Smaro Gregoriadou

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The tradition of the double courses


A fascinating age-old custom for plucked instruments!

 

To write about the guitar as a single type of instrument is highly misleading; it implies a uniformity that never existed. Long time before the modern guitar was established as a six-string concert instrument with tenor to bass disposition bearing single nylon strings, it had during the centuries undergone enormous modifications in shape, proportion, tuning, stringing, number and materials of strings, playing techniques and social role. Double stringing was among the most famous traditions.

 

The art of stringing an instrument in pairs flourished all over the world as a primary feature of traditional lutherie. Renaissance and baroque lutes, like most plucked instruments of that time, had double strings. Harpsichords could also have multiple choirs of strings tuned to be the same pitch, or to an octave apart. There was the Renaissance four-course guitar and six-course vihuela, Baroque five-course guitar -the so-called “Spanish”- and chitarra battente with five triple strings, and finally six-course guitar, which emerged in Spain around 1770 and survived there for approximately 70 more years as a transitional stage before six-string guitar of 19th century. During the early 19th century, double-course guitars were increasingly overshadowed by the single-stringed instruments of the builders Pagés, Panormo, and Lacôte. The final standardization of the modern guitar’s form, overall dimensions, string number and string length came in the mid 19th century, with the next generation of luthiers, notably Antonio de Torres.

 

All of these genuine branches of the guitar’s tradition were high-pitched and had double or triple courses of gut or metal strings, their tunings being re-entrant and non-standardized. The instruments, once flourishing in the hands of remarkable interpreters all over Europe, now obsolete, contributed nevertheless to the creation of the guitar’s unique sound identity, fundamental features of which have always been unconsciously registered and freely incorporated in the experience of anyone involved with playing the guitar ever since.

 

In 1948 the eminent maestro Andrès Segovia in collaboration with strings constructor Albert Augustine, introduced nylon strings. Segovia’s vigorous personality and sublime art of playing convinced guitarists to adopt this new string material, in spite of significant disapproving reactions that were initially expressed against nylon’s dullness and poor quality of tone, up to then considered totally unacceptable.

 

As time passes and research deepens our response to the music of the past, the modern guitar’s limited ability to convincingly perform Renaissance, Baroque and Classical repertory is more and more emphasized by specialists, and demands flexible alternatives. Transcribing old music onto 20th c. guitar, a practice in which generations of guitarists are always keenly involved, deserves a re-evaluation in the light of new historical-aesthetic evidence on the guitar’s tradition, a lack of which might seriously detract from this music’s spirit.

 

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Double courses, especially when tuned in octaves, open to the interpreter a broad perspective that I like to call ‘polyphony within polyphony’. This possibility illuminates the melodic, harmonic and contrapuntal structure of the music (Example 2), as well as the crucial interpretive parameters of voice distinction, articulation, phrasing, and ornamentation. Old compositional devices, like the campanella effect or the linear polyphony of Bach, are impressively projected. Among the major achievements of Kertsopoulos Aesthetics is an efficient extension of a guitar's range both upwards and downwards (depending on the tuning employed, as well as of the octave doublings one is using). This extension is not only quantitative, but also qualitative, since the co-action of the two adjacent strings, in producing a complex double tone, serves to widen the range and harmonic partial content of this tone considerably, while strengthening the phenomenon of sympathetic resonance in the overall sonic spectrum of the instrument. This translates into richer sonority and a greater wealth of tone color.