WHY THIS POST: At the moment I am working on a 2nd epoch Torres Guitar. As a guitar maker and luthier it is an honour and shall give me some clues on my research on the Guitar evolution from the XVIII century.
In the story of the classical guitar, no single individual is more important than Antonio de Torres Jurado (1817-1892 Almeria, Kingdom of Granada in the XIX century), known as Torres, a guitar maker who achieved some local renown in his life but was never free from poverty.
The guitar designed in Cadix was modified during the XIX century. It is possible that the innovations we associate with Torres were inevitable: that the guitar could have evolved towards a form as harmonious as that which Torres created without the intervention of any individual. But by his intelligence and craftsmanship, Torres accelerated the process, choosing the best options from those available. The guitar is perfect as Torres made it. The closer you stay to it the closer you stay to perfection.
Torres’ judgement restored the guitar’s viability at a time when it was manifestly failing to compete with louder, more dramatic instruments. Spanish international and virtuoso guitarists Julian Arcas and Francisco Tarrega played his guitars. Before, the guitar had been swept out of the drawing room by the piano and had barely established a toehold in the concert hall. In Spain, which had resisted the piano, the guitar was nonetheless associated with peasants, gypsies and those who play for loose change in bars.
Tarrega understood the Romantic inclinations of the time, the need for music to express drama and strong personal emotion, and in the Torres guitar he had an instrument with the range of dynamics and tone colour to fulfil that role. The delicate, polite tones of earlier concert guitars – and the brash strumming of Spanish popular guitars – had now been supplanted by a true musical instrument capable of accommodating most styles and expressing most emotions.
A man who comes from nowhere, changes the world, and then dies in abject poverty is likely to attract a great deal of mythology. Anyone interested in the history of the guitar owes a huge debt to Jose L. Romanillos for his biography, Antonio de Torres, Guitar Maker His Life and Work.
Antonio de Torres Biography
Antonio de Torres Jurado was the son of a tax collector, born in the village of La Cañada, near Almeria, in the far south of Spain in June 1817. At 12, he was apprenticed as a carpenter. The family moved to Vera, a larger village slightly to the north, and it was there that he completed his apprenticeship and was enrolled in the local guild of carpenters. In 1833 dynastic war broke out in Spain, and within a year the young Antonio de Torres was called up for military service. Twice his father attempted to have him exempted on medical grounds, claiming he suffered from habitual stomach-aches, and twice the attempt was rejected. Eventually, though, the string-pulling paid off and he was released as unfit for military service. This time he was said to be suffering from a chest complaint. To preclude any official change of mind, Antonio was propelled into a hasty marriage: only single men and widowers without dependents were considered for conscription. In February 1835 he married Juana Maria Lopez, thirteen-year-old daughter of a local shopkeeper. The young couple were soon in difficulties. They had a child, a daughter, in May 1836 and found themselves overwhelmed by expenses, including special taxes imposed to help pay for the war Torres had avoided. They fell into debt and had property impounded, including, for a while, Torres’ saw. This could have been a catastrophe for a carpenter, but he was able to recover it by offering the authorities a piece of furniture, which was duly auctioned. A second daughter was born in 1839, and he was faced with the loss of more property, including a set of 10 pine boards. But then he found a new line of work, trading in shares in the newly-opened local silver mines. He even found enough spare capital to make a modest investment himself.
But if he had found some financial stability, his family life was in turmoil. A third daughter was born in 1842, dying a few months later. The second girl had already died by this stage, and in 1845 his wife succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 23. Leaving his first daughter with his in-laws, he moved to Seville in search of work.
At some point between about 1836 and 1842, Torres seems to have spent some time in Granada learning to make guitars, possibly with the local maker Jose Pernas, according to Domingo Prat in his Diccionario de guitarristas (1st edition 1934), who is often described as his teacher, to learn guitar-making at the workshop of Jose Pernas. The same source states that it was there he built his first guitar. Later on in 1855, Torres restored Tarrega’s guitar built by the guitar maker from Granada Francisco Ortega.
Francisco Ortega 1872 (Daniel Gil de Avalle’s private collection)
On the other hand, Torres learned music from Dionisio Aguado according to some articles in newspapers. Also, Juan Martinez Sirvent, a priest who knew Torres in old age, described him in a letter quoted by Romanillos as “a fine musician and composer whose compositions he revealed to us with his Citara, his favourite instrument which he had also made himself.” The citara is a pear-shaped flat-backed guitar (Jose Pernas guitar style): one made by Torres still exists.
Torres Period in Seville (1852-1869)
In 1847 he moved to Seville with Josefa Martin, who was later to become his second wife. This period in Seville, where he met Julian Arcas, was the most creative time in the life of Antonio de Torres. It was then he built the famous guitar with a sounding board called “La Leona” (1856) and the likewise celebrated guitar with a sounding board which the maestro Miquel Llobet used continuously during his concert career (1859), as well as the guitar with ribs and back made of a material similar to papier-mâché (1862). Both guitars are preserved today in the collection of the Museu de la Música of Barcelona.
In Seville, first he established himself at Calle Ballestilla and later, in 1856, at Calle de la Cerrajería, where he kept his workshop at no. 32 and subsequently, towards 1866, at no. 25. The neighbourhood of Seville where Torres worked was traditionally the quarter where carpenters and some guitar-makers lived. Some of the latter, including Sanguino and Benedid, are now considered to form the elite of the 18th-century guitar-makers. He took up the craft professionally in the 1850s on the advice of Julian Arcas (1832-1882), a young player of note and the first of his famous clients. In 1858 he won a bronze medal in the Seville Exhibition for an extraordinarily decorated instrument in bird’s eye maple, and his status as the leading guitar maker was assured.
In 1864 Antonio de Torres built his first guitar for Francisco Tarrega after the great musician visited his workshop. Living in Seville also made it easier for Torres to obtain exotic woods, since it was a city of lumber merchants and he could order overseas materials from them. At this time he awarded himself title ‘Don’, common among guitar makers and other craftsmen as well as members of the local middle classes: priest, merchants and civil servants. In 1868, he married again, after living with his new wife-to-be, Josefa Martin Rosada, for several years. Arcas was their best man.
Tarrega arrived in Seville with his patron Canesa Mendayas, a wealthy merchant. They had travelled from Barcelona in search of an instrument similar to that played by Arcas, sometimes said to be ‘La Leona’. Tarrega was then only 17. According to the account of Emilio Pujol, biographer of Tarrega, Torres offered the boy a modest instrument at first, then heard him play and brought out an instrument he had made for his own use several years earlier. Tarrega played it constantly for 20 years, until its top caved in: it was subsequently repaired by Enrique Garcia. Tarrega was a tremendously influential player with a powerful clique of followers. But his support did little for Torres’ financial confidence.
Torres Second Epoch: Almeria (1875- 1892)
In about 1870, he abandoned guitar making, returned to Almeria and opened a china shop. Arcas gave up playing the guitar professionally at the same time.In neither case was the retirement permanent. Arcas returned to performing in 1876, by which time Torres was a year into what his labels call his “second epoch”. This time, however, guitar making was a part-time activity. There was the china shop to tend: and the family had even begun to take in lodgers. After the death of his second wife, in 1883, he doubled his productivity, turning out about 12 guitars a year until his death in 1892. Between 1883 and 1892 he works guitar making full time due to the demand of new concertists and builds a second guitar for Tarrega, “La Invencible”, and another three-string guitars as well as other guitars for acquaintances. He visits Barcelona (1884-1885), to know about the guitar atmosphere and being ordered some guitars.
In this time his hands were shaking so much that hehad to ask a young friend, the local priest Juan Martinez Sirvent, to help him with the more intricate work. He had no choice but to work, with two daughters to support (one only 16 and unmarried) and significant borrowings. He died in November 1892 of “acute intestinal catarrh”.
Numerous innovations have been attributed to Torres over the years, from fan-strutting to the use of mechanical machine heads, but Torres’ real genius was to find the most important developments of the day, improve them and bring them together. In doing so he created an instrument of a ‘rightness’ that has never been seriously questioned.
The most fundamental thing Torres did was to increase the size of the body. Torres’ concert guitars, introduced in the early 1850s, have soundboards about 20 per cent larger than those of the concert guitars played by Fernando Sor and Dionisio Aguado a few years earlier. The extra area is in both upper and lower bouts, giving his plantilla the figure-of-eight form we now take for granted. Some claim Torres arrived at this shape geometrically. His descendants, according to Romanillos, claim it was based on the figure of a young woman he saw in Seville.Torres’ bridges were another step forward: from about 1857, he used a separate saddle, permitting minute adjustment of string height.
Torres knew that lightness was essential in the vibrating surface of an instrument. But a large soundboard, though potentially louder, is heavier than a small one. Making it thinner to reduce its weight would make it weak and flexible, with unfortunate effects on the sound. The solution lay in building in building a soundboard that was ‘domed’, arched in both directions, over an arrangement of wooden struts.These famous fan-struts would ensure the static strength of the tapa, the soundboard, while letting it respond to the vibrations of the strings.
The system’s efficacy was proved by Torres’ experimental guitar, built in 1862, with papier-mache sides and back. This is no longer playable, but those who heard it accepted its maker’s contention – confirmed by modern physicists – that only the top of a guitar is of real importance in determining the character of its sound.
Machine heads were not new when Torres used them, in 1856, but they were not common in the Spanish tradition. A more important choice, however, was an aesthetic one. Torres insisted that guitars intended for serious music should have only subtle decoration. Previously the guitar had been both a musical instrument and an item of furniture. Even the vibrating soundboards of 18th and early 19th century guitars were loaded with inlays and marquetry work. With the exception of the elaborately inlaid instrument with which he won his bronze medal in 1858, most of the guitars built by Torres were austere in decoration: it was certainly kept away from the functional parts of the instrument.
Torres does not seem actually to have invented much, not even the tornavoz, previously used by other luthiers like Jose Pernas. This was a steel cylinder of the same diameter as the soundhole and extending it back into the body, intended to give the guitar added projection like the one used in La Leona, but it was forgotten in time like Aguado’s Tripodison. There remains a guitar contructed by Torres with the Tripodison holes
He constructed guitars for the most important concertists of second half of the XIX century and beginning of the XX century (Arcas, Tárrega, José Martínez Toboso, Antonio Cano, Miguel Llobet, Emilio Pujol, etc.), and, thus helped to develop the guitar as a concert instrument. His innovatons were immediatly followed and adapted by most of the guitar makers of both the Granada school of guitar makers (Ortega family, Ferrer, Manuel de la Chica etc) and the Madrid School of Guitar Makers (Manuel and Jose Ramirez, Santos Hernandez, Domingo Esteso, Enrique Garcia, Modesto Borreguero, etc) even guitar makers from other countries (Robert BoucheT in France, Hermann Hauser in Germany, Albert Augustine in USA).
The effects of Torres’ work were immediate and obvious. The new posture recommended by Tarrega, with the left leg raised to support the guitar, depended upon the broader Torres instrument. It gave players the stability they had craved since the days of Dionisio Aguado’s tripod, and facilitated more complex music at higher positions. The louder, fuller sound of the Torres guitar permitted a wider range of dynamics and musical expression. Small wonder that the Torres guitar was almost seen as a new instrument. Tarrega wrote no method, but his teachings were faithfully handed on to the next century by his pupil Emilio Pujol (1886-1980). In his introduction to Pujol’s Escuela Razonada de la Guitarra (Rational Method for the Guitar) the composer Manuel de Falla wrote: “It is a marvellous instrument, as austere as it is rich in sound, and which now powerfully, now gently, takes possession of the soul. It concentrates within itself the essential values of many noble instruments of the past, and has acquired these values as a great inheritance without losing those native qualities which it owes, through its origin, to the people themselves.” It is difficult to imagine anyone writing these words if it had not been for Torres.
Two years after the death of Claude Debussy in 1918, a French musicologist Henri Prunières, also the founder/editor of the music magazine La Revue Musicale, commissioned 6 o 7 leading composers including Falla to commemorate this great French pianist/composer. Miguel Llobet, the famous guitarist, pupil of Tárrega and Casals, also a friend of Falla, also repeatedly requested Falla to compose a guitar piece. Falla decided to kill two birds with one stone. This piece was composed entirely in Granada with the partial collaboration of Llobet. According to Jose Rey de la Torre, well-known Cuban guitarist, pupil of Llobet, when the work was almost finished, Falla, Llobet, and many writers and artists of Granada met up at Lorca’s house. There, Falla and Llobet worked together in a small room for the last refinement.
Carles Trepat, Wulfin Lieske and Stefano Grondona with Torres’ Guitars