Personalities | Andrés Segovia | A Classical Legend | Guitar Heroes

Classical-guitar legend Andrés Segovia (1894–1987) was born in the city of Linares, Spain and reared in Granada. He received musical instruction at an early age and was tutored in piano and violin but warmed to neither. When he heard the guitar in the home of a friend, however, he was hooked.

Disregarding the objections of his family and his teachers at the Granada Musical Institute, Segovia persisted in learning to play the guitar, teaching himself when he could not find satisfactory teachers.

Segovia was influenced by masters such as Francisco Tarrega, but developed his own style and technique. Segovia plucked the strings with a combination of his fingernails and fingertips, producing a sharper sound than many of his contemporaries. With this technique, he could create a wider range of tones. After the Second World War Segovia became among the first to endorse the use of nylon strings instead of gut strings, which improved stability in intonation.

Despite a lack of classical repertoire for guitar, Segovia dreamed of performing on the concert stage and continued to study and perfect his technique. As his talent developed, his reputation began to spread, and at the age of 15, in 1909, he made his public debut in Granada under the auspices of the Circulo Artistico, a local cultural organization. Numerous concerts followed, including ones in Madrid in 1912 and in Barcelona in 1916. In Madrid he had acquired from the craftsman Manuel Ramírez a guitar that he played for many years. In the mid-Thirties he began using an instrument made by Hermann Hauser of Munich.

By 1919 Segovia was ready for a full-fledged tour, and performed in that year in South America, where he gained an enthusiastic reception. Engagements kept him from returning to Europe until 1923. During this period Segovia was still considered something of a curiosity. At his London debut a sceptical Times critic became a devoted follower. At his Paris debut in April 1924, a concert arranged by his countryman, cellist Pablo Casals, Segovia was a sensation, winning warm praise for turning the ugly duckling Spanish guitar into a beautiful swan. A successful Berlin debut later that year cemented his international reputation.

Still there was a limited repertoire for guitar, and so Segovia transcribed works written for other instruments. He relied primarily on Renaissance and Baroque pieces composed for lute or Spanish vihuela. In Germany he discovered the lute works of Sylvius Leopold Weiss, which were adaptable and effective. He also discovered a group of Bach’s works that were well suited to the guitar. Segovia believed that many of Bach’s solo pieces were originally written for lute and later transcribed by him for other instruments. Unconvinced critics nevertheless applauded Segovia’s transcriptions. Demonstrating the suitability of Bach’s music for the classical guitar was one of Segovia’s greatest accomplishments.

Segovia’s growing fame brought with it a rising interest in the instrument itself. The sound that Segovia produced and the intimacy of its presentation inspired...

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