In the history of the guitar, Francisco Tárrega, both the man and his work, are from a period when the instrument was in decline (late Romanticism); and yet, he is surrounded by a mythology that has transformed him into the symbol of the renaissance guitar. Unfortunately, he did not live to see this rebirth. He was born in Vilareal de los Infantes, in the Valencia region of Spain. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Tárrega was little more than an amateur, self-taught guitarist, even though his exceptional capabilities were clearly evident and hinted at the musician he would become. In his early youth, he enrolled in the Conservatory of Madrid, taking classes in piano and solfeggio, and despite it coming a bit late in his education, this instruction opened his musical horizons, feeding his fertile and instinctive musicality and rather than estranging him from the guitar as it could have; it was during this period that his calling as a guitarist fully manifested itself.
His life was spent surrounded by an affectionate family, engaged in a semi-clandestine, ardently reciprocal and volatile affair with a gentlewoman who was also his patron, and giving concerts that only occasionally (and then only briefly), led him abroad. He led a rather peaceful existence in Spain, mostly in Barcelona, where he gave private lessons and unwillingly left to give concerts in the provinces. He died prematurely, after having suffered a partial paralysis, which did not prevent him from playing but did have an effect on his already rather laborious technique. His works for guitar reflect some of the key traits of "minor" Romanticism: the predilection for introspection, the quest for the exotic and an interest in the music of the people. Moreover, he developed the genre called "studio da concerto" for the guitar in which he, starting with the work of other composers, written for other instruments, recreated the piece for himself and his instrument. While the overriding purpose in this work was esthetics, he was also interested in developing pieces for teaching purposes and, at the same time, masterpieces of virtuosity.
Developed during his piano studies, his introspective streak is most evident in those compositions that are more intense harmonically and melodically, and reaches its apex in the collection, Preludios. Only nine were published in his lifetime: since then their number has increased and with the most recent publication of his complete works (Soneto Ediciones Musicales, Madrid) there are now thirty-five.
Tárrega, along with other romantic artists, was also attracted to Exoticism, the movement in literature, art and music of French origin that captured the fancy of the isolated and somewhat provincial, romantic Spanish composers. These artists saw the world of the desert and tents as a way of escaping from the spleen of the metropolis; they saw Anadalusia as the closest thing Spain had to offer, both geographically and culturally, for their imaginary Arabia, a type of outpost for paradise on earth. They were careful never to visit this outpost (except on rare occasions), maybe so as not to discover that the reality was not what their fantasy made it out to be. The building and gardens of Alhambra of Granada were an emblem for the Spanish romanticists and it is not by chance that some Spanish scholars invented the term alhambrismo to refer to those masters of the 1800s who, in origin and education, were really closer to France than to the Islamic world. The most prominent example of these artists being Tomàs Breton, the person to which Capricho Arabe is dedicated and with which is considered to be, without a doubt, among the nurturers of an affable and almost home-bound exoticism - Italians would call it salgarian. Tárrega visited Granada in 1899, in the company of his ardent patron, to whom he dedicated the piece appropriately called Recuerdos de la Alhambra. This piece, more than longing for the orient, illustrates the influence Georges Bizet's "Spanish" music had on him. It is a piece that was destined to become one of the universal triumphs of the guitar, with its filigree of repeated notes that support a melody that is clearly indebted to the novel Les Pêcheurs des Perles. Completing this exotic picture are Danza Mora and Danza Odalisca, a picture painted with vibrant colors by a Valencian-Barcelonean, who was more familiar with France than the south of Spain.
Tárrega cultivated his "folk music", or music written for a public who could not appreciate the more delicate music of the Mazurkas or the Preludes, in part out of necessity - he needed to enlarge his repertory of music performed in the Spanish pueblos - but it was also one of his diversions as he was inclined to be playful. In fact, even in those pages that are filled with special effects, Tárrega's music never becomes vulgar. The Variaciones sobre el Carnaval de Venecia de Paganini are a great example of this enthusiastic, Tàrregean folksy streak: a sumptuous introduction, a well-known theme, seven jovial ornaments and a short finale, rolled up in a virtuosity that was the only weapon this virtuoso had available to make "refined" guitar music acceptable to a public for whom the guitar was an instrument played at country fairs and in taverns.
Tárrega, like most other guitarist-composers, transcribed music and knew how to leave his esthetic mark on his work. It was intuition that pushed him to transcribe Mendelssohn's Barcarola Veneziana op. 19 n. 6. Generally speaking here, as in all of his forays into the world of piano, the effects of his studies at the conservatory of Madrid (where only selected works from anthologies of the most famous pieces of Romantic artists were studied) are evident. In the art of paraphrasing Tárrega, on the other hand was schematic and did not work as hard as Giuliani or Mertz did. The piece, Fantasia sobre la Traviata de Verdi
, is a re-elaboration of an earlier work by Juliàn Arcas, Tárrega's predecessor, who should have been his maestro. Actually, these two greats of the romantic guitar never met, or the encounter amounted to nothing, but in this Fantasy written by them both, meet they do. Who knows if Verdi
ever heard it…
(from the booklet by Angelo Gilardino)