10 Best Classical Guitar Pieces (Part 1)... of the 20th Century

14 Sep 2012 Article
First installment of a Top 10 Countdown of the Greatest Classical Guitar Pieces of the 20th Century.

10 Best Classical Guitar Pieces (Part 1)

..of the 20th Century!

To say the previous century saw a mere cultural 'Renaissance' would be a gross understatement. Huge advances in technology and communication paved the way to a totally new way of life. The old world faded and new ones speedily emerged. This provided a globally- influenced backdrop to which artists in diverse disciplines responded. The classical guitar was no exception. The sheer variety of styles accessible to composers was unlike any previously known in history! Consequently, innumerable pieces - many of them Great - were penned in these new styles, and even set down originally as sound recordings. No doubt, this was in the dreams of many a past musician, artisan or visionary. With works numbering at least in the tens of thousands, cataloguing them in terms of 'better' and 'best' may seem a daunting, if not antiquated pastime. However, love of these pieces and a desire to acquaint or reacquaint them, as the case may be, to a thoroughly post-modern audience is a classic endeavor. It is my hope the partakers in this exercise may profit - each in their own way - from touching this magnificent stuff.

I hope you all enjoy! ... and thank you for reading and listening.

Solomon Lytle, ARCT Guitar Candidate
January, 2011

Ps. I point out this only includes solo pieces ORIGINALLY WRITTEN for the guitar:
NOT transcriptions.

#10. "Koyunbaba" - Carlo Domeniconi

A exotic journey into folklore, scordatura & minimalism

Although the lifespan of this work is only 26 years, its existence has been felt disproportionately to its age. Perhaps no single work added to the guitar repertory since the death of Andres Segovia has received as much fame, study and performance as "Koyunbaba: Suite For Guitar, Op.19" (1985). Within 10 years it was a certified 'instant classic', achieving huge publication numbers and turning up on guitar programs across the globe. The complex reasons for this success may be as shrouded in mystery as the medieval legends of Turkey; but there is little question that "Koyunbaba" is a unique contribution to the guitar literature insofar as it represents a cohesive and literately scripted organization of an aural culture, and the successful transmission of it to a familiar medium. Quite frankly, it is a transcription written as an original! A very nice trick. Albeit on a vastly smaller scale, it reminds one of the work Domenico Scarlatti accomplished in transferring guitar-based music and local rhythms to the gallant style of the harpsichord. The ingenuity of Domeniconi may be that he acquired, interpreted, packaged and then exported these most peculiar musical materials - which he found in a tiny nook along Asia Minor's coast - to the great mass consumption of western musical culture. We were obviously ready to listen.

John Duarte writes, "the title has two meanings, a shepherd (Koynu=sheep) and the name of a [15th-century] holy man in the south west region of Turkey, an area that [now] bears his name. The concept brings two meanings together: a shepherd has both the time and the insight to contemplate and understand the vastness and immense power of nature. Koyunbaba [the region] contains spectacular land and sea scapes that invite profound thoughts mirrored in Domeniconi's work. Each movement develops its own separate mood - in the hypnotic fashion of eastern music - on a time scale which reflects the unhurried life of a shepherd." Indeed, the work takes 12-15 minutes to perform! ... and is often presented as an encore selection. As guitarist John Williams once observed, "I always find it hard to play anything after that one." Quite so.

The most technically unique feature of this piece is the alternate tuning (or "scordatura") which Domeniconi employs: an open C#minor chord. This is something of an innovation on Domeniconi's part as it has provided the guitar mainstream with new sonorities of key and voice which, by the way, are deceptively accessible to the ear and player alike. The piece sounds harder to play than it actually is! This is partly because the technical challenges of instrument and material have been largely overcome by the composer. Evidently, this makes the work pleasing to the performer in a certain way: he/she does not have to sweat to obtain results, which, in turn, may be as musical as those which require more sacrifice.

Additionally, there is a strong element of "Minimalism" - if not outright popular music - present throughout the work. The composer has written extremely accessible music which seems to ring (to our ears) true to the exotic spirit which he is trying to evoke in his composition.

There seems to be just the right blend of familiar and unfamiliar.

Koyunbaba: Suite for Guitar, Op.19

Played by Li Jie

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#9. Variations & Fugue on 'Folias de España' - Manuel Maria Ponce

Diferencias on familiar ground

The famous "Folia" of "Spain" does not refer to falling Spanish leaves in autumn, nor mysterious sheets of paper strewn on a Castilian desk, but rather an obsession. Etymologically speaking, it is related to our English word, "folly." It is not so difficult to imagine what this 'folia' is: it is as timeless as the melody itself! This tune came to be known as "Spanish" because in its early and illiterate migration periods it was favored by Iberian musicians as a chordal and melodic 'ground' to improvise on. And really, considering the amount of attention this music has received in the last 500+ years, no better epithet could suffice. It is actually a very old folk theme of unknown (but possibly Portuguese) origin, and has served as a compositional exercise workhorse for countless budding and distinguished composers. In the guitar repertory no less than Hector Berlioz, Francesco Corbetta, Francois de Fossa, Mauro Giuliani, Miguel Llobet and Fernando Sor - among others - have set variations to it.

The piece in question was commissioned by Spanish virtuoso Andres Segovia, who asked Ponce for "12-14 brilliant variations" on the 'Folia'. The most famous historical set was composed by the Italian baroque composer, Arcangelo Corelli, and this served as the basis for Ponce's treatment. Although there are few similarities with the Corelli variations, as Ponce's deviate considerably from the original harmonies, underlining musical thread and structure are still discernible. As a matter of fact, this is one of the most majestic aspects of the piece.

Stick around for the fugue at the of my favorite moments in the guitar rep!

La Folia y fuga por guitarra de Manuel Ponce

played by a youngish Andres Segovia

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#8. La Catedral : Agustin Barrios ("Souvenir from a musical memory book")

'Bachground' to a Piece

This may be the most astounding 20th-century example of musical 'Impressionism' written on and for the guitar. The suite of pieces entitled, "La Catedral" (1914 & '38), by the great Paraguayan guitarist-composer, Agustín Pio Barrios, was inspired by the music of J.S. Bach as heard on the pipe organ that fortunate day at "La catedral de San José" in Montevideo, Uruguay. Originally, it was a trim two-movement work, and is sometimes - even now - performed that way. The universal consensus holds, however, that Barrios was not led astray in adding the third piece. After more than 20 years, the guitarist who was known for his tremendous skill as an improvisor, wrote (or at least placed) the evocative "Preludio (Saudade)" [nostalgic prelude] as seemingly a kind of sentimental, introductory remembrance or homage to the experience which served to produce such a musical gem. One often hears of this creative process of working backwards in songwriting, but this instance is rather singular in that it is obviously an expression of thanksgiving which completes the music in a most natural way. Not only does the "Preludio Saudade" complement the original two movements, it also squares the form off nicely. Consequently, the listener is left with a greater degree of overall satisfaction as Barrios - in his own typical way - skillfully builds the musical intensity and emotional impact towards the finale of the Bach-influenced allegro.

As Joseph Stevenson eloquently put it, "the original opening movement, 'Andante Religioso', represents the reverent mood that struck the composer when he entered the cathedral and heard music of Bach... the writing for the guitar is remarkable in imitating the sound of that music. The original second movement is marked 'Allegro Solemne'... and represents the impression of leaving the Cathedral and returning to the bustle of the street outside." It might be added that the view and experience of the street is now enriched in hindsight, so to speak, and transformed beautifully anew following the awe of hearing Bach's music.

A true masterpiece and credit to the guitar repertory!

La Catedral - Agustin Barrios

played by Anna Vidovic

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#7. Homenaje: Pour le Tombeau de Debussy - Manuel de Falla

A Portrait of Contrasts

This small, but hugely influential work, is the only known piece composed for the guitar by the distinguished Spanish maestro, Manuel de Falla. Following the death of Debussy in 1918, a French magazine called the 'Paris Revue Musicale' requested a submission from de Falla in the form of a "tombeau" - or musical wreath, as it were. This request was to satisfy the compositional component for a special edition commemorating the celebrated late composer. The star pupil of the already late Francisco Tarrega, Miguel Llobet, also played a significant role in the inception and realization of this masterpiece in miniature. Llobet, himself, had been pining for a guitar piece for some time from his unparalleled compatriota, and it was a chance meeting at the house of the Garcia Lorca family in 1920 which provided the occasion for the illustrious pair to work out the idiomatic difficulties and notoriously meticulous dynamic requirements of de Falla's score.

The piece dates from that same year - although the earliest manuscript is lost - and has been much remarked upon for the so-called "dichotomy" of its being simultaneously a dirge and a habanera dance. On the one hand the piece is outwardly moody and introspective, and on the other it is rhythmically vivacious and not at all sad. This duality, coupled with de Falla's quasi-pathological dynamic markings, poses considerable challenges to interpreters interested in rendering the composer's intentions faithfully. As Rey de la Torre has pointed out, "if the[se] contradictory factors are not understood then the intensity of the work is lost; the intensity of the feeling is that clash. This to me is the essence of the piece."

From its initial 1922 publication in the aforementioned periodical, the work has undergone several guises. De Falla himself immediately prepared a piano version; he orchestrated it as well in 1938-39 as part of his larger piece, "Homenaje". Llobet published his version in 1936, although it is considered to be less authentic due to several editorial liberties, so to speak, present in his edition.

Despite its brevity, English composer Benjamin Britten once remarked this piece contained 20 minutes of music.

Small but mighty.

Julian Bream plays Homenaje by de Falla

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