Most composers who left major contributions to the guitar repertoire were guitarists themselves. Yet there are some notable exceptions, one of which is precisely Manuel Ponce. And what many of these “notable exceptions” have in common, in turn, is their friendship with a great guitarist, whose talent, skill and expertise frequently inspired them to compose, and attracted them to an instrument which has a very pronounced personality. In fact, the guitar is almost a standalone in the world of classical music. It blends only seldom with other classical instruments in chamber music; it appears even more rarely in a symphonic or chamber orchestra, except as a soloist; and many composers who signed the great guitar masterpieces focused almost exclusively on it, whilst most great composers in the classical tradition wrote very little, if anything, for the guitar.
The figure of Andrés Segovia is pivotal as the catalyst for an impressive renewal of the guitar repertoire. A composer and arranger himself, but most importantly the greatest guitar virtuoso of his time (possibly of all times), Segovia was able to collect an immense repertoire for his instrument, mainly made of new contributions which he had elicited himself. He was the dedicatee and/or he commissioned countless works for his instrument, including some of the greatest masterpieces of the twentieth century; and he was able to draw to the guitar the attention of some gifted musicians who would not, otherwise, have been particularly interested in it. This was the case with Ponce, whose first steps as a musician were bound to the piano’s eighty-eight keys rather than to the guitar’s six strings.
Born on December 8th, 1882, in Fresnillo, Mexico, in the State of Aguascalientes, Manuel María Ponce Cuellar was the son of a revolutionary, Felipe de Jesus Ponce Leon, who had sought refuge in that small town in order to escape the consequences of his political activism. Manuel was the twelfth child of Felipe and his wife María de Jesus Cuellar, who was the most musical of the two. Following their mother’s prompting, several of their children studied music; among them, one of the daughters, Josefina (aka “Pepita”), who was a talented pianist. Being Manuel’s senior for some years, Josefina took charge of the first rudiments of her brother’s musical education; it was evident, though, that the younger brother had an exceptional talent, in need of a more structured kind of teaching. The family moved to the State’s capital, Aguascalientes, where Manuel could study organ and solfège; as a teenager, Manuel was appointed titular organist of the church of San Diego, where he had been a choir singer.
Even there, though, the teaching he received was not up to his talent; in 1901, therefore, the young man moved to Mexico City, remaining for three years at the local Conservatory; finally, from 1904 to 1908 he undertook a study tour of Europe, where he received courses from Marco Enrico Bossi in Bologna and Martin Kreuze at the “Stern” Conservatory of Berlin.
Other stays abroad would prove influential on the development of his musical language and of his personality: in La Havana (1915-7) he was able to absorb the enthralling rhythms and styles of Cuban music, and in Paris (1925-33) he got acquainted with the most modern trends of contemporaneous Western music, in particular through his friendship with Paul Dukas. In Paris he pursued advanced degree in music, obtaining a diploma in composition at the École Normale de Musique. There, he also had the possibility of knowing firsthand the attempts to create “national” music schools, particularly in the countries which were comparatively peripheral with respect to “mainstream” Western music.
Ponce’s compositional style, in fact, is deeply and admittedly “Mexican”; nevertheless – or precisely for this reason – he was the first Mexican composer to achieve global fame. In acknowledgment of his successful career, he was appointed the Director of the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico, and, a few years later, he also assumed the directorship of the Escuela Superior de Música in Mexico. Official recognitions kept coming, including roles of responsibility as a scholar and in politics, and in 1947 he was the first musician to be awarded the National Prize for Arts and Sciences of his country. This was the crowning of his career, just one year before his death, happening in 1948; his remains were buried in the Mexican Pantheon, along with those of the national heroes and most notable citizens of his country.
The guitar was not always at the fore of his field of interest. He was already forty-one when, exactly one century ago (1923), a thirty-y.o. Andrés Segovia visited Mexico on a concert tour. Ponce was in charge of writing a review of his performances for a newspaper of Mexico City, and Segovia’s style absolutely conquered him. He wished to encounter the Spanish virtuoso, and a deep friendship was established among them: a friendship which would last for their entire lives, and to which we owe some of the most unforgettable masterpieces of the guitar literature.
Ponce’s output comprises works for a variety of instruments and in many genres; in particular, he was faithful to his first instrument, the piano, for which he wrote several important works, including a great concerto; he was also an appreciated composer of chamber songs, as well as of pieces for orchestra and for chamber ensembles.
It was with no great effort, therefore, that Ponce quickly sketched a brief guitar piece inspired by his homeland, Mexico, which he conceived as a token of friendship and esteem for Segovia, and as a memory of his Mexican tour. This first piece was to become the seed of Ponce’s guitar output: quite literally so, since it made its way into the first guitar Sonata, the Sonata Mexicana, later authored by the composer. It was in that form that Segovia premiered it, and, as he reported to the composer, the result was unqualifiedly positive: “I am pleased to take advantage of the occasion having recently played your beautiful Sonata in Madrid to the applause of the public, assent of the critics, and effusive admiration of the musicians. I am sending your proof of all three things: the public has asked me for it again, the critics praised it without pedantry or reservations, and as an example of the pleasure of the musicians, I will cite to you that of de Falla, before whom I played the andante and the finale, without revealing the name of the author, and he was truly enchanted”.
Segovia was not only the recipient of Ponce’s works, but also the inspirer, and, to some extent, the mentor behind their creation and publication. The great guitarist was also the editor of a prestigious series of new guitar works, through which he created a virtuous circle favouring the creation, dissemination and appreciation of new compositions for the six-stringed instrument.
For this reason, guitarists mourn the loss of Ponce’s Second Sonata, which was destroyed, along with other priceless possessions, during a raid of Segovia’s home in Barcelona within the framework of the Civil War.
The Third Sonata dates back to Ponce’s Parisian period, and it mirrors the multifaceted variety of musical and cultural stimuli Ponce underwent during his stay there. There are influences from the Western classical tradition, including Romantic hues (e.g. Chopinesque traits) and more modern features; there are elements from European folklore, most notably from the Spanish tradition; but there are also reminiscences from a variety of other styles, ranging from Gregorian plainchant to jazz music and touching Baroque keyboard music along the path.
Ponce’s omnivorous musical culture and his openness to a wide variety of styles are revealed even more clearly in the two following Sonatas. No. 4 is better known as the Sonata Clásica, and its most immediate reference model is Fernando Sor, the Spanish guitarist-cum-composer who is among the founders of the modern guitar school.
The inspirer of Sonata no. 5 is a contemporary of Sor, Franz Schubert; yet, in spite of having lived in the same years around the turn of the century, Schubert’s language is much more distinctly Romantic than Sor’s, and therefore these two musicians can be seen as epitomizing two different approaches to music.
Ponce was able to assume and subsume the musical ideas he drew from the past (or also from contemporaneity), to the point that he was famous for his “fake” Baroque compositions – which, at times, Segovia was keen to present as if they were original works for the lute!
In the Sonata Clásica, such was the proximity between Sor’s style and Ponce’s assumed attitude, that Segovia once inserted the movements from his friend’s Sonata between original pieces by Sor. At the same time, Segovia was deeply involved in the compositional process behind it, and under some aspects it can be said that the Sonata Clásica is almost “co-authored” by Ponce and Segovia. Moreover, for both musicians, the immediate model was certainly Sor, but behind his figure there loomed those of Haydn and Mozart, whose classical style is thoroughly mastered by Ponce.
In the case of the Sonate Romantique, the Schubertian inspiration is palpable in the gentle, refined, elegiac handling of the melodies and harmonies. The poetry infused by Ponce in this piece is almost unrivalled, and it can truly be said that this masterpiece compensates for the guitarists’ lack of a genuine Schubert Sonata.
This programme is completed by a digital bonus, the Sonatina Meridional, which, along with Homenaje a Tárrega, is the only guitar Sonatina written by Ponce. In this case, different from other uses of this word, the term “Sonatina” does not refer to technical simplicity, but only to its reduced dimensions; the “agile” approach of the composer to this genre mirrors the similar attitude of his contemporaries Busoni and Ravel, whose eponymous works display a comparable nonchalance.
Together, these works demonstrate Ponce’s fertile musical imagination, his mastery of the guitar technique and sound, and the fruitfulness of his interaction with Segovia, whose friendship was at the root of these masterpieces.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2023
Italian Guitarist, Simone Rinaldo graduated in 2013 at Conservatory of Music "G. Verdi" in Milan under the teaching of M. V. Jedlowski with Summa cum Laude (Bachelor of Music in Classical Guitar).
In February 2016 he graduated studying with F. Biraghi with Summa Cum Laude and Special Mention (Master of Music in Classical Guitar).
Simon attended several courses and masterclasses with great musicians, such as L. Micheli, M. Mela, M. Escarpa, C. Marchione, P. Steidl, M. Lonardi, M. Dylla, G. Tampalini, A. Goni, J. Savjioki, R. Iznaola, T. Hoppstock and others.
He attended the Summer School of “Accademia Chigiana” in Siena, under the guidance of M° Oscar Ghiglia and obtained the prestigious Certificate Of Merit.
He had been studying for several years with A. Dieci and B. Giuffredi at “Accademia Regondi” in Milan; he also studied under there guidance of P. Pegoraro (Guitar Professor at Graz University) and A. Del Sal (Guitar Professor in Wien) at “Segovia Guitar Academy” in Pordenone.
As a soloist, he won important prizes in International competitions; among the others we remind: Guimaraes Guitar Competition - Portugal, Mottola Festival International Competition - Italy, Sanremo International Guitar Competition - Italy, London International Guitar Competition - UK, Brussels International Competition - Belgium, University of Boulder Guitar Competition - Colorado (USA), Gargnano International Competition - Italy, Pleven Guitar Competition - Bulgaria, Comarca el Condado Guitar Competition - Spain and others.
He also won twice the prestigious “Restelli prize” for plucked string instruments and "Rancati prize" for chamber music at Conservatory of Milan.
He worked with the orchestra “I Pomeriggi Musicali” of Milan for the opera “Don Pasquale” by G. Donizetti in 2015, “Barbiere di Siviglia”, by G. Rossini in 2021 (performances in the theaters of Como, Cremona, Pavia and Bergamo) and for the Film Music “The Circus”, by Charlie Chaplin, under the batoon of Helmut Imig.
He recorded two CDs: the first one, “Simmetrie e Contrasti nel Novecento”, was published in 2017 by Dotguitar; the second one containing the Complete Diabelli's Sonatas published by “Edizioni Sinfonica”.
In November 2017 there was his debut as a soloist with orchestra in Sanremo with “Orchestra Sinfonica di Sanremo”, playing Concerto op.99 in D major by CastelnuovoTedesco.
He debuted with the World Premiere of the piece "Les Arcanes" by the composer N. Kahn on the stage of the prestigious "Musikverein" in Wien.
His intense concert activity often conducts him to perform in Guitar Festivals in Italy and several countries throughout the Europe such as Austria, Estonia, Montenegro, Portugal, Croatia, Belgium, Bosnia, Spain.
As a teacher, he works in Italy at the Conservatory “U. Giordano” (Foggia) and in the studio “Atelier delle Note” in Busto Arsizio.
Mexican pianist and composer. He was the leading Mexican musician of his time, and made a primary contribution to the development of a Mexican national style – a style that could embrace, in succession, impressionist and neo-classical influences.