A finely made guitar is one of the most beautiful things one could ever hope to see. Peruse this book, if you are inclined to doubt it, and enjoy the collection of guitars, stylishly and impeccably photographed. On every page we see with what invention and artistry the greatest guitar-makers between the 1600s and the 1800s varied the basic design of their instruments. They found ways to make the curves of the body, for example, quite as elegant as those of the violin, and perhaps more so, creating colour harmonies of contrasting woods as the eye takes in the various surfaces and components. To offset the understated elegance of the body’s curves, makers often added exuberant adornments of ebony, ivory, tortoise shell and mother of pearl (the last designed to shimmer in candlelight) that would have seemed quite indecorous on most other instruments of the day. Guitars have always been, in a sense, instruments apart, enjoying a life denied to the harpsichord, harp or pianoforte. While those instruments were left silent in the corner of a salon or drawing room, guitars joined country walks, sketching parties, picnics, sailing trips and even (when the time came) steamboat excursions.
The guitar, in all the forms represented by the Austin-Marie Collection, is a softly voiced instrument save when vigorously strummed. In the eighteenth century, when nobody expected to keep quiet during a musical performance, it was understood that guitars required absolute silence for their charm to be felt. In the 1800s, when works for enlarged orchestras raised expectations of the sheer volume to be encountered in public concerts, the guitar continued to require the company to listen in an acute manner. The more accomplished the player, the more uncompromising the demand. According to a London critic of 1856, for example, the music of the virtuoso guitarist Giulio Regondi “required more fixed attention than audiences are generally in the habit of bestowing on a performance”; that was because audiences had become so accustomed “to those boisterous orchestral sounds that are perforce ejected into the ear…” True lovers of the guitar have always known that their instrument has a special relationship to the delights of listening, as much as to the pleasures of looking.
There has never been a better time for this wonderful book to appear. Fresh information about the guitar between 1550 and 1900 is constantly coming to light, longstanding errors are being corrected, letters and scores discovered and new likenesses of noted players found as electronic resources, especially the various newspaper databases and online museum or gallery sites, facilitate guitar research to a degree beyond the imagination of anyone twenty years ago.
We may all be grateful for this opulent gallery of guitars assembled with such care and vision by Jeffrey Wells, guided by an authoritative but highly approachable text that owes much to the unrivalled expertise of James Westbrook. The result carries forward our knowledge of what one seventeenth-century commentator called “the fine and easy guitar” in a fine and easy way.
University of Cambridge