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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Spanish Guitar

The term Spanish guitar has been used differently across the centuries in different countries. Today it is often used interchangeably with the term classical guitar and is certainly not limited to instruments made in Spain. The recorded history of the guitar begins in the Renaissance, with the earliest written sources dating to the fourteenth century. The guitar emerged in Europe alongside musical traditions that came out of the Arabic world, among instruments like the lute and the viol. Johannes Tinctoris, writing in the fifteenth century, identifies Catalonia as the birthplace of the guitar, yet regardless of the instrument’s origin, the country of Spain has had an extraordinary impact on its development.

In the sixteenth century, the guitar throughout most of Europe had four courses of strings in pairs tuned g g’ – c’ c’ – e’ e’ – a’ a’. When talking about the stringing of a guitar, a course refers to a playable unit of strings; typically two strings tuned in unison or an octave apart and placed close together so that they can be fretted or plucked as one string. Music for the guitar published in Spain during this period is typically found among works for other instruments; for example, a section dedicated to the guitar is included in Juan Bermudo’s El libro llamado declaración de instrumentos musicales (1555). In France, there were significantly more published works devoted specifically to the guitar.

The fifth course was introduced at the end of the sixteenth century. This was recognized universally as a Spanish invention, and instruments with five courses were known as Spanish guitars. The musician and author Gaspar Sanz, writing in 1674, describes how the French and Italians imitated the Spanish instruments, adding a fifth course and using the term Spanish guitar to set their instruments apart from contemporary four-course guitars. Even the original owners of the Venetian Baroque guitar by Matteo Sellas (1990.103) may have called it a chitarra spagnola. This is in fact the repeating story of the Spanish guitar: the innovations of Spain’s virtuosic musicians and ingenious craftsmen disperse to captivate and transform guitar-playing traditions around the world. The five-course Spanish guitar arguably achieved its greatest success in France and Italy, where solo repertoire emerged relatively early on. In Spain, however, there was no solo guitar music published before 1674 (see Tyler 2005, p. 149), and although the instrument was used throughout Spain, royal courts preferred to be associated with Italian and French music.

The Spanish guitar in the eighteenth century increased in size, with a wider and deeper body. An instrument by José Massague (1990.220), made about 1755–60, is a fine example of these larger instruments, having an impressive body depth of about 4 1/2 inches. This instrument has a large internal space while maintaining a similar proportion in the plantilla (body profile) as the earlier Renaissance guitars, where the upper and lower bouts were more equal in size and were separated by a wide waist. This body shape would change, however, and Spanish guitar makers were again in the forefront of design innovation. An instrument made in 1797 by Benito Sanchez de Aguilera (1990.221) is an early example of a nineteenth-century design form; while it retains the wide lower bout, it has a narrow waist connecting to more rounded shoulders. These accentuated curves would become an increasingly popular feature of early nineteenth-century guitar making in Madrid.

The guitar’s main function in Spain during the eighteenth century was to facilitate national dance music often performed in elaborate settings. Instruments were often intricately decorated with inlaid designs on the front, as can be seen on a guitar attributed to Joseph de Frías (1992.279) from southwestern Spain.

The soundboard of a guitar has to withstand a formidable amount of string tension while also being able to vibrate freely. Most guitars made before the mid- to late eighteenth century had no bracing on the soundboard below the bridge, and at this time some makers attempted to produce louder instruments by making the top of the guitar thinner and adding braces on the inside. This period also saw the addition of a sixth course, and instruments became wider, making internal bracing all the more necessary. The earliest guitar with fan bracing is thought to have been made in Seville by Francesco Sanguino in 1759. The guitar makers of Cádiz also made regular use of fan bracing. An early example of this is an instrument by Joseph Benedid of Cádiz (1992.1.2), made in 1787. The luthiers in Cádiz at this time demonstrated a clear understanding of the importance of fan bracing on the soundboard of these larger, six-course instruments.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the six double-course guitar, with pairs of unison strings, began to give ground to those with six strings. Instrument makers in many parts of Europe used lateral barring, as can be found on guitars by Pierre René Lacôte (1992.1.1) and Johann Anton Stauffer (1979.390). The guitar maker Louis Panormo, working in London, promoted himself as “the only maker of guitars in the Spanish style,” adopting a kind of Spanish fan bracing system.

In Édouard Manet’s painting The Spanish Singer (49.58.2), a man holds a guitar that is clearly a French-made instrument, yet the artist no doubt knew that his audience would associate it with Spain. There was a fascination with Spanish guitar music throughout the nineteenth century and a growing demand for these instruments to be used in concert halls. Works by Sor, Paganini, and Berlioz were transforming the amateur image of the guitar into an object of musical finesse.

This period coincided with the arrival of German guitar maker C. F. Martin in New York, in 1833. Martin was well trained in the Viennese school of guitar making, but in America it soon became evident that he would have to accommodate the demand for Spanish-style guitars. By the end of the 1830s, Martin was advertising his ability to manufacture Spanish guitars, instruments that he also actively imported into the country. Martin’s instruments before the 1850s used a simple Spanish fan bracing system and plantilla, and even the company’s later guitars (2012.209a,b) had Spanish features.

Many small alterations took place in the first half of the nineteenth century, all leading up to what can be described as the concert guitar, exemplified in the work of Antonio de Torres. Workshops introduced raised fingerboards, bridges with saddles, and new designs for the soundboard. Torres, whose work began in the 1850s, standardized many of these features and produced instruments that received speedy recognition for their merits. His instruments were praised for their tone, and his designs for fan bracing were quickly taken up by other guitar makers. An instrument by Pedro Fuentes (1992.46a,b), made before 1858, uses five fan braces on the soundboard, which Torres was also using at this time on some of his instruments. The wooden mosaic decoration on Fuentes’ guitar would become a standard feature on classical guitars after the 1850s.

The brothers Ramírez, Manuel (1864–1916) and José (1858–1923), trained as guitar makers from an early age. Manuel was quick to adopt Torres’ innovations and from early in his career was considered the heir to Torres’ legacy (1986.353.2). Santos Hernández, foreman of the Ramírez workshop, had learned his craft alongside Manuel, and his instruments demonstrate obvious similarities to his employer’s. When, in 1912, Manuel Ramírez famously gave a young Andrés Segovia a guitar from his workshop, we know that it was at least in part made by Hernández. Santos Hernández was a flamenco guitarist, and his 1924 instrument (2016.787a,b) was designed specifically for that playing style. Its lightweight construction, with the back and sides made of cypress and wooden friction tuners, is well adapted for flamenco music, where the player usually holds the instrument up without support from the left leg. Both Ramírez and Hernández faithfully carried on the work that had inspired them, refining their designs and demonstrating their own creativity and sensitivity to players’ demands.

To an even greater extent than Fernando Sor in the nineteenth century, Andrés Segovia was actively involved in guitar design and development, meeting with guitar makers of the highest quality, including Ramírez and Hernández. In the 1920s, he encountered the German guitar maker Hermann Hauser, about whom he observed:

I examined [his instruments] and immediately foresaw the potential of this superb artisan if only his mastery might be applied to the construction of the guitar in the Spanish pattern as immutably fixed by Torres and Ramírez as the violin had been fixed by Stradivarius and Guarnerius. (Romanillos 1987, p. 56)

Hauser later approached Segovia and presented him with a guitar (1986.353.1). Through his own ingenuity and ability to recognize the genius of the Spanish traditions in the work of Torres and Ramírez, Hauser is now recognized among them as one of the great makers of the Spanish guitar.

The twentieth century has seen innovation of a different kind; guitar makers did not face the same design problems as they did a century before. It was the task of nineteenth-century guitar makers to produce a concert instrument capable of filling a large room with sound; this was achieved by Torres, and his designs remain the benchmark to this day. A guitar by Ignacio Fleta (2010.420), made in 1953, a hundred years after Torres’ first instruments, demonstrates both the continuing value in Spanish instrument making and the persistence of the traditions established in the early twentieth century based upon the designs of Torres. Whereas Torres and his predecessors are noted for their daring innovation, makers since have chiefly concerned themselves with minor adjustments in the internal barring structure and in the materials used. Spanish guitar makers today by necessity have to be educated in the innovations of these grand masters.