The North American Backdrop to Segovia


To provide further context for the developments of Segovia’s recording career, this chapter surveys the emerging marketplace for classical guitar recordings in North America from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. During this period a number of guitarists emigrated to the United States from Spain and Latin America, establishing fruitful recording careers with the major labels. Their recordings constituted an important alternative perspective on the Segovian repertoire at a time when the latter’s 78s and LPs were being widely proliferated. Vicente Gómez, for example, brought the folkloric aspects of Spanish guitar tradition into play with his classical leanings, which he conveyed to a substantial audience through both his recordings for American Decca and his Hollywood film career. Rey de la Torre offered an alternative view of the guitar which reflected a Spanish perspective derived from Llobet, his Cuban roots, as well as an affinity with European music more generally. In bringing the eclectic Brazilian perspective on the classical guitar to the United States, Laurindo Almeida, who recorded prolifically for Capitol, played an important part in loosening stylistic boundaries. These together with the numerous minor artists who passed through the New York based Spanish Music Center, contributed through their recordings to the wider circulation of the Latin American view of the classical guitar outside the continent. Finally, the beginnings of an interchange of ideas between the classical and popular spheres of guitar performance provided the foundation for the re-orientation of the repertoire by North American classical guitarists in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Foundations of the North American Classical Guitar Marketplace

Prior to Segovia’s arrival at American Decca the 1920s and 1930s had seen the gradual emergence of a North American marketplace for classical guitar recordings, fueled primarily by an influx of Spanish and Latin American guitarists seeking opportunities to concertize more widely outside their home countries. These artists naturally attracted the attention of the major North American labels, two of which -Columbia and Victor - had already been actively involved in recording Latin American guitarists. In the late 1930s Columbia signed Julio Martinez Oyanguren, who, following his re-location to the US from Uruguay, was beginning to achieve a high profile as a concert artist and broadcaster in the country (Krick 1940). Oyanguren turned out to be a prolific recording artist, cutting a large number of 78s for the label in 1937 which display the considerable breadth of his performing repertoire, from the Spanish school from the vihuelists (Milan and Narvaez), to Sanz, Sor, Aguado and Târrega. He also ranged more widely however, recording music by obscure guitarist-composers such as José Prats Sirera (1884-1931), examples of tango music (an arrangement of the well-known La Cumparsita, by Gerardo Matos Rodriguez) as well as his own compositions (two descriptive pieces entitled Arabia and An-dalucia). Taken as a whole, Oyanguren’s recordings imply the breadth of the historical recital program that was to dominate the structure of classical guitar discs in the early LP era.1 In the late 1930s Oyanguren was regularly the focus of discussion in the British plucked string magazine, BMG, whose writers had been able to gain access to his Columbia recordings. In particular Geoft' Sisley’s “Gallery of Guitarists” columns (January and February 1937), devoted to La Cumparsita and Arabia, offer useful insight into the reception of Oyanguren’s discs at this time. Concerning his handling of the tango form in La Cumparsita, Sisley notes Oyanguren’s evident affinity with dance idioms, suggesting that music of this nature ought to be heard more frequently on the “finger-style” guitar to counterbalance “heavy classical” music (in other words, the Segovian aesthetic). Indeed he suggests that Oyanguren that should not be compared to Segovia, as “the spheres of the two artists are entirely different” (1937a: 94). More importantly, Sisley also devotes a considerable amount of attention to the production values of Oyanguren’s recordings, offering observations that constitute some of the earliest examples of criticism focused on the aesthetics of classical guitar recording. In reference to La Cumparsita, Sisley comments that:

Those who have been fortunate enough to have heard this record may have noticed that the tone of the guitar is unusually penetrating for an instrument strung, apparently, with gut strings. I wonder if the recording process is responsible for this, or is it that Oyanguren’s instrument is of a particular quality of tone.

(Sisley, 1937a: 94)

He also observes that there is very little string noise produced by the left hand on the recording, offering suggestions as to how this might have been achieved:

It can sometimes be avoided by turning the arm of the instrument away from the microphone. Whether this will always be a remedy, with the ever-advancing efficiency of modern microphones, I am not prepared to say.

(1937a: 94)

In his discussion of Arabia, Sisley speculates on Oyanguren’s particular approach to the tuning of his strings, observing that the recording process can sometimes give a “mistaken impression of pitch” (1937b: 125). He also offered thoughts on the handling of the guitar’s frequencies by the engineers:

As in “La Cumparsita” the tone of the guitar is excellent and nicely balanced which, with so many guitar recordings being inclined to over heaviness on the bass vibrations, is indeed pleasant to the ear.


In his concluding remarks Sisley draws attention to the important role that classical guitar recordings were playing in advertising guitarists’ capabilities in advance of their public appearances:

Taking these records as a guide I look forward to the time when Oyanguren visits this country. His playing is a joy to hear; and a recital, when he would have the opportunity of playing other numbers he must have “up his sleeve” (as the saying goes) would undoubtedly give guitarists something to talk about.


In 1939 Oyanguren signed an exclusive contrast with American Decca,2 which, like Columbia, was beginning to build up a significant catalogue of classical guitar music. Among Oyanguren’s first recordings for the label (made in 1940) was a two volume collection of 78s, entitled Latin American Folk Music3 (Decca “Personality Series” album Nos 174 and 186).4 This was unique compilation of Latin American guitar music from across the continent, offering North American audiences a captivating alternative to the Segovian repertoire concept. Included were original pieces and arrangements by established names in the Latin American guitar world - Agustin Barrios (the Danza Guaraní), Villa-Lobos (his Choros No. 1), Ponce (a “Canción Popular”) and Uruguayan guitarist Isaias Sávio (variations on the lullaby, Arrorró mi Niño), as well as arrangements by Oyanguren of popular melodies by Pedro Elias Gutiérrez (Venezuela) and Ricardo Romero (Chile).

American Decca’s most high-profile guitarist signing at this time was Vicente Gómez (1911-2001), whose recordings, alongside those of Oyanguren, formed the bedrock of American Decca's growing classical guitar remit, effectively paving the way for Segovia’s long-term engagement with the label after the Second World War. Gómez was a Spanish guitarist who had moved to the United States in the late 1930s after a period of concertizing in Europe and Latin America. He had been thoroughly trained in the traditions of the Spanish school at Madrid Academy of Music, where he was taught by Quintin Esquem-bre (1885-1965), a pupil of Tárrega, but was also an adept flamenco guitarist who was able to move freely between classical and folkloric perspectives (Lynn 1957; Bone 1972). His first recordings were made for the American Decca “Personality Series” between 1938 and 1939 and issued as a three volume set of 78 rpm discs (Decca albums A-17, A-60 and A-117). Their content is, as one might expect, reflective of this classical-folkloric dualism, balancing flamenco-inspired original pieces with established standards of the nineteenth-century Spanish repertoire (Sor, Aguado, Tárrega and Antonio Cano (his El Delirio)).5 These are for the most part treated in a tasteful “classical” manner, although Gómez takes artistic license in Aguado’s Estudio de Concierto (his Study No. 12, published in the 1843 Nuevo Método), adding a flamboyant Spanish-inflected introduction and interludes. In a gesture to the contemporary Segovia repertoire, Gómez also recorded Torroba’s Fandanguillo from the Suite Castellana, giving the work an energetic and extrovert interpretation in keeping with its flamenco leanings. Much of Gomez’s popularity as a guitarist can be attributed to his appearances in Hollywood films during the 1940s, particularly Blood and Sand (1941) for which he contributed the soundtrack music (released in 1941 as the Vicente Gómez Quintet on A-265).6 The Blood and Sand score is best known for the inclusion of the famous Romance de Amor, an anonymous piece that Gómez had also recorded as a guitar solo in the first volume of the above mentioned debut Decca release (A-17, 23070 Side B), re-arranged in the film for voice and ensemble.

Gómez’s recordings, like those of Francisco Salinas and Oyanguren, received particular attention in Britain, where they were issued on the Brunswick label, and, as was commonplace at this time, circulated via radio broadcasts. The film Blood and Sand, for example, was of particular importance in cementing Gómez’s reputation in Britain, its soundtrack being played in its entirety by the BBC Home Service on 5 June 1942. During the 1940s Gómez was also the subject of regular discussion in Wilfred Appleby’s monthly BMG column, “The Spanish Guitar”, where his technique, like Segovia’s, was a particular source of fascination:

surely one of the most fascinating instruments to watch is the Spanish guitar, whether played in the punteado (classical) or flamenco styles. Film directors sometimes realise this; as in the film “Blood and Sand” where we were given several magnificent “close-ups” of Vicente Gómez in action. The quiet efficiency of his right-hand action was an unforgettable lesson in technique for players and a source of wonder to people not particularly interested in the instrument.

(Appleby 1946b: 204)

Appleby also wrote a substantial feature on Gomez in September 1947 which highlighted his capacity to comfortably move between contrasting styles of music as well as his open-minded attitude to the formalities of public performance. Noting Gomez’s regular engagements in New York nightclubs, for example, Appleby commented that “the miracle of making a nightclub audience sit spellbound listening to Bach and Mozart has been accomplished by this wizard of the guitar”. Appleby also discussed Gomez’s outlook in relation to Segovia suggesting they were “rivals” who work “to make the Spanish guitar better understood and appreciated”, adding that “Segovia of course does not play in the flamenco style” (1947: 223).

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