Editted by Thomas Schmitt.
Published by Doblinger
I’ll be honest with you. The most interesting part of this collection, for me, was the Preface. Thomas Schmitt has clearly researched widely and laboured hard to bring this collection to fruition. I’m left wondering whether or not it was music worthy of such trouble. But I’ll get to that.
His introduction paints the scene in Spain around 1800. The guitar is ubiquitous. Theatre, dance, song, on the road, in the countryside, in the inns, in streets – there is no escaping its strumming and rasguedos as it is used in an accompanying role. There are 2 million people who could be described as the labouring classes, for whom the guitar is an omni-present and essential background of rhythm and harmony, communicated in a music in the oral tradition.
But there is also a much smaller (200,000) number of people in ‘higher’ employment such as lawyers, clerics and merchants. It is from among these wealthier and more educated people that we find the executors, writers and consumers of written/notated guitar music. An idea of the exclusiveness of their product comes, Thomas argues, in its cost. A small piece of music might be printed with an asking price of more than twice a daily labourer’s wage.
Some of the educated guitarists writing in 1800 may have taken guidance and certainly inspiration from Boccherini, Soler and Scarlatti, but there is little in their music to suggest they were developing a national voice, or indeed a voice of any distinction. They had certainly developed impressive guitar skills which they are eager to show off; that much is certain from this collection. Their compositional skills were not so well developed, if this book tells an accurate story.
Before I look at the contents, there is another caveat to consider. The music is 220 years old and an awful lot of development has happened since 1800; when this reviewer offers a view, it is through a prismatic distillation of listening to the amazing guitar music which graces our concert platforms today.
Fernando Ferandiere is represented here by Präludiums, which were possibly devoid of tempo markings at the outset. The tempo cómodo suggestions hint therefore at music of a didactic quality, as do the repetitive structures which seem like variations on a perfect cadence. The obviously idiomatic and predictable figurations which follow these concrete statements of tonality render them as wooden for anything other than use with a student… better stuff has been written since. Ferandiere seems incapable of getting away from small blocks of simple harmonic structures, awkwardly juxtaposed without any sense of through-writing. Yet he is not short of characterful ideas, but he seems lacking in any competence, other than a guitaristic one, to do anything with them.
Antonio Abreu‘s Sonata is a more substantial offering and was possibly taken quite seriously at the time, because it is flamboyant, tuneful and inventive. My favourite of Isidoro Laporta’s works here was the Allegro in D, which is actually quite fun to play and shows off the guitar’s virtuoso side. But when we recall that it is less than ten years since W.A. Mozart departed the planet, this lacks the art of omission and succinctness; the predictable sequences offer no surprises and it isn’t the sort of music to play when tired, lest you fall asleep.
Federico Moretti impressed Fernando Sor more than he did me. Federico had done his lessons in counterpoint, imitation and voice-leading; they all function as you might expect and his Sonatine has figurations which would be challenging to execute flawlessly even on a 2nd or 3rd reading. It all adds up to very little though and if there is a personal idiom, it is in his love of the instrument. Juan Antonio de Vargas y Guzmán wrote a Sonate no 9 in D and this was refreshing because the material was a bit of an ear-worm and fun to play. A variation piece was co-written by Manuel Ferau and Isidoro Laporta on a theme of Ferau, which acts as a useful reference for what was possible in the hands of skilled guitarists of the time; ‘a lot’ is the answer…this defeated me in attempts to quickly get it under the fingers. It’s tricky, imaginative and fun in equal measure. The collection is rounded off by some pieces by Mathías Maestro who was capable of writing characterful and virtuoso Sonatas which are melodically appealing and characterful.
Whilst the font is clear and the paper quality impressive, there are a few places where systems are squeezed, possible in an attempt to reduce printing costs and this diminishes the sense of holding a beautifully-presented tome.
The 1800 writers for the most part were tooled up with more guitar skills than writing skills. I found it tedious to wade through the collection, a gathering of mostly predictable and unremarkable elementary lessons in harmonic and contrapuntal creation, dressed up in the fine clothes of accomplished players. Thomas Schmitt’s considerable efforts to bring this music out from the forgotten libraries where it resides, constitutes a serious and committed work verging on the scholarly. If you can engage with this music (and I honestly cannot) then you will be grateful that Thomas was interested enough to do it. For such players who are willing to forgive the compositional shortcomings and just enjoy the feast of digital fun that is therein contained, this book will make you smile.
Colin Tommis. December 2020