10 Best Classical Guitar Pieces of the 20th Century (part 2)

18 May 2013 Article
Sound intriguing? Here is the second installment of my "10 Best Classical Guitar Pieces... of the 20th Century". I hope everyone enjoys reading, listening and watching All comments welcomed! Musically, Solomon Lytle, ARCT Guitar Candidate January, 2011 ! ps. I point out this only includes pieces ORIGINALLY WRITTEN for the guitar: NOT transcriptions.

#6. The Princes Toys Suite - Nikita Koshkin

A Musical Fairytale: children, be mindful...

This is the piece that brought Russian guitarist-composer Nikita Koshkin world-wide recognition. It has gained immense popularity not only for its exceptional programmatic and musical elements, but also due to the captivating and definitive premiere recording by the brilliant Czech guitarist, Vladimir Mikulka, to whom the work is dedicated.

"The Prince's Toys Suite" (1980) is a collection of pieces strung together depicting a drama which concerns a spoilt, cruel, young prince and his subsequent retribution at the hands of the toys from his nursery; these include a mechanical monkey, a blinking-eyed doll and toy soldiers. After the royal brat has had fun at their expense in a series of what he thinks are harmless practical jokes, the toys launch a serious rebellion to which his little Highness responds with an escape attempt in his toy coach. Unfortunately for the boyish regent, the angry rabble does catch up with him, at which time Koshkin (the controller of the protagonist's destiny) makes a musical intervention by suddenly suspending the drama in midphrase, as it were. The listener must decide the fate of the unfortunate princeling: is he made one of them? Or is it worse?

Koshkin uses many so-called "extended techniques" in order to more vividly portray the actions of the tale. One of the most famous is the "snare drum" - a sound effected by the wrapping of one string around another and playing them together that, incidentally, according to Guy Van Deuser, is borrowed from Flamenco guitarists - which serves nicely in conjuring up a decisive image of the movements of the toy soldiers during their various manoeuvres. There are also expressive uses of string-scraping, hammer-ons, playing above the headstock, and a multitude of unaccompanied and accompanied percussive effects. Koshkin uses the more traditional sounds of the guitar with masterfully expressive purpose, too, and even sometimes expands on them. Natural harmonics, artificial harmonics, artificial harmonic-bending, glissandi, pizzicati and string-snapping all fall into this category. The variety of Koshkin's soundscape pallet, so to speak, is truly inventive from both expressive and technical standpoints. As a matter of fact, part of the great fun of this piece is to use one's imagination in trying to connect these sounds to the narrative action. This also reveals a philosophical view of audience involvement, which perhaps hearkens back - secularly speaking - as far as Beethoven, but in this genre seems more indebted to the early ballets of Stravinsky.

One is hard pressed to not think of this work on an allegorical level as well. Not unlike material found in the writings of C.S. Lewis or Lewis Carroll, for example, where the fantastic is drawn from the historical, "The Prince's Toys Suite", with its fairy-tail program, encourages speculations of this type. Does the fictional character of the child prince denote a dictator from Russian history who gets his just desserts at the hands of oppressed collectives such as the the army or a performing arts troupe? Or is Koshkin revolutionary in his intentions? These types of symbolic characterizations existed in Russian literature when it was paramount for the author's personal protection to conceal his political opinions. Obviously, questions with answers yet unknown, but it is interesting to consider the composer's motivations when assessing his work. Another salient feature of this solo guitar suite is how Koshkin uses the fairy-tale medium as a foreground to the music while, simultaneously, employing its traditional didactic function. This has been a more common practice in other instrumental musics - like piano or larger scale works - than in guitar literature.

A richly educational piece of musical entertainment!

Excerpts from The Prince's Toys Suite

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A few sample recordings

Both highly recommended

The Prince's Toys, etc.
The Prince's Toys, etc.

The premiere recording of The Prince's Toys, not to be missed!

The Prince's Toys: Koshkin Plays Koshkin
The Prince's Toys: Koshkin Plays Koshkin

The composer himself playing his own works. Always a treat!

#5. "Sonata for Guitar" Op. 47 - Alberto Ginastera

The Unknowable Guitar

The "Sonata for Guitar" Op. 47 (1976) by Alberto Ginastera is a veritable 'tour de force' of solo guitar writing, but it was not easily won. Firstly, from the point of view of many contemporaneous guitarists hungering for new works from eminent composers, it is the product of 40 years of waiting; secondly, and notwithstanding the guitar being his homeland's national instrument, the prolific Argentine had been shrugging off requests from guitarists (including Andres Segovia) since his days as a student. One is tempted to suppose there was also an element of settled procrastination at work because Ginastera unashamedly declared: "the complexity of the task delayed my creative impulse." However, Carlos Barbosa-Lima's commission was such that "something made me accept", reports Ginastera. Perhaps, in the end, it was finally out of pity; for he realized "that the guitar - in contrast to other solo instruments - relied on a repertoire of almost exclusively short pieces without any unity of form." The work was written in Geneva during the summer of the aforementioned year, and was premiered that November by the selfsame commissioner and dedicatee at George Washington University in Washington, DC. It was immediately deemed to be "one of the most important works ever written for the guitar." (See Ginastera's preamble to Barbosa-Lima's edition.)

In order to achieve the "sizable proportions... in which the rhythms of South America recur", Ginastera chose for his structure the old church sonata form - or the "sonata da chiesa" - where slow-fast movements alternate in two successive groups. This was a traditional sacred vehicle at the height of baroque period, and slowly came to be an acceptable secular pilot with the work of Vivaldi, Bach, Handel and others. Under the pen of Ginastera, though, the passe' sonata da chiesa takes on revolutionary characteristics from all viewpoints. Guitaristically, it contains a literally unheard of primitive daring; structurally, it is monolithic and indivisible, while still preserving the parameters of tradition.

Not unlike other folkloristic composers, Ginastera drew on material from two distinct peoples from his homeland: the grassland-dwelling "Criollos", and the mountain-dwelling "Andinos". Only the latter of these aural cultures was pre-Columbian, but they had each developed their own unique styles of music. To serve his own "neo-expressionist" ends, however, Ginastera couples basic idiomatic instincts with the rhythms of the grassland-dwelling "Gauchos", while still maintaining the poetic lyricism of the mountain-dwelling "Quechuas", to create sonorities of such raw power and sophistication that even 20th-century masters of musical "primitivism" like Villa-Lobos or Stravinsky - had they lived - would have doubtless been impressed.

It requires somewhat of an education to be able to appreciate the extraordinary combination of cleverness, musical intuition and artistry by which Ginastera has fused these two influences - to say nothing of unlocking the natural idiomatic potentials of the guitar - into a piece which satisfies all requisites with flying colors... but one can try! For a more complete discussion of this topic, I refer the reader to "ALBERTO GINASTERA'S USE OF ARGENTINE FOLK ELEMENTS IN THE SONATA FOR GUITAR, OP. 47" by Mark Grover Basinski.

Like the music itself, it will be hard won, but worth the effort!

As the composer, himself, said upon relishing in the scores of critical acclaims following the premiere: " I thought I had not waited in vain for several decades to make the attempt..."
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Sonata for Guitar Op. 47: I - Esordio

played by Dylla

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II: Scherzo from Ginastera Sonata Op. 47

played by Cotsiolis Costas

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Sonata for Guitar, Op. 47: Mvt. III - Canto, Mvt. IV - Finale

played by Viloteau

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Ginastera on Amazon

Ginastera's Sonata
Ginastera's Sonata

Collector's disc, highly sought after. Contains Barbosa-Lima's expressive rendition of No. 5 from this lense!

#4. Farewell to Finland: Fantasia Sonata on a Finnish Folk Song - Stepan Rak

Pedagogical Passion

Such an extraordinary life as the one Stepán Rak has had could hardly fail to produce great and individualistic art. The WWII bombardment of his small Ukraine birthplace during his actual delivery into the world, the subsequent immediate death of both his parents, and his successful relocation to Czech foster-parents by Russian soldiers is well known. Indeed, one is moved hearing that alone! His music is not greatly different. Arguably, "Farewell Finland (Nakemiin Suomi): Fantasia Sonata on a Finnish Folk Song" (1979) does not rank among his most difficult or serious, but it is essentially 20th-century guitar music of the highest calibre. Moreover - and perhaps of greatest import - It takes on a profoundly broader dimension when paired with the principles of Rak's special brand of guitar pedagogy. Eastern European guitar music is obviously less familiar to the general English guitar-playing world than that of the Latino school, but it is not necessarily due to refinements in the Anglo clearing house.

This work is a true performer's piece, and requires absolute mastery of the manifold expressive aspects of the instrument. In other words, a flatly technical approach alone will not serve to render Rak's music successfully. Guitarists accustomed to switching on the so-called "auto-pilot" will crash and burn, so to speak, when performing the work of Rak. His chief demand is for conscientious and sustained musicianship! This is - strictly speaking - technique, of course, but one founded on aspects of right-hand awareness that, themselves, have huge musical and technical implications: finger independence, dynamic refinement and, above all, control. As Brazilian guitar virtuoso-musicologist Fabio Zanon once observed, "we play guitar with the right hand!" Rak's opinion of "traditional" or accepted guitar technique and pedagogy is well known from publication. He evidently feels current pedagogy to be insufficient in preparing the student for the task of playing the guitar in the public forum. To paraphrase: they are simply teaching everybody the wrong stuff! or more specifically, only half of the right stuff. We will certainly fail in public from this lack of preparation! From this point of view, the music of Stepan Rak may be seen not only as fanciful, exceptionally inventive guitaristic excursions, but also as criticisms of contemporary teaching/performing trends. Additionally, they serve as uber-enjoyable, musically rich pedagogical demonstrations. See "A Conversation with Stepan Rak" by Graham Wade:

In the present piece Rak uses the tiny theme from "Taivas on sininen ja valkoinen" ["The sky is blue and white"] to build a set of Herculean variations using sensitive single tones, unusual arpeggios and tremolos, pizzicati, obstinate block-chord figures in multiple rhythmical strains, colliding tempi and meter shifts, syncopations, bombastic rasgueados of traumatic brutality, and a practically inconceivable sotto voce section. According to Esteban Colucci, "the piece is full of highly elaborated transmutations of the basic theme, which are linked together by the cell composed of the initial three notes that appear throughout the piece with obsessive insistence. Rak uses the technique of retro variation in this sonata with notable success: the true climax of the piece -more nostalgic than dramatic- occurs when, nearing the end, the melancholic melody of the traditional song appears complete and undistorted for the first time, giving meaning and a sense of unity to the whole work." Indeed, one is left wanting more: one hearing is never enough.

A remarkable piece by the noteworthy 20th-century master of the guitar!

Rakon, Amazon!



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