Before I begin, let me first say that this list of guitar classics is by no means definitive. If I thought it were, I would have called it “10 pieces that every guitarist MUST know”. And when I say that guitarists should know these pieces, I don’t mean that they should be able to play them. But if you are a classical guitarist, you would probably have heard these pieces or at least be aware of their existence. If you haven’t already, you could start familiarising yourself with them, perhaps while going through this list as there are suggestions for listening.
Now if you aren’t a guitarist but know someone who is or have a child who is learning the guitar, or a friend who is a serious enthusiast or a professional, you will have some knowledge after reading this to have a meaningful discussion about some of the guitar’s best known works. Your guitarist friend would probably argue that he could come up with a better list, and that isn’t a bad thing because disagreements often make the discussion more interesting.
One last thing before I get to the music: Feel free to disagree with my choices and tell me which you would replace.
1. Romance (Anonymous)
This work is so famous that many a guitarist would remember it as the first piece they were able to play that people would recognise. I’m not particularly fond of it but I’m grateful for it – my teacher became a guitarist because he heard a recording of it played by one of his neighbours in the village where he lived and yearned to be able to play it himself, and I am a guitarist today mainly because I had him as my one and only instructor. The piece is written in three parts: the first in E minor, the second in E Major, and the third a recap of the first. Most guitarists would at least be able to play the first part. While authorship of the piece has not been established, there are suggestions now that it was written by Fernando Sor.
2. Asturias (Isaac Albeniz)
Also known as Leyenda and Prelude, this piece was originally written for the piano and is also probably the best known virtuoso piece not originally written for the classical guitar. It also found its way into pop culture through a Lexus – well, the car company promoted the quietness of the interior of its Lexus LS400 by having Manuel Barrueco record this piece in it while it was being driven through the countryside. As it happened, a friend of mine saw this ad and became so enamoured with the pieces she wanted it played at her wedding. And guess who was her only classical guitarist friend? I learnt it in a hurry and I’m proud to say, like the appeal of this piece, that marriage has lasted.
3. Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Francisco Tarrega)
Often referred to as the “tremolo study”, this is by no means an easy piece and requires a high level of proficiency in the tremolo technique. If you are a fan of K-drama, you’d know there was a series called Memories of Alhambra (yes, that’s the English translation of the Spanish title) that had this piece as its central theme. This, and the preceding Asturias are probably two pieces that would be in the repertoire of any serious guitarist.
4. Capricho Arabe (Francisco Tarrega)
This is a very popular piece on the classical guitar and although not quite as demanding technically as Asturias or Recuerdos de la Alhambra, has also been prominent through its appearances in concert programmes and album recordings. It is so popular, in fact, that in a recent classical guitar competition not far from where I live, this piece was played so often that one of the judges complained it was coming out of his ears. The challenge of this piece is that it requires some level of musical mastery and even though many are able to get the notes right, you’ll still come across many, many flawed renditions.
5. Un Dia de Noviembre (Leo Brouwer)
This work was originally the main theme of the soundtrack of a 1972 Cuban movie with the same name. The soundtrack was played on a guitar, flute, bass and percussion but its composer Leo Brouwer scored it for solo guitar after the film’s release. While it is not technically demanding, the piece tests the musicality of the player, so like Capricho Arabe where every bad player seems to think his version is the best in the world, there are many insipid versions of it online. It’s lovely when played well, though.
6. Julia Florida (Agustin Barrios)
This is quite possibly the most popular of the great Paraguayan composer’s works. Little wonder because Julia Florida is a beautiful piece of music that is simple and honest and yet allows the guitarist to say so much with the instrument.
7. Introduction and Variations on a theme by Mozart (Fernando Sor)
While Fernando Sor has often been described as the Beethoven of the guitar, I’ve always thought he was closer to Mozart. Perhaps it is because of this piece. Mozart’s work was also in great demand in London during the time that Sor was residing there, so there might have been some influence on the Spanish composer’s work. Sor’s genius as a composer is embodied in this work, and I can imagine Mozart writing something very similar if he were asked to develop that theme in a set of variations for the guitar.
8. Concerto de Aranjuez (Joaquin Rodrigo)
This is the most famous concerto for the classical guitar and the middle movement is so much more popular than the first and third movements that is often heard on its own and its haunting, expansive melody has seen it used often in movies. There is also a pirated jazz version of the melody recorded by Miles Davis in his album, Sketches of Spain – the theme was used without the composer’s permission. Another fun fact: the great Andres Segovia never performed or recorded this piece, ostensibly because it was not dedicated to him. I’ve no idea why Segovia would be so petty! Yet another fun fact: No, it is NOT known as Concerto de Orange Juice.
9. Cavatina (Stanley Myers)
“Mummy, that’s a classical guitar,” I said excitedly when I first heard this piece. I was a kid watching the movie, The Deer Hunter, with my parents after just over a year of learning the classical guitar. Prior to that, the only other person I had heard playing the classical guitar was my teacher. It was also the first time I heard John Williams playing. By the time I was proficient enough to attempt it, the piece had suffered from overexposure, so I avoided it for decades after that day in 1978, which was the year the movie was released. The piece has continued to remain popular among classical guitarists even though I wouldn’t consider it a “classical” piece.
10. Chaconne from Partita No 2 in D minor BWV1004 (JS Bach)
This work, though of course not originally written for the guitar but for the violin, is regarded by many guitarists as the ultimate work for the classical guitar. I’ll risk getting stoned for saying this: I hated this piece when I first heard it – it was a dirge, the entire history of human tragedy condensed into 257 bars and 13 minutes of musical misery on a single stave. But over the years, having listened to various versions of it on different instruments, I’ve come to appreciate its depth and beauty. Listen to this rendition of it by Czech guitarist Petra Poláčková on a copy by Jan Tuláček of a nine-string 19th Century romantic guitar.
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The Classical Guitar Life
A 45-minute showcase followed by a short talk + discussion on how the guitar can be a rewarding hobby. Includes explaining matters such as changing strings, guitar cost and maintenance. This free, by-invite programme is suitable for those interested in the classical guitar, including young adults. Online pre-registration opens on March 16 2024.
This is a 30-minute showcase of classical pieces from elementary to advanced followed by a chance to try a guitar. Suitable for beginners (all ages from 10) looking to pick up the classical guitar. Free by-invite event. Online pre-registration opens on April 2 2024.