Early Guitars and Vihuela

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Can I ask you all about the term, 'romantic' guitar?


I appreciate that this expression is often (perhaps generally?) reserved for the period that opens when guitar music shows signs of developing a romantic musical idiom. The problem there, needless to say, is that many historians of romanticism in literature and the visual arts (most recently, perhaps, Tim Blanning) place the decline of the romantic movement, on a European scale, in the 1840s, and so at more or less the time when we would BEGIN to speak of 'romantic' guitars if we allow the idiom of the surviving music to control our usage. For those of us interested in England, this would mean having to refrain from evoking the 'romantic' guitar when dealing with the core period of the canonical English 'romantic' poets: Blake, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge and Wordsworth.  


The argument that this is a general phenomenon ('music always lags behind the other arts') no doubt has some value, and I have heard some very distinguished historians of the guitar make it. For some, perhaps, it will settle the problem, and I suspect that it should be good enough for me. But the music written for the 19c guitar represents only one determinant of its cultural meaning in its own day, and it is arguably not the most important one. We also need to consider (as everyone here knows) how the instrument was represented in novels (including short 'romantic' fiction in the periodicals) plays and poems, to say nothing of the visual arts. So, for example, we can find the guitar described as 'rapturous and romantic' in an essay published in Lancaster in 1818, well before the period when we are accustomed to speak of music for the 'romantic guitar'.


What do you think?

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Ok, for sake of discussion I'll put down some random thoughts which may or may not be relevant to the above.


As an affectionado of the early to mid 19th century guitar, I often use the term "Romantic" (well actually "Early Romantic") to distinguish what my interest is from the modern "classical" guitar. "Classical" as applied to the modern concert guitar is a term that is even further removed from the like named era than the "romantic" guitar.


As to how the term came about I cannot say for sure as the music written for the 19th century guitar repertoire covers stylistic elements of both the classical music era and the romantic music era depending on the composer and productive position in the century. I believe (I could be wrong and certainly welcome correction) that the term "romantic" as applied to guitars is a very recent addition to the language as I've not come across that term in direct relation to the instrument in literature of the period, that I have seen (other than references to the nature of the instrument being "romantic" as you mention).


Terms like "Guitar", "Guitarra", "Chitarra", "Spanish Guitar" and so on seem to be the ones used during the 19th century when refering to the instrument.


A term which I think may be more apt for the instrument during the early to middle 19th century is "Biedermeier Guitar". The instrument during this period (1815 - 1848 +/-) seems to have become a big part of the emerging middle-class sensibilities and the domestic consumption of the arts (reference the many paintings and illistrations on another thread which center around the guitar in a domestic, middle class setting). A great deal of the music during this period for guitar (voice and other instruments as well [Schubert leider]) was directed towards those that had the desire to entertain themselves, family and friends without a substantial amount of time spent in musical training.


For me it's actually later that the true "Romantic era" (1850 - 1910+) in guitar emerges with the likes of Mertz, Coste, Bosch, Arcas and so on. Interestingly, very close to when Mr. Blanning  places the decline of the "Romantic" movement.


Maybe we guitarists/musicians are just always late to the party...you make a bigger impression that way.






This is very helpful. Your characterisation of the social background of the guitar in the first half of the century seems to me absolutely right, and very telling. Well done for distilling a book into a paragraph! And yet, would it not be a little strange to refer to something French, Italian or English as 'Biedermeyer', even though the term is, in many ways, exactly right? The expression 'romantic guitar' does indeed seem to be a very recent one, and, insofar as it is technical, indeed organological, it is not really anticipated by 19c sources (such as the one I cited in my question) which refer to the guitar as having a 'romantic' quality. The point I would like to emphasise is that, in the sources I know, including especially novels and poems, the guitar c1800-c1840 is deeply associated with all the major romantic themes: night, moonlight, love, melancholy, medievalism, landscape, the exotic...and so it goes on. I am probably reflecting my own background here, for I have spent my life as a musicologist masquerading as a university teacher of English (medieval) literature. To me, therefore, the idea that the music written for guitar should exert a decisive influence upon our usage for the early 19c instrument seems to leave most of the relevant material out. But I repeat myself! Apologies, and thanks for a very interesting reply. It may well be that the best answer (for me, at least) is to opt for 'early Romantic guitar' when referring to the early period of the six-string instrument.

As Scot puts it some composers wwrote music in a more clasical way than an early romantic style. Carulli and Gragnani for ex. There music isnt very romantic and yet sometimes carullis music point a bit foreward. I myself like the term early romantic guitar. Biedermeyer is a term used in north europe. I know that here in Denmark the terms were used in 1820 uptil 1830's.

But I dont think the term biedermeyer was used in southen europe - France, Italy and Spain. Please feel free to correct me



Thanks for a clear and helpful reply. I think the term 'romantic' is too rich and suggestive to be associated (if I understand aright) with essentially organological criteria  (i.e. pre-Torres morphology). I also think that the word 'romantic' says (or should say!) much more about the cultural life of the guitars we deem 'romantic' than anything that matters of musical style and idiom alone can contain. I am trying to work with this understanding at present: the 'romantic guitar' is the guitar, however built or strung, that comes to be associated in novels and poems of  c1800-c1840 with all the major romantic themes: night, moonlight, love, melancholy, medievalism, landscape, the exotic.... This, I appreciate, will only support certain kinds of approach to writing a historical narrative of the early-19c guitar.


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