Reading: Segovia, an autobiography of the years 1893-1920

“To play guitar

You need no science,

only a strong arm

and perseverance”


Is it possible to be a concert virtuoso and still a nice, balanced, personality?  Can you reach the level of sublime perfection and total artistic commitment required if you’re just ‘quite a nice person’ or, a ‘pleasant enough type’.

2014-05-08 10.57.46Reading Segovia’s autobiography for the second time a decade on, I find myself thinking that, at least in his case, all the traits which would make him ‘a nice chap to go the pub with’ are replaced with those that made him a quietly trailblazing force in early 20th Century music.

It’s an interesting read for classical guitarists, students of the guitar, and music fans  – if only because it sheds a light on a singular and determined personality who helped make the classical guitar the serious concert instrument it is today.  Segovia presents himself as a bit of a romantic hero – a brave and gallant artist, fighting the good fight to elevate the guitar from it’s humble standing in the world as a folk and parlour instrument.

However, considering his obvious love, passion and aptitude for the guitar, he goes into scant detail on the art and craft of music and guitar, opting to tell more of his personal and social story as he struggles to gain traction in an unwelcoming classical guitar world.

I suppose it’s understandable that a man who came up against so much opposition in his early career should bear a bit of a grudge.  However, several times while reading the book, I found myself disliking Segovia, finding him often to be opinionated, self-aggrandising, snobbish, arrogant and superficial. He spends almost as much time berating the appearance of various characters who displease him, as he does describing his early journey with the guitar.  He also finds it difficult to praise other guitarists, some his friends.  Here’s a quote from the book in which he gives his verdict on Miguel Llobet – a pupil of the great Fransisco Tarrega:

Segovia damning Llobet with faint praise!
Segovia damning Llobet with faint praise!


With friends like Segovia…who needs enemies!

Here is the thing, I suppose:  great artists refuse to compromise, regardless of the consequences.  Segovia would argue, I’m sure, that to make allowances for imperfection would be a disservice to the development of the guitar.  What would those violinists and pianists think if that were considered the best of the guitar?

This is a stigma which, in my opinion, has stayed with the guitar world to this day.  We over-compensate, out of insecurity perhaps, by being excessively perfectionist and self-critical.  Guitarists hate playing to other guitarists, because we know that we have learnt that perfection is the only goal.  Every slip of the finger, every missed note and every over-ringing bass note will be picked up on.  This, I think, is more damaging than it is helpful.

The book has left me wanted more – it leaves Segovia as he sails for Argentina on his first tour overseas – as I’m sure there would be so much to learn from his subsequent career.  We miss out on his work with contemporary composers to create a modern guitar repertoire, and I would have loved to hear what he made of his various pupils (among them John Williams, who has given his thoughts on Segovia in his recent memoirs).

Listening to his recordings via Spotify as I type, I can hear his fiery Andalusian spirit season every note with a passion and intensity.  It’s as if he’s fighting the establishment with every powerful stroke of those chunky fingers!

[spotify id=”spotify:album:5MgZtPaQLAFglAiEnHOiOd” width=”300″ height=”380″ /]

Perhaps I’ll read the book in another decade, and see what my forty-something self thinks of it then.  In the meantime, I’m off to play!