Complicating the Narrative of the Guitar as an Outlier

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The guitar is often thought of as an outlier in the realm of “classical” music, but a program I will be performing in a few weeks (details below) exemplifies how that narrative of the guitar as an outsider is much more complicated.  The outsider status is reinforced by the guitar’s absence from the conservatory system in Europe for the first century of those institutions’ existences, as well as by the absence of the guitar from the symphony orchestra.  Other aspects of that outlier status – that the guitar was not part of standard ensembles; that it is a predominantly Spanish instrument; and that real composers did not play the guitar – are more complicated.

On January 12, 2018, I will be performing a recital of early nineteenth-century chamber music with guitar.*  The program includes a duet for flute and guitar by Charles Blum (1786-1844), another flute/guitar duet by Theodor Gaude (1782-1846), a trio for guitar, flute, and French horn by Christian Dickhut (fl. 1812), and a duet for cello and guitar by Friedrich Dotzauer (1783-1860).  This program exemplifies many of the places where the narrative of the guitar as an outlier is much more complicated.

The Guitar is Spanish

One of the first things one notices about this program I am about to play is that the music is all German.  The notion of the guitar as Spanish is a part of its outlier persona because it marks the instrument as different from other European instruments. The program I will be performing is, however, consistent with an overview of the instrument’s repertoire from the early nineteenth-century: it is dominated by the works of Italian composers with the Germans and French vying for second place.  This, in turn, is consistent with the repertoires of most other European art music. Music by Spanish composers runs a fairly distant fourth place in the early nineteenth-century, and becomes even more distant if one is only considering chamber music.  Looking at the music from this period, it is not defensible to assert the position that the guitar and its music were uniquely Spanish.

The Guitar was Outside Mainstream Music Making

These pieces demonstrate that the guitar was not outside mainstream music making.  The pieces consist of sonatas, minuets and trios, and rondos-the same forms everyone else was playing.  Pieces often begin with an improvised prelude, and contain cadenzas. There is nothing about these pieces that sets them apart from mainstream music making of the time.

The presence of a considerable body of chamber music including the guitar exemplifies how the guitar was integrated into the music-making community, not separated from it.  There is a considerable repertoire for the guitar playing duets with flute, violin, and forte piano.  These works could only have been written and published if the guitar was an accepted part of everyday music-making so as to create a market for such pieces.

The piece by Dickhut complicates the narrative that the guitar was not a part of standard ensembles, and hence, was an outlier.  The piece has, as an alternative to the French horn part, a part for viola.  That places this piece in the huge volume of music that was written for the trio of guitar, flute, and viola. The corpus of music written for that combination of instruments argues for the notion that, during the early nineteenth-century, this combination of instruments was considered a standard ensemble.  Why would all that music have been written and published if there was no market for it, and in turn, how could there have been such a market in the absence of that combination of instruments being recognized as a normal ensemble?

Real Composers Did Not Compose on the Guitar

The work by Charles Blum complicates the narrative that real composers did not write on the guitar, but only upon keyboards.  Charles Blum was, and remains, primarily known as a very successful composer of opera.  His only instrument was the guitar.  As a significant composer of the day whose main/only instrument was the guitar, he was not alone.  His peers would have included Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), and Franz Schubert (1797-1828). While the notion of the guitar as an outlier persists, it is actually a much more complicated history.

* Neil Caulkins will be performing a concert of early 19th century chamber music with guitar at Central Washington University, Music Building, on Friday, January 12, 2018 at 7:00 pm. He is pictured above with his nineteenth-century reproduction guitar built by Scot Tremblay, who can be visited at http://scottremblayguitars.com/.

3 thoughts on “Complicating the Narrative of the Guitar as an Outlier

  1. The community of classic(al) guitarists seems bent on continuing and even inadvertently encouraging the outlier role. Major festivals rarely feature any chamber music that includes other instruments and it would be very revealing to survey how much actual chamber music (not guitar duos, trios, quartets etc.) a guitar performance major is involved in on their way to their DMA/PhD compared to a pianist. Yes, there is a lack of really monumental chamber works that include guitar but one can argue that there is a substantial number of worthy works waiting to be performed that do include the guitar! Thank you for presenting a very interesting program, I wish we could be there.

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