Entertainment Music

Saturday 18 November 2017

It may be rock'n'roll - there's nothing new under the sun

Francisco Tárrega
Francisco Tárrega

George Hamilton

'Roll Over Beethoven!" Chuck Berry's paean to rhythm and blues, covered by The Beatles, carries the implicit suggestion that the classical giant would be turning in his grave if only he knew how the music scene had changed.

"Tell Tchaikovsky the news," the song goes on, as if the advent of 1950s toe-tapping would somehow leave the older material behind. Plus ça change.

Ever since the earliest ears discovered the delights of rhythm and melody, music has been in a constant state of flux. Out of the parallel perfection of polyphonic motets evolved the sophistication of the harmonies that are the very essence of western classical music.

The line from Vivaldi to Verdi veered off in various directions, but developmentally, the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart's concertos and Beethoven's big bang changed music forever, and the master strategists of opera and song were all part of a process. So, when Chuck Berry jumped on Bill Haley's rock and roll bandwagon, he was doing nothing that hadn't been done before.

And isn't it interesting that the instrument at the very heart of rock and roll is one that goes right back into the Renaissance, and maybe even as far as ancient Greece. The guitar is a relative of the lute, and it can trace its roots even further, to the Middle East in pre-Christian times.

By the Middle Ages, the lute was as important as the piano would become, but the development of the more sophisticated keyboard eventually relegated the stringed staple to the sidelines.

The guitar, though, has been on an entirely different trajectory. An unsophisticated and rather basic instrument, it fascinated a carpenter from the south of Spain. Tweaking it here and there, Antonio Torres managed to produce a much improved tone, with a depth and richness it just hadn't had. He'd invented the Spanish guitar as we know it.

There was a market for it. For another Spaniard, Fernando Sor, had been blazing a trail across Europe, creating an appetite both with flamboyant performances, and the music he wrote. The Torres instrument offered the chance to take this further.

Francisco Tárrega picked up the baton. Torres's guitar was bigger than its predecessors. Tárrega, who wrote the tune that would become the Nokia ringtone, played this larger version like no-one before. By sitting, with his foot on a stool, the guitar resting on his thigh, he basically opened its lungs and let it sing. This was a seminal development.

Andrés Segovia, the 20th century's finest exponent, born on this day in 1893, moved on from there. He encouraged composers to write for the instrument - think Falla, Villa-Lobos, Britten, and Ibert - and adapted the music of Haydn, Mozart and Bach. It was a crusade across decades.

Ultimately Segovia, almost single-handedly, would elevate the status of the humble guitar from something to strum flamenco, the six strings that would fire a rock and roll revolution, into an instrument that would hold a concert audience in its thrall.

Roll over Chuck Berry, and tell Bill Haley the news!

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

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