So, you want to play a composition like the 19th-century “Romanza,” eh? Well that’s a great idea, as long as you make it beautiful. What? Beauty is subjective! To some extent, yes, but there are some objective aspects about interpreting and performing music, an awareness of which will make for a better performance of any composition. Of course, knowing more about a piece can always help you play it better.
You may be uncertain about how to embark on playing a somewhat challenging guitar piece, and you’re looking for a way that makes it likely that you’ll play it really well—and that people will want to hear it. It will help to establish some useful protocols for making a beautiful, expressive, and logical interpretation of this classical guitar standard.
CONSIDER THE BUILDING BLOCKS
Regarding harmony, the preset concept of guitar chords is a fairly modern one in classical music. Chords are harmonic states of being at any moment in the piece. You can identify their quality and make decisions about expression by observing their notes in the vertical plane. Each chord has some kind of emotional energy depending on its quality (i.e., major, minor, diminished, etc.). Dominant seventh and diminished chords create tension that usually resolves when the next major or minor chord occurs. Tension implies that we crescendo (get louder) and resolution implies diminuendo (quieter).
A cadence is a progression of at least two chords that usually concludes a phrase or section. An authentic cadence—the most powerful entity in Western harmony—is the V–I progression. The relationship of V–I is that of tension and release, which can be manifested by playing the V chord more loudly than the I.
Rhythm is the temporal aspect of music—when the notes happen in the horizontal flow of the piece. The smaller a note’s rhythmic value, the shorter it lasts and the sooner the subsequent notes can be played, making the music seem quicker and/or denser. Although the rhythm is usually fixed by the composer, in a solo context you can modify it by applying brief periods of rubato—the bending of tempo for expressive effect, either through ritardando (slowing down)or accelerando (speeding up). A ritardando can increase emotional intensity when paired with crescendo and decrease intensity when combined with decrescendo. Accelerando is almost always used for raising intensity.
Guitarists have three basic texture types at their disposal: monophonic, single notes played at any rhythm; homophonic, more than one note, moving at the same rhythm; or polyphonic, more than one note, played in different rhythms. For guitar, texture is also about slurs (hammer-ons and pull-offs), dynamics (relative loudness and softness), articulation (how short or long you make any note), and range (encompassed by the highest and lowest notes in a piece).
While melody is the most easily observable element (it’s seen here in the up-stemmed notes), it’s also what most guitarists take for granted. The most important tool you have for this element of music is to keep a consistent volume differential between melodic and accompaniment notes.
Formpertains tohow the music is organized. In the case of “Romanza,” this is in 16-bar sections of contrasting character—more on that in a bit.
ANALYZE THE SCORE
Now let’s analyze some of “Romanza.”
Begin by asking yourself some questions pertaining to harmony. What key is “Romanza” in? Does it modulate, and if so, what key does it ultimately finish in? A scan through the notation reveals that the piece begins in E minor, then modulates to E major in bar 18; the music returns to E minor after bar 34.
Where are the cadences and how should they direct your expression? There are authentic cadences between measures 10–11 and 14–15 (both V–i or B–Em) and 23–24, 31–32, 37–38 (V–I or B–E). Play the V chord more loudly than the i or I most times, and with varying degrees of intensity. You can also use accelerando to enhance tension en route to each V, and ritardando as that chord resolves to the tonic.
How would you characterize the texture shown in the score—and how should that inform your interpretation? The texture is fairly static; there are few slurs, but you can use tone-color changes to add contrast. For example, you might play sul tasto (picking closer to the fingerboard) for the E-minor portions and more ponticello (closer to the bridge) for those in E major.
What is the form and how can you distinguish the sections? “Romanza” has a simple structure: a 16-bar A section (beginning in measure 1) and a B section (bar 18) of the same length, with an overall scheme of A–A–B–B–A. The E-minor A section is a bit melancholy, while the E-major B section brings optimism and light. So, play B louder than A, and don’t be afraid to push the tempo a little. Because of the joyful brightness of the B section, when the piece returns to E minor, play it a bit more sadly and darkly than at the beginning, and slow down a bit as you come to the terminal bar.
MAKE IT MELODIC
The real quest for an expressive, beautiful, and moving performance lies in dealing well with the melody. Being aware of and interested in the melody can start with working in new ways of practicing:
- Play the melody alone, without the accompaniment.
- Sing it alone.
- Sing it alone, with the accompaniment.
- Play the accompaniment as block chords without melody. Identify them and memorize them.
- Play the accompaniment as block chords while singing the melody.
- Play all the parts while singing the melody.
- Play all the parts together.
The most important thing you can do in the above work is to play the accompaniment much quieter than the melody. Your natural inclination might be the other way around—to play the melody louder than the accompaniment. That’s better than not differentiating the voices at all, but it will limit your dynamic and expressive range.
Now you know what I know about how to make a beautiful, expressive, and logical interpretation. It’s a challenging road, but well worth it. Go make some beautiful music, and I will, too.
Michael Chapdelaine is the only guitarist to have ever won first prize in both prestigious classical (GFA International Classical Guitar Competition) and fingerstyle (National Fingerstyle Championship) competitions. He was a professor of music at the University of New Mexico for 33 years and performs and teaches internationally.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.