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

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

The prospect of pitting a guitar against an orchestra was always a controversial issue, particularly before amplification. Even Mauro Giuliani, the toast of early 19th-century Vienna, received obstinate criticism during his time for his Guitar Concerto in A op. 30, a concerto now regarded as a masterpiece of the genre and one of three in his oeuvre.

Likewise, when Segovia was building a concerto repertoire, he had to withstand his favored composer’s misgivings until they came around and produced concerti for him. Of the early 20th century composers that wrote a concerto for guitar—among them Adame, Ponce, Rodrigo, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco—it was the latter that represents a certain aspect of the American experience: the refugee. Tedesco, who was Jewish, decided to flee Italy after Mussolini absurdly declared Italians “Aryans” and instituted the racial laws of 1938. (That Castelnuovo-Tedesco had to leave is even more markedly ironic when one pauses to consider that Mussolini himself chose Castelnuovo-Tedesco to write the incidental music for the play “Savonarola” in 1935.)

Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Concerto in D, op. 99 was written in 1939. In fact, the slow movement, a lyrical and tender Andantino-Alla romanza, is often described as his “farewell to the Tuscan countryside.” One can easily imagine Castelnuovo-Tedesco composing this on the ship as it makes way to his new home: first Larchmont, New York, followed by Beverly Hills, California. Thus, the spiritual genesis of the 20th century guitar concerto in the U.S. is inextricably linked to Castelnuovo-Tedesco and visa versa. Castelnuovo-Tedesco followed this work with several others for guitar and orchestra: Serenade, op.118 (1943), Capriccio Diabolico, op.85/2 (1945), Concerto Sereno, op.160 (1953), and the Concerto for Two Guitars, op. 201 (1962).

André Previn (b.1929), a student of Castelnuovo-Tedesco, composed a Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (1971) for John Williams who recorded it with the composer conducting. The guitar writing is quite thin, mostly single lines characterized by short scale bursts, repeated notes, arpeggio sweeps, strummed chords, and accompaniment patterns beamed across the measure line. There is no polyphony in the part whatsoever. The harmonic vocabulary is influenced by jazz and bitonality. Rhythmically, it is straightforward but changes meters enough to keep things lively. The most unusual feature is the utilization of a jazz combo (electric guitars and drums). The third movement has this direction in the score: “The jazz unit…occurs out-of-tempo and in its own meter… Rhythmic alignment between orchestra and the jazz unit is approximate.” This section gives the effect of a radio drifting from one station to another. This work has not quite made it into the repertoire although it has been recorded more than once.

The Concerto for Guitar and Chamber Ensemble (1970) by Richard Rodney Bennett (b.1936) still ranks among the best works for concertante guitar. This work was written for Julian Bream and was recorded on his landmark “70s” LP. The work is atonal but romantic in gesture. Bennett developed an expressive use of 12-tone technique clearly observed in his “Five Impromptus” for solo guitar, which shares some of the characteristics of this concerto: long sweeping lines, rhythmic incisiveness and melodic appeal. The guitar is masterfully used in a variety of ways: as soloist, accompanist, and member of the ensemble. There are passages of enormous beauty in this work, such as the oboe and cello solos in the middle movement, the use of bongos in the first movement is strikingly fresh, and the celeste in the last movement.

Perhaps no one has done as much for the guitar concerto in the United States as Sharon Isbin. Her tireless efforts have resulted in important works for guitar and orchestra by Lukas Foss (b. 1922), John Corigliano (b.1938), Joseph Schwantner (b.1943), Christopher Rouse (b. 1949), and Tan Dun (b.1957). These composers draw upon the history and tradition of plucked-stringed instruments associating the instrument with a variety of sonic and cultural environments.

In Troubadours (Variations for Guitar and Orchestra) (1993), John Corigliano alludes to the world of the troubadours by using modal harmony, drones with percussion, actual troubadour tunes, and melodic shapes. He also often alludes to early plectrum-style lute playing.

American Landscapes (1989) by Lukas Foss takes as its inspiration American folk tunes, country music, and bluegrass styles. It is surprising music of wit and charm with lots of Ivesian intrusions and nice percussion effects. The piece is in three parts, the second of which is a set of variations on “The Wayfaring Stranger”. No stranger to the guitar, Foss had previously written a Chaconne for guitar solo that was published in Guitar Review.

From Afar… A Fantasy for Guitar and Orchestra (1987) by Joseph Schwantner is refreshing in that it is music only about itself. The work is very dramatic, colorful, and sonorous. Schwantner, himself a guitarist in his youth, acknowledges the resonances and qualities of the guitar as influencing his general orchestral style.

Concert de Gaudi (1999) by Christopher Rouse begins with a strong opening that will no doubt recall to any guitarist Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez. The Concert de Gaudi, especially the first movement, alludes to Spanish idioms and flamenco techniques in a way that is, at this point, probably superfluous. The second movement, a Largo sereno, is the heart of the piece and is very melodic, the overall arch of the movement very satisfying.

Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (Yi2) by Tan Dun (1957) likewise begins with a strong, strumming guitar. The basic stylistic backdrop of this piece, however, is Chinese with an emphasis on the guitar’s relative, the pipa. The tessitura of the guitar part is fairly high and much of the music has an improvisator feel.

John Anthony Lennon’s Zingara (1991) is a very inviting and successful romp through Gypsy culture. Lennon, an admirer of Django Reinhardt, chooses to allude to traditional Gypsy music in five short movements. The work was written for David Starobin, and is extremely idiomatic. It has all those Lennonisms like mordents, short arpeggio bursts, pedal tones and, above all, consistency of texture.

Eden: out of time and out of space, a 1998 chamber concerto by George Rochberg (b. 1918), has much quiet and mysterious music but does not forget the guitar’s place in popular music in the brief interlude of music influenced by 1930s jazz (a genre Rochberg also brilliantly evokes in his solo guitar work, American Bouquet).

Brian Ferneyhough‘s recent work for guitar and chamber ensemble Les Froissements des Ailes de Gabriel (2003) is the second section of his opera Shadowtime and may be performed separately as a guitar concerto. The composer says, “It consists of numerous miniscule fragments that fly past too rapidly for one to really comprehend them: a musical allegory for the ‘deafness to time,’ a quality angels are said to possess.” The work was recently premiered and was described by the composer, according to Richard Toop, as “245 bars of total non-sequiturs.”

Although Ferneyhough (b. 1943) is British, he has been living and working in the United States. Hence, the fourth section of Shadowtime, Opus Contra Naturam, which uses elements of the guitar concerto, is for a speaking pianist dressed in a Liberace costume and represents a descent into the underworld, symbolized in terms of a bar in Las Vegas.

Although not associated with new music, Christopher Parkening has lately been interested in new concertos and the film composer John Williams [no relation to the classical guitarist] is currently writing one for him. Another well-known film composer, Elmer Bernstein (b. 1922), composed a concerto for Parkening in 1999 which he subsequently recorded. The work is very tonal and friendly with the sweeping gestures of film music but with economy of material.

In addition, many other composers have contributed works for guitar and orchestra including: Samuel Adler, who composed a concerto in 1995; Meyer Kupferman‘s (1926-2003) Hexagon Skies (1994), Phantom Rhapsody (1980), Concerto for Four Guitars (1998) and Acrobats of Apollo for marimba, guitar and chamber orchestra; and Leonardo Balada‘s (b.1933) Persistencies (Sinfonia concertante) (1972); Concierto Magico (Conc. no.2), (1997) and the Concerto for 4 guitars and orchestra (1976).

Among American composers born in the second half of the 20th century, Roberto Sierra (b. 1953) has been among the most prolific for the guitar. His works include: Folias; Concierto Barroco; Of Discoveries for two Guitars and Orchestra; Fantasia Corelliana for two Guitars and String Orchestra; Pequeño Concierto for guitar, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, and cello; and Imágenes for violin, guitar, and orchestra (1993). Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960) also composed a Double Concerto for violin, guitar, and orchestra, which was premiered by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Sharon Isbin with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1997 who subsequently recorded it for Decca. Eclipse Musings (also 1997), a double concerto for flute, guitar, and chamber ensemble by Augusta Read Thomas (b. 1964) was recorded for Albany. Inspired by the Johnny Carson Show, Randall Davidson (b. 1953) created a single-movement Concerto for Guitar and Big Band Orchestra in 1989.

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

Sign up for our monthly NewMusicBox newsletter

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.