Tales of 4 Great Classical Guitarists
You might know their music, but how about the lives of superlative guitarists? This article offers some brief background stories on four of the greatest classical guitarists ever.
Fernando Sor first fell in love with music as a boy, when his father introduced him to opera. It was Sor’s father, too, who introduced him to the guitar, and by the time the young Sor was 8, he was an accomplished guitarist. But Sor also studied piano, violin, and harmony, and by the time he finished school, he was a well-rounded musician and composer writing not only guitar pieces but also operas, ballets, symphonies, and piano pieces. Sor’s technical skill on guitar was unmatched in his day, and he traveled throughout Europe delighting audiences and heads of state with his virtuosity.
As a boy, Francisco Tárrega was fascinated by his father’s guitar and would grab it and experiment with it whenever he could get his hands on it. But one day young Francisco, running from a babysitter, fell into an irrigation canal whose water was impure and contracted an eye infection that impaired his vision. Because his family feared he would go blind, they enrolled him in guitar and piano courses with the idea that he’d be able to earn a living as a musician, even if blind. In fact, his first two music teachers were blind themselves.
When he was only 10, Francisco ran away from home and began his career by playing in small coffee houses and restaurants in Barcelona (in Spain’s northeast corner). After he was found and returned to his father, who continued to try to advance the boy’s musical education, he ran away again at 13 and joined a band of gypsies. He was returned home again, only to run away once more, this time to Valencia (in the middle of Spain’s eastern coast). At the age of 21, Tárrega, having settled down, entered the Madrid Conservatory, where he studied composition and focused on guitar (abandoning his idea of a career as a pianist). After leaving school, he taught guitar and performed as a virtuoso throughout Spain as well as in France, England, and Italy. He was even invited to perform for a queen — Spain’s Isabel II.
Beethoven once referred to the classical guitar as a “miniature orchestra in itself.” And what, you may wonder, prompted that description? He’d heard a performance by guitar virtuoso and composer Mauro Giuliani. As a boy, Giuliani studied cello, violin, and harmony, but on the instrument for which he is celebrated — the guitar — he was self-taught. When he was 25, he moved from Italy to Vienna, the European capital of classical music. There he hobnobbed with such notables as opera composer Gioachino Rossini (The Barber of Seville) and the great Beethoven himself — seven years later, Giuliani even performed as a cellist in the premiere of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. As a performer, Giuliani toured most of Europe, and everywhere he went, he astonished people with his virtuosity. As a composer, he preferred to write in a classical style not unlike that of Mozart and Haydn.
Not much is known about Matteo Carcassi’s life, but it is known that as a boy he learned to play the piano before turning to the guitar. When he was 18 he moved to Germany, where he found success as a virtuoso performer. Soon after, he gave a concert tour in Europe, playing in London, Paris, and Florence (his birthplace). But for most of his adult life, Carcassi lived and worked in Paris; in fact, France was his favorite country. He even served in the French army.