Friday, February 20, 2009

The Guitar: the "Little Orchestra"

In my late 20's, frustrated by my lack of musical education, I bought a second-hand classical guitar and tried to learn to play it. It was a student instrument made in Japan, and people in the know thought it was of rather good quality for a student instrument. I ended up giving it to a musically talented nephew along with all the lesson books and accessories a few years ago, and he put it to much better use than I could. (I went through a similar process with a clarinet earlier in that decade of my life.) During my attempt at the guitar, I at least learned a new appreciation for its history and music, and I amassed a special collection of recordings of music for lute, vihuela and guitar. I also read a book: Frederic V. Grunfeld's "The Art and Times of the Guitar" (Da Capo, 1974 edition, copyright 1969 by Grunfeld). A couple of passages which have continued to strike a chord with me follow:

"The 6 strings of the guitar have a compass of over 4 octaves: more than half that of a grand piano. They can all be played at once, giving the 'little orchestra' its characteristic luxuriance of harmony. Highly responsive to the player's temperament and mood, the guitar, when skilfully played, combines a pure singing tone with deep resonance. This is not bad for an instrument 3 feet long and weighing 3 1/2 lbs." Grunfeld is quoting a 1967 poster for a Spanish guitar studio in London which he felt summed up the attractions of this instrument very well.

Later in the book, in a chapter called "Guitaromanie":

"Berlioz himself was a guitarist -- not in Paganini's class, perhaps, but from all accounts a remarkable player. He was the first important symphonic composer who was not at the same time a virtuoso on some more exalted instrument, such as the violin or piano, and this singular deficiency was to have important consequences for the development of his orchestral style....Everything that Berlioz composed is conditioned by the fact that he was not subject to the tyranny of piano habits. The way he spaces out his orchestral chords, the way his phrases are shaped and his rhythms change reveal a fresh, flexible mind that has been trained in the school of the guitar rather than in the boxed-in formulas of keyboard harmony...."

(Quoting that last bit is not meant to be a slight to composers who are proficient on the piano, but it helps explain to me why Berlioz sounds so different from other 19th century composers.)

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