The Guitar Composer vs. Composing for the Guitar

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Pictured: Manuel M. Ponce

Manuel M. Ponce’s 24 Preludes are some of the most inspiring and exceptional jewels in the guitar repertoire. However, they are also some of the most difficult to perform. The performer must navigate the fretboard with acrobatic leaps and sound rich harmonies with uncomfortable fingering, all while trying to ensure the melodic lines are connected and smooth. The demanding nature of these pieces may not have been the intention, particularly, of Ponce, but more a byproduct of how he composed. Manuel Ponce did not play the guitar. Yes, he had an intimate connection to Andres Segovia, to whom Ponce would send his manuscripts for editing and the addition of fingering (more on this later), but this relationship did not make Ponce sympathetic to the performer’s plight, nor did Segovia wish for such sympathy. Ponce would never let his creation suffer for the sake of convenience. So what sets Ponce’s music apart from, say, Villa-Lobos?

        Ponce composed his guitar works at the piano.

The piano, much like the guitar, is a percussion instrument. You do not blow into it, therefore the note that is sounded on either instrument dissolves into silence in a relatively short amount of time. Unlike on the guitar, the piano performer may sound 10 tones simultaneously, whereas the poor guitar performer may only sound 6 tones at a time, employing all 4 fingers on the left hand (sometimes the thumb out of necessity) and using the 3 fingers and thumb on the right to sound them. Although the guitar boasts a more diverse timbral range than its black and white cousin, its stringent nature forces the composer to take these prerequisites into consideration.

This is not to infer that Ponce did not understand the guitar. On the contrary, he understood it quite well, writing 4 guitar sonatas, a Baroque suite, the aforementioned preludes, a guitar and harpsichord sonata, and a guitar concerto, among other miscellaneous pieces involving guitar. Although he was not a “guitar composer”, he wrote beautiful and significant works for the guitar repertoire… at the piano. As mentioned before, the piano is more forgiving than the guitar when it comes to elaborate harmonies with flowing melodies, and Ponce made no exceptions when it came to writing for guitar.  But he was writing neither for a piano nor a guitar,

         Ponce was writing for an orchestra.

In other words, he served the music, as it were, rather than the performer. He would write what the music needed and the performer would have to find a way to make it sound natural, e.g. voicing the chord in a certain way that may be awkward to play, or having a leap on the fretboard in the middle of a melodic phrase in preserving good counterpoint or a motif. For certain guitar works, like the Folia variations and some of the sonatas, Ponce would collaborate with Segovia, in that Segovia would review the pieces/works for him, making alterations and adding fingerings, before sending them off to be published. As a result, we may have two editions of a piece/work. Some of which we are able to see and/or hear what was left on the cutting-room floor, the preludes being a prime example of this. 

The F# minor prelude (Prelude no. 1 in the Segovia editions, no. 8 in the manuscripts) is a gorgeous and mysterious piece, but the performer is forced to use awkward fingerings. These are due to the robust and full harmonies as well as a rising and falling connected melodic line. The performer has a lot of “plates spinning in the air” in order to do the piece justice. Take the following passage for example. The performer must change positions almost every beat.

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Figure 1: Rising and Falling section from Ponce Prelude in F# Minor

Notice that beautiful ascending bass line, accompanied by a melody full of contrapuntally-correct (and exasperating) appoggiaturas. The inner voices rise with the bass line a “3rd” above. The piece is dark and mysterious, but the B section is a glimmering climax that wanes back into darkness. That means that the performer must make this crescendo extra special and clean in order to deliver that effect. 

The pedal tone is a recurring device throughout the piece. Near the end of the prelude, however, a pedal tone, which appeared in the manuscripts, omitted in the Segovia versions. Nothing is confirmed, but the pedal is quite awkward to maintain throughout the entire section, and Segovia being Segovia liked to make his tonally “dark” passages dark. If we look at the Segovia edition, we see that the measure without the pedal tone is fingered in a way that the “C” is sounded on the 6th string, making the pedal impossible sound at that instance, which may be why it was excluded after Segovia’s revisions. 

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Figure 2: Ponce’s manuscript (Etude no. 8)
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Figure 3: Segovia Edit (Prelude no. 1)

This isn’t the most earth shattering revision one could make, but it does interrupt the motif of the pedal. Regardless, though the preludes are typically short in regard to temporality, valuable time and effort must be spent by the performer in order to do these works justice. This goes for every Ponce work for the guitar. 

Conversely, Villa-Lobos’s Preludes, difficult in other regards, and still requiring due consideration from the performer, seem to “fit in the hand” quite nicely. Although Ponce and Villa-Lobos were contemporaries, the composers had compositional styles unique from one another. Villa-Lobos played guitar and would compose with the guitar. Where Ponce would wholly serve the music, Villa-Lobos would also serve the performer, in that he would make concessions to some aspects of the piece in order to achieve comfort while performing it.

We clearly see this when we look at Villa-Lobos’s Prelude No. 4. The animato section contains harmonies containing a series of comfortable and consistent fingerings, making it easier for the performer to accelerate without much effort. 

One specific harmony, however, has always irked me. The culprit appears in Prelude No. 5. The key is undeniably in D Major, but in m. 4, there is a stacked chord that consists of D-E-G#-C#, where:

  1. The D is a pedal tone
  2. The chord is a C# minor (diatonically, this should be a C# diminished, but it wouldn’t make sense for it to appear in this context in the manner it resolves).
  3. It planes down in parallel motion  to a B-Major chord.

This harmony is appalling upon listening to the piece and clearly does not fit. Why is it a minor vii that resolves down to a vi chord in a clearly diatonic passage??? Well, if we play the passage, the chord fingering is a barre resolving to another barre, no alternating fingering required. 

I went ahead and reharmonized the chord into a diatonic BMaj9 (1st inversion) chord resolving to, well, another B major. This gives a less jarring effect and still preserves the lush flavorful harmonies of the line. The problem is that the fingering is awkward as hell, more especially since it is a fleeting chord, and the melody is to be as smooth as possible. In my edit, the second D in the bass needs to be performed on the 5th string, as the open D is already designated to the B note above, making the fingering a 5-fret stretch, whereas the bass D is open in the original.

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Figure 4a: Pickup to m. 4 (original)
Figure 4b: Original, comfortable fingering
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Figure 5a: Pickup to m. 4 (my edit)
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Figure 5b: Reharmonized, complex fingering

This may have very well been a publishing mistake, and a very convenient one at that, but it is way too jarring upon listen. This is when a performer must face the age-old conundrum: respect the composer’s direction or take your own liberties and dance on their grave. Be this a little irksome, Villa-Lobos is still one of my favorite composers for his creativity and earthy compositions. 

No matter how the creator composed, we still benefit from their compositions. But when you look at your next piece of music and rue the day you fell in love with it, be mindful of how it came to be, and grateful for what it is.

Copyright Jordan T. Peterson 2021



Like Rolling a Boulder Up a Hill: A Neo-Riemannian and Hermeneutic Analysis of Manuel M. Ponce’s Sonata III

Abstract: This article explores the use of chromatic 3rd relations in the first movement of Manuel M. Ponce’s “Sonata III” by means of neo-Riemannian theory. The large-scale guitar sonata achieves a sense of turmoil and exploration by mediant relations not only in its overall schema, but in the relationships between its chords. Furthermore, harmonic oscillation and Sisyphean melody (static transformation) are discussed.