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Andrés Segovia
How the legendary classical guitarist elevated the guitar to the status of concert instrument in the 20th century.

By Mark Small

Many young guitarists have only a passing awareness of Spanish classical guitar master Andrés Segovia. Appearing in black-and-white pictures or fuzzy YouTube videos as a heavy-set elderly man with thin white hair and thick glasses, he’s a far cry from today’s guitar gods. But in his heyday he was an incredible virtuoso and celebrity musician with millions of fans worldwide, including other top-tier musicians, painters, poets, and even heads of state.

Segovia was a powerful advocate for the guitar. He envisioned himself as “the apostle of the guitar” and undertook to help the instrument he loved attain the respect in the classical world accorded the violin and piano. He was not the only talented guitar virtuoso of the early 20th century, but by touring and concertizing relentlessly in every corner of the world, expanding the repertoire by commissioning new works, taking advantage of the new medium of recording, and publishing hundreds of transcriptions of pieces originally written for other instruments, Segovia’s name became synonymous with classical guitar.

He not only defined the instrument’s essential repertoire, which is still called the “Segovia Repertoire,” but through his teaching Segovia had a direct influence on three generations of guitarists who continued to carry the torch he lit, further expanding the concept of “classical guitar.” Segovia’s presence is still felt in guitar departments at numerous conservatories and universities, 23 years after his death in 1987 at age 94.

Segovia’s proselytizing work for the guitar caused a ground swell of interest in the instrument in general. While he was strictly a classical musician (and was frequently critical of other styles of guitar playing), many great artists in other genres acknowledged his multifaceted contributions to the guitar world. A quote attributed to Beatle George Harrison refers to Segovia as “the father of us all.”

From Granada to the World Stage

Born in Linares, a small Spanish village in the Andalusian province of Jaén in 1893, Segovia was raised by his aunt and uncle in Granada. After short-lived violin lessons and some solfège training, he got a guitar at age ten and began teaching himself to play. Soon he was deciphering works by Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani, and Julián Arcas that he and his friends borrowed from libraries, shops, and private collections.

At about 16, Segovia gave his debut recital in Granada, playing pieces by guitar composers Sor and Francisco Tárrega, transcriptions of piano works by Chopin and Albéniz, and some of his own pieces. In the years that followed he performed in other Spanish cities before broadening his horizons with a concert tour of South America around 1920. As his artistry and reputation grew he performed in the great cities of Europe. At his 1924 Paris debut (arranged by celebrated cellist Pablo Casals), the audience included composers Paul Dukas, Albert Roussel, and Manuel de Falla, as well as Madame Debussy (widow of composer Claude Debussy). Segovia’s triumphant debut at New York City’s Town Hall in 1928 was followed by five additional sold-out concerts in New York and 25 appearances in other American cities.

After his career was in full swing, Segovia toured the globe relentlessly, playing more than 5,000 concerts during the course of his life. In his inimitable romantic manner, he said of his life as a traveling artist, “Like the poet, I can say ‘I have felt the roundness of the world beneath my feet.’”

Photo credit, top, Michael Ochs Archives

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This article also appears in Acoustic Guitar, November 2010

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