“Everything you can imagine is real.” – Pablo Picasso


"Still Life with Guitar" by Juan Gris. 1920 Oil on Canvas Residing at Saint Louis Art Museum. Courtesy of Widimedia Commons.

There is something about Spanish music that transcends cultural boundaries – especially Spanish guitar music. Spain and the guitar seem to have evolved together since the dawn of mankind; but the guitar as we know it has only been around since the 1500’s. Much like traditional American jazz, when you hear a Spanish guitar tune you are immediately transported to another time and place.

Spanish music has a way of creeping into your soul and making you feel that you know the country intimately. The music evokes tangible, mysterious moods that are drenched in the rich culture of the people and the landscapes that created it. Names like Montoya, Sanz, Tarrega, Sor, Torroba, Rodrigo, Albeniz, Granados, and De Lucia are familiar to guitarists and music lovers around the world.

Even if you have never been to Spain you can intimately know what the place is like, what the people are like, what the weather is like; all this just from the music. As if to testify to the way Spain can get deep into a musicians blood, one of the most popular Spanish compositions of all time, “Bolero” was written by a Frenchman, Maurice Ravel. In the work of composers such as these Spain comes alive in our imaginations. It hardly matters if this image is a true or accurate image. It is the “idea” of Spain that comes across vivildy. This is what the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso was getting at when he famously said, “Anything you can imagine is real.”


Pablo Picasso in Argentina, 1962. Public domain photo. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Romanza”

One of my favorite Spanish guitar pieces to both play and to teach has always been a tune called “Romanza.” It it known by many other names and spellings such as “Romanze”, “Romance”, “A Study in E”, “Romance of the Guitar”, “Romanza”, “Romance d’Amour.” Some call it “Spanish Romance” or the Spanish equivalent “Romance de Espana.” I prefer to use “Romanza’ because that was the title of the first recording I ever heard.

I first came across the piece while studying classical guitar in the 1980’s on one of Christopher Parkening’s early recordings from the 1970’s. The song always seemed to conjure up a vivid image of a lone guitarist sitting on a rock playing in the scorching heat of some far away Spanish village.

In doing some research of the song’s history, I was amazed to find how many people have either claimed to have composed, or have been thought to have composed this 19th century Spanish masterpiece. A Wikipedia article lists at least ten possible creators. There are some who claim to have written it themselves, and there are some historians who have attempted to attribute it’s authorship to one composer or another. Because of the confusion, it is now almost universally attributed to “Anonymous.” Many more recent performers of the song have composed lyrics, revised the title and otherwise made use of the brilliant melody and solid construction of the composition. For a more in-depth discussion of Romanza’s history you should check out the excellent article on Wikipedia.

In some circles, “Romanza” has become somewhat of the “Stairway to Heaven” of the classical guitar world: meaning that every classical guitarist would play this one in music stores when trying out a new guitar, and people could be heard muttering, “haven’t heard that one in at least ten minutes.” As with “Stairway to Heaven” however this wild popularity turns out to be the ultimate compliment: it is evidence of how many people relate to it on a deep human level.

It makes sense that so many would lay claim to writing it. For the listener, it is one of those songs that instantly captures your imagination; for guitar players it is relatively easy to learn and makes a great repertoire piece; for instructors it provides an opportunity to teach technique for both the left and right hands, demonstrate the difference between major and minor tonality and allows the student to explore the entire range of the instrument – all within one song.

Playing the Piece

Now that I’ve just casually stated that the piece is “easy” to learn, let me add this caveat. There are actually two distinct sections with varying levels of difficulty. The first section is written in the key of E minor and as a result there are plenty of open strings and comfortable fingerings. The second part, which modulates to E major is a slightly different story because it requires several fully barred chords and some very wide stretches in the left-hand. Even still, with a little practice, it is easily playable by late beginner or intermediate classical guitar students.

Because of the more difficult second part, many players simply play the first part twice and skip the second part altogether. It’s a bit of a cop out (one that every player who does this would gladly admit to) but most first time listeners wouldn’t know the difference or care. The first part stands alone as a complete composition even though it is quite short. The descending E Minor arpeggio that opens the piece immediately engages the listener because the use of so many open strings makes the guitar ring out with all of it’s rich harmonics.

The better the quality of the guitar, the more haunting this effect can be; as you play the intro the entire guitar seems to be vibrating at its full potential. The steady bass drone moves elegantly from the open E string the an open A string and back while arpeggios are played on the upper strings. The harmony then moves briefly to D7 chord, and then to a Bm7 which sets up the strong resolution back to E minor.

Because the second section is in E major it has the effect of cooling down the piece as if you have moved from the heat of the evening sun into the cooler shadows of twilight. The difficult chords in this section are not so difficult it the player pays strict attention to the proper classical posture and left-hand positioning. Players who attempt classical pieces with the guitar placed on their right knee like rock, jazz or blues players customarily do, will most likely have a hard time with some of the chords if they try that in this piece. Maybe that’s why so many casual classical players just prefer to tackle the easier, first part.

Although we may never know exactly who wrote “Romanza” or when, we can be fairly certain that it was written in Spain. Because it’s origins are so mysterious it may even be just possible that there is no mortal composer at all. From the sound of this majestic music, it may have been written by Spain herself.

And now, here is the resulting recording; my take on a true classic of Spanish guitar, “Romanza”.

In recording this song I used an Audio Technica condenser microphone placed about six inches from the sound hole and angled downward toward the place where the neck meets the body of the guitar. I sent the microphone signal through and Edirol UA-4FX USB digital interface box and into Reaper multi-track recording software. To master it, I simply added a bit of EQ, compression and reverb with some of the built-in Reaper plug-ins.

The sheet music used to learn this piece was published in 1971 by Antigua Casa Sherry Breber, Ltd. of Madrid, arranged by Jack Marshall, and was edited and copy written by Christopher Parkening.



Here is a link to an excellent and free public domain version from the Guitar School of Iceland. Edited by Eythor Thorlaksson

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