[Today: The original guitar maestro…]
“The guitar is a small orchestra. It is polyphonic. Every string is a different color, a different voice.” For Andres Segovia, that wasn’t just a nice sound bite, it was a musical philosophy. He almost single-handedly established the guitar as a classical instrument, and helped popularize it well beyond that genre. A self-taught guitar maestro who introduced many common playing techniques that were radical in his day, Segovia was more interested in finding the perfect sound than following musical convention. So he played Bach, strummed with his fingertips as well as his fingernails, and used nylon guitar strings – and pretty soon everyone else did too.
Born in Linares, Spain in 1893, Andres Segovia owned his first guitar at age 6, gave his first public performance at age 15, turned professional at age 16, and was an international figure of repute before his 20th birthday. By 1928, he had built a following large enough to sell out a series of concerts along the East Coast, including his triumphant US premiere, at Town Hall in New York City (“A New York audience has seldom been quicker or warmer with its approval” concluded the New York Times’ review of the event).
Segovia was repeatedly discouraged from trying to integrate the guitar into classical music, but he persisted, building a repertoire for the instrument through his own transcriptions of a variety of existing classical pieces. By the 1920’s his persistence and rising profile paid off when a number of classical musicians began writing specifically for the guitar. That the instrument was never again seen as exotic is tribute to Segovia’s iron will and singular genius.
He cut plenty of 78’s, but it wasn’t until the advent of Long Playing (LP) records in the late-1940’s that Segovia’s music was finally given the format it deserved. Here every note was distinct, every finger squeak audible (another innovation), the warmth of his playing waiting to fill a room like a crackling fire. But sloppy digitization of his music for compact disc in the 1980’s left a generation of guitar players to wonder if Segovia had been overrated. Thankfully, the 2002 4-disc set The Segovia Collection restores much-needed audio fidelity to a fine cross-section of his music, preserving his legend in all its colorful, polyphonic glory.
Segovia gave his last recital on April 4, 1987 in Miami, shortly after his 94th birthday. A few months later he died in Madrid, widely recognized as the father of modern classical guitar.