My quest to look for the first guitar tremolo piece was not easy – I looked at a lot of scores and method books, but could draw no conclusion. I decided to examine a few guitar history books I own to see if any of them discussed about tremolo on the guitar, and sure enough I found exactly what I needed.
During my years in Indiana, I began taking private guitar lessons from Professor Julio Ribeiro Alves. It was Julio along with my parents who supported me to pursue a degree in guitar. Julio has written his own textbook on the history of guitar, and it is from his book that I found out about Antonio Cano (1811-1897):
“He was a pupil of Aguado, and his main addition to the guitar world was his Método de Guitarra, written in 1852. The method was reissued sixteen years later with an added harmony treatise adapted for the guitar. Although there is no real documentation, it is believed that he taught some lessons to Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909) and was influential in the development of the tremolo technique.”
Tárrega composed Recuerdos de la Alhambra in 1896, so a method book from 1892 at least shows that the tremolo technique was established by late 19th century. If Cano’s methods from 1852 did not discuss no tremolo, so maybe we can assume the tremolo technique was established between 1852 to 1892?
Examining Cano’s method also made me realized that all the previous musical scores and methods I have examined, with the exception of Sor’s, were by non-Spanish guitarists – Carcassi, Giuliani, Legnani, Regondi, Mertz, Coste, and Pratten. So maybe the standard tremolo technique as we know now stemmed from a Spanish guitar tradition?
With some new directions, I focused on looking through music and method books by 19th century Spanish guitarists. It turns out that Cano has a tremolo piece – El Delirio – that is very close to the modern tremolo, except a p-m-i tremolo was used. But, looking up recordings of this piece, many modern guitarists would just play the p-a-m-i tremolo anyways.
Exploring the connection between Cano and Tárrega, I came across a site dedicated to Tárrega, and it mentions Tomas Damas (ca.1817-1880), who wrote a tremolo piece called El Gran Tremolo (1872, score, video) – looks a bit like Cano’s El Delirio?
El Tremolo, as in a lot of other pieces, does not include right hand fingering. Damas’s Método completo y progresivo de guitarra (1867) does not discuss tremolo technique in particular, but the etude that closes the book (just like Cano’s Método Abreviado) has passage that looks like modern tremolo. But the problem remains – no right hand fingering. Damas’s Método de guitarra por cifra compaseada (1869), on the other hand, provides the answer I have been looking for – indicating a right-hand p-a-m-i fingering for an “exercise of repeated notes”:
Wait… this method is printed in tablature…? In addition, it’s not the modern tab – it is printed like Italian lute tablature, with the bottom line of the tab as the first string of the guitar.
(The year of publication of Tomas Damas’s works are taken from a recent Jstor article about the life and works Tomas Damas, with a complete catalog of Damas’s works. The only problem is that… I don’t read Spanish. It’s going to be a project to “read” the article through Google Translate…)
In search of more 19th century Spanish guitarists and music, I came across two volumes of 19th century Spanish guitar works, published in Berlin in 1926, as pointed out by my friend, a 19th century guitar buff, and fellow Eastman grad, Daniel Nistico. These volumes included quite a few pieces by José Viñas (1823-1888), two of which are tremolo pieces – Fantasie Original from volume 1, and Erinnerungen an Palma from volume 2. These two pieces are the last piece in their respective volumes. And I think I am seeing a pattern here – just like Cano and Damas, where they have included tremolo as the final study of their methods, tremolo is always placed last in a publication, as it is the ultimate technique for a classical guitarist to conquer (a slight pun intended for El Ultimo Tremolo)?
Erinnerungen an Palma is also subtitled “Recuerdos de Palma”. Tremolo and memories… did Tárrega know this piece? Well:
“This is the first collected edition of the guitar works of José Viñas (1823-1888) who was a multitalented musician and equally successful as violinist, pianist and guitarist, but he made most of his living as orchestra conductor. His home in Barcelona was a meeting point for guitarists and travelling virtuosos where Broca and Arcas played. Francisco Tárrega copied parts of Viñas pieces into his own works. Viñas “Fantasie original” has always been present in the guitarist s repertoire and here are many more rewarding works, from simple to demanding.” (taken from carlfischer.com)
“…copied parts of Vinas pieces into his own works”…? And this shed a lot of light on a very interesting discussion…
But I digressed… back to these German publications – they do include right hand tremolo fingersings: the familiar p-a-m-i, but I can’t be sure if they are editorial. In addition, the score of Fantasie Original found on IMSLP also contains right hand fingering, but the year of publication is unknown.
And may I digress again: Fantasie Original is subtitled “Capricho a imitacion de Piano”
Guitarists tried (and are still trying) to mimic and transcribe piano music, adding effects to make these transcriptions more “guitaristic”, but I can’t imagine the reverse – hearing the guitar tremolo on the piano. And apparently it has been done (with a-m-i-p in this video). Doesn’t sound too natural on the piano, does it? What about the violin? Accordion? Mandolin? Harp? Bass?
Anyway, check out Daniel’s excellent rendition of Viñas’s Fantasie Original here.
I don’t seem to be able to find tremolo pieces by José Brocá (1805-1882) and Antonio Jimenez Manjón (1866-1919). Jacque Bosch’s method (1890) contains music with three-finger p-m-i tremolo. The last Spanish guitarist/composer I would like to mention who have employed tremolo in his music is Julián Arcas (1832-1882).
As Adrian Rius mentioned in his biography on Tárrega:
“Some time during February and March of 1862, the eminent guitarist from Almeria, Julián Arcas, performed in Castellón. The effect the concert had on Tárrega was so intense he never managed to forget that night, even though he had not yet reached his tenth birthday. After listening to the acclaimed master, his father and various friends asked if this famous arist might listen to the little boy. Surprised at the skills displayed by that youngster, Arcas offered to direct him in his studies, suggesting that Tárrega be sent to Barcelona, where Arcas was living at that time. The idea was accepted by all concerned, with great joy and profound emotion on the part of his father.”
The young Tárrega did move to Barcelona, but ended up taking only a few lessons from Arcas. The p-a-m-i tremolo, however, can be found in Arcas’s Funeral March de Thalberg, Fantasia Sobre La Traviata, and El Delirio (as mentioned, Cano also has a tremolo piece called El Delirio. Tremolo makes people crazy?)
So maybe we can see the tremolo as a classical guitar technique that came from the Spanish tradition? Perhaps the young Tárrega heard tremolo in Arcas’s concert, learned about tremolo thourgh lessons with Arcas, and later Cano? Tárrega also defintely knew of Viñas’s Erinnerungen an Palma. And Tomas Damas included a tremolo study with p-a-m-i fingerings in his method from 1869 – meaning, it was a technique that might be widely used by that time.
There are still many questions to be answered, and I know I am missing a lot of information: for starters, years of publication for works by Arcas, Cano, and Viñas. I have only examined pieces by guitarists/composers I could think of, and I am sure there are many from the 19th century whose works and methods I have not examined. Furthermore, I could only examine scores and methods I owned, or I could found on the internet (mostly through IMSLP and Boije). And I could not speak much of the flamenco tradition, which also uses the tremolo technique (do flamenco guitarists use other tremolo fingerings other than p-i-a-m-i?), due to my lack of knowledge in the subject.
Roland Dyens has a tremolo piece that is wittily titied El Último Recuerdo. I thought to myself, if I were to ever compose a tremolo piece (or a piece at all), mine would be called El Recuerdo Delirio.