Andres Segovia‘s longevity on the concert stage had probably convinced some of his fans that he would never altogether disappear. Recordings guarantee that he will not, and yet the man himself has gone. He died Tuesday at the age of 94.
The loss is great for the guitar world, though Segovia’s real significance lay in the extent to which he was able to claim a broad public for his instrument. This he did against the usual grain of popularity.
His concerts were legendary for their subtlety and proficiency, as well as for the reverential hush with which they were attended. Disdaining microphones in even the largest halls, Segovia remained true to the intimate virtues of the guitar, and to his own pure standards of repertoire.
With several generations of his disciples now on the concert circuit, it seems hard to believe that before Segovia, the classical guitar scarcely existed. “Without him, (Julian) Bream wouldn’t have been a guitarist, nor would (John) Williams,” says Eli Kassner, a Toronto guitarist and teacher who studied with Segovia in the late fifties. “The guitar movement wouldn’t have been anything like what it is, without him.”
Always popular as a folk instrument, the guitar had fallen out of favor with serious composers after the seventeenth century. Its earlier repertoire was forgotten, and the instrument disdained.
It was while a student in Granada that Segovia decided to devote himself to the resuscitation of the classical guitar tradition. Essentially, he followed the lead of Francisco Tarrega, the nineteenth- century guitarist who tried to fill the repertoire gap with, among other things, transcriptions of Chopin and Beethoven.
Segovia took a similar route with transcriptions of Bach, Scarlatti and others, and revived the great Spanish repertoire of the sixteenth century. He early began a pattern of incessant touring, spreading the classical gospel as far as possible.
Along the way, he made recordings and largely invented much of what is now considered standard technique. “He told me he was his own teacher and his own student,” Kassner says, “and that the teacher and student always saw eye to eye.”
He did not always see eye to eye with those who deviated from what he considered the true path of the classical guitar. He disapproved of most popular uses of the instrument, including rock, pop, jazz and flamenco.
“He said it took him 50 years to drag the guitar out of the gutter, and now they were trying to put it back there,” Kassner says. Segovia’s determination to keep the instrument where he felt it should be was doubtless a factor in his pursuit of annual world tours, long past the age at which most performers begin to slow down.
A composer himself, Segovia had numerous works dedicated to him by de Falla, Rodrigo and Turina. As well as expanding the repertoire through transciptions and commissions, he also immeasurably extended its reach through a vast discography.
In spite of his sometimes inflexible adherence to principle, he could bend to practicality when necessary. When asked why he had recorded a certain piece at an unusually fast tempo, he replied that there had not been room on the disk (a 78) for him to play it more slowly.
He was also a generous teacher, giving classes and lessons to innumerable students. Like Pablo Casals, he became in later years the grandfather of his instrument.
“He was a wonderful human being, very jovial,” says Walter Homburger, managing director of the Toronto Symphony and an early promoter of Segovia concerts, “and of course, a great musician.”