Washington — A hush is what Segovia loves. Andres Segovia, the great Spanish guitarist, is happiest when the audience becomes so caught up in his music that 3,000 people in a concert hall are as quiet as feathers falling on velvet.
It happened here in Washington the other night when Segovia played a sarabande and allegretto by Handel. As one poignant, gold note followed the other at Kennedy Center Concert Hall, a capacity audience sat as quietly as if listening to a whisper that would change their lives. When Segovia finished the Handel, the applause burst like cymbals from the red velvet seats of the orchestra up to the crystal chandeliers of the top balcony.
Segovia rose slowly and bowed with so minimal a display of energy that it could be described as a still bow. Even in motion, he is tranquil. Calm, peace , order are important to him.
"Sometimes," he says in an interview here, "one is without the pleasure of playing. But when the silence [of the audience] is perfect, we recover that." And then he tells a little story about the man who was the manager of the railroad station on Majorca before the tourist deluge, when it was "the island of calm," when it was so peaceful that the daily passing of a train each day at 3:00 and again at 4:00 moved the stationmaster to tears for the entire hour.
As Segovia is talking in his suite at the Watergate Hotel, his words are blotted out for a moment by the roar of an airplane approaching National Airport. Segovia, with his carefully-tuned ears, is not amused by airplanes. "Terrible," he says, looking up. "Sometime when I am speaking through the telephone it is impossible for me to hear. . . . The frequency with which I am flying and the noise also of so many airplanes remain in my head."
Nor does he like the noise of politics. "in [things] political is confusion. And here [he nods toward his guitar sitting in its black leather case on a bureau], here is absolutely the order, everything order and discipline. And the political is just the antagonism of that."
He pauses a moment, considers, then decides to share a story. "I am going to tell you something about the politics. There were three friends. One of them said, 'My career is the oldest in the world because I am . . . surgeon. When the Lord made woman he made from one rib of the man and this is a surgical operation. My career is the oldest.'
"The others say, 'No, no, no,' The second says, 'My career is older than yours. before making woman from the rib of the man, he has put in order the universe, [to] separate, it says in the Bible, the light from the darkness. It is an operation of the engineer. I am engineer. Mine is the oldest [career].' The third says, 'No, no, no. Before the Lord put all that in the universe there was the confusion already . . . . And I am politician,'" Segovia laughs, covering his own punch line.
He loves to tell stories, loves to laugh, has a gleefully irreverent sense of humor for one who has become a legend after 70 years on concert stages, one who is lionized as "maestro."
When he made his American debut in New York's town Hall in 1928, New York Times critic Olin Downes wrote, "He belongs to the very small group of musicians who, by transcendent powers of execution and imagination, create an art of their own, and sometimes seem to transform the very nature of their medium." It was the first guitar recital ever in New York; it is sometimes forgotten that it was through the pioneering work of Segovia that the guitar, not considered worthy of concert status at the beginning of this century, has since become a solo instrument with orchestras around the world.
Today, more than 50 years after the Town Hall recital, Times critic Joseph Horowitz says his recital in february, "served as a reminder of why his example proved so potent a half century ago. The sheen and plumpness of his tones remain unique. Does any other guitarist apply such a caressing vibrato, or use slides as adroitly to smooth a phrase? Mr. Segovia makes the instrument speak. . . ." Both the Times and Washington Post critics note that Segovia's performance is admittedly more leisurely with the years, but as the Post critic notes he plays "with the simplicity of genius."
When Segovia walks on stage, he carries his cherished Ramirez IV guitar gingerly, holding it slightly away from his right thigh like an extension of himself, like a motrocycle sidecar.
A solid man of medium-tall height and great presence, he lists slightly to the right when he is carrying it. Acknowledging the applause with a smiling nod , he fans out his black swallow tails behind him and sits down on a narrow little brown leather bench. He puts his left foot, shod in black leather evening shoes, on a low iron foot rest. Then he settles his beloved guitar on his left knee, so that the top curve leans against his heart, and the bottom rests on his extended right leg. The guitar, made by the fourth generation of Ramirez craftsmen, shines rosy orange in the spotlight. It holds the center of the stage as the guitar in Picasso's painting, "Man With Guitar," holds the focus.
A ware of Segovia's paper-white hair crests off to the left of his face as he plays, as if alone with his instrument in the hall full of people. His hands in the spotlight are ageless -- smooth, pale, plump, but well-muscled as they move up and down, plucking, strumming, sometimes drumming the guitar itself. As he performs, there is the sense that it is more than music he is playing, it is the essence of all he has learned about life over the years. It is as though he is strumming across his life.
When he is asked about that he answers, "You know the soul is the crucible where everything is mixed and forms a whole thing. There was a physician, a doctor, in Spain who was an extremely cultivated man, and he used to say 'The physician that only medicine knows, he doesn't know medicine.'" If that seems a little mystical, Segovia explains: "What does that mean? That means this: that the attitude is to have a curiosity and satisfy that curiosity for everything in life, and every other knowledge than music. And then when he [the musician] is like that -- and [Fritz] Kreisler the violinist was like that, then everything reflects in the way he plays, in the sensitiveness in the concept, everything."
It is a little like the wisdom Segovia as a master teacher gives to his guitar pupils: "The advice I am giving always to all my students is above all to study the music profoundly. Because the music is like the ocean, and the instruments are little or bigger islands, very beautiful for the flowers and trees, or the contrary." He pauses, decides to do a quick spoof of "the contrary ," imitating a big bass with a "brummmmph boom" sound worthy of comic Danny Kaye. "But the most important thing is the ocean, I mean the music, the less important thing is the instrument. Without music, without a thorough knowledge of the music, the guitarist will always be an amateur and not a professional."
"Segovia: My Book of the Guitar," by Andres Segovia and George Mendoza, has just been published by William Collins Publishers, Inc., for the beginning guitarist. One line reads: "LEan your body forward slightly to support the guitar against your chest, for the poetry of the music should resound in your heart."
That may be why Segovia's music is sometime reminiscent of poetry, as in Wallace Steven's poem, "The Man With the Blue Guitar." In this poem to a Picasso painting, Stevens writes, "They said 'You have a blue guitar,/You do not play things as they are.' The man replied, 'Things as they are/Are changed upon the blue guitar.'"
Segovia taught himself to play the guitar as a child of six, when he lived next door to a guitar shop in the small Andalusian town of Linares in southern Spain. At that time the guitar was only for taverns, not considered a respectable instrument. Segovia bucked his family which gave him violin, piano lessons, anything but the guitar. His father, a lawyer, wanted him to follow in his footsteps, but Segovia knew early that the guitar was his life.
His family finally gave in, allowed him to live with his aunt and uncle in Granada to study at the Granada Institute of Music. But because the guitar was not considered a serious instrument, Segovia could find no capable teachers. So again he taught himself. "To this day," he sometimes says, "teacher and pupil have never had a serious quarrel."
Segovia made his musical debut at 14 when a Granada cultural organization, the Circula Artistico, sponsored his first concert. While still in his teens he became a name in Spain. At 22, his international career was launched when his fellow countryman, cellist Pablo Casals, arranged a concert at the Paris Conservative; the audience included musical celebrities like composers Manuel de Falla, Paul Dukas and the wife of claude Debussy.
Segovia was an instant success, but in concert halls he had one problem unique to the guitar. There was precious little music in the guitar repertoire.So he began transcribing Baroque and Renaissance pieces composed for the lute. Later he found a cache of Bach works he believes were written for the lute, and transcribed them, too. As his fame and popularity grew, modern composers like de Falla, Villa-Lobos, Turina, Torroba, Tansman, and others began composing guitar pieces especially for Segovia. Today much of the modern guitar repertoire composed for him, stems from his influence as a performer and teacher.
Critic Alan Rich has written of him, "Anyone who has seen Segovia on a concert stage must sense this immediately, the absolute physical and spiritual oneness of the man and his instrument as the one enfolds the others."
Segovia listens to those words read aloud to him, then asks to see them on paper. He reads them over, nods, smiles, then his eyes dancing, says unexpectedly, "Don't forget that the guitar has a kind of feminine curve. It is very easy to embrace her, and above all, if she responds. . . ." There is a knock at the door, room service with something to be signed. Segovia takes care of it, then resumes speaking of the Rich quote: "You were asking me if this involvement between the guitar and myself was true. And I tell you that's very easy because she has feminine curves. And then when I caress it, she sings. . . . You know I have had three wives, and really three guitars, also. . . . But I have flirted with many guitars."
Three wives?"Yes. The first was 1918, the second, 1936, and the third, 1962 ." He enjoys saying that he has two children, one 58 years old, the other 10. the 58-year-old is the painter Andres Segovia, Jr., who lives in Paris, and the 10-year-old Carlos Andres. "And I lost two," he says, quickly moving on to another subject.
There is something courtly yet amiable about Segovia as he sits in a gold-mand-turquoise print armchair telling stories, making off-the-record comments, and singing the praises of the instrument with which his life has been bound up. He is dressed quietly in a navy blue suit, white shirt, navy ribbon tie like a Spanish grandee. His eyes are brown behind faintly tinted horn-rimmed glasses. There is the scent of cedar in the room, perhaps from the valuable Ramirez guitar never far from his reach. Is it insured?No, he laughs. Neither are his hands.
He is not full of pomp and circumstances. "I am a man like any other, ploosm [plus] an artist," he says. Listen to him on the subject of artists who kvetch about long hours of practice. "When they say that they work eight hours a day, they are lying or they are an ass. It is impossible to practice beyond the attention time and the emotional time. That is the reason why I divide my work in this way:
"I work one hour and one quarter in the morning, then I go to read or breakfast or to the bath and then immediately [work] another hour and one quarter. In that way, I have practised in the morning two hours and a half without tiring myself, with fresh attention and relaxed muscle. In the afternoon or the night, same thing. I like to practice very early in the morning since my instrument is not like trumpet, you know, to disturb the neighbors." He practices "very early in the morning and very late in the evening. Because it is silent, you know, them."
In his book on the guitar, Segovia has given one very adequate definition on his beloved music. But in this interview he gives another which offers a unique insight into his conception of his chosen art. "I think the music is how you say, first there is the most beautiful gift that heaven has given to man. For instance, a painting, a painting needs to see the form of nature to exist. . . . Even the literature, the literature manipulates ideas. But the ideas as the reflection of things, the ideas are the shadow of the complete things. The music doesn't need anything absolutely but the emotion, because it has not to copy anything from nature. This is a kind of spiritual world inside the world."