Thursday 15 November 2018

The story of the blind composer and the guitar concerto

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Soundscape: Joaquín Rodrigo
Soundscape: Joaquín Rodrigo

If the guitar is at the very heart of rock and pop, the same cannot be said of classical music. Of course, in its earliest forms, there was plenty for a plucked stringed instrument to play. The lute - one of the guitar's forebears - figured prominently in the music of the eras we know as the Renaissance and the Baroque.

Vivaldi wrote for the lute and the mandolin, and when the guitar came along it had its champions.

Cimarosa and Giuliani were two who wrote for the instrument in the Classical period, Schubert was among the Romantics who both composed and played. Paganini never left home without one.

But tastes changed and it was only really in Spain, birthplace of the five-string Baroque guitar, where the instrument was an integral part of folk music and dance, that its popularity lived on.

But philharmonic orchestras don't get by on flamenco, and this was something that had been eating away at one Regino Sáinz,

He became one of the 20th century's leading classical guitarists. He wrote music as well, but his compositions, beautiful pieces inspired by the folk music of Andalusia and his home place, Castile, were exclusively for solo guitar. There was nobody writing anything large scale.

Oh for a concerto, he might well have been thinking, when one September evening in 1938, he was invited to dinner at the home of the Marquis of Bolarque in San Sebastián on Spain's Basque coast.

For also present would be the composer Joaquín Rodrigo, en route to Paris where he was living in exile to escape the Spanish Civil War.

Rodrigo was known as a composer of orchestral music.

The food was good, the wine was plentiful, and the conversation was in full flood.

All of a sudden, Sáinz turned to Rodrigo. "You have to write me a guitar concerto," he told him. "It's been a dream of mine for a long time.

"You're the only man to write it."

By Rodrigo's own admission, he had another couple of glasses of wine before he was convinced, and announced to the table, "it's a deal".

Back in his studio on the Left Bank in Paris, Rodrigo let the idea develop. It would be several months before he set to work, inspired by two tunes going around in his head.

What he'd got, he realised were the themes for the second and third movements of his concerto. He still had to find the first part.

The opening would be the last of the movements he would compose. "I finished it where I should have started," he said.

He took inspiration from Aranjuez, the Spanish royal family's summer palace south of Madrid, set on magnificent grounds on the banks of the River Tagus.

What's remarkable is that Rodrigo could never have seen them, for he went blind at the age of only three.

But he still managed to capture "the fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds and the gushing of fountains" - his own description of the magical soundscape he created.

The music had to be written in braille, note by note, instrument by instrument, then transcribed to a manuscript by a copyist.

When that was done, his wife Victoria, a concert pianist, would play the music through so that the composer could hear the finished product for himself.

That finished product was brought back to Barcelona for its premiere in 1940, with Regino Sáinz, the man who had inspired it, taking the solo part accompanied by the city's Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a huge success - some achievement for a composer whose own instrument was the piano, and who never learned to play the guitar. The Concierto de Aranjuez is now the most popular guitar concerto of them all.

And Rodrigo didn't stop there. A subsequent work was another guitar masterpiece - Fantasia para un gentilhombre - the gentleman in question being another internationally acclaimed Spanish performer, Andrés Segovia.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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