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Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909) - Biography

by Adrián Rius Espinós

I.S.B.N. 84-95026-93-7

PILES, Editorial de Musica S.A.

Archena, 33-46014 Valencia (Espana)

Experience Classicsonline



Those unique individuals who bestow on mankind a legacy of artistic greatness, often also engender an almost insatiable desire to know more about them, the circumstances in which they lived, worked and what motivated them to such levels of achievement.   Some were reserved, humble people who avoided fame and fortune, sustained primarily by their magnificent accomplishments. The biography under review is about such a man whose avoidance of the limelight has made biographical studies all the more challenging.

Over the past five decades the classical guitar has undergone a remarkable renaissance, both in the number of students who undertake serious study of the instrument, and in those who appreciate the guitar for its subtle and sublime beauty. One man who made a unique contribution to that ultimate process was Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909). The epithet, ‘Modern Awakener of the Guitar’, would be deemed pertinent by those fortunate to have studied his music or heard it performed by a master guitarist.  Until recently the English-speaking world has had limited access to material about this great guitarist. Information available in print is sketchy, often contradictory with the odd biography in Spanish.

After ten years of methodical research, guitarist Adrián Rius Espinós has produced a biography on Tarrega.  Copyrighted in 2006, it was translated from Spanish and published soon thereafter in English. My copy was only recently discovered and other aficionados may be unaware of its existence. Comprising 300 pages, it is copiously illustrated with photographs, and pages from Tarrega’s diary. Like many such biographies there is a strong reliance on correspondence. Included are copies of various letters, mainly those that Tarrega wrote to friends, pupils and disciples. There are also many articles from newspapers that give reviews of his performances and concerts. These provide a more objective means of evaluating Tarrega as a performer, composer and arranger of popular music of the time. They also give balance to the myth and legend that doubtless infiltrates the numerous anecdotes included in the biography.

Regrettably there are no audio recordings of Tarrega, however it is evident from those who reviewed his concerts that he was a guitarist without peer. There seems to be a lack of adequate accolades to accommodate the praise that reviewers heaped on Tarrega when reviewing his concerts. The effect of hearing him play had quite profound effects on some individuals. The Italian guitarist Maria Rita Brondi went to Tarrega in January 1907 with the objective of perfecting her guitar studies.  After hearing him play for the first time she was hardly able to sleep on the ensuing night.  Dona Concha Gomez de Jacoby fainted in the middle of a post-dinner concert given by Tarrega. A famous gathering venue for aficionados of Tarrega was the dairy, and later a tavern, owned by Leon Farre, both in the Derecha del Ensanche, Barcelona. As tough as Farre was purported to be, on occasions when Tarrega was playing he would fall into a dead faint. These are some of the more believable anecdotes. A flamenco guitarist, Borrull, is purported to have slashed his wrist during a performance by Tarrega.  Although saved in time, he wanted to die in a state of complete bliss!

Tarrega has been described as a ‘natural musician who just happened to be a guitarist.’ A skilled harmonist and accomplished pianist, he addressed the paucity of repertory by arranging and transcribing popular music of the day for the guitar. This included original compositions by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Albeniz and Gottschalk , among others. Done with consummate skill and executed beautifully on the guitar, this process appears to have attracted no objections from critics of the day.

Interestingly, of the dozen or so concert programmes included, none contain any original works for guitar except that by Tarrega. If these programmes represented his attitude at large, one wonders why he excluded original music by Sor, Aguado and others. It is also significant that decades later, even the great Andrés Segovia could not escape the wrath of music critics for this same process of transcribing and arranging music from other instruments for the guitar.

Aside from his attributes as a guitarist and musician, the biography clearly documents that Tarrega was also a fine human being, beloved by all who knew him. He had profound empathy for his fellow human beings. Those who visited Tarrega’s home were embraced with ’an atmosphere that affected the deepest parts of the very being; it conferred a spirit of well-being and serenity’ One writer described Tarrega as ‘St Francis Assisi of the Guitar’. His friendly nature, courtly way of speaking, his attitude towards all humanity was always one of complete self-sacrifice to his fellow man.’

As one would anticipate in a biography of this nature, there are slight inconsistencies. Of no particular significance, Tarrega is described by Emilio Pujol as ‘a man of normal height and appearance for a native of the Valencia region.’  Josefina Robledo, who first met Tarrega when she was 12 years old, described him as ‘rather tall’. Domingo Prat refers to ‘Within the gigantic stature of his body.’  Federico Garcia Sanchiz refers to his ‘tall broad body.’ It may be that all are accurate and, relative to the rest of Spain, those from the Valencia region are atypically tall?

One does not get the impression that this biography was written by a guitarist because some of the issues that preoccupy guitarists are not dealt with. The writer does not address specifically what the ‘Tarrega technique’ constituted. Unique, and the forerunner of modern technique for the classical guitar, it is very important in the technical evolution of the instrument. Some sources suggest that Tarrega was the first to use a stool for the left foot.  This enables the instrument to be cradled between the left thigh and the breast, providing a comfortable position and elevation of the neck that assists reaching notes in the high position.  A photograph of Julian Arcas (1832-1882) using this same device, tends to discredit any belief that Tarrega was the first to use such a foot stool. Tarrega received tutelage from Arcas when the former was around ten years of age. Tarrega’s unique right hand position resulted from holding the hand so that the first finger (i) would strike the string at right angles. This contrasts with Segovia who changed his hand position so that the ‘a’ finger would strike the string at right angles.  Julian Bream amended the position further to accommodate a broader palette of tonal colours.  Tarrega also employed the ‘rest stroke’ extensively in his playing which meant abandoning the tradition of anchoring the fourth finger (pinky) to the soundboard. Despite popular belief that he introduced this technique, evidence exists to show that Julian Arcas also used rest stroke extensively and that it was common to flamenco guitarists. These matters may not have been addressed because there is insufficient evidence to substantiate general belief.

Another interesting aspect of Tarrega’s playing is the employment of fingernails in execution of strokes with the right hand. I remain unconvinced that a player of Tarrega’s genius would take four decades to decided that the tone produced with fingertips alone was superior to that when a nail and flesh combination are used. It is fairly obvious from the narrative that Tarrega was frustrated over a long time with periodic breaking of his weak, thin nails; he may have persisted only because the sound was bigger and more voluminous with nails. Finally, at the age of 48, he trimmed them entirely and began to play with fingertips only. A man of Tarrega’s capabilities learns to adapt to whatever resources are available, and during the latter nine years of his life he changed his approach to fingertips only.  I recall nothing in reviews of his concerts that expresses a preference for the tone of his playing before 1900 or after, when he played with fingertips only. The debate continues, although the majority of concert guitarists have now followed the admonition of Segovia who played using a nail-fingertip combination.

There is an interesting narrative on the first meeting between Tarrega and Antonio de Torres and how Tarrega obtained his first of several Torres guitars. The circumstances are almost identical to that related by Segovia in his autobiography, and how he obtained the Manuel Ramirez guitar that he was to play until around 1937.

One issue that Rius does indirectly address is the mooted relationship, outside the guitar, between Tarrega and dona Concha.  When Tarrega first met this highly talented lady she was an affluent 35 year old widow who the author describes as ‘a brunette with large expressive black eyes and a very attractive figure’.It was to this student that Tarrega dedicated the unpublished version of his tremolo study, Recuerdos de la Alhambra, in 1899. This one original composition alone would have been sufficient to immortalize him, but in a typical unassuming, humble way he added a notation to the manuscript: Since I can’t offer you a gift of greater value on the day of your Saint, accept this, my poor little poetic note, an impression of what my soul felt before the great marvel of the Alhambra we admired together in Granada.

It was his subsequent rededication of the published study to Alfredo Cottin, and rumours spread by dona Concha apropos a rift between her and Tarrega that fuelled conjecture about their relationship; Tarrega had rejected her romantic overtures.  Other works dedicated to dona Concha retained that dedication, and Rius notes that that dona Concha later asked Tarrega’s forgiveness for her inappropriate behaviour.

There is also no mention of Salvador Garcia who, while outside the main body of Tarrega’s pupils and disciples, some claim to be his greatest pupil. Unable to become a concert artist in his own right because of a psychological disorder, he became a famed teacher. Among his pupils are included Jose Luis Gonzalez and Melchor Rodriguez. Evidence suggests that prior to his first trip to Argentina in 1920, Segovia lived in the home of Garcia and received from him extensive tutelage in the principles of Tarrega.

This is an interesting and welcome biography in English of Francisco Tarrega, ‘Modern Awakener of the Guitar.’ It is essential reading for anyone interested in the life and times of this great guitarist.


Zane Turner




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