Early Classical Guitar and Early Romantic Guitar Time Period

Traditional Musical Era Classifications

Music is often classified into 4 main time periods:

However, the definition of these time periods is fuzzy, at best. Nearly every publication describes different dates for each period. For example, the "Classical" period is defined in various sources as ending in either 1800, 1820, 1825, or 1830! Even more inconsistency exists concerning the Romantic period, which starts sometime between 1800-1830, and ends between 1850-1920, depending on the source. There is also much inconsistency in which composers are regarded as belonging to which time period. For example, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) is often cited as being in the "Romantic" genre, by some of the same sources who claim that the classical period lasted until 1825, e.g. his entire life! Likewise, there is no consistent description of Vienna's Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - sometimes considered "classical" and other times "romantic". This time period is the most critical for the guitar, however, since Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829), Ferdinando Carulli (1770 - 1841), Fernando Sor (1778-1839), etc., lived during this era. Some guitarists speak of Sor's "Classical Period" to describe his early works, compared to his more romantic works of the 1830's. Stylistically, the guitar's early composers are "inbetween" classical and romantic - thus "late classical" or "early romantic" would be suitable descriptions. The music of Mertz, later works by Legnani, Coste, etc., were composed in the 1840's - 1870's. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the Romantic period continued, as expressionism and flowing emotion and virtuosity were key elements. Nationalistic music became popular, as we find distinctly Spanish music in the works of Tarrega, Albeniz, Granados, etc.. This became the bridge to the 20th century and beyond, as music is a continuum of gradual evolution interspersed with radical change.

Artificial Classifications

As the inconsistencies in our current musical classifications demonstrates, such classifications can be meaningless. By looking back in history, we cannot avoid applying our own filters and regimented classifications when in fact this was a continuum of steady evolution with no clear start and end. But for the purposes of looking back, it is helpful nonetheless to classify time periods in a general sense to limit the scope, even if it means imposing artificial classifications like "early romantic guitar." Back then, they were writing "contemporary" and "modern" music. It is only later on that we have imposed these artificial classifications upon this time period.

The Beginning: The Classical Period and the 6-string guitar circa 1785-1790

The 6-course guitar seems to have originated around the time after the death of Bach, in the 1750's, the time period widely acknowledged as the "Classical" period. However, the 6-course guitar was popular only in Spain from ca. 1750-1775, and was double courses. Evidence of experimentation and some early adoption of 6 single course instruments occurred between 1750-1785, but the instrument was uncommon. Please see the Evolution & Invention of the 18th-19th c. Guitar page of this web site for more information.

This so-called "Early Romantic Guitar" era starts when the 6 single string instrument started to become popular, and it covers the repertoire written specifically for the 6-string guitar, starting around 1785-1790. However, any music written for the 6-course double-string guitar from 1750 onward could also be considered, for example Boccherini. The 5-single/double course guitar, the so-called "English Guitar" of the 1750's and 1760's, etc., are different instruments, though similar. Music written for these previous instruments is a transcription for the modern guitar. Once we open the door to repertoire written for other instruments, this is in the realm of transcriptions, which can extend back even to the renaissance lute, since you can merely tune down the 3rd string a half step and play all the repertoire. However, - the era before the 6-string single course guitar is neglected, and it would be fascinating and worthwhile if someone would start up a web site which explores this previous era in more depth.

The End: circa 1909

The exact end of this time period is controversial and clearly imposes artificial classifications. I have had to re-think this time period several times as new information comes into light. Generally everyone agrees that Sor, Giuliani, Mertz, and Coste belong in the same classification. Generally everyone agrees that Tarrega and his followers are considered a different era, the start of the late romantic / modern era, but I find that Tarrega is very similar to his predecessors like Arcas, Vinas, Broca, and others, and indeed Tarrega continued a tradition which originated earlier, was carried on by Llobet, Manjon, Sagreras, Barrios and others, and still exists today.

I found music collections from around 1900 that led me to realize that the romantic guitar was very much alive at this later date. In the early 1900's, for example, Eggers published a thick book of duets (in REX today) with terz guitar, and other romantic composers. Ivan Klinger and others carried on the style. The romantic guitar - e.g. based on the Stauffer or Lacote designs, persisted into the early 1900's. I have come to believe that Segovia was the catalyst for change toward the Spanish design and the so-called 'modern' school in the 1920's and beyond. Prior to Segovia, for example, Hauser I was building Stauffer-style guitars which were nothing like today's Spanish guitars. French-style guitars by JTL (Lamy) and others are found dating 1900 and later in the Lacote style. Germany continued to make late-Stauffer school guitars until Segovia.

The lines become blurred when we consider whether to include the early Spanish Torres guitars. It also blurs when we consider the generation of Spanish composers prior to Tarrega but overlapping life spans, especially Julian Arcas, Jose Broca, and Jose Vinas.

Tarrega's teacher, the great Spanish guitar virtuoso and guitar composer Julian Arcas, was active at a very early period, indeed the same time period as when Mertz, Coste, Regondi, and Legnani were publishing their finest compositions - the 1860's. If we include Mertz and Coste as "early romantic" - then we must accept the 1860s's are part of this era, and it makes sense to include Arcas who also published the majority of his works in the 1860's. This poses problems for the "early romantic" versus the "Tarrega school" because music by Arcas and Tarrega is very similar in style. I am also of the belief that Tarrega continued the technique and tradition which originated from Aguado. Other romantics were Ivan Klinger - in the style of Coste, Regondi, and Mertz - died 1897, while most of Tarrega's compositions were published in the latter part of the 19th century in the same period.

Because of the time span of Mertz and Coste, I feel the ERG school should include the third, intermediate generation just before and including Tarrega, in order to bridge into the modern era. These composers were active publishing in the 1850's and 1860's. This includes Regondi, born 1822 - publishing 1860's, Coste was publishing 1860's, and Mertz was publishing late 1850's. The Danish Coste-school composers Degen and Rung were published in the 1860's.

I am of the opinion that if we include the 1850's to 1860's, then we should include all the guitar composers active in that time period. If Coste & Mertz published in the 1860's, as did Regondi, Degen, Rung, etc., then the 1860's music of Julian Arcas also falls into this classification.

Thus I feel it is proper to end the ERG period after Tarrega, since Coste lived until 1883, Regondi 1877, and Legnani until 1877 - and all of them published in the 60's and 70's - Tarrega 1909, etc. - and the prevalence of pre-Torres guitars and the 19th century style in the early 1900's. This means Torres is included as an example of the Spanish school - with perspective on his historical fit.

The Torres Debate

The guitar design of Antonio Torres, Spain, is considered to be the basic design of the modern guitar. Many "early romantic guitar" specialists regard Torres as being of the Tarrega era, and not the early romantic era, but I believe this is an incorrect distinction for several reasons.

There is much debate as to whether "period" early 19th century music should be performed on the modern Spanish / Torres-design guitar, or on early 19th century "period" guitars. In actuality, it is more appropriate to divide this music by style and composer, than by the year the instrument was built. There were 3 primary schools of guitar design (French/Lacote, Viennese/Stauffer, Spanish/Torres) all of which co-existed in the same time period, and all of which continued until the turn of the 20th century. Lacotes continued to be made into the late 1860's, and thousands of Lacote-based French instruments were built in the 1880's, 1890's, and even as late as the 1920's. Stauffer-style German/Viennese guitars continued to be made into the 1920's; indeed even the early pre-Segovia Hauser guitars were basically modified Stauffers. These later instruments were built according to the same design as the earlier instruments and thus have nearly the same sound.

It is also perfectly valid, and indeed more free of mechanical problems from the player's perspective, to have a modern copy of an early guitar design made. These replicas also fully capture the sound of the originals if they are made faithfully and skilfully to the original designs and materials. The so-called "modern classical" guitar is really a modified Spanish/Torres design; it is the only school that survived relatively intact. Although, having played both modern classicals and several Torres copies, and by examining historical data in the Romanillos book, in actuality most Torres guitars are much smaller than the modern classical guitar, with a different tonal character, as we often overlook how much the Torres design has evolved. I personally own a Torres copy of SE117, a guitar about the size of a Lacote, and built more in the style of early Spanish guitars like Pages and Martinez (luthiers favored by Fernando Sor), than a modern classical, and with a sound that is more like a romantic guitar than a modern classical, but very much capturing the Spanish guitar spirit, which has been a part of Spanish instruments for centuries, and did not begin or end with Torres.

Certain instruments often sound better on certain pieces. Sometimes it is appropriate to choose an instrument for each composer / style which fits best, based on how it was conceived. For example, the German / Italian / Viennese music of Giuliani, Legnani and Mertz often sounds best on the Viennese/Stauffer school. The French music of Coste, Carulli, and Sor's French period fit best on the Lacote design. The Spanish material of Broca, Aguado, Arcas, and Sor's Spanish period fit best on the Spanish models like Pages, Panormo, and Torres - all of which sound very similar to each other. Sor is an interesting case, since he played Spanish guitars which sound a lot like today's modern classicals (e.g. Pages and Panormo), but he also played Lacote. Since most players do not have the luxury of 3 instruments (Lacote, Stauffer, Panormo/Torres), most players perform all 19th century styles and composers on a modern (usually Spanish/Torres) guitar. Players who own good period replicas often find that the differences in the attack, dynamics, balance, playability, and tone of the Lacote/Stauffer school models versus Torres models has a substantial effect on the interpretation. Modern players can relate to the difference between a flamenco and a classical guitar; the romantic guitar is also a different instrument with different character suited to the music of the period.

One cannot overlook the importance of the smaller romantic guitar in terms of playability and its effect on interpretation. These guitars had low action, narrower necks, smaller bodies, and often shorter scale length, with gut strings, which contributes to a different style of playing.

There is a popular mis-conception that Torres "invented" the modern guitar. By all accounts, Torres was a very talented builder who worked within his client's budget and wishes. Otherwise, Torres guitars conformed to existing Spanish designs that existed since the 1700's: tie bridges, fan bracing, body proportions, aesthetics, etc.. My SE117 Torres copy is built like a Martinez - an early Spanish builder, demonstrating that Torres continued early tradition in building. Also, Panormo guitars were copies of early Spanish guitars, and had 7 fan braces as well. The early 1800's Spanish guitars made by Pages and others, were played by Sor and Aguado, and had the same fan bracing and so forth as Torres guitars and were indeed very similar. Other guitars from the 1850-1880 time period from Spain have a nearly identical body shape and construction as Torres, and these were only slightly different from Spanish guitars made in decades prior.

The Spanish Torres design became popular when the great composer and guitarist Julian Arcas worked with Antonio Torres to build a guitar to his specifications, much like modern players do today when working with a luthier. This same guitar design was used by Tarrega and Llobet and others. One of my all time favorite classical guitar CD's is by Carle Trepat, playing a gut-string original Torres, a guitar with rich and beautiful tone.

Arcas was thus the very first artist to use what is now considered the "modern" guitar, based on the Torres design. Actually, most modern players are surprised to learn that the "modern" classical today is much larger and differently constructed than the early "small body" Torres.

The early Torres guitars overlapped and co-existed with Stauffer and Lacote designs for several decades. Lacote-based and Stauffer-based designs did not cease in the 1850's with Torres. Arcas was the very first to play the new Torres and in fact told Torres how he wanted the instrument modified, but, the early Torres instruments were really not much different from the prevailing Spanish guitars that Sor & Aguado played. The recording of an early gut-strung Torres by Trepat sounds a lot closer to Stauffer's and Panormo's I've heard than modern classicals made today, which are much larger and heavier.

Arcas was a Spaniard, thus it was natural to play the Spanish guitars of the day. At the same time, Coste played Lacote, and Merz & Regondi played Stauffers - the 3 schools of guitar still flourished until the early 20th century, when the Tarrega-school generation popularized the Spanish model and the French and German designs fell into obscurity as a wave of steel-string "folk" guitars appeared, and as Andres Segovia presented the Spanish guitar as a versatile model for all playing styles.

Time Period Scope of this Web Site: 1785-1909

This web site covers only the "early romantic guitar" or "pre-Segovia" era, because the late Romantic era which starts with Segovia to today, has been widely covered elsewhere.

"The Age of Napoleon"

The beginning of this era is described in John McCormick's article Songs with Guitar from the Age of Napoleon"

"The approximate time period .. encompasses the latter part of the eighteenth century and extends through the beginnings of the nineteenth century. This era is variously known as The Age of Reason, The Rossini Period, The Age of Napoleon, the beginning of the romantic period, the end of the classical period, the classic-romantic period, and by any one of a countless number of other labels that have been attached to this tumultuous, creative era....

I have chosen to invoke the name of Napoleon in preference to using a more musically specific designation simply because this tends to be somewhat misleading. The use of such terms, Baroque, classical, romantic, and other similar references, seems to imply cut-off points, when one style of music stops and another begins. We often forget that this is merely a convenient way of describing the predominant tendencies of a particular era. Usually such tendencies come about slowly, generally as a reaction to what is seen as some previous excess. This reaction leads to another excess, another reaction, and so goes the history of music. Indeed, this may well define the evolution of all art. In any case, this does not happen overnight. These changes occur slowly and are never complete... The end result overall in changes in musical styles is the adaptation of older forms into a different musical language.

Classical vs. Romantic Guitar

This era was a transitional era between the "Classical" period and the "Romantic" period. One can see the increasing Romanticism in guitar music evolve over time, even in the music of a single composer, for example Fernando Sor's early versus later works. I suppose "Classical Guitar" would most accurately describe the early part, but "Classical Guitar" has many inescapable connotations, having become a generic term which separates the written compositional approach from "Pop" music, encompassing everything from Renaissance to Modern guitar. "Romantic" is not entirely accurate either, given the Classical elements of early 19th century composers. The term "Early Romantic Guitar" is therefore coming into use by many experts and professionals in this style, to describe this time period, even if it is not entirely accurate.
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