Over his long lifetime, Spanish-born guitarist Andrés Segovia gave more than 5,400 concerts and performed for the recordings of some 50 LPs (all or most of them now available in digital format). He changed the landscape of classical music in the 20th century by turning his own dedication to his instrument into the living voice of its advocacy, bringing traditional and contemporary guitar music into homes, conservatories, and concert stages worldwide.
Here’s what you need to know about the musician and the man:
He Segovia was born in Andalusia in 1893, and he is still usually considered one of the greatest musicians who ever lived. He was an immensely skilled technician with a rare expressive flair that complemented his mastery of the guitar repertoire.
All this, combined with his exuberant love for his instrument, resulted in a monumental success in positioning the guitar as a concert instrument for the modern age. Segovia earned the sobriquet, “Father of the Classical Guitar,” with George Harrison calling him, “the daddy of us all.”
Segovia started playing guitar at age 6. It was his uncle, with whom he lived as a small child, who first showed him the magic of music by often strumming soothing melodies on an imaginary guitar. The young Segovia’s love for the guitar could not be quenched: His parents and his teachers tried to interest him in the piano and the cello, but he kept returning to his first love.
Early in the 20th century, most classically trained musicians looked down on the guitar, considering it an instrument fit for no more than popular parlor entertainment. Segovia basically taught himself, and he anchored his musical ideas in his own intuited understanding of the instrument and its wide range of capabilities.
The most well-known guitar-making dynasty in Madrid, which served as a locus of the art from the Renaissance into the present day, is the Ramirez family. José Ramírez I founded the business in 1890, and the guitar-makers he trained included his brother Manuel.
In 1912, Segovia, then still in his teens, came into the Ramirez shop one day in hopes of renting an instrument. His playing so impressed Manuel that the guitar-maker gave him a concert-quality instrument, telling him to take it with him around the globe and thus to pay him for it “without money.”
After studying at the Granada Musical Institute, Segovia began performing in Madrid and Barcelona, then went on a tour of South America. Well before he was 30, he had garnered acclaim in Paris and the world as one of the foremost musicians of his time.
Not only was Segovia one of the most technically accomplished guitarists the world has ever known, he also supported the growth and development of the musical repertoire for his instrument. In particular, he commissioned new works by 20th century composers who included the Brazilian master Heitor Villa-Lobos.
The History of Guitar
While music scholars haven’t reached consensus on the ultimate origins of the guitar, they have reached consensus on where guitar-making and guitar-playing reached its apogee: in Spain.
Early precursors of the guitar included instruments like the guitarra latina, the guitarra morisca, the Middle Eastern oud, the lute, the vihuela, and the baroque guitar, many of them made with four or five double-gutted strings. All were mostly played in small group settings in people’s homes, or simply used as accompaniment. The vihuela, which became widely used in Renaissance Spain and Italy, continues in today’s mariachi bands in the form of the vihuela mexicana.
In the late 18th and 19th century, Spanish makers crafted guitar-like instruments with six single-gut strings. In the mid-19th century, the master guitar-maker Antonio de Torres Jurado produced innovations that brought together characteristics from multiple previous types of lutes and other stringed instruments. The result was a model that is the direct ancestor of all the acoustic guitars we use today.
Torres enlarged the instrument’s body and thinned out the depth of the soundboard, resulting in a louder, more resonant, and more balanced tone. Musicians who played both flamenco and classical guitar music were quick to embrace his new instruments.
Nineteenth century composer-guitarists such as Julián Arcas and Francisco Tárrega popularized the classical guitar, although before Segovia it remained for many a niche interest. With Segovia’s overwhelming skill and example, the guitar for the first time gained worldwide credibility as an instrument for the concert stage, and it is now taught in academies devoted to classical music training around the world.
Transcription Work and Late Career
Segovia himself produced numerous transcriptions of masterpieces from centuries past. Spain during the Renaissance was the site of a vast production of compositions for the lute, and Segovia’s more than 150 transcriptions include music for that instrument, as well as for the harpsichord and the vihuela.
For his transcriptions of centuries-old music, Segovia drew on the works of composers such as Jean-Philippe Rameau, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Some of his most notable albums that collect these transcriptions include The Baroque Guitar, The Complete 1949 London Recordings, and The Genius of Andrés Segovia: Five Centuries of the Classical Guitar.
He himself began teaching master classes in his art in the 1950s. In his nineties, he taught in short programs at the University of Southern California Segovia Conference and in other programs.
Well past the age when most people--even many musicians--have retired, Segovia continued to perform live and in the recording studio. He died in 1987 at age 94, only months after teaching yet another master class at the Manhattan School of Music.