Italian music for plucked strings / Philippe Mouratoglou, guitar

All enthusiasts of alternative histories will at one time or another asked themselves the question: What would our tastes, culture, arts, or, in short, our civilization would have been like if Italy had not animated the western world with its rejuvenating spirit from the 13th century? What would world literature be like without Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto or Casanova? How would science have evolved if it had not been impregnated by the spirit of Italian humanism, from Leonard de Vinci to the Galilei family?

If, indeed, words invent things, what weird creature would humanity resemble if Italian Renaissance humanism had not given it an aim and meaning? Obviously, you may say that these things did not appear as if by miracle at the end of the Middle Ages in a peninsula torn by conflict. Over the centuries, ancient Rome, which itself had assimilated the Greek pantheon in order to distance itself from its obscure Etruscan genealogy, had imposed itself as the dominant culture, exercising its authority beyond the fall of the Roman empire via the almighty power of a Christianity that had rapidly become hegemonic, at least in the Mediterranean basin before the rise of Islam. However, throughout the long and rich era of the much-maligned Middle Ages – which remains synonymous with obscurantism only for the ignorant – new ideas and unorthodox intuitions never ceased to appear here and there. The only problem, but a significant one, is that all this knowledge remained confined to monasteries or abbeys, in the hands of clerics and scribes, and circulated almost exclusively among scholars approved by the Church.

Fertile cultural exchanges

The dual disruptions of the invention of the printing press (1450) and the theses of Luther (1517) would create an epistemological explosion of considerable magnitude. Henceforth, written knowledge could be disseminated and studied well beyond its place of origin. Moreover, the supposed immutable authority of the papacy was questioned with previously unimaginable rhetorical violence. This explosive mixture of technical progress and intellectual audacity would durably disrupt the Western world. Even if the Reformation never gained a stronghold south of the Alps, the ensuing shock wave played an undeniable role in the new Italian mindset that would now be known as, after Vasari, the Renaissance.

Very early, what was not yet called the Grand Tour – the mandatory and inspirational voyage for any northern European artist to the Italian peninsula – imposed itself as a duty, and became a subtle stage for intertwined influences. Who could doubt that Albrecht Dürer, who was present in Venice in 1494, had as much influence on the Italian masters as they had on him? Similarly, Italian polyphony – from strict counterpoint to the most frenzied flourishes of late madrigalism – owes almost everything to the masters of the Franco-Flemish school, who in turn had learned from their Italian colleagues a method of softening the melodic line and of twisting academic rules for the benefit of pleasure, as is particularly testified by the special talent of Josquin des Prés, whose presence at the Milanese court of the Sforza, and later in Rome, has been documented.


However, the Italy of the time was far from the unified country we know today as a rather homogeneous entity, synonymous with a gentle lifestyle, beauty and dolce vita, in short, an anachronistic fantasy. Divided into principalities, city-states, and local kingdoms, all of which were either competitors or outright enemies, it was a disparate and violent mosaic over which even the supposedly omnipotent papacy had no real power. Moreover, it is often forgotten that practically the entire territory lived under Spanish rule (with the exception of Milan, which was disputed by France) for almost one hundred and fifty years, precisely when the Renaissance, which appears so naturally Italian to us today, was at its peak... What should we deduce from this? At the very least, that history is always a complex palimpsest of cultures and that there is no such thing as pure Italianity, because we must also include in that notion all the contributions of the Far East (the spice route on which the fortune of Venice was built), Constantinople or the various Sephardic communities expelled from Spain in 1492.

Oud, lute, and guitar

Italian music is the fruit of all these influences, felicitous or adverse, harmonious or antagonistic, which could not have flourished elsewhere than in a land accustomed to all the trickery of Nemesis. You are now probably wondering, and quite rightly: what does our modest guitar, which has long been the undisputed totem of popular music, have to teach us about this point of history? Everything, actually.

An emblem of Spain par excellence, the guitar was born on the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century for rather inglorious reasons: it was a question of eclipsing the oud, the pear-shaped lute invented and improved by the recently expelled Arabs. While all the rest of the West had adapted the original instrument by adding strings and then frets, and had developed an increasingly sophisticated repertoire, the Spanish remained adamant: the lute was a thing of the past, and the present called for homegrown instruments. It is thus that the vihuela was born, an instrument with six double strings (called "courses") and tuned exactly like a lute. In fact, it is a lute disguised as a guitar. Honor was thus preserved – at least among the very pious subjects of the Catholic Monarchs.

The Italians are not so scrupulous and love everything that can distinguish them from their neighbors in the national sport that has become the quest for beauty. Yet, far from the exuberance of today's enthusiasts, the discipline was practiced with the most extreme attention to aristocratic discernment. This bears a name: sprezzatura. In his classic Book of the Courtier, which dates precisely to 1528, Baldassare Castiglione thus defines the term as: "to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some very rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it"1.

Today, one cannot sufficiently measure the importance of this notion and its impact on all arts, an idea that we meet again two centuries later in the words of Jean-Philippe Rameau (who possibly did not know the origin) when he advised one of his correspondents to "conceal art within art itself"2. It is not far from this to Oscar Wilde's "nature imitates art"3, and nothing has changed with time: the marvel of human intelligence has always dreamed of its tomorrows while celebrating today's pleasures.

A genius of the Renaissance lute

It is in Venice, the only more or less stable republic of the period, that Ottaviano Petrucci (1466-1539) developed the prodigious idea of adapting the movable type printing press to musical notation, and more particularly to the tablature system that had long been the vernacular of lutenists. Among his considerable output, no fewer than six collections for lute testify to the particular status of this instrument in Renaissance organology. Its importance was highlighted by Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier, without a doubt one of the most influential works in history (translated in French in 1537, it was pillaged, adapted, counterfeited and imitated for centuries in all the languages of Europe). It is largely to Castiglione that we owe the gentrification of an instrument that had until then been played by musicians of all social origins4.

In Italy, the six-course lute co-existed on good terms with the Spanish vihuela, which is designated here as the viola da mano in order to differentiate it from the various bowed violas. Then, several years after Petrucci's earliest publications, in which Joan Ambrosio Dalza and Francesco Spinacino had already demonstrated their extraordinary visionary talent, there appeared, like a genius born directly from Jupiter's thigh, a lutenist who would reshuffle the cards: Francesco Canova da Milano, born in 1497, as if to deal the final blow to the past. We suppose that he obtained his musical education from Giovanni Angelo Testagrossa in Mantua, who probably also taught Albert de Rippe, another exceptional lutenist and guitarist, a victim perhaps, with regard to posterity, of the extreme technical density of his works. After time spent at the Gonzague court in Mantua, Francesco da Milano seems to have lastingly and faithfully served Pope Paul III in Rome. He was considered a genius from the start, something like the musical equivalent of a Michelangelo, such that he was nicknamed "Il divino", a name that has come down to us through history. Such devotion is difficult to understand for those who are not familiar with 16th century lute music, but it was well understood by musicians themselves: in addition to his incredible liberty, Francesco da Milano demonstrated an algebraic fantasy that would not be seen again until Bach, two centuries later. Unlike Albert de Rippe, Francesco da Milano did not seek to impress. For him, even the most modest melodic motif was a pretext for incredible development. He would repeat, modulate, reverse and imitate his initial idea with faultless sureness of taste. His ricercari and fantasias seem to be in state of perpetual commencement, and when they do conclude, it is often reluctantly and on a dominant chord rather than the tonic, as if to say that there is no end to human ingenuity and that everything is always in movement. Can it be purely by chance that this great mind was a perfect contemporary of Copernicus? One finds that hard to believe inasmuch as their approaches seem to mirror each other, and this during a time of belief in, with a certain degree of reason, the music of the spheres. In addition to being a peerless composer, Francesco da Milano was an exceptional virtuoso. His art does not seek to dazzle but to move the listener. Concerning this subject, we have the exceptional testimony of a contemporary, the French humanist Pontus de Tyard. It is impossible not to quote this text written like a legend, and which has become one in turn: "While staying in Milan […] Jacques Descartes de Ventemille was invited to a sumptuous and magnificent banquet […] where, among other pleasures of rare things assembled for the happiness of those select people, appeared Francesco da Milano – a man who is considered to have attained the end (if such is possible) of perfection in playing the lute. After the tables had been cleared, he chose one, and, as if tuning his strings, he sat on the end of a table seeking out a fantasia. He had barely disturbed the air with three strummed chords when he interrupted conversation that had started among the guests. Having compelled them to turn their faces toward him, he continued with such a ravishing skill that, little by little, making the strings languish under his fingers in his sublime way, he transported all those who were listening to such a pleasurable melancholy that one of them leaned his head on his hand supported by his elbow, and another sprawled with his limbs in careless deportment, with gaping mouth and more than half-closed eyes, glued (one would judge) to those strings [of the instrument], and his chin fell to his breast, concealing his countenance with the saddest taciturnity ever seen; and so they remained deprived of all senses save that of hearing, as though the spirit, having abandoned all the seats of the senses, had retired to the ears in order to enjoy the more at its ease so ravishing a harmony. And I believe (said M. de Ventemille) that we would be there still, had he not himself – I know not how – by invigorating his style of playing with a gentle force, returned the spirit and the sense to the place from which he had stolen them, not without leaving as much astonishment in each of us as if we had been elevated by an ecstatic transport of some divine fury."5

Like a brilliant star in the firmament of the 16th century, Francesco da Milano had the fortune to enjoy glory during his lifetime: his one hundred and twenty-five compositions have been preserved in no less than forty published collections and twenty-five manuscripts. We have to wait until the very beginning of the 17th century for another genius of this caliber to close the history of the Renaissance lute, this time in England, in the hands of the equally adventurous John Dowland.

The lute evolves

Curiously, Italy seems to have abandoned the repertoire for solo lute during the next two centuries and, with the notable exception of Alessandro Piccinini in the 17th century and Giovanni Zamboni, called "the Roman", in the early 18th century, it is the theorbo, with its emphatic basses that are perfectly suited to accompany the voice, which seems to have garnered the favor of Italian composers.

While northern Europe ceaselessly explored the "new tunings" and transformed the lute into an entirely different instrument, creating the style brisé that would become the new esthetic standard of the baroque era, the Italians never adopted the "new ordinary tuning" of the baroque lute in use elsewhere, preferring to preserve the "vieil ton" of the instrument, while adding extra strings to increase the lower register. The cousins of the lute – the archlute and theorbo – lived on peacefully, but now in the background, within the continuo and behind the strings and the woodwinds that themselves accompanied the vocalists. Of course, there were some exceptions to this rule, including the charming partitas in the gallant style attributed to Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello for the mandora (a sort of bass lute tuned like a guitar), but these remain marginal.

The child prodigy of the romantic guitar

We have to wait until the very beginning of the 19th century, and the invention of the guitar with six single strings as we know it today, to see the bloom of a new generation of Italian guitarists, including Matteo Carcassi, Mauro Giuliani and Ferdinando Carulli, who enjoyed considerable success in Paris. Their compositions, of undeniable pedagogical interest, are of unequal value, even if they remain mandatory study for all students in today's conservatoires.

The case of Giulio Regondi (1822-1872) is quite different. We hesitate to use such a hackneyed expression, but it does seem to have been forged specifically for him: it is the best-kept secret of the romantic guitar. Born in Geneva, from an early age he was subject to the abuse of a person who presented himself as his father, even though no historian to date has elucidated the question of this supposed genealogy. The history of music was not lacking in child prodigies and the legends that surround them, starting with Mozart, who was presented like a phenomenon in all the courts of Europe by his father Leopold. The history of Giulio Regondi is far more tragic and traumatic: forced by his putative father to study his instrument all day long under the surveillance of a cantankerous and sadistic neighbor, he had no other hope than to submit to this treatment. He thus became a typical child prodigy. However, he had something uniquely personal: he was a genius and his delicate and angelic appearance ensured him resounding success. Regondi has been compared to a young Paganini, Fernando Sor dedicated Souvenir d’amitié to him, Franz Liszt, who resembled him like an elder brother, had the troubling impression of seeing in him the child that Liszt had once been, and the countesses, inevitably, swooned... Poor Regondi was treated like an infant. From Paris to Vienna and from Frankfurt to London, he was exhibited on a chair set on a piano, with a young girl prodigy by his side also to play the hits of the time. And then, one day, his severe father disappeared with several hundreds of thousands of pounds in his pocket, leaving his ex-protégé with the equivalent of five pounds. Meanwhile, the young Regondi had discovered a new instrument, the concertina – a sort of ancestor of the bandoneon – for which he composed with a sort of calm frenzy pieces of such virtuosity and musical value that certain guitarists have recently reappropriated for themselves. Supported by several admirers, Regondi lived on for a few more years before succumbing to illness. One never dies of despair alone.

Compared with his gift and inventiveness (truly, nothing compares to his science of harmonic development in the entire repertoire for the guitar), the number of works he has left us is almost desperately thin. The Introduction & caprice, op. 23, chosen here by Philippe Mouratoglou, is among those rare concert pieces that are designed to reveal the virtuosity of the soloist by highlighting the guitar's vocal quality, close to that of bel canto − an imitative preoccupation that was a major concern of all the instrumentalists of the romantic era. Since then, the Ten Études rediscovered by Matanya Ophee in Moscow in the 1980s have opened a broader and even more intimidating perspective on the originality, modernity, and audacity of Regondi's musical language. New manuscripts appear from time to time, with the recent example of a Feuillet d’album of a frustrating brevity, but this allows us to hope for other discoveries that may help us rewrite the entire history of the romantic guitar.

The rebirth of the guitar in Spain

After unleashing the enthusiasm of the European bourgeoisie in the mid-19th century, the guitar seems to have fallen into a sort of lethargy, and even delightful composers like Englishman Ernest Shand (1868-1924) met with stony indifference at the turn of the 20th century. It was not until a second revival, coming out of Spain, with composers like Francesco Tárrega, Miguel Llobet and Emilio Pujol, that the instrument recovered some interest among composers and amateur musicians. It is nonetheless a pure performer, the testy and vindictive Andrés Segovia (1893-1987), who embarked on a radical and austere crusade: that of making the guitar a "serious" and respected instrument, in short, to put an end to the fantasy of it being an instrument of the street and the "dangerous classes" and to impose its majesty in the major concert halls of the Old and New Worlds. To serve his grandiose purpose, Segovia led a double battle (almost everything was a combat for him). On one hand, he transcribed the "serious" music of previous centuries, usually adding notes that weighed down the works in question. On the other hand, he commissioned new works from contemporary composers, making sure they were aware of the honor he was bestowing on them. Nonetheless, the works had to be modern but not too much so, the dissonances had to resolve via beautiful and resolutely tonal cadences and, above all, these new compositions had to be well suited to the master's skill. This led to even his best friends tearing out their hair trying to please him and writing hundreds of pages complying with his edicts, while the distinguished gentleman never deigned to play them in public, and even less to record them. Today, Segovia is still admired by many as the great renovator of the guitar in the 20th century. However, others see him as a person who was extremely self-satisfied, so preoccupied with the chimeric respectability of the classical guitar that he contributed to placing it in a corseted and sterile world of its own, as stifling as a sect – merely viewing one of his masterclasses, in which he would take perverse pleasure in humiliating all those young people who did not play as rigorously as he, should suffice to understand the reservations this individual can arouse. There were nevertheless a few happy exceptions, and the cloudless, long, and fertile collaboration with composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) should be credited to the good deeds of the difficult Segovia. Castelnuovo-Tedesco, a distant descendant of a Jewish family expelled from Spain in 1492, pursued a brilliant musical education first in Florence and then in Bologna. His meeting with Segovia in Venice in 1932 marked the beginning of a fruitful relationship between the two men. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was not a guitarist and thus did not master all the idiomatic possibilities of the instrument, which did not prevent Segovia from finding undeniably guitaristic qualities in his works, which he developed according to his tastes and technique. The Sonata (Omaggio a Boccherini), op. 77, of 1934, which surely remains his most frequently played work for the guitar, is thus a true four-handed creation, and was long performed in its "Segovia version" until the recent discovery of the manuscript by Castelnuovo-Tedesco alone gave rise to the publication of a new edition, without Segovia's interventions and additions6. It is this urtext version of the sonata that Philippe Mouratoglou plays here, restoring the work's original colors.

Ironically, this composition seems to replay history in reverse as here it is an Italian composer with distant Spanish origins paying homage to another Italian master, Luigi Boccherini, who, like the genial Domenico Scarlatti, became so well acclimatized in Spain that he too would become a national symbol. This spirited and brilliant sonata, which does not fail to very discreetly pay tribute to the melancholy of Enrique Granados in its allegretto malinconico, is one of the finest successes of the guitar repertoire of the first half of the 20th century. In exile in the United States to escape fascism, Castelnuovo-Tedesco continued to develop his brilliant and happy art, signing dozens of scores for the insatiable Hollywood machine − thus remaining the famed but little-known composer whose music has been heard by almost everyone without knowing it, in the complicit obscurity of a neighborhood movie theater...

Contemporary discussion and debate

This journey to Italy ends with two pieces by Nuccio d’Angelo (born in 1955), Due canzoni lidie, written in 1984 and which have become, thanks to the miracle of discussion amongst musicians and the special word-of-mouth they know how to develop, something like contemporary classics, like certain works by the sadly missed Roland Dyens, who knew how to mix the most recent playing styles (percussions, playing with resonances) with extensive knowledge of the expressive possibilities of the guitar. Philippe Mouratoglou says the following about Due canzoni lidie: "It is one of the rare works in the repertoire to use an open tuning other than the usual scordaturas in D or G that we find with Barrios Mangoré or Tárrega, for example. D'Angelo uses here an original open chord by lowering the second and sixth strings by a semitone, which gives the entire piece a very specific color (Tōru Takemitsu seems to have recalled this in his Equinox). The flow of the work, as ductile as a long improvisation, gives it an adventurous nature, within a very firm succession of ideas – which confers all its originality."

This leaves us with the question that nourishes debate among specialists: can we, or must we, play music from such different periods on a modern instrument (in this case a magnificent Dominique Field from 2013)? The orthodox upholders of the historicist vein, those so-called "historically informed" musicians, will say no, each work must be played on the instrument it was written for – lute music, for example, can legitimately only be played on a reproduction of a lute of the period. The position upheld by Philippe Mouratoglou in all his previous recordings, and even more in the present one, is different and yet neither adverse to nor an enemy of the partisans of ancient instruments. "The interest I find in bringing together these very different styles on the same album also lies in the search for a specific sound for each of them on the same instrument. In the case of Francesco da Milano, I strove to rediscover the spirit of the lute by favoring the natural resonances of the guitar, preferring a gentle attack that allows the resonances to develop, restoring whenever I think it necessary (and when possible) the octave pairs that mechanically disappear when this music is played on a guitar, all with a closely positioned microphone to enhance these choices."

Rather than a "historically informed" performance, it is a "historically reflected" performance that is proposed here, with all the various meanings of the word "reflect". It reflects a history, like a mirror, but also submits it to all the ideas, speculations and desires of a musician of today, who, like a painter of old, knows very well that a painting, before being an array of colors assembled in a certain pattern, remains above all that "mental thing" celebrated by Leonardo de Vinci as recently as yesterday.

1 Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, pages 32-33, W. W. Norton & Company Inc. [2002]

2 Jean-Philippe Rameau, Letter to Houdar de La Motte, 1727, published by Mercure de France, March 1765.

3 Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying, InIntentions, 1889

4 For the popular usages of the lute in the 14th and 15th centuries, see p.18 and 19 of Luthistes by Lionel de La Laurencie, Henri Laurens publisher, Paris, 1928.

5 Pontus de Tyard, Solitaire second ou prose de la musique, published by Ian de Tournes, Lyon, 1555, p.114

6 Pavel Francisco, Meza Peraza: Andrés Segovia’s Influence in the Realization of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sonata Omaggio a Boccherini, op.77: A Comparative Analysis of Tedesco’s Manuscript Versus Segovia’s Edition. Thesis for the degree of doctor of musical arts, University of Arizona, Tucson, 2020.

Philippe Mouratoglou : classical guitar


Vision Fugitive

Revue de presse

04-03-2024 Solo