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

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

Mark Delpriora
Photo by Randy Nordschow

The six strings of the guitar are as central to the music of America as the six vowels are to our language, whether it’s the slurred speech of an inebriated depression-era hobo or the pithy utterances of the most refined, hyper-educated aesthete. The guitar is the most intimate and personal voice of the people. The guitar has meant many things to many people, but here I mostly steer a middle ground, concentrating primarily on the composers and compositions for classical guitar that I admire and/or I think are historically relevant.

The story of American guitar repertoire begins at about the time of our country’s founding, but the most exciting developments began in the 20th century when important guitar virtuosos nurtured a whole new solo repertoire for the instrument.

Once little more than a novelty, by the late 20th century, the guitar started turning up in contemporary works for chamber ensemble with some regularity and some of today’s most important composers have even written concertos for the instrument. Recently, the electric guitar, an instrument more commonly associated with music outside the proscenium concert hall, has become a timbre to reckon with in today’s cutting-edge contemporary music.

My favorite passage about the guitar, its history and its place, is from Manuel De Falla’s preface to Emilio Pujol’s guitar method. The specific cultural milieu is European and Spanish but the spirit expressed is universal. Falla wrote:

This admirable instrument, as sober as it is rich, sometimes roughly yet sometimes sweetly masters the soul. Through the centuries it has taken up unto itself the values of noble instruments which have passed away, has taken those values into itself without losing its own character which it owes, in its origins, to the people itself. One must acknowledge that the guitar, of all stringed instruments with a fingerboard, is the most complete and the richest in its harmonic and polyphonic possibilities.
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