Ever wanted to learn more about classical guitar practice from the Classical era? Here, we’ll dive deeper into creating an authentic rendition of the classical pieces you play, through the lens of the composers and performers of the time.
Read on to find out more — and click here to watch the tonebase lesson on this topic, taught by renowned Uruguayan guitarist Eduardo Fernandez, for FREE.
Most of the major guitarist-composers of the Classical era – Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani, Dionisio Aguado – lived and worked roughly around the same time, separated only by about sixteen years.
Around this time, the guitar was just starting to appear on the concert stage as a serious instrument, having only recently adapted to single strings (instead of double courses), and added a sixth string around the late eighteenth century.
These early players were building repertoire for an essentially brand new instrument. Each developed their own solutions and schools of thought; understanding their methods is part of the context we need to view their music through.
Also these composers mostly performed their own music, and only in rare circumstances would they include the music of their contemporaries in their performances. They wrote music with their own abilities and expressive tendencies in mind.
When we refer to tempo, we are typically referring to the union of 3 key things:
This is the composer’s specified tempo or performance marking.
We all know that Allegro means fast and Adagio means slow, but there are many other ways to embellish tempo markings. “Allegro molto, Allegro con brio, Presto” are generally faster than simply Allegro. “Adagio molto, Largo, Larghetto, Grave” are generally slower than simply Adagio.
A slightly problematic case is Andante – walking pace – which is neither fast nor slow.
If the walking pace is considered brisk, then Andantino would be slightly faster than Andante. If the pace is considered relaxed, then Andantino would be slightly slower than Andante.
Examples of both exist among repertoire from the early nineteenth century, although from around 1820, Andante began to settle as a slower tempo.
During the Renaissance, the tactus (now considered to be the measure) indicated the beat.
If there were two notes per measure, the overall beat would be slower than if there were three or four notes per measure.
Carrying this idea through, writing in 2/4 usually indicates a slower tempo than 3/4 or 4/4.
The general motion of the piece should also guide our understanding of tempo.
A piece using predominantly eighth notes should take a slower tempo than one predominantly in sixteenth notes.
In some cases, a composer may have written a piece in 3/4 moving mainly by eighth notes and marked it Allegro, only to change their mind and rewrite it in 3/8 with sixteenth notes and change the marking to Allegretto.
Now that we’ve established the principle behind tempo for the classical guitar, let’s dive into the final key concept:
We usually think an ideal performance of a piece is at precisely the correct tempo, includes all the correct notes, and perfectly addresses the composer’s markings. With the music of the Classical Era, there is much more leeway.
Louis Spohr, a violinist and composer of the late Classical and early Romantic Eras, wrote:
“Style is the way in which the singer or player executes the music notated by the composer. If he or she gives faithfully what is written in notes, signs, and words of art, this is called the correct style; if the player adds ideas, and if they are capable of intellectually animate the subject in such a way that the listener may discover and participate in the composer's intentions, this is called a beautiful style, in which correction, sentiment and elegance are united.”
In addition, Carl Czerny, a pianist and composer, and also one of Beethoven’s most famous students, wrote:
“almost in every line there are some notes or passages, where a small and often quite imperceptible relaxation or acceleration of the movement is necessary, to embellish expression and raise the interest of the listener.”
These comments are partially obvious, as nobody expects music to sound entirely precise and mechanical.
According to Czerny, an “imperceptible” change was around a quarter to a sixth of the tempo, which would be considered quite a substantial deviation by today’s standards.
Of course, this does not require constant tempo changes, but only for selected moments.
When it comes to practicing the guitar repertoire of the Classical era, you can see there is much more to it than simply getting all the right notes.
This abstract concept is difficult to learn on your own. But by giving attention to conventions of style and tempo in the Classical period, your performances will be more true to the artistic sensibilities of the Classical period.
Want to watch a FREE lesson on this topic from noted guitarist Eduardo Fernandez? Just click here.
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