Christopher Mallett is among a growing international coterie of ascendant classical guitar virtuosos of African descent. With Black heritage on his father’s side of the family and Italian on his mother’s, Mallett has an abiding interest in African American musical forms that ultimately led him to the music and life story of Justin Holland (1819–1887), America’s first classical guitar master as well as an early civil rights activist.
Mallett’s latest album, Justin Holland: Guitar Works and Arrangements—the follow-up to his 2015 debut, The Porcelain Tower—sheds long-overdue light on Holland’s contributions to the classical guitar world. On the album’s tracks, Mallett breathes new life into music that has languished since Holland’s passing more than a century ago. “This project has been dear to my heart for many years, and I am excited to share it with the world,” Mallett says.
To learn more about the Holland project and Mallett’s path as a guitarist, I caught up with the busy performer and teacher by phone at his home in Northern California.
Mallett’s musical journey began inauspiciously in San Diego. The guitarist, now 39, picked up the electric in his teen years after his father showed him the chords to “Wild Thing” and “Peggy Sue.” He began playing with bands doing 1990s pop punk and, later, neoclassical metal. “I wanted to play guitar professionally but didn’t know how to go about it,” Mallett says.
A fan of metal guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen, Mallett enrolled at Grossmont College in El Cajon, California, in hopes of polishing his electric guitar chops. “My parents listened to classical music at home, and when I saw that there was a classical guitar class at Grossmont, I figured it could make me better at what I was playing,” he shares.
Mallett showed up at the first class, with instructor Fred Benedetti, with an electric guitar. “When Fred played ‘Asturias’ and ‘Malagueña’ for us, it blew my mind because I had never seen a classical guitarist perform before,” Mallett recalls. Benedetti advised Mallett to get a proper nylon-string, and at 19, he bought his first classical instrument and completely altered his musical course.
Mallett studied privately with Grossmont guitar instructor George Svoboda for two years before transferring to Oberlin Conservatory where, as a classical guitar major, he completed his undergraduate degree studies with Stephen Aron. “I worked on my technique and explored repertoire with Steve,” Mallett states. “He got me ready to audition for Yale School of Music, and I was accepted there in 2007.”
Earning his master’s degree under Benjamin Verdery’s guidance at Yale was pivotal in Mallett’s development. “Ben opened my mind to what you can do with the classical guitar, and that’s a huge reason why I wanted to study with him,” Mallett says. “I always loved his playing and that he did nontraditional music like songs by Hendrix and Prince, while also composing and arranging a lot of music.”
When he was still at Grossmont College, Mallett stumbled across Justin Holland on the Library of Congress website. It was a revelation. He says, “I saw some of his guitar music, read through it, and thought, Oh, my gosh, a Black classical guitarist in America!”
Mallet couldn’t find much information about Holland and became obsessed with learning about his life and music. He reached out to Donald Sauter, a guitarist whose website has a section documenting Holland’s works, and asked him for help in getting copies of Holland’s scores kept in the Library of Congress. “He was living in Maryland then and went there, copied the music, and sent me a huge package of it,” Mallett says.
Mallett was persistent in pursuit of Holland’s music, knowing there was more beyond what Sauter had given him from the Library of Congress. Around 2015, he went to California State University, Northridge, where he found more of Holland’s music in the Vahdah Olcott-Bickford Collection.
“As far as I know, I now have copies of everything Holland composed and arranged for guitar,” says Mallett. “There are arrangements of American and European popular and folk songs, but also opera pieces he arranged for solo guitar and two guitars as well as numerous voice and guitar pieces.”
Mallett has been compelled as much by Holland’s music as his life story—a tale of overcoming difficulties and succeeding on sheer talent and determination in a time in America when societal attitudes were arrayed against him. Born into a free Black family in Virginia, Holland moved to Massachusetts at 14. In Boston, he worked as a laborer and took lessons in guitar, flute, and arranging. Wanting to learn more about music and guitar in particular, he relocated to Ohio in 1841 for concentrated study at Oberlin Conservatory, an institution that welcomed Black students in the pre–Civil War era. After a few years, he went to Mexico to round out his education.
According to one biographer, Holland traveled to Mexico after Oberlin to learn Spanish so he could study the methods of Sor and Aguado in their original language. “He dug deep and became a true educator,” Mallett says. “He was a template for what most classical guitarists are today: teacher, arranger, and composer.”
Back in Ohio in 1845, Holland married Delphine Howard Minor and settled in Cleveland, where he became an in-demand guitar teacher. In his 1987 doctoral dissertation, Justin Holland: The Guitar’s Black Pioneer, William Banks posits that Holland preferred teaching to playing concerts, perhaps because racial attitudes limited his performance opportunities. He began writing arrangements for his students —ultimately penning about 300—and began publishing them in 1848.
“He became like a house arranger for S. Brainard’s Sons and other publishers,” Mallett says. “As soon as a new song came out, they went to Holland. After his guitar arrangement was available, it would become a hit.” Additionally, Holland authored two critically hailed guitar method books, which sold briskly across the nation. Mallett adds, “Many of Holland’s early customers and even his publishers didn’t know that he was Black.”
According to a paper by Barbara Clemenson (“Justin Holland: Black Guitarist in the Western Reserve”), Holland was the first Black professional in Cleveland. “That the first Black professional was a classical guitarist is huge!” Mallett says. “Cleveland was pretty open at that time and was the last stop on the Underground Railroad.”
Having gotten to know Holland’s guitar oeuvre, Mallett felt a high-quality recording of selected works was warranted and successfully pitched the idea to Naxos Records. “I couldn’t think of a better label for this project,” Mallett says. “Music by every major composer from the 19th and 20th centuries is represented in their catalog, and I really felt Holland deserved to be there. We decided to focus on the popular tunes rather than the opera arrangements. I spent a month reading through the music to find what I considered to be the most compelling set of pieces to introduce Holland to the world. A few pieces on the album are world premiere recordings, not just in their guitar arrangements, but because some of the original versions for piano are not recorded.”
One such premiere is Holland’s arrangement of “Delta Kappa Epsilon, Grand March.” Written originally for piano by Holland’s contemporary Alfred H. Pease, it honors the college fraternity to which Pease belonged. The piece opens the album, and Mallett easily handles its lively melodies, insistent beat, pedal tones, chordal punctuations, and modulations.
The album features a mix of Holland’s treatments of American folk, popular, and hymn tunes as well as songs and dance forms from Europe. A collection of pieces like these on guitar, Mallett says, “presents a time capsule of what America was hearing in the 19th century in the view of a classical guitarist.”
European entries include the Italian air “Benedette sia la Madre,” two polka mazurkas (the 3/4 dance then in vogue on the continent), as well as a schottische, a dance step popular during the Victorian era. “Spanish Fandango” features a traditional melody that Holland casts in open-G tuning, making possible an attractive variation in harmonics. Holland employed theme-and-variations form in many works heard on this album. The variations for songs such as “Home Sweet Home” or “Carnival of Venice, Fantaisie” offered Holland’s students a chance to explore various arpeggio patterns, scalar bursts, and more on beloved songs of the era.
The influence of 19th-century Spanish guitar giant Francisco Tárrega is readily detected in the numerous portamentos connecting melody notes in “Stephanie-Gavotte, Op. 312” and “Carnival of Venice, Fantaisie.” Echoes of Fernando Sor surface in octave passages in “Antoinette Polka Mazurka” and “The Maiden’s Prayer.” The jaunty, dotted rhythms of “Rochester Schottisch” call to mind the music of Mauro Giuliani, among others. The sole Holland composition is “An Andante in C Major.” “It’s reminiscent of Sor’s ‘Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart’ with its quick arpeggio variation,” Mallett says.
In addition to releasing the album, Mallett published the music in a new book called The Essential Justin Holland (Les Productions d’OZ), making Holland’s music more readily available to guitarists. Currently, Mallett is planning solo concerts of Holland’s music across the country, and he hopes to introduce new audiences to the music of one of the earliest American guitar virtuosos.
“I want the performance structured so that I can talk about his life in between the pieces,” Mallett says. “For many, this will be the first time they have heard Holland. He had such an interesting life that talking about it will make the audience enjoy the music even more.”
The Power of Two
Beyond his solo career, Mallett is an active collaborator with other guitarists. Years ago, Benjamin Verdery paired Mallett for duets with fellow guitarist Thomas Flippin at Yale’s Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. “We immediately loved playing together and became great friends,” Mallett recalls.
Flippin and Mallett have since released two albums as Duo Noire (Flippin is also of African American heritage). Their first album, Figments (2014), features the six-movement minimalist suite of the same name by Raymond J. Lustig. Their sophomore effort, Night Triptych (2018), showcases works they commissioned from six top female composers.
In 2015, Mallett and guitarist Robert Miller, as DuoSF, released Corta Jaca, an album of Latin American and Spanish music. Additionally, Mallett and Miller are the co-founders and co-directors of California Conservatory of Music, with locations in Sunnyvale and Redwood City. The school has nurtured guitarists who have won top prizes at the GFA youth, junior, and senior competitions, as well as the James Stroud Competition in Cleveland, and serves 1,400 students studying guitar, piano, and violin.
“We also do community engagement through the nonprofit we run called the Peninsula Guitar Series,” Mallett states. “Our advanced guitar students teach students throughout the [San Francisco] Bay Area who generally can’t afford lessons.”
What He Plays
Christopher Mallett plays a 2016 Glenn Canin 640mm-scale, double-top guitar with cedar for the top and inside layers, and Indian rosewood back and sides. For the bottom four strings, Mallett uses D’Addario XT hard tension (string 3 is carbon). His top two strings are D’Addario EJ46 Pro-Arte hard-tension nylon.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.