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This article is a short biography of the classical guitar great Andres Segovia. Click the links in the article to read footnotes and references.

The Starting of Andres Segovia’s Career

Andres Segovia was born in a small town in the southern part of Spain, Andalusia, called Linares and he spent his first two years in Jaén with his parents. Then he moved in Villacarillo where he lived under the care of his uncle Eduardo and his aunt Maria. At that time the classical guitar had no role in the social life of these small towns. His first experiences with the guitar and music were with the flamenco which was the most accepted style of music with the guitar as its main instrument by the Spanish society1.

When Segovia was ten years old his uncle and aunt moved to Granada where Segovia could get his formal education2. In Granada from a luthier, Benito Ferrer, Segovia was given his first guitar as a present by his friend Miguel Cerón “in exchange to give him weekly lessons and teach him all [Segovia] knew about the guitar.”3 It was there when at the age of twelve, for the first time, Segovia had heard a flamenco guitarist named Gabriel Ruiz de Almadóvar playing classical music: Tárrega’s preludes. This demonstration by this guitarist could be approximately about 1905 when Almadóvar said to Segovia “that these preludes were in print, as well as many other works by the same and other composers.”4 Unfortunately, this guitarist did not name exactly the composers whose musical pieces were in print at the beginning of the twentieth century. It would be very interesting to know what other guitar works appeared in print at that time since at the beginning of the twentieth century the only living and known Spanish guitarist-composer and transcriber was Tárrega. His music was evidently published while the other composers mentioned by Gabriel Ruiz de Almadóvar might be the guitarist- composers of the nineteenth century whose works were still popular and printed.

Following Almadóvar’s statement, namely that music by Tárrega and other composers were in print, Segovia tried to find music written for the classical guitar in shops, libraries and even in private homes. As he says: “we [Segovia and Cerón] found some compositions by Arcas, Sor, and Giuliani, in poor and often well-worn editions.”5 If we consider that these compositions were found in libraries or in shops in Spain by Segovia in 1905 when Tárrega was almost at the end of his life, we can ask why Tárrega had never played music by these composers, or why he had never tried to find music originally written for the guitar. It can only be explained that Tárrega’s aim was to create a new repertoire for the guitar with his own compositions and with transcribed compositions of well-known composers in order to popularise the instrument. This was one of Segovia’s aims as well but there was a great difference because Segovia wanted to create a repertoire with compositions written for the guitar by non-guitarist composers.

The demonstration by the flamenco guitarist who played classical music showed to Segovia that there were original musical works which needed a cultivated artistic level from the player since these were not composed only with some accords by thrumming the strings. Segovia’s research to find music originally written for the classical guitar led him to the decision to study playing the guitar. He only started to learn because he was fond of the instrument and he had never thought to become a famous classical guitarist. Due to the economic problems and the difficulty of finding a guitar teacher at that time, Segovia decided to teach himself. As he says, “from then on I was to be both my teacher and my pupil.”6 His own progress started when he moved to Córdoba. Thanks to a letter by Fermín Garrido, Segovia became acquainted with an amateur guitarist named Tomás who had a “fine collection of manuscripts, editions of Tárrega and other composers.”7 Tomás’ generosity to lend Segovia compositions from his collection helped him to enlarge his repertoire. But, as Segovia claims, these new compositions “brought […] my scant technical knowledge.”8 This statement proves us that at about the age of fifteen Segovia’s technique - his first public recital in Granada was given in 1909 - was deficient and he was unable to perform such works as listed below (see next page ). After facing with this problem, Segovia started to improve with systematical practicing influenced and inspired by his pianists friends, Laura Monserrat’s and Luis Serrano’s playing and practice in Córdoba because their instrument, the piano had already had a pedagogical tradition.9 At that time Segovia started the practicing of scales which he believed could solve many technical problems in shorter time than any other exercise could. At the same time he initiated himself to Método de Armonía by Hilarión Eslava10 from which he learned the basics of harmony improving his theoretical knowledge.

Segovia’s first performance took place in one of his pianist friends’ house where he played a study in B minor by Sor, a short prelude and the arpeggio study in A major by Tárrega and one of Tárrega’s transcriptions, a bourrée by J. S. Bach in B minor from the second sonata for solo violin. Maybe, these works were found by Segovia in shops or in libraries when he was twelve years old, or these were the ones that he borrowed from Tomás. We do not know Segovia’s exact age at that moment but he could not be older than sixteen because he answered to Rafael de Montis, a Spaniard pianist’s question that he was working on a program and he was planning to give a recital in Granada. This recital was Segovia’s first public performance which took place at the Arts Center of Granada at the end of 1909, when he was sixteen years old. Actually, this event made Segovia decide to become a classical guitarist as he said the day after his concert: “suddenly I decided to be the Apostle of the guitar.”11 Alberto López Poveda, Segovia’s biographer and the founder and curator of Segovia Museo in Linares gives the list of the following works assumed to be the program of the recital:12

Capricho ArabeTárrega
Estudio BrillanteTárrega
Estudio in B minorSor
Three PreludesSegovia

Shortly after his first concert, Segovia went to Sevilla as the pianist, Rafael de Montis invited him. He succeeded in playing several times in Sevilla and in other cities of Andalusia, Huelva, Cádiz and Jerez, but he nowhere felt that he could win the public with his art. A very interesting report by Segovia about a private concert in Huelva describes the reactions of the ungrateful public:

A decrepit old man snored; another read the newspaper. Six or seven listened, expressing contempt, or entirely indifferent to my music. One of them, taken by the rhythm of a dance, followed what he imagined to be the beat with his foot and his hands.13

As Segovia’s purpose was to be 'the Apostle of the guitar’ it was necessary for him to move in a town where the public of musical life was more demanding with more possibilities to unfold his talent. To achieve his goal, he decided to go to Madrid as he thought, if he could win the public changing their conception of the guitar in the capital of Spain, it would be easier to become accepted by the public of the provinces.

Besides the professional opportunities which Madrid could give Segovia to start a new period in his artistic career, there was his determined character, his ambition and his devotion to the guitar which helped him to achieve his goal not only in the years spent in Madrid but during of the rest of his life. Shortly after his arrival in Madrid, at the age of eighteen, Segovia was planning to give a concert at the Ateneo and knowing that his guitar made by Benido Ferrer was not a professional one, he wanted to play on a more powerful instrument at this recital. At that time in his financial situation Segovia could not afford to buy a concert guitar, however, he thought to rent out a guitar from Manuel Ramírez only for his concert as pianos were rented for performances. This offer to one of the best luthiers of that days by someone who came from the provinces without a letter of recommendation, proved somebody who was sure of himself with temperament, who decided to spend his life with the guitar. Although Ramírez “burst out laughing”14 listening to Segovia’s offer, he showed him one of his best instruments. Segovia started to play on this guitar when somebody came to the shop and listened to his playing. This man as it was said later to Segovia by Ramírez was “Don José del Hierro, head professor of advanced violin studies at the Royal Conservatory.”15 The conversation Segovia had with this professor gave us very interesting information about the image of the guitar in Madrid at the beginning of the 1910s. When Segovia finished his playing the professor congratulated him saying:

I like your temperament and technique […] What a pity such skill should be wasted on the small and undeveloped world of the guitar. Beautiful, perhaps, but solitary and wild; few men of talent have ventured there and you have chosen to spend on it all your God-given talent - why not consider changing instrument? You are still young enough; you could become famous playing the violin.16

This professor of violin noticed that the eighteen-year-old Segovia – having spent six years of self practicing since his decision to become a guitarist - had already a good technique and his temperament could be felt in his playing. This quotation said by a violin-professor of the Royal Conservatory about the image and place of the guitar among the other instruments proves that Segovia could not study the guitar neither in provincial towns nor in Madrid because the classical guitar was not yet accepted at the conservatory to the extent as the other classical instruments, the violin or the piano, were. Nevertheless, it does not mean that in whole Spain at the beginning of the twentieth century classical guitar teachers did not work. We know that Tárrega died in 1909 and his pupils taught the guitar according to Tárrega’s method in several towns of Spain; for example, Daniel Fortea (1878-1953) was the teacher of Regino Sáinz de la Maza (1896-1981). This could have happened to Segovia when he met Fortea in Madrid in 1912.

Although the offer of the professor to a young musician could be very attractive but Segovia again showed his love, faithfulness and mission for the guitar answering to the professor “I would never turn my back to the guitar. It needs me, the violin doesn’t. [...] I have also sworn to walk in the steps of the sainted Francisco Tárrega, who lived and died for his beloved instrument, with little hope of glory or gain.”17 Segovia’s statement proves what I have said above that he did not choose the guitar so as to become famous.

Manuel Ramírez who saw and listened to this conversation decided to give a professional guitar to Segovia as a present in exchange for making his guitar famous with his concerts. Ramírez’ decision could be taken as an investment on a guitarist who intended to extract the guitar from the folkloric amusement giving its the same importance as the other accepted instruments have. I think that it is very important to mention that at the beginning of the twentieth century all guitar makers in Spain were influenced by Torres’s guitar trying to copy his instrument and the well-known guitarists till the 1910s in Spain - Arcas, Tárrega and Llobet – played on a Torres guitar. In 1912 Ramírez was not so famous as today and giving a guitar as a present to the young Segovia, he believed that his guitar used by Segovia at his concerts could become so legendary as Torres’s. This statement can be proved by the words of Ramírez to Segovia: “Take it, kid. It’s yours. Make it flourish in your hands with your good work. And, don’t worry about the cost. Pay me back with something other than money. You understand?”18 This speculation by Ramírez had positive results because Segovia really made his guitar legendary playing it till 1937.

After receiving a professional guitar, Segovia had his recital at the Ateneo which made him known in the musical circle of Madrid. Quoting from a letter written by a composer to Turina, Segovia at this concert “played some fine little pieces by Tárrega and mostly transcriptions of minor classic and romantic works.”19 Maybe, the works of this concert were among those which Segovia found in shops, libraries and in private homes in 1905. There are some opinions about Segovia’s concert recorded in private letters which show us again the attitude toward the classical guitar. The remark below was written by a member of the Ateneo describing the place of the guitar in the Spanish musical world while the reaction letting us understand that there a classical guitar recital was given for the first time:

I have little to say about that guitar concert because I didn’t have the patience to sit it out so I left before the second part was over. That stupid young fellow is making useless efforts to change the guitar […]. The guitar responds to the passionate exaltation of Andalusian folklore, but not to the precision, order, and structure of classical music.20

Another opinion about Segovia’s concert was recorded by a pupil of Tárrega who at that time tried to find possibilities to give a concert in Madrid. Unfortunately, we do not know his name but Segovia named him Tárregaphore because he imitated Tárrega’s gesture. With his comments he claimed that in Spain the accepted classical guitarists could only be those who studied or followed the guitar school of Tárrega:

[…] A few nights ago a young Andalusian guitarist gave a concert at the Ateneo. No one knows his real name - he must have called himself 'Segovia’21 to get people’s attention. He played a tasteless program; side by side with the master’s transcriptions -in which he took unforgivable liberties - he dared play some of his own. […]. He is so far from understanding the blessed school of our beloved Tárrega! At first glance one can see that the position of his hands is very careless; if he does achieve speed and clarity in difficult passages it is due to a sort of fallible intuition, not because he applies the proper rules. Worst of all […] he plucks the strings with his fingernails.22

This opinion by Tárrega’s pupil was probably right saying that the position of his hands was careless but we must not forget that Segovia was a self-taught guitarist. Everything he achieved was done only by himself and his imperfect technique at the age of eighteen was appropriate. It is worth mentioning that until 1900 Tárrega played the guitar using his nails, which had actually been the practice of the guitarists (e.g Aguado, Giuliani, Carulli, and Arcas)23. In addition, this opinion evidently presents that Segovia could never be accepted by Tárrega’s pupils or among the fans and admirers of Tárrega. The only exception was Miguel Llobet, Tárrega’s pupil, with whom Segovia later became friends respecting him and considering him as an artist.

1 See more about his first experiences with the flamenco in Andres Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, trans. W.F.O’Brien (London: Marion Boyars, 1976), 3.

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2 Ibid

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3 Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, 5.

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4 Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, 7.

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5 Ibid

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6 Ibid

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7 Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, 12.

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8 Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, 13.

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9 See more information in Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893 -1920, 13-17.

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10 Hilaríon Eslava published Método Completo de Solfeo (1846) and Escuela de Armonía y Composición (1861). Graham Wade says that Segovia may confuse the titles, which gives the possibility that he studied both of them at that time. Graham Wade & Gerard Garno, A New Look at Segovia: His Life, His Music, vol. one (Pacific, Missouri: Mel Bay, 1997), 33.

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11 Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, 20.

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12 Wade & Garno, vol. one, 34.

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13 Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, 28-29.

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14 Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, 50.

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15 Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, 51-52.

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16 Ibid

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17 Ibid

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18 Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, 51.

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19 Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, 73.

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20 Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, 71.

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21 Segovia is a city in Spain, northwest of Madrid.

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22 Segovia, An Autobiography of the Years 1893-1920, 72.

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23 Emilio Pujol, The Dilemma of the Timbre on the Guitar, trans. D. Gow and E. L. Giordan (Buenos Aires: Ricordi Americana, 1960), 42-48.

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