Biography: Andrés Segovia

Segovia picture

Andrés Segovia was born on February 18, 1894 in the Andalucian city of Linares, Spain and was reared in Granada. His father was a prosperous lawyer and hoped his son would ultimately join him in this profession. However, wishing to offer the boy as wide a cultural background as possible, he provided him with musical instruction at an early age. He was tutored in piano and violin but was unable to become enthusiastic about either. It was not until he heard the guitar in the home of a friend that his musical imagination was stirred. The color and richness of the instrument's sonority especially appealed to him. Disregarding the objections of his family and his teachers at the Granada Musical Institute, Segovia persisted in learning to play the guitar. When he could not find a competent teacher, he became his own teacher.

Applying his previously acquired musical knowledge to his study of the guitar, he developed his own technique. he had discovered quite early that certain piano exercises were especially beneficial in strengthening the fingers for the guitar. Although he admits the influence of such earlier masters as Francisco Tarrega on his development, his style and technique remain generally his own. Not content with mastering the instrument, Segovia insisted that the guitar's rightful place was on the concert stage. The difficulties implicit in this decision would have seemed insurmountable to a less tenacious student. The guitar was considered unsuitable in the select music circles of the day. Its place was the tavern, its function, the accompaniment of lascivious songs and dances. More important was the fact that there existed no true repertoire for the guiar beyond this questionable if vital literature.

Despite these obstacles, Segovia continued to study and perfect his technique. As his artistry matured, his reputation began to spread and at the age of fifteen, in 1909, he made his public debut in Granada under the auspices of the Circulo Artistico, a local cultural organization. Numerous concerts followed, including those in Madrid in 1912 and in Barcelona in 1916. In Madrid he had acquired from the craftsman Manuel Ramírez a guitar that he played for many years. In the mid-1930's he began using an instrument made by Hermann Hauser of Munich.

Having gradually won recognition outside his own country. By 1919 Segovia was ready for a full-fledged tour. He performed in that year in South America, where he gained an enthusiastic reception. Subsequent engagements kept him away from Europe until 1923. During this period Segovia was still considered something of a curiosity by the uninitiated. At his London debut the Times critic who had approached the idea of a classical guitar recital with more than a little skepticism came away a devoted follower. "We remained to hear the last possible note " he wrote, "for it was the most delightful surprise of the season."

Perhaps his most important early success occurred at his Paris debut in April 1924. This had been arranged at the insistence of his countryman Pablo Casals, the cellist. The audience at the Conservatory included a charmed circle of such musical celebrities as Paul Dukas, Manuel De Falla and Madam Debusy. He was an immediate sensation, winning from most critics warm praise for disclosing the glories of the Spanish guitar. With his successful Berlin debut later that year his reputation became international.

A limited repertoire remained a major difficulty during the early years of Segovia's career. His task of transcribing works for other instruments required much time and care. He relied primarily on Renaissance and Baroque pieces composed for lute or Spanish vihuela. In Germany he began searching for music applicable to the guitar aud discovered the lute works of Sylvius Leopold Weiss. They were relatively adaptable and generally quite effective. His most significant find was a group of Bach's works that were well suited to the guitar. It was Segovia's belief that many of Bach's solo pieces were originally written for lute and later transcribed by him for other instruments. Though authorities are less than sanguine over the validity of this theory, they find no quarrel with Segovia's transcriptions of the master. The suitability of Bach's music for the classical guitar as demonstrated by Segovia has proven to be one of the most delightful aspects of the guitarist's art.

Segovia's growing fame brought with it a rising interest in the instrument itself. The rich and vibrant sonority that Segovia produced, the sensations and subtle nuances, and above all, the intimacy of its idiom excited in listeners the desire to learn to play the guitar themselves. During the span of Segovia's career he saw the guitar, which was on the outskirts of music when he was a boy, become one of the most popular and studied instruments in the world. Leading composers too were finally realizing its possibilities and were beginning to compose for it. But there was a problem in that few of them understood the instrument sufficiently so that success often depended on the availability of Segovia's tutelage. As he said, much of the modern repertoire was composed through him. In his concert in Paris, in April 1924, Segovia played a solo piece written for the guitar by Albert Roussel and entitled simply Segovia.

On the advice of the noted violinist Fritz Kreisler, the manager Coppicus engaged Andrés Segovia for his first American tour. In January 1928 he appeared at Town hall in New York City. On that occasion Olin Downes commented in the New York Times: "he belongs to the very small group of musicians who by transcendent powers of execution and imagination create an art of their own that sometimes seems to transcend the very nature of their medium. He draws the tone colors of a half a dozen instruments from the one he plays. He has extraordinary command of nuances and seems to discover whole planes of sonority."

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War forced Segovia to give up his home in Spain in 1936. After living for a time in Genoa, Italy, he moved to Montevideo, Uruguay. From there he toured extensively in Central and South America. After an absence of five years Segovia returned to the United States, in 1943. But the impresario found it less than easy to secure bookings for an artist whom audiences had almost forgotten. But before long he was again at the top. The burgeoning medium of television also helped secure his popularity by introducing him to a wider audience than he could have achieved via the concert circuit. During the 1960s and 1970s, Segovia played nearly every country outside the Communist bloc, over one hundred dates a year.

The Segovia discography encompasses a large number of carefully programmed recitals that offer a wide variation in periods and composers, from the classical through the romantic to the modern. His records for Musicraft, Victor's British affiliate, and Decca have enjoyed remarkable popularity. Heavy concert and recording commitments, though, never kept Segovia from sharing his knowledge and technique with others. He had many pupils and taught at Santiago de Compostela in Spain and the Academy Chigi in Siena, among other schools. His interest and influence aided in establishing the guitar as a serious part of the curriculum at music schools in Madrid, Barcelona, Florence, and London.

Segovia died in 1977 at the age of 92. His music lives on to this day, a tribute to this phenomenal master of the guitar.