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/.

A Wonderful Christmas Present of Music

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At a friend’s wedding this fall I was struck by the pensive, brooding organ prelude.  I thought that it would be wonderful to have a guitar duet with that sort of gravity.  This immediately brought to mind composer Michael E. Young (b. 1939).  Mr. Young was our composition and history teacher in undergraduate, is a fine organist, and has written pieces for us in the past. Kootenai East, for example, is a duet he wrote for us that we premiered and recorded on our CD.  I approached Mr. Young with my idea of a duet like an organ prelude, and he was receptive.  Later in the fall, he sent me a message telling of spending time at a friend’s house.  During his visit he said that he “began hearing music.” The result of that was “Prelude Music for Two Guitars,” Op. 157, which we received today.  As one can see, it is in three movements-prelude, fugue, and passacaglia. We wanted to thank Mr. Young for this wonderful gift, and to say how much we are looking forward to premiering it this coming year. This is a fine addition to the guitar duet repertoire.

Playing a Guitar with a Seventh String: Nineteenth-century Performance Practices By Neil Caulkins

In the mid-nineteenth century, the establishment of a canon of great composers was well underway.  This corresponded with a general current in European culture glorifying “the genius.”  Associated with this was an increased focus upon the notated works by these “geniuses” -a reification of the musical score.  This focus upon the composer as genius lead to both increased indication within the musical scores as to performance (tempos, dynamics, crescendos, etc.) and the disappearance of improvisation. “The need for a fully specifying notation really became urgent, when it became the norm for music to travel independently of the composer, when one and the same composition began to be repeated in numerous performances.”[1]

However, around 1851 the French translation by Napoleon Coste of Fernando Sor’s guitar method was published.[2] In an appendix, added by Coste, he extols the virtues of a seven-string guitar he named the “Heptacorde.”[3]  He describes numerous advantages and qualities present in the seven-string guitar, of which the ordinary guitar is bereft.  Coste recounts how a seven-string guitar gained jury approval at a then-recent musical instrument exposition.[4]  Like many instruments, the guitar would settle into its current/modern form in the nineteenth-century, but, at the midpoint, it had not yet done so.  {My seven-string nineteenth-century guitar, which is pictured below, was built by Scot Tremblay (http://scottremblayguitars.com/).  It is modeled after an 1840 French instrument.}

Coste then proceeds to give numerous musical examples, or “studies”, that serve to show how to use the seven-string guitar and how to employ it in music not written for it.  These studies consist of a given line of music, and then an alternate line that demonstrates the musical advantage of having the one extra low D this instrument afforded.  See musical example 1.  Some of the changes made between the given example, and what one could realize with a seven-string instrument are significantly different. See musical example 2.

What this depicts is a sense of license the performer has to enhance written music.  Whether this freedom with the written score came from the still-existing sense of improvisation of the time or was a product of a new innovation in the physical instrument itself does not really matter.  The important point is that these studies of what one could do with an extended-range guitar could only exist if it was acceptable in performance to depart from the written score.  These studies afford a glimpse into how Coste expected his readers to use the seventh string, and a glimpse at what level of departure from the written score Coste anticipated his reader would eagerly embrace.

Given the freedom exhibited in these studies, I have rewritten several cadences in my duet parts to take advantage of the seventh-string on my nineteenth-century guitar.  In Musical Example 3, there is a cadence in D major from one of my parts.  The first line is as written, and the second line is how I play it with my seven-string guitar in light of Coste’s studies.

[1] Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. 224-5.

[2] RiBS0789.

[3] Sor’s Method (Appendix by Coste) pg 45.

[4] Id.

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Upcoming Concert! Friday, January 12, 7:00 pm at Central WA Univ Recital Hall: Guitar and Friends: a program of Early Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music

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On January 12th, 2018 at 7:00 pm, in the Central Washington University Music Department recital hall. Neil Caulkins will perform an evening of seldom heard early nineteenth-century chamber music with guitar. He will be joined by CWU faculty members Hal Ott (flute) and Jeff Snedeker (French horn). He will also perform with Yakima symphony principal cellist, Kara Hunnicutt.

The recital will feature the Serenade for flute and guitar by Charles Blum (1786-1844), Sonate, Op. 24, for flute and guitar by Theodore Gaude (1782-?), Serenade, Op. 4, for flute, guitar, and French horn by Christian Dickhut (?-1830), and the Pot-Pourri, Op. 21, for guitar and cello by Frederic Dotzauer (1783-1860). Neil will be playing his Scot Tremblay seven-string guitar that is modeled after a French instrument from around the 1830s.  Dr. Ott will be playing an original flute from the 1820s.

The CWU Music building is located off Alder Street in Ellensburg WA. The concert is free to the public.