Narciso Garcia Yepes
A Spanish fair in the early 1930s. With shining eyes a little boy stands in the middle of the hustle and bustle and cannot tear his gaze away from an old guitar. Until his father steps up, puts a warm hand on his shoulders and nods to the salesman.
And finally, now he’s holding her in his arms!
From now on, the little boy is put on an old donkey three times a week, led miles away to the next town and there the scarce money for his lessons is spent.
It almost seems as if the father would guess that the slim boy would one day become one of the greatest guitarists of his century.
The legend of Narciso García Yepes, the musician who likes to be mentioned in the same breath as A. Segovia and M. Llobet, thus or similarly raises the bar. But unlike the two, the critics seldom agreed on the evaluation of his play.
Some raved about his clear, unromantic manner:
“… his playing is characterized by a clarity of detail.” 1
“We consider Yepes the most comprehensive guitarist of our time.” 2
“… his interpretations are solidly constructed and are not influenced by the slightest trace of emotion.“ 3
But you also read words like:
“… his playing has little of the refinement that English listeners associate with the classical guitar.” 4
“Yepes can be almost unmusical in his pedantic interpretations of some pieces.” 5
“Yepes often seems determined not to make this music exciting or romantic.” 6
For in contrast to the eternal late romanticist A. Segovia he tried to bring a sober interpretation approach in the guitar world.
Which he succeeded: “We finally have a real renunciation of Segovia, no echo.” 7
But who was he really, this man with the strong glasses, who took the stages of this world by storm with his ten-string guitar?
Who was the musician who initiated a departure from the Segovia style and tried to establish the guitar as a serious member of the instrument family?
The history of N. Yepes
If you look at N. Yepes and his way of playing the guitar, you can’t help but take a look at his musical background and the way he trained.
He received his first lessons at the age of six from Jesús Guevara in Lorca, a small town in southern Spain. Due to the Spanish Civil War, his parents moved to Valencia in 1936, which gave him the opportunity to study at the conservatory there at the age of twelve.
He attended courses in music theory and composition, but found no guitar teacher there.
Instead, he joined the class of Vicente Asencio, a pianist who did not have a high opinion of the guitar. In his eyes it was not an instrument that could be taken seriously, as it was not possible to play it as quickly and legato as on a piano or violin.
“If you can’t play like that,” he said to Yepes, “then you have to learn another instrument.”
Yepes doggedly began to practice and finally managed to overcome the limits of traditional technique. When he first presented piano scales on the guitar to his teacher, he said laconically: “So it is possible on the guitar. Now play at the same tempo in thirds, then in chromatic thirds.“
Allan Kozinn commented on this teaching method: “Thanks to Mr Asencio’s incitement, Yepes learned to play music the way he wanted, not the limits of the guitar.
The young Yepes spent his free time with various flamenco singers, which helped him to improve his technique and rhythmic feeling and gave him important incentives for his later interpretations of Spanish works.
After graduating from the Conservatory, he travelled to Madrid to take lessons from J. Rodrigo. There it was also where he made his debut in 1947 with the “Concierto de Aranjuez”.
The evening became such an overwhelming success that he soon began to tour Italy, Germany and France. During this time, it was primarily thanks to him that this work became so popular.
In 1950, after a performance in Paris, he began studying with violinist George Enescu and pianist Walter Gieseking. Again it was not a guitar study in the usual sense, but an extension of his knowledge of the music and the possibilities of its interpretation.
It was here that he met Maria Szumakowska, a young philosophy student and daughter of the Polish ambassador. They married in 1958 and had three children, Juan de la Cruz, Ignacio Yepes (conductor and flutist) and Ana Yepes (dancer and choreographer).
It was also the year in which he had the most significant transcendent experience for him. One night, leaning over the railing of a Paris bridge and watching the Seine flow by, he unexpectedly heard a voice asking him, “What are you doing?”
For a quarter of a century he had been an unbeliever convinced that there was no God or a hereafter.
But this question, which he understood as a call from God, changed his beliefs and he became a pious Catholic for the rest of his life.
In 1952 he was commissioned to write the music for the film “Verbotene Spiele” (Jeux interdits) by René Clement. He arranged and played them himself and had a resounding success.
Ten string guitar
Due to his unusual training he was used to abstract music without thinking about the limitations of the guitar and soon felt limited by its form.
So he looked for ways to solve this dilemma and found it by having a 10-string guitar built in 1964.
Not only did he expand the range of the instrument and adapt the guitar to his wishes, but he also began transcribing works originally written for the baroque lute.
Since then he has toured all inhabited continents and played in more than a hundred concerts per year.
Besides his life as a traveling virtuoso, Yepes was also an important scholar. His research on forgotten manuscripts of the 16th and 17th centuries led to the rediscovery of numerous works for guitar or lute. He was also the first to record all of Bach’s lute works on historical instruments.
At the same time he dealt intensively with the history of the guitar and published little-known compositions from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
Despite his numerous critics, Yepes was a world-renowned musician who received many honours, including the Spanish Gold Medal for Art, awarded by King Juan Carlos I.
He was a member of the “Alfonso X el Sabio” Academy, honorary doctor of the University of Murcia, was awarded the “Premio Nacional de Música” of Spain in 1986 and unanimously elected to the “Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.
After 1993 Narciso Yepes had to step down due to illness. He gave his last concert on March 1, 1996 in Santander (Spain).
A year later, he lost his long fight against cancer.
1 Musical America
2 El Mercurio, Santiago de Chile
3 Journal de Genève, Geneva
4 The Times London, 22 May 1965
5 Klassische Musik: Der Begleiter des Zuhörers von Alexander J. Morin, Harold C. Schönberg
6 American Record Guide; Steven Rings; 1 September 2003
7 Musical America Dec. 1964