Picking Through the Repertoire: A HyperHistory of the Contemporary American Classical Guitar

In 1949, in New York City, Dimitri Mitropoulos gave the first U.S. performance of Schoenberg‘s Serenade, op. 24, for baritone, clarinet, bass clarinet, guitar, mandolin, violin, viola, violoncello as part of a 75th birthday celebration honoring the composer. Johnny Smith, the famous jazz guitarist, played the part (unamplified) on a steel string Epiphone guitar because the organizers could not find a classical guitarist to play the part, or according to anecdotal evidence, follow a conductor! Things changed considerably in the years after 1949 as guitarists became better trained musicians and composers began using the guitar in their chamber music with more and more frequency. In fact, a call for a guitarist to perform Schoenberg’s work these days might result in a queue that snakes around the block!

Among the greatest chamber works featuring a guitar is Syringa (1978) for mezzo-soprano, bass, and guitar with ten instrumentalists by Elliott Carter (b.1908). The work opens with a dramatic four-measure guitar solo featuring a kaleidoscopic array of expression markings, articulations, and tone colors immediately signaling that the guitar is going to play a central role. Much more spare in texture is Quest (1989-94) by George Crumb. In eight movements, the work is extraordinarily poetic.

Both of these pieces were written for guitarist David Starobin. I remember, when I was a student at the Manhattan School of Music in the late ’70s, sneaking into Borden Auditorium at the school to listen to the first rehearsals of Syringa. I was greatly impressed with the great guitarist’s facility, musicianship, professionalism—and pony-tail!

Perhaps because of the tradition established by Boccherini, composers have favored the combination of guitar and string quartet. Notable works include: Castelnuovo-Tedesco‘s Quintet, op.143 (1950), the only chamber work recorded by Segovia; Albert Harris’ Concierto de California, the guitar part of which lives up to its title; Roberto Sierra‘s Tripitico (1989) in which the guitar is an integrated part of he ensemble and where one can perceive the influence of Ginastera’s string quartets; Elias Tanenbaum’s Shadows (1987) in which musical and coloristic elements of the guitar and the ensemble influence each other in surprising ways; Aaron Jay Kernis‘s 100 Greatest Dance Hits (1993), a postmodern barrel of monkeys; Ludmila Ulehla‘s group of character pieces, 6 Silhouettes (1991); Giampaolo Bracali‘s Quintetto; and the all-too-rarely performed Concert Piece (1992) by David Diamond, which was published in Guitar Review #94.

Another perennial favorite is the flute/guitar duo. Composers who have contributed to this genre include another perennial favorite: Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “Sonatina” op.205 (1965), a light-hearted work with a challenging guitar part. Partially because it is folk tune-based and eminently likable, Mountain Songs (1985) by Robert Beaser became standard repertoire almost immediately after publication. The guitar part here, too, is extremely challenging. In fact, most guitarists choose to rework the part, as it was written for that most idiosyncratic guitarist, the diabolically ingenious Eliot Fisk. The prolific Alan Hovhaness contributed a Suite (1977), op.300, as did Joan Tower: Snow Dreams (1983). Milton Babbitt weighed in with his crystalline Soli e Duettini (1989) one of my favorite works from this composer. Judith Weir chooses to substitute the flute with a piccolo in Gentle Violence (1987). Katherine Hoover‘s Canyon Echoes (1991) is a very effective work to perform. Inspired by an Apache folktale, the second movement is particularly beautiful and has great melodic appeal. Roberto Sierra’s Primera Cronica del Descubrimiento (1991) and Segunda y Tercera Cronicas del Descubrimiento (1995) form a single cycle on the subject of the meeting between the aboriginal Indian culture of the Caribbean islands and the Spanish Conquistadores.

Works for mixed combination and guitar include Elliott Carter’s Luimen (1997) for trumpet, trombone, vibraphone, mandolin, guitar, and harp; Arthur Berger‘s Trio (1972) for guitar, violin, and piano; Gunther Schuller‘s Lifelines (1960) for flute, guitar, and percussion; Milton Babbitt’s The Crowded Air (1988) for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, piano, marimba, guitar, violin, viola, cello, and double-bass; Charles Wuorinen‘s Chamber Concerto (1964) for solo flute, harp, guitar, piano, harpsichord, cello, double-bass, and four percussionists; and Sonata for Guitar and Piano, Ludmila Ulehla’s The Mississippi (1995) for flute, trombone, guitar, and percussion; Leonardo Balada‘s Tresis (1973) for flute or violin, guitar, and cello; Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Eclogues (1965), op. 206, for flute, English horn, and guitar; Thea Musgrave‘s Sonata for Three (1966), flute, violin, and guitar; William Neill’s Fantasia for flute, guitar, and cello; and William Anderson‘s Ear Conception (1994-95) for piano, violin, cello, flute, oboe, and two guitars.

Some important works for ensembles featuring a guitar that also include voice are: Igor Stravinsky‘s Four Songs (1953-54) for solo voice, flute, harp, and guitar; Dominick Argento‘s Letters from Composers (1968), his chamber opera, Postcard from Morocco (1971), and Tria carmina paschalia (1970) for female chorus, harp, guitar or harpsichord; Carlos Surinach‘s Via cruces (1972) for chorus and guitar, and Prayers (1973) for voice and guitar; and Charles Wuorinen’s Fenton Songs (1997-98) for soprano, violin, cello, and two guitars.

There is also a small repertoire of music for guitar and tape, including works by Davidovsky, Musgrave, and Machover.

A work that has a clever layout is Robert Martin‘s Diary of a Seducer. This 45-minute work consists of a series of solos, a series of duos, and a series of trios tracing the line from internal, private music to a multi-layered virtuosic ensemble. The work is akin to watching an early kinescope evolve into the latest CGI.

In addition, there is a rich tradition of chamber music for multiple guitars practiced by such artists as the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. Composers that have written for them include Brian Head, David Leisner, Ian Krouse, and Dusan Bogdonovic, as well as LAGQ member Andrew York.

[Ed. Note: The guitar duo has become a popular format among many composers. Groups such as the Newman-Oltman Guitar Duo have commissioned and premiered works by composers ranging from Lowell Liebermann to Augusta Read Thomas. Perhaps the most daunting composition for guitar duo is Mario Castelnuevo-Tedesco’s The Well-Tempered Guitars, Op. 199 (1962) which, like its J.S. Bach namesake, is a collection of preludes and fugues in every major and minor key. In recent years, thanks to the efforts of the above-mentioned LAGQ and other groups such as the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet and the now-defunct Buffalo Guitar Quartet, the guitar quartet has also developed a significant repertoire which includes compositions by Leslie Bassett, Lejaren Hiller, Eleanor Hovda, David Kechley, Bun-Ching Lam, Stephen Funk Pearson, Daniel Bernard Roumain, and Naomi Sekiya, among others.]

Guitarists that have been particularly active as chamber musicians include David Starobin, James Smith, Nicholas Goluses, William Anderson, David Tanenbaum, Oren Fader, David Leisner, and Joel Brown. These guitarists reflect a new breed of cosmopolitan musicianship that was, in the not too distant past, sadly lacking among guitarists. As the experience and quality of chamber music playing among guitarists has risen, composers have been more than eager to supply them with new music. The guitar, still evolving, is a new music instrument par excellence and its practitioners are adapting to new realities.

From Picking Through the Repertoire: A HyperHistory of the Contemporary American Classical Guitar
By Mark Delpriora
© 2004 NewMusicBox

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