¡Guitarra!: A Musical Journey Through Spain (you can call this a review or whatever you think it is)

The beauty of music is that the story of its inception is as intriguing as the final, aural product. This idea is one that permeates the thoughts of those studying Ethnomusicology, and in the case of the film I selected to review, always remained in my mind while exploring the rich history of the guitar in Spain. ¡Guitarra!: A Musical Journey Through Spain chronicles the evolution of guitar music in Spain, as told through the eyes of English Classical guitar virtuoso Julian Bream. Lasting three hours and twenty-five minutes, ¡Guitarra!: A Musical Journey Through Spain is the most thorough account of Spanish music ,and the overall influence that Spaniards have had on the music of the guitar , that I have ever encountered.

The film is divided into eight parts, beginning with “Part 1: Golden Century.” This section chronicles the music of the guitar and its relative the vihuela, popular in the 15th and 16th Centuries in Spain and played by peasants and princes alike (¡Guitarra!), opening first with a piece played by Bream titled Fantasia #14. Bream feels it is necessary to discuss this piece, written by Alonso Mundarra, since it is the first guitar piece ever published (¡Guitarra!). This sets the stage for the entire film, as Bream will continue to make the argument throughout that Spain is the country guitarists have to thank for the music they enjoy today (¡Guitarra!). This is something that intrigued me as my main instrument is the guitar, and any further understanding I can be given about my instrument I take great delight in. Bream continues this segment with more examples from composers of the 16th century such as Luis Milán while simultaneously giving historical context to the pieces being played. During this time, Charles the Fifth ruled Spain, and under his rule foreign artists and musicians, especially from his home of Flanders, were integrated into Spain, thus creating a syncretism in the Spanish music of this time (Trend 141). This section hinges on the idea that music always has a past, and in studying that past, the music enjoyed today can be better understood. One criticism I have, however, of this section is that it does not discuss the Moorish influence in Spain, specifically how the ‘ud (lute that the guitar is based on) was brought to Spain by Moors occupying the nation at one point (Coelho 160). Overall, though, I feel that Bream successfully delivered this idea through careful placement of historical context, as well as musical structure created by the vihuela and guitar.

“Part 2: The Baroque Guitar” continues chronologically into 17th Century Spain, a time where there was both a great affluence in the country, as well a significant pressure militaristically due to Spain’s extension of church and state globally through conquest (¡Guitarra!). The music of this time in Spain resembled more of what the rest of Europe was playing stylistically, heavily based in Counterpoint and following the style of the various Renaissance composers such as Palestrina and Baroque composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach (¡Guitarra!). It is in this section that the reason for the guitars’ popularity is hypothesized about. Julian Bream makes the argument that military usage of the instrument for leisure caused the popularity of the instrument to spread, for Spain was in control of various nations at this point, thus spreading the usage of the instrument (albeit a slightly different instrument than what modern guitarists such as myself use today) (¡Guitarra!). The argument Bream presents is logical in my eyes, for influence of music, as well as religion or other customs, can be attributed in certain instances to military action with the aim of conquest. This section continues the idea that was first stated implicitly in section 1, that the past truly influences the present when referencing music, especially in context of Spain. The starkest example given here is a quote from the film which states, “the guitar is used by the French and Italians….but the Spanish play it more madly than any other nation (¡Guitarra!).”

Further developing on the ancient past of Spanish guitar music is “Part 3: Classical Period Guitar.” Here the film continues into a period that was very trying for Spain, as the end of the 18th Century was a period of great civil strife as well as governmental ineptitude (¡Guitarra!). The central government of Spain was weak at this time; as a result, the invasion of Napoleon’s army could only be fended off by civilian effort that eventually resulted in a bloody civil war (¡Guitarra!). One would expect such catastrophic events would influence the music at this time; however it was quite the opposite. The film states that the music of this period remained within the Classical style, acting almost obliviously to the dire political situation of the day (¡Guitarra!). Further continuing with the Classical era and its influence on the evolution of Spanish guitar music, Bream speaks about two of the most important figures in guitar music of this time, Dionisio Aguado and Fernando Sor. Friends and rivals simultaneously, Aguado and Sor significantly contributed to the world of guitar. The film highlights in Aguado his composing and ingenuity with guitar technology, creating such inventions as the tri-podium which Classical guitarists would be lost without, as it allows the foot to rest in a way that is advantageous to the player (¡Guitarra!). With Sor, Bream feels it is necessary to highlight the idea that he can be regarded as a “most distinguished” guitar composer, with the pinnacle of his career being the staple of Classical guitarists; Introductions and Variations on a Theme of Mozart (¡Guitarra!). Overall, I feel that this section more than adequately informed the viewer of the progression that guitar music in Spain during the Classical era.

“Part 4: Flamenco and the Romantic Guitar” is what I believe to be the most important section of this film, as it highlights what I believe to be the most distinctly “Spanish” music that Spain has. At this point in the film, Bream gives certain historical context (19th Century to be exact) (¡Guitarra!), but then breaks with the traditional lecture/musical demonstration he gives and surrenders control to Paco Peña, a famous Flamenco guitarist from Córdoba, to demonstrate what Flamenco music is. Peña describes Flamenco as “rougher” and “more passionate” in order to distinguish it from the Classical and Baroque music previously displayed, then continues to describe the Roma history that Flamenco has (¡Guitarra!), as well as the theoretical basis modally and rhythmically that Flamenco music has (¡Guitarra!). The aspect of this section I believe that made it the most important was that it highlighted through footage the community aspect that binds Spaniards with Flamenco. The declaration during “Part 4” that “Flamenco is a cry, not a story” is illustrated through the various open air festivals and small community gatherings shown, as through this footage, the heart of the people of Spain is shown (¡Guitarra!).

“Part 5: Rhapsody, Crenados and Nationalism” returns to Julian Bream’s narration and virtuosic guitar demonstration of the period pieces discussed, opening with the historical context of 19th Century Spain. By this point, the Spanish empire was self-destructing, thus requiring Spain to re-evaluate its priorities politically, as well as culturally and artistically (Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs). At this time, as Bream states, guitar music was becoming less and less popular due to the desire of composers needing louder instruments to be the vehicle for their artistic endeavors (¡Guitarra!). Despite this, music was about to experience a reawakening, as a true Nationalistic identity was being established throughout Spain (¡Guitarra!). This would in turn unite the nation, something that would create music that truly re-invigorated the passion that Spaniards once had for their country (¡Guitarra!). This section was important to include in the film, for it is my feeling that it is important to show the music that existed post Spanish colonialism that was not necessarily Flamenco. My reason for believing this is that, to the viewer with pre-conceived notions of what Spanish music may be, it may be an enlightening experience to see what music exists outside of the typical conceptions one may have.

The most personal of all the segments is “Part 6: Evocation, Albanith,” for it is here that Julian Bream truly opens his innermost feelings to the viewer regarding one specific composer. Pizac Albanith, a French musician and composer, is believed by Bream to be a tremendously important composer for Spanish music, thanks greatly to the fact that “his heart was in Andalucía (¡Guitarra!).” Albanith’s career spanned great lengths musically, from studying composition alongside art music genius Franz Liszt, to writing tone poems about Southern Spain which Bream considers to be his best compositions (¡Guitarra!). The most intriguing component to this segment was the fact that, despite this film being about guitar music, Albanith was in fact a composer for the piano (hence why he studied with Liszt) (¡Guitarra!). The guitar component comes in with re-orchestration, which according to Bream, is possible with “modern techniques (¡Guitarra!).” What I truly appreciated not as a student of music, but rather a lover of music, was how Bream truly drew an emotional connection to Albanith’s music. Music is intended to serve many functions, but in my subjective opinion as a student of music and participant in music, the greatest function music serves is as a transmitter of human emotion.

Moving closer to the end of the film is “Part 7: Homage, Guitar in the 20th Century.” According to the film, by this point in history, guitar music in Spain had reached a nearly full stop; this was until Torroba’s Sonatina came into existence (¡Guitarra!). Written for guitar virtuoso Andrés Segovía, Sonatina was the “first extended length piece for guitar written in over 100 years (¡Guitarra!).” With this renewed national passion in the instrument, music for the guitar began to flourish again in Spain, catching the attention of numerous composers (¡Guitarra!). Bream continues with his analysis of 20th Century music in Spain with the discussion of what he regards to be the greatest Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla. Manuel de Falla , according to Bream, was greatest because he “was the most authentic composer” due to the fact that he “grew up in Andalucía” and could use “folklore authentically (¡Guitarra!).” The context of de Falla and guitar music is an interesting one, however, as Bream states that de Falla truly wrote only one guitar piece, an elegy for the passing of Impressionist composition genius Claude Debussy (¡Guitarra!). My feeling is that de Falla’s mention by Bream was a necessary one, for although de Falla only wrote one piece for guitar, the understanding of Spanish music in a holistic manner is just as important as understanding the evolution of the guitar in Spain (the topic of the film).

The film ends with “Part 8: Concert,” which as the title suggests, is a concert by the virtuoso guitarist and narrator of the film Julian Bream, who is accompanied by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. This section is truly a culmination of every topic covered within this film, as Bream and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe display in this concert the beauty, depth, and wonder of the music that Spain has contributed the world of guitar. As an individual who views music in a holistic manner, the juxtaposition of Spanish melodies on the guitar with traditional European Western Classical instruments is a true display of how music transcends boundaries (¡Guitarra!). This is one of the best sections of the film in my opinion, as it took the scholastic knowledge about Spanish guitar music and created the most tangible application for the viewer.

The guitar is truly a mysterious instrument. Its appeal is universal, and its applications are as broad as can be imagined by the human mind. I truly believe that ¡Guitarra!: A Musical Journey Through Spain is the most informative, thorough film I have ever viewed on the evolution of guitar music in Spain, and how such music influenced composers for the guitar globally. Its scholastic appeal is great, with extensive historical, musically analytical, and cultural facts to base the subjects discussed on, as well as aesthetically pleasing cinematography and extensive musical examples played by one of the greatest Classical guitarists of the 20th Century . The film is an important one, for as a student of Ethnomusicology, I firmly believe in communicating information on world music in a comprehendible way to the masses. Music is the greatest connecting line that humanity has to one another; truly, it is all we have to see a greater understanding of ourselves and how we place into this world. The guitar music of Spain is no exception.

Works Cited

Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. Background Note: Spain. U.S. Department of State, 3 May 2011. Web. 17 Oct. 2011.

Coelho, Victor Anand. Performance on Lute, Guitar, and Vihuela. Cambridge: 1997, Cambridge University Press. Print.

¡Guitarra!: A Musical Journey Through Spain. Dir. Barrie Gavin. Perf. Julian Bream, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Sir Charles Grove, Paco Peña. Kultur, 1986. DVD.

Trend, John Brande. The Music of Spanish History to 1600. New York: 1965, Kraus Reprint Corporation. Print.


5 thoughts on “¡Guitarra!: A Musical Journey Through Spain (you can call this a review or whatever you think it is)

  1. >Music is the greatest connecting line that humanity has to one another; truly, it is all we have to see a greater understanding of ourselves and how we place into this world…<

    This is an interesting and informative post and must have taken a lot of time and effort to compile. The above concluding statement is still, for me, full of unanswered questions and probably will be for the rest of my life. I had hoped to tempt people with your specialization to comment on my recent post when I briefly touched on the subject of music's global appeal. (I'm just a musician.)

    People still find it necessary to state their opposition to labels in music, which they wouldn't need to do if the world was as unified in this direction as you and I might wish. Musical styles have an equal capability to divide people, of course, although the resulting divisions are perhaps based on the musical equivalent of prejudice (the trad/mod divide; the dislike of heavy rock by most country music fans; the dislike of jazz by died-in-the-wool English style brass band fans etc…).

    Despite all this I still believe that the inertial and kinetic properties (etc.) within musical forces do, in my idealized world, have the capability to affect all peoples in the same way. There's little sign it's happening yet.

    Keep up the good work!

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