular habits, Segovia practiced five hours daily in 1.25 hour increments, emphasizing with students the need to practice scales to maintain sound technique. Among his most notable students are John Williams, Christopher Parkening, Oscar Ghiglia, Julian Bream, and Michael Lorimer. Segovia was a purist and moderate in all aspects of his life. It is not surprising, therefore, that he disliked the use of amplification, because it distorts the true sound of the guitar, and he once denounced rock ’n roll as a “strange, terrible and dangerous disease.” Segovia always scrupulously avoided any exhibitionism or sensationalism in his performing.
Segovia enjoyed an illustrious career that spanned seventy-eight years. In his nineties he continued to teach, maintain his regular practice regimen, and perform sixty concerts annually. In June of 1987 the maestro of the guitar succumbed to heart problems.
The EMI Recordings, 1927-1939, Vols. 1 and 2, Angel.
The Guitar and I. Vols. 1 and 2, MCA.
The Intimate Guitar, Vols. 1 and 2, RCA.
My Favorite Spanish Encores, RCA.
On Stage, MCA.
Segovia and the Guitar, MCA.
The Segovia Collection, Vols. 1 through 4, MCA.
Three Centuries of the Guitar, MCA.
The Unique Art of Andres Segovia, MCA.
Segovia, Andres, Andres Segovia: An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, translation by W. F. O’Brien, Macmillan, 1976.
Bobri, Vladimir, The Segovia Technique, Macmillan, 1972.
Duncan, Charles, The Art of Classical Guitar Playing, Summy-Birchard Music, 1980.
Purcell, Ronald C. Andres Segovia, Contributions to the World of Guitar, Belwin Mills, 1975.
Wade, Graham, Segovia: A Celebration of the Man and His Music, Allison & Busby, 1983.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
Andrés Segovia (1893-1987) was one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century. Perhaps the greatest testament to what he accomplished for the guitar was the renaissance in music composed for it by important composers,
He established the guitar as an important concert instrument, made prolific recordings, and inspired generations of guitarists. Many composers began using the instrument in their works, including Manuel de Falla, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Manuel Ponce, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Joaquín Turina, and Joaquín Rodrigo. This astounding enrichment of the guitar's repertoire stands in stark contrast to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when practically none of the major composers—like Mozart, Hayden, and Beethoven—wrote music for the guitar.
Renaissance of the Guitar
In the first part of the nineteenth century, the guitar, which for centuries had been considered an accompanying instrument for singing and dancing, staked out its own territory as an appropriate instrument for music in the classical style. The Spaniard Fernando Sor and the Italian Mauro Giuliani were the two most important figures for the renaissance of this instrument, both of whom were virtuoso performers and prolific composers.
But by 1840 both Sor and Giuliani were dead, and the guitar seemed to be languishing along with them. In Segovia's own words, "the guitar was caught in kind of vicious circle: there were few guitarists because no music was being written for it, and no music was being written for it because there were so few guitarists."
Yet the tradition survived, thanks to at least one major figure in the succeeding generations who kept the spirit of Sor and Giuliani alive. In the 1840s and 1850s the Frenchman Napoleon Coste performed and composed for the guitar, and toward the end of the century the Spaniard Francisco Tárrega composed important works of a more national character for the instrument, in addition to transcribing the music of Bach, Mendelsohn, and Albéniz for the guitar.
In the first part of the twentieth century, though there were guitarists of renown, like Tárrega's disciple Miguel Llobet and the Paraguayan Augustín Barrios, Segovia was by far the predominant figure in the renaissance classical guitar enjoyed. Segovia added to the repertoire with important transcriptions—Bach's "Chaconne" being perhaps the most famous—and discoveries of forgotten composers— like the seventeenth-century lutenist Robert de Visée. In addition, he achieved a status for the guitar that it never was able to attain in the nineteenth century: that of an appropriate and even majestic concert instrument.
"Don Quijote de la Guitarra"
Segovia's rise to success was remarkable considering the obstacles he was forced to overcome. Born into a very humble family in Linares in the South of Spain in 1893, he was brought up by his Uncle Eduardo and Aunt María, and spent most of his youth in Granada. His family opposed his interest in music, and as Segovia explained, "Since I had to fight against the stubborn opposition of my family, I had to forego teachers, conservatories, or any other accepted method of instruction." Segovia taught himself not only the rudiments of his instrument, but the ability to read music as well. "From that time I would be my own master and disciple," he commented.
He gave his first concert at the "Círculo Artístico" of Granada in 1910, at the age of 16. Concerts followed in Seville, and then the young Segovia departed for Madrid. In his autobiographical writings Segovia neglected to assign dates to many key events, but he must have been 17 or 18 years old when he made this trip to the Spanish capital. While on the train, Segovia told of a conversation he had with his traveling companions, during which he put forth an eloquent defense of the guitar. "First, no string instrument offers such complete harmonic potential; second, it is light and can be transported effortlessly from one place to another; and thirdly, its sound is naturally melancholic and beautiful." As they left the train, one of the passengers said, "So long, Don Quijote of the Guitar, may the world restore your sanity."
Concerts in Spain and Abroad
After some difficulty in Madrid, Segovia enjoyed his first great stroke of luck: not the concert which had been arranged at the ateneo of Madrid, but rather his encounter with the guitar maker Manuel Ramírez. In what became a famous anecdote, Segovia offered to rent a guitar from Ramírez for his concert, much in the same way a piano would be rented locally for touring musicians. Yet when Ramírez heard the young Segovia play one of his guitars, he said, "Take it; its yours."
The concert took place in 1913, and though it received mixed reviews, it attracted considerable attention to Segovia and his instrument. Concerts followed in Valencia, where one reviewer praised Segovia for "bypassing the guitar's hackneyed repertoire and playing instead works by Debussy, Tchaikovsky, and other 'strangers' to the instrument." Perhaps more significant than these concerts, Segovia met and befriended Miguel Llobet, the most important disciple of the great Francisco Tárrega. Llobet invited Segovia to follow him to his native Barcelona, where he helped arrange recitals for the 25-year-old Segovia, the most important being in Barcelona's famous Palau or "Palace." The large hall was filled to capacity. "In a night abounding in emotions," Segovia recalled, "the one that moved me most was the realization that I had broadened the scope of the guitar and proved it could be heard from any stage."
Until 1920, Segovia continued giving concerts all over Spain, played for the Queen, and met the impresario Quesada, who was to act as his agent until 1956. Quesada organized Segovia's first venture abroad, a South American tour which began in 1920. Yet before his departure, he had secured an important landmark for his instrument. "For the first time, a composer who was not a guitarist wrote a piece for the guitar. It was Federico Moreno-Torroba [who] in a few weeks came up with the truly beautiful Dance in E Major…. That success prompted Manuel de Falla to compose his very beautiful Homage, and Joaquín Turina his splendid Sevillana." Even before Segovia left Spain, these compositions had elevated the rank of the guitar to a level that it had not reached in a century.
Segovia's successful pattern of playing concerts while continually broadening his instrument's horizons continued in Latin America. Once again he showed the guitar to be an immensely appealing concert instrument, while inspiring composers who heard him to direct their efforts to the guitar. In Mexico he made the acquaintance of Manuel Ponce, who would go on to become one of the guitar's greatest composers. Segovia said of Ponce's Folías de España that "it is the most important work that has been written for the solo guitar."
But perhaps the event that sealed Segovia's success was his Paris debut. It took place on April 7, 1924, in the concert hall of the Conservatoire and was attended by a capacity audience. One of the pieces on the program was a newly composed virtuoso piece called "Segovia" by Roussel. Rarely had a performer enjoyed such a prestigious public. Present at the recital were Paul Dukas, Manuel de Falla, Albert Roussel, Joaquín Nin, and even the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who heard the recital from Madame Debussy's box. This recital came to be considered one of the most important musical events of the century, perhaps after Igor Stravinsky's debut of The Rite of Spring in the same city ten years earlier. After a European tour that led him through England, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and the Soviet Union, Segovia's next great success was in the New York Town Hall on January 8, 1928. This was followed by concert tours of Japan, the Philippines, China, and Indonesia.
The Spanish Civil War, and then World War II, interrupted Segovia's residence in Barcelona, and he spent those years in the Americas, especially in Mexico, Uruguay, and New York. He resumed world touring afterwards, and began pursuing intensely a routine of university teaching, especially at the Academia Chigiana in Sienna, Italy. He also gave classes at the University of California at Berkeley, and held annual master classes at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Thousands of guitarists received instruction from him, and the greatest of the following generation, including John Williams, Julian Bream, Alirio Diaz, Oscar Gighlia, and Christopher Parkening, were largely indebted to him for their stature.
Segovia continued playing, teaching, and recording— almost 30 records with Decca and several more with RCA—up the to end of his life in 1987. He received numerous awards and honors during his lifetime, including an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Oxford University in 1974, being made Marquis of Salobrena by a royal Spanish decree in 1981, and the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society of London in 1985.
Clinton, George, Andrés Segovia, London, 1978.
Grunfeld, Frederic, The Art and Times of the Guitar, London, 1969.
Segovia, Andrés, Andrés Segovia: An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920.
Guitar Review ("La guitarra y yo"—a series of autobiographical articles by Segovia), Nos. 4 (1947), 6 (1948), 7 (1948), 10 (1949), 13 (1952). □