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The weeping of the guitar

The weeping of the guitar

The weeping of the guitar

Meet Leandro, hero of my latest novel Masquerade:

The young gypsy took his place in the middle of the circle, which the previous performers had left vacant. His long, copper-tanned fingers began thrumming his guitar. The prelude continued for some time and the shouts, clapping of hands and stamping of feet worked his audience up to a state of rhythmic excitement. Suddenly, in a convulsive movement, his features contracted into a mask of agony. He closed his eyes and lifted one hand to his forehead as he broke into a long, tragic high-pitched cry – ‘Aye … Aye … Aye … Ayeeeeee!’ He repeated this lament a few times against the frenzied accompaniment of his guitar, the open strings of which he played with the other hand. Then he began singing in a deep masculine voice as if telling the world of his sorrows and misfortune.

Leandro is of gypsy decent, and the history and culture of his people and their home, Andalucía, define him. So it stands to reason that he is a talented and passionate guitar player.

Did you know that the modern classical guitar is in fact the Spanish guitar? The design originated in Spain in the nineteenth century, with the work ofluthier Antonio de Torres.

Torres, a carpenter by trade, opened his own guitar shop in Seville, and collaborated with Julián Arcas, a respected composer and guitarist at the time. He pioneered larger guitars and lighter soundboards with symmetrical struts, but he was private about his artistry, telling his friend Juan Martínez Sirvent:

‘[I]t is impossible for me to leave the secret behind for posterity; this will go to the tomb with me for it is the result of the feel of the tips of the thumb and forefinger communicating to my intellect whether the soundboard is properly worked out to correspond with the guitar maker’s concept and the sound required of the instrument’. (source)

Sirvent concluded: ‘Everyone was left convinced that the artistic genius cannot be passed on.’

Torres continued making guitars until his death, at the age of 75, and throughout his life he built an enviable reputation for his work. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Torres was deeply flattered: his guitars were copied so widely that they became the foundational design for the modern guitar.

Besides guitar-making, Spanish guitarists over history lay claim to the development and growth in popularity of this instrument. Francisco Tárrega is a famous example: a Spanish composer and classical guitarist of the nineteenth century. Tárrega had been encouraged to become a musician by his family, and in 1862 Julián Arcas heard him play and offered to mentor the boy. But Tárrega had an independent streak, and he took to running away – first to Barcelona and then to Valencia – and playing his music, his way. Finally, in his early twenties he settled sufficiently to attend the conservatory in Madrid, and with expert tuition he became a guitarist virtuoso. His legacy was to lay foundations for modern classical guitar composition and playing, and to greatly increase awareness of, and passion for, the Spanish guitar.

In Masquerade, Leandro is not a guitarist at Tárrega’s level, but he does embody some of the wild and beautiful sprit of Tárrega. He plays the flamenco guitar, which Torres never differentiated from the classical guitar, but has since developed into a slightly different design: lighter, with less internal bracing and a tap plate, and made from darker hardwood. The flamenco guitar can be louder, and more percussive and bright. Technique for flamenco guitar playing also differs. Tocaores (flamenco guitar players) often sit in a relaxed pose with the neck of the guitar parallel to the floor, playing from memory, not music, and using a range of specialised techniques like golpe (finger tapping on the soundboard), tirando (plucking the strings), tremolo(rapidly repeating a treble note) and rasgueado (flicking outwards with the right hand fingers while strumming). The result is pure artistry.

I will leave you with a poem by one of my favourite writers, Federico García Lorca, which perfectly captures the mood of the Spanish guitar.

The Guitar

The weeping of the guitar

begins.

The goblets of dawn

are smashed.

The weeping of the guitar

begins.

Useless

to silence it.

Impossible

to silence it.

It weeps monotonously

as water weeps

as the wind weeps

over snowfields.

Impossible

to silence it.

It weeps for distant

things.

Hot southern sands

yearning for white camellias.

Weeps arrow without target

evening without morning

and the first dead bird

on the branch.

Oh, guitar!

Heart mortally wounded

by five swords.

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