Q: What was The Great Vogue?
CP: Throughout Western Europe, there was a veritable craze for playing the guitar during the first four decades of the nineteenth century; yet astonishingly it is seldom even mentioned in modern accounts of musical and social history. Our book is the first to be entirely devoted to the composers, performers, and instrument makers who created the vogue, and the countless thousands of amateur players who sustained it.
Q: Surely the guitar had been popular before 1800?
PS: An older form of guitar, with five pairs of strings, had periodically enjoyed fashionable status, for example in Britain at the court of King Charles II, or in France at the court of Louis XIV. At a humbler level, various types of small guitar had been used for centuries to play intricate solos or (more often) to accompany singing and dancing, often in the tavern, the barbershop, or the street. But it was the creation, in the late eighteenth century, of the six-single-string guitar – with the tuning that remains standard to this day – that lay the foundations for The Great Vogue.
Q: What was different about this new guitar?
JW: Many things, but perhaps most importantly, it had a distinct bass and treble range. Earlier types of guitar had usually lacked bass strings and had primarily been strummed or played in a way that combined strumming with what guitarists would today call finger-style work. With six single strings, however, the guitar could effectively function as a small piano, accompanying the voice with arpeggio patterns, or playing solo sonatas and variations. It also had the added advantage of portability, for alfresco music-making.
Q: Was this an exclusively male activity?
CP: The majority of concert performers and composers were male, such as Fernando Sor and Mauro Giuliani, although our book does discuss several notable female professionals, including Emilia Giuliani and Catharina Pratten (née Pelzer). But as our contributors demonstrate through diaries, letters, newspaper advertisements, and other archive sources, the guitar appealed to women just as much as to men, as an instrument to accompany the voice, and to perform solo and chamber music. Many women composers of the period published songs for voice and guitar.
Q: Did the Great Vogue happen throughout Europe?
PS: Yes, but in different ways. In France, the Great Vogue began rather earlier, from 1750, but this instrument still had five strings (double and single). In Britain, the Netherlands, and the German states, the fashion for the six-string instrument, as in France, began around 1800 and grew rapidly thereafter. (These dates may seem suspiciously round, but basically they are correct!) In Spain and Italy, various types of guitar had been played continuously since the Renaissance, so it could be argued that there wasn’t a sudden new fashion in those countries during this period, just the gradual replacement of the old five-course guitar by the new six-stringed instrument.
Q: Why has The Great Vogue been ignored by general histories of Western music?
JW: Partly because the guitar has always thrived in a sub-culture of spontaneous, ephemeral and unwritten music. Much of what was valued in the guitar, therefore, has left little for anyone to study, at least with traditional methods. Moreover, it is an instrument for intimate and informal settings where any performances given are unlikely to be noticed in writing, except in private letters and diaries. Our book shows how guitar-players in the period 1800-1840 strove to lift the guitar into the literate musical mainstream – that is fundamentally what the Great Vogue was about. Yet neither the soft voice of the instrument nor its want of sustaining power accorded with nineteenth-century ideas of what made great music, and in many ways those ideas still prevail and influence the way music history is written.
Q: Who is the book aimed at?
CP: Our account is addressed primarily to devotees of the guitar, arguably the most widely-played musical instrument in the West during the past five centuries, and nowadays perhaps in the world. But we hope it will also interest historians of music, and even historians in the wider sense, because the story we tell is not only about the guitar in the concert hall but also about its hitherto underappreciated role in the domestic and social life of Western Europe.
Q: Who are the authors?
JW: The fourteen authors and editors of this book are (with one exception) all members of The Cambridge Consortium for Guitar Research, an international society of guitar players and scholars devoted to the musical history, the social history and the organology of all Western instruments called ‘guitars’, with special emphasis on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Consortium aims to increase public understanding of guitar history through original research and performance. Membership is by invitation.
This guest post was written by CHRISTOPHER PAGE, PAUL SPARKS, and JAMES WESTBROOK, co-editors of The Great Vogue for the Guitar in Western Europe. Please visit our website to read their full author bios.