Mexican composer Manuel Ponce (1882–1948) is best known to classical guitarists for the many works he penned for Andrés Segovia. Among them are four sonatas, 24 preludes, the monumental Variations and Fugue on “La Folia,” and Concierto del Sur (for guitar and orchestra). His most successful piece by far, however, is “Estrellita” (“Little Star”), a romantic song for which he wrote both music and lyrics in 1912. The tune is beloved throughout the Spanish-speaking world and has been hugely popular since the 1930s.
The Back Story
“Estrellita” has been recorded more than 180 times in various settings. Among the most famous is the instrumental version created by violinist Jascha Heifetz (1901–1987). The story goes that Heifetz heard it sung in a Mexico City café in 1923 and notated the melody on a napkin. In his hotel room that night, he wrote an arrangement for piano and violin and played it the following night at his first concert in the capital city. Heifetz starred in the 1939 movie They Shall Have Music and appears in a scene playing the song. An internet search brings up big-band versions by clarinetist Benny Goodman and trumpeter Harry James, operatic treatments by Deanna Durbin and Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, among many others. Arrangements for string quartet, piano solo, cello and piano, and more abound. Famous virtuosi Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman are among the countless contemporary violinists who have recorded and performed it. Unfortunately, Ponce composed it before copyright laws were codified, and having passed away in 1948, he missed out on the royalties.
Guitarists arrived to the party a bit later. Manuel Barrueco included the version printed here on his 1997 album, Cantos y Danzas. “This is a very popular song,” Barrueco says. “When I was growing up, I heard it all around. But it wasn’t until later when I was studying the guitar that I learned Ponce had written it.” Barrueco looked at Ponce’s own solo guitar setting but decided against playing it.
Ponce’s original piano/vocal score is in F major, Heifetz transposed it to F#, and singers do it in a variety of keys. Barrueco plays it in D major, with his sixth string tuned to D. “I am really indebted to Mario Abril’s arrangement,” Barrueco states. “I started with that and began changing things.” Notably, Barrueco used harmonics, primarily to add color to the accompaniment beneath the melody. But harmonics sound melody notes in the material heard in the first full bar and are repeated in bars 9 and 18. (For the notation, see the print or digital edition of the March/April 2021 issue of AG.)
Beneath the Stars
This tune basically follows a standard AABA song form. However, the bridge or B section (bars 12–15) and final recap of A (16–19) are each only four bars long, as in Ponce’s original version. By contrast, the Heifetz arrangement extends the recap of the final A section and adds a coda, introducing considerable drama through reharmonization and having the violin soar into its high register in a classical fashion. The mood of the guitar arrangement is comparatively serene and introspective.
Starting from the top, after a couple bars of intro, we find the eight-bar A section (bars 3–10), which is played twice. Note that the intro material is derived from the last beat and a half of bar 8 through the first three beats of bar 10. The four-bar B section or bridge starts with the pickup notes to bar 12. The last beat of bar 15 is the pickup to the second half of the A section. The piece ends as it begins, with the material from the intro. So while this arrangement covers two pages, factor in repeated measures and there are only 12 bars of music to learn.
Harmonics occur while other notes sustain, and most are produced in the typical fashion, with a left-hand finger touching the string at the indicated node and the right-hand thumb picking. Those in bars 13 (except beat 4.5) and 15 are produced solely by the right hand. The index finger lightly touches the string at the 12th fret while the thumb plucks. (For more on this technique, see the Basics lesson in the February 2017 issue.)
In every occurrence of harmonics, sustain the fretted and open notes below for their full duration, to emphasize the independence between melody and accompaniment. Fret carefully in bar 3, to avoid muffling the D harmonic on beat four.
In his recorded version, wherever possible, Barrueco adds vibrato to the long melody notes. He brings some ebb and flow to his phrasing with subtle dynamic changes, alternately swelling and pulling back. He also makes effective use of ritardando in measures with a fermata (see bars 2, 8, 10, 11, 17, and 19).
The best classical interpreters fully utilize articulation, timbre and dynamic shading, tempo fluctuations, and lingering on poignant notes to enhance expression. I encourage steel-string players to give this piece a try as well. “Estrellita” has a folk-like simplicity, yet deep beauty resides within the melody and harmonies. Explore and craft your own interpretation with this in mind.
Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 47.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.