Notes 60.2 (2003) 467-468
[Access article in PDF]
The Guitar and Its Music: From the Renaissance to the Classical Era. By James Tyler and Paul Sparks. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. [xxv, 322 p. ISBN 0-19-816713-X. $98.] Music examples, illustrations, facsimiles, bibliography, index.
In the world of musicology, as in the world of performance, contemporary attitudes about the guitar are conditioned by the preeminence of the modern "classical guitar," an instrument that came into being in the mid-nineteenth century but is still widely used to play music from the last five hundred years. The history of this particular kind of guitar culminated triumphantly on the solo concert stage, thanks largely to Andrés Segovia, whose musicianship and charisma earned him the status of a Rubinstein, Casals, or Heifetz. Yet Segovia's victory was Pyrrhic: his fame benefitted from and enhanced the modesty of his instrument, so that even he could not slow the guitar's gradual abandonment by the art music mainstream, a process begun decades before his birth and continuing to this day.
Segovia did not know, alas, that for centuries the family of instruments designated by the name "guitar" (as distinguished from other plucked string instruments such as the lute and vihuela) occupied a central position in many western musical contexts. From the sixteenth century until the middle of the eighteenth, the four- and five-course guitar enjoyed significant and sometimes immense international popularity, in chamber, solo, and vocal settings. Moreover, these now-forgotten guitars shaped the course of crucial musico-historical developments, not the least of which was the rise of monody. Only with the ascendance around 1800 of the six-string guitar and a particular school of Italian virtuosi did the instrument begin to relinquish this position for the fringe existence that now remains for many its only history.
In this very important new book, James Tyler and Paul Sparks have managed not only to document the guitar's early history, but also to open a window on the music, survey the various relevant instruments and playing techniques, and set a course for future research. Their work will appeal to a wide range of readers, from historians with little interest in the guitar for its own sake, to performers with little interest in history for its own sake. The organizational framework is that of a survey: eras ("The Guitar in the Sixteenth Century" and "The Spanish Guitar [c. 1600-c. 1750]" covered by Tyler, "The Origins of the Classical Guitar" by Sparks); primary sources (published and manuscript, numbering in the hundreds); geographical and political contexts (some half-dozen, which vary according to era); and three main categories of instrument. This design will allow the book to serve as a reference for individuals with relatively narrow research and performance interests—and the authors clearly hope to inspire this kind of activity—but also as the first thorough history of a topic that no generalist can afford to ignore.
Tyler's sections provide everything that one would expect from an effective survey, with balanced coverage of organology, repertory, historical background, and performance practice, along with extensive recommendations for future research. Yet [End Page 467] the great strength of his work is the efficient and informative coverage of an enormous array of sources, in particular those written using the continuo-like notation known as alfabeto. This ingenious but little-known system, in which the finger patterns of particular chords were designated with single letters of the alphabet, facilitated a variety of uses for the guitar: vocal accompaniment, popular solo performance in a strummed style, and complicated virtuoso compositions and arrangements that mixed strumming and lute-style plucking. The notational convenience of alfabeto became a major factor in the five-course instrument's widespread popularity in the seventeenth century, above all in Italy and France. Readers interested in investigating the musical foundation of this popularity will be grateful for Tyler's enlightening commentary on the quality of the music, for this notation is only slightly easier for the nonplayer to penetrate than works written in...