elisabeth lutyens

Female classical guitar composers part 4

One-off Compositions and Non-Guitarist Composers

As I pointed out in the last part of this list, most guitar music is composed by guitarists. I believe that there are two main reasons for this:

Firstly, the guitar community is rather small, so writing for classical guitar is not really the smartest way for composers to reach a large audience. If the goal is to have one’s music played and therefore heard, it is much more efficient to write for the piano, violin, or orchestra.

Secondly, the guitar is incredibly difficult to write for. In order to write idiomatically for the instrument, a fluent knowledge of the fretboard is required. Many university composition professors actually discourage students from writing for the guitar unless the student is a guitarist him/herself.

Although this imbalance is never going to change (and arguably shouldn’t change), it is important that we encourage non-guitarists to write for the instrument. Non-guitarists bring a different perspective to the instrument and challenge the repertoire norms that we are used to as players.

Because of the challenges that the guitar presents to composers, it is helpful for non-guitarists to work with a guitarists during the composition process in order to become familiar with the instrument and its idiosyncrasies. I think that it is important for us guitarists to make ourselves available to composers who are interested in writing for our instrument. There are a few programs that encourage this collaboration. One of the coolest programs is the Class Axe Guitar Workshop, which is a collaboration between the Canadian Music Centre and the Guitar Society of Toronto and coordinated by Toronto-based guitarist Rob MacDonald. The Ottawa Guitar Society has recently started a composition competition for young composers and is encouraging both guitarists and non-guitarists to write for the instrument.

The Composers

In the first part of this series, I mentioned Anne Lauber, who has written a fantastic solo piece for guitar, Arabseque, as well as a concerto, Espania. Today I am going to continue with a list of more gems in the repertoire that are written by non-guitarist composers.

Of course, I would be amiss if I did not include Joan Tower’s Clocks. Joan Tower is in the top echelon of important American composers, so it is wonderful that she has composed a piece for classical guitar. Clocks (1985) was commissioned by guitarist Sharon Isbin, and is recorded on her album Nightshade Rounds. The piece is an “exploration of time” and unfolds in a truly magnificent form.

Looking back at an older generation of musicians, I have to include the composer Germaine Tailleferre (1892-1983), the only woman in Les Six, a group of French composers. I believe that each of the six composers in the group wrote a piece for guitar. Germaine Tailleferre’s contribution was a beautiful short piece simply titled “Guitare.” The music is available here from sheetmusicplus.com, and you can listen to the piece on YouTube.

The respected British composer, Sally Beamish, has also written a single piece for the guitar. Her piece, Madrigal, is published by Cadenza Music and is available through Strings By MailMadrigal was written for guitarist Peter Argondizza in 1993 or 1999 (depending on the website), and is comprised of variations based on lo pur respiro by Carol Gesualdo. Although I could not find a recording of the piece on YouTube, there is a decent preview of the score on Cadenza Music’s website.

Thea Musgrave is yet another composer who has written a single work for the guitar, however her piece is a little bit different. Soliloquy is a piece for guitar and tape and was composed in 1969 for Siegfried Behrend. You can listen to the piece on YouTube here. The tape and guitar parts are very closely integrated, and at times the piece sounds as if it were a guitar duet because of the timbres used on the tape.

Barbara Kolb has worked in close collaboration with guitarist David Starobin (a true champion of new music for the guitar), and has written a couple pieces for the guitar. There are the Three Lullabies (1980), which were written for the birth of David Starobin’s son. These pieces are recorded on David Starobin’s album collection New Music with Guitar. The Lullabies are haunting and explore the iridescent colours of the guitar with an abundant use of space and plenty of harmonics. I picked up the music for these lullabies while in Germany a couple years ago, and I am finally starting to learn them. Unlike most music written by guitarists, these pieces are not entirely intuitive and require a lot of fingering work. Like Thea Musgrave, Barbara Kolb also composed a piece for guitar and tape. You can listen to Looking for Claudio  (1975), as played by David Starobin here.

Melinda Wagner is another composer who has worked with David Starobin, the guitarist who commissioned her piece Arabesque (2000). Here is Jorge Caballero performing the difficult 4 minute piece. The music is available through sheetmusicplus.com, and was recorded by David Starobin on his 6th volume of New Music with Guitar.

Although she has not composed a solo piece for guitar, the American composer, Elizabeth R. Austin, wrote one chamber piece for guitar and piano. A Falcon Fantasy was written in 2004 and was recorded by Chris Bilobram and Reinhard Wolschina on the CD Composition Féminine.

Russian composer, Sofia Gubaidulina, has written a few pieces that involve the guitar. Her solo guitar work, Serenade, written in 1980, is probably one of the most played of the pieces that I am talking about today. Connie Sheu recorded Serenade for YouTube here. Gubaidulina has also written a few intriguing pieces for guitar ensembles of 2-4 guitars with solo bowed string instruments, including Ravvedimento, a piece for guitar quartet and cello.

French Composer, Thérèse Brenet, has composed several pieces involving guitar, including a significant solo work (Née du rire de l’éclair), and several chamber pieces for guitar duo, guitar and voice, and other combinations. Née du rire de l’éclair was written for Marie-Thérèse Ghirardi, and was later reworked as a chamber piece for mandolin, guitar, and Celtic harp. The latter version can be listened to here.

English composer, Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983), was heavily influenced by the twelve tone music of Arnold Schoeberg, and is credited with bringing the 12-tone style to England. She wrote two pieces for the guitar. One is a piece for 10 guitars, speaker, and percussion (Anerca, Op. 77, 1970), and the other is a piece for solo guitar (The Dying of the Sun, Op. 73, 1969). I cannot find a recording of the solo piece, although it has been performed and was premiered at Wigmore hall in 1969 by Gilbert Biberian. There is a performance of Anerca on YouTube, which was recorded in 1983.

Augusta Read Thomas is an American composer, and has written one piece for guitar duet. Memory: Swells was composed in 2005 for the Newman and Oltman guitar duo. The piece uses altered tunings in both of the guitar parts (guitar 1: GACGBE, guitar 2: GAC#GBF), and uses a form that is reminiscent of the shape of a wave. There is a sample of this piece on her website, as well as links to the CD on which it is recorded. A sample of the music, as well as information on where to get the full score is available through SchirmerOnDemand.

Finally, I will mention Matilde Salvador (1918-2007), the Spanish composer and painter. Salvador wrote many pieces for guitar and voice as well as one popular and very beautiful solo guitar piece, Homenatge e MinstralHere is a recording of the first movement, Preludi. The entire piece was recorded on the Naxos CD Guitar Recital – Dejan Ivanovic. (If you are Ottawa-based and have a library card, the Ottawa Library has a subscription to the Naxos digital library, so you are able to listen to this CD for free! Many other Canadian libraries and universities have similar arrangements)

As always, thank you for reading through this blog post! Please let me know if I have missed anyone in this four-part list of female guitar composers. If I miss enough people, I will write a follow-up post in a few weeks to complete the list.

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I play guitar. I build guitars when I can. I enjoy all sorts of music, but Baroque, 'classical' guitar music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and jazz music hold special places in my heart. I am using this blog to document some of my adventures in guitar building, performing, and teaching, and hope to give my readers a bit of a look at the world inside a guitar.

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