The History of the Classical Guitar
A brief, but fascinating look through the ages at the history of the classical guitar; covering the Medieval guitar, Renaissance guitar, Baroque guitar, Classical guitar and Modern guitar.
Ancestors of the Guitar
In central Asia, instruments like the guitar were known 5,000 years ago. The word tar itself means "string" in the ancient Persian language. This is the root of the name for the guitar.
In India there is the Sitar and in ancient Persia the Tar and Sehtar. The modern word, guitar, was adopted into English from Spanish word guitarra and the Latin word cithara from the earlier Greek Kithara.
History of the medieval guitar
The Medieval period (or Middle Ages) in Europe spanned approximately the years from the 6th century to the early 15th century. It is sometimes called the 'Dark Ages'.
The term 'Dark Age' is perhaps an apt description for the early part of this period because most of Europe was in a barbaric state with warring tribes living a primitive existence. However one glorious exception was the country of Spain.
The Moors, as the Spaniards call the Muslims, populated Spain from 711-1492 AD (more than 700 years.) It was their civilization that enlightened Europe and brought it out of the dark ages to usher in the renaissance.
Students from France and England traveled to Spain to study with Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars to learn philosophy, science, medicine, music, art and architecture. Gradually this knowledge and culture spread first to Paris and from there to the rest of Europe.
Many of the musical instruments that are now used in Western music were originally brought to Europe during this Moorish occupation of Spain. These include the guitar, the lute, the violin the flute, various reed instruments, wind instruments, the harp, zither and many percussion instruments. Over the centuries in Europe the Moorish versions of these instruments gradually evolved in to the form we are familiar with today.
Looking at the history of the classical guitar during the middle ages in Spain, we find there were two types of guitar. These were the Guitarra Latina which had curved sides, and the Guitarra Morisca which had an oval soundbox like the lute.
These medieval guitars were illustrated in the famous Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscripts. These manuscripts were written in the 13th century and are one of the largest collections of songs from the middle ages.
The manuscripts also contain color illuminations of pairs of musicians playing a wide variety of instruments. Some of the illuminations show the basic difference between the two kinds of guitar. The Latin guitars are played by Christians and the Moorish guitars by Muslims as well as those Christians most heavily influenced by Islamic technology
The renaissance guitar
The history of the classical guitar during the Renaissance period (from the French word Renaissance, meaning "rebirth") was a cultural movement in Europe that spanned from roughly the 14th through to the early 17th century.
By this period, all the musical instruments that the Moors had brought to Spain had disseminated throughout all of Europe. This included both the lute and the guitar.
In the 16th century, the lute had become the favorite instrument of Western Europe. (the word lute is derived from the Moorish name for the lute al-'ud).
Lute music was high art and its manner of playing was similar to the modern classical guitar 'finger style' technique. It had six courses during the first half of the 16th century and up to 10 courses by the end of the century.
The Renaissance guitar had only 4 courses of gut; the first was usually single and the other three double. The frets were also usually made of gut, and tied to the neck like the lute.
In contrast to the lute, the guitar at first was considered to be merely a simple folk instrument used by the lower classes for strumming to the popular songs of the day.
However, there were also several significant music collections published by player/composers such as Alonso Mudarra in Spain and Adrien le Roy and Guillaume de Morlaye in France. These pieces contain contrapuntal compositions for guitar approaching the complexity, sophistication and breadth of repertory of those appearing in some publications for lute from the same time period.
The music by these composers made use of the lute technique of using the right had fingers to pluck the strings. This technique has continued in use to the present day and is the way that the modern classical guitar is played.
History of the classical guitar in the Baroque period
In the arts, the Baroque was a Western cultural epoch, extending approximately from 1600 to 1750. It was exemplified by drama, ornamentation and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music.
By the beginning of the 17h century the guitar was becoming more respectable and many fine composer/players began writing music for it.
The Baroque guitar is the direct ancestor of the modern guitar.
The Baroque instrument was smaller than a modern guitar, of lighter construction, and had gut strings. Like the Renaissance guitar, the frets were also usually made of gut, and tied to the neck.
A typical instrument has five courses. The first course is single and the other four double. The instrument utilised a re-entrant tuning scheme, with the bottom course an octave higher than might be expected.
Based on publications and manuscripts of the time, some historical players preferred octave stringing on the lower one or two courses, while others preferred unison for all the double courses.
During the Baroque period, the guitar was cultivated by players and composers within the courts of princes and kings. The construction became much more ornate than it had been earlier. Instrument makers as skilled and well known as Antonio Stradivari built guitars.
As it was in the Renaissance, the Baroque guitar was used as it frequently is today, to provide a simple strummed accompaniment for a singer or small group.
However, there were also many significant music collections published during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for guitar containing contrapuntal compositions, as well as some where strumming alternates with contrapuntal motion played with the right hand fingers.
Some of the leading player/composers during the Renaissance were Gaspar Sanz, Santiago de Murcia and Francisco Guerau in Spain, Robert de Visee in France and Francesco Corbetta who was an Italian virtuoso who worked much of his life in France.
The guitar in the classical music era
This period in the history of the classical guitar lasted from approximately 1750 to 1820. It encompassed the music of Haydn, Mozart, and (early) Beethoven.
Because of changing musical tastes and fashion, during this period the guitar suffered a decline in popularity. Composers who played the guitar were rare and professionals and aristocratic amateurs took to louder and more 'sophisticated' stringed instruments — the harpsichord, violin or cello. However the guitar never lost its popularity in Spain.
Towards the end of this period the guitar itself underwent some radical changes. Firstly, a sixth course was added. The precise date when this happened is not known.
Next, new string making technology allowed cheap and readily accessible wire-wound basses in the 1780's. These wire-wound strings cut into gut frets and necessitated the use of metal frets. Because these wire-wound bass strings were overpowering with double courses they required single courses for balance.
Toward the end of the century, the guitar with six single strings overshadowed all other types and became the norm. There were other changes to the instrument during this period as well.
The rosette gave way to an open hole, while the neck was lengthened and fitted with a raised fingerboard extending to the sound hole. Nineteen fixed metal frets eventually became standard.
The bridge was raised, the body enlarged, and fan-strutting introduced beneath the table to support higher tension strings.
Treble strings were still made of gut (these were much later superseded by more durable nylon after World War II), bass strings from metal wound on silk (or, more recently, nylon floss).
History of the classical guitar in the Romantic period
The Romantic era in the history of Western music extended from around 1825 to 1910. It is called the Romantic era because composers turned their attention to the expression of intense feelings in their music. This expression of emotion was the focus of all the arts of the self-described "Romantic" movement. Whether in literature, poetry, art and music, the depiction of the beautiful, the strange, the sublime, and the morbid was the ruling credo of the period.
The changes to the construction of this 19th century guitar were one factor in a new resurgence in the guitar's popularity in the 19th century. A new generation of virtuoso guitar players who were also composers began to emerge.
Improved communication and transportation enabled performers such as the Spaniards Ferdinando Sor and Dionisio Aguado, the Italians Matteo Carcassi, Ferdinando Carulli, Mauro Giuliani and Luigi Legnani to travel and perform throughout Europe.
Because of these artists, the guitar became a widely known and popular instrument once more and much guitar music was published for the growing amateur market. Later in the period were the Spaniards Miguel Llobet and Francisco Tarrega.
The guitar in the twentieth century to the present
Increasingly from the late 19th century three trends have shaped the history of the classical guitar and the development of classic guitar construction, its repertoire and its playing techniques.
The first trend was the specialization into being either a composer or a performer. The second trend was the growing interest in music from past eras. The third trend was towards long solo performances by virtuoso players to large audiences.
In all previous eras to ours, virtually all the major composers were professional soloists who performed only their own music (as well as writing music for ensembles and orchestras.)
During the late 19th century, many composers became more involved in writing large symphonic works or operas. There was no need for them to perform as soloists. Solo musicians who did not compose became the norm.
Another factor in the trend towards specialization was sparked by the invention of recorded music. The growing demand for more recorded music led the recording industry to search for material to record. This had both negative and beneficial results.
In recorded art music throughout the 20th century it tended to perpetuate the old and familiar works of composers from the classical and romantic eras to the detriment of interest in new compositions.
On the positive side, since the middle of the 20th century, research has uncovered wonderful works by long forgotten composers from medieval, renaissance and baroque eras and there are now huge and growing numbers of recordings of such works.
In contrast to today, in previous eras in the field of art music there was little interest in, or knowledge of music from previous eras. The music that audiences listened to was always recent or newly composed.
Today's concert guitarists are expected to play a wide variety of music by composers from both the past and the present. To do this they have to study and master a wide variety of techniques. The demands this puts on today's concert artists is another factor that led to specialization of performer and composer.
Another trend in the 20th century that had a big impact in the in the development on guitar construction was the advent of performances in very large venues to big audiences. This is very different to performances in renaissance and baroque times.
In those eras, a professional composer/performer of the guitar or lute had royal or noble patrons and was often employed in royal courts. This meant that performances were usually given to a very small and select audience in intimate surroundings. This meant that the tone quality of the instrument was more important than loudness.
Similar performing conditions applied to the Romantic guitar. In the 19th century, a solo composer/performer would most often perform as part of a mixed recital at a house concert or in a small chamber concert venue.
Today, a professional guitarist is in quite a different situation. Because the days of royal patrons are long gone, in order to make a living, professional soloists have to do recitals to big audiences in large venues. This has encouraged guitar makers to look for ways to make the concert guitar louder.
This search for a louder instrument perhaps started with the Spanish guitar maker Antonio Torres in the late 19th century. He increased the size of the soundbox and increased the vibrating string length.
Perhaps most importantly of all, he redesigned the internal structure of the soundboard giving it seven internal fan braces instead of three. This raised its volume by distributing vibrations evenly to every part of the body below the sound hole.
In recent times the Australian Greg Smallman pioneered the invention of a carbon fiber lattice bracing for the soundboard, which has further increased the dynamic range of the instrument.
The Spaniard, Andres Segovia (1893-1987), was the first guitarist to take the classical guitar into the modern concert world of large audiences, sound recording and film. He traveled the globe and encouraged composers to write for the guitar. He widened the audience for the instrument and was a vital force in helping it to regain the respectability it had lost among other serious musicians, critics, and the academic world.
Today there are many great concert artists who give regular guitar recitals in major cities around the world.
Some names from the recent century are: Julian Bream, John Williams, Alexandre Lagoya and Ida Presti, Elliot Fisk, Sharron Isben, Ben Verdery, Manuel Barrueco, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Pepe Romero, Angel Romero, Goran Sollscher, David Leisner, Narciso Yepes, Carlos Bonell, Alirio Diaz, Jorge Morel, David Russel, Liona Boyd, Leo Brouwer, Vladamir Mikulka, and Oscar Ghiglia.
Many of these artists have commissioned and encouraged composers to write music for the guitar.
Interestingly, in recent years there has been a different kind of specialisation developing. With the growing interest in historical 'authenticity', many musicians are focusing on a particular era or eras.
For example, there are now artists such as Hopkinson Smith, Paul O'Dette, Jakob Lindberg and Nigel North who play baroque music on copies of baroque guitars and lutes using baroque playing techniques.
Also there are guitarists such as Carlo Barone and David Staroban who play the romantic repertoire on genuine (or copies of) 19th century guitars using original playing techniques. This has brought much of this wonderful music from the past to life again.
Another recent sign is that some performers are starting to specialize in performing only new compositions written specially for the 'new' louder concert guitar.
There are also signs of guitarist/composers emerging once more.
The history of the classical guitar in future years will show all these vibrant and positive growing trends for the 21st century.
You may also like to read all about the Steel string acoustic guitar and its history
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