Today being Thursday, I am exploring the ultimate throwback in the form of the earliest surviving compositions for the guitar, contained on this remarkable and arcane slab of vinyl.
I acquired this record as part of a huge generational torch-passing. A friend of the family, a deeply committed classical listener, was getting rid of hundreds of his records and I was able to take my pick. In one fell swoop I obtained major works by every name-brand composer, and a whole bunch of curios like this album. Being a guitarist myself, and fascinated with the history and tradition of this still-evolving instrument, this album is particularly fascinating for me.
Released in 1968 on the Everest label, this album features guitar, vihuela, and voice performances of the works of the earliest known Spanish guitar composers. Everest was a label started in the 50s in Long Island, New York, which hasn’t been active since the early nineties. So it’s possible this was never re-issued or transferred to other formats.
One thing that’s immediately notable is the length of the compositions: many don’t stray past two or three minutes, which may be surprising to people who assume that all classical forms are lengthy. It seems that from the very beginning, the guitar was a modular and portable in both form and in content. It was designed to be an instrument of smaller works.
Some of these compositions are actually played on the vihuela, which is like an eight-string, double-course forerunner of the classical guitar. The sonorities of the vihuela are so intoxicating, sort of like a twelve-string guitar crossed with a ukulele. Other pieces on the album were adapted for modern classical guitar, but the overall effect of the music is maintained.
Technically a lot of this material revolves around the same kind of shifting major-minor tonal centre as music from other parts of Europe during the period, with an emphasis on romantic themes and courtly dancing, but the fact that the guitar is a solo instrument created an interesting explosion of new ideas and ways of approaching harmony. You can feel the freedom of the instrument and the composers beginning to stretch what were then considered to be the limits of tonality.
Another interesting facet of this recording is the musicians themselves. The instrumentalist is a famous female guitarist named Renata Tarrago. Evidently quite famous in her day, she seems to have been forgotten by history, as she’s not as famous as contemporaries like Julian Breem. Ms. Tarrago was subtly contrarian: while most classical guitarist used their fingernails, she refused and always played with her fingertips. On this record she accompanies a wonderful soprano named Rosa Barbany on several tracks. I would love to tell you all about Ms. Barbany, but I can’t find anything about her online other than other deleted albums of Spanish traditional music, or references to this album.
As I mentioned earlier, the music on this record represents the earliest surviving compositions for the guitar/vihuela. Two of the composers featured are particularly interesting in this respect. Luis de Milan, who probably spent most of his life in the region of Valencia in the early 16th century, holds the high honour of being the first person in history to publish a book of music specifically for the vihuela, and one of the first composers known to indicate tempo.
Alonso De Mudarra was a priest and scholar in Seville in the middle of 16th century who was the first person to publish music for the four-course or Renaissance guitar, a later relative of the vihuela (both are forerunners of the Baroque guitar, which is the chief ancestor of the modern instrument). Mudarra also apparently groups his compositions by mode, which was another innovation for the period.
This music is gorgeous, expressive and harmonically rich. For anyone interested in the history of composition or the evolution of the guitar, investigation of the guitar music of the Spanish Renaissance will open your ears to a whole new compositional language within this most humble of instruments.