Obituary: Narciso Yepes
Tuesday 06 May 1997
Born in Lorca in 1927, Yepes was given his first guitar by his father when he was four years old. Serious lessons began when he was six, and in 1940 he went to study at the Conservatoire of Music in Valencia. He learnt much from the pianist and composer Vicente Asencio, whose approach to music had a considerable influence on his guitar style.
In 1946 he was invited to Madrid, reports of his skill having reached the ears of Ataulfo Argenta, the conductor of the National Orchestra of Spain. The following year he made his solo debut, playing that mainstay of the guitar concerto repertory, Joaqun Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. His debut in Paris four years later was highly acclaimed, but it was not until 1952, as the composer and performer of the music to Rene Clement's film Jeux Interdits, that he reached a wider and more general audience.
Even then his name did not become familiar, and budding guitarists would ask in music shops for a piece called "Jeux Interdits", or "Forbidden Games", or sometimes "Juegos Prohibidos". The music that took their fancy was, in fact, a traditional piece called "Spanish Romance" or alternatively "Romance d'Amour", of which Yepes was the arranger rather than the composer. More film music followed, notably for La fille aux yeux d'or in 1961.
Nevertheless, his work as a touring concert performer took precedence over his composing. He toured South America in 1957, went to Japan in 1960, and made his first appearance in the United States in 1964.
A long-standing contract with Deutsche Grammophon produced many recordings ranging widely over the guitar repertory and including arrangements of Telemann and Scarlatti, the latter showing his art in all its crystalline quality.
Along with Segovia, Julian Bream, John Williams and Pepe Romero, his recordings were bought by the general public - a considerable achievement given the painfully slow process by which classical guitarists generally attain prominence. Having reached that point, his recordings stayed there. Only recently, I heard his exquisitely crafted Scarlatti in a cafe in Krakow, and marvelled anew at what Yepes called the "Mediterranean clarity" of the music, in which the borrowed cadences of Spain - keenly felt by Yepes - make their distinctive contribution. Yepes believed, as most guitarists do, that the finger's direct contact with the strings imparts a special expressivity to harpsichord music.
Early in the 1960s Yepes became concerned enough with the limitations of his six-stringed instrument to look for alternatives. He designed an instrument with ten strings and commissioned its construction from the Spanish luthier Jose Ramirez. Its extra bass strings, tuned to C, B flat, A flat and G flat, would not have appealed to Segovia, to whom any guitar with more - or fewer - than six strings was anathema.
Yepes claimed that the additional strings enabled him to approach the piano music of Manuel de Falla (who wrote only one piece for the guitar) and Isaac Albeniz (who wrote none). It is worth remembering that Julian Bream in the early part of his career played such an instrument, abandoning it only when - like Segovia and so many other guitarists - he came to the conclusion that limiting the number of strings to six could actually enhance expressiveness, though at the cost of restricting the physical range.
Yepes, as always, went his own way, and was rewarded with some excellent music for the ten-stringed instrument composed by Maurice Ohana. The dodecaphonist Bruno Maderna also composed a piece for him, Y despues, inspired by a poem of Federico Garca Lorca.
Yepes made, in 1956, the first of very many recordings of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. In a recent interview, the composer's daughter said that her father had told her that Yepes's version came close in spirit to what he had in mind, and we should remember that it is not a work that dazzles by its extroversion but should be, in Rodrigo's words, "light and agile . . . like a butterfly," its sounds "hidden within the breeze which rustles the foliage" of the gardens of Aranjuez. Yepes captured all this perfectly.
He was also a lutenist of ability, and recorded all the Bach lute works. The Baroque lute was not, however, an instrument with which he gave concerts; carrying around a guitar was quite enough trouble, and in addition he found that an audience's attention span - in those days - did not extend much beyond 35 minutes of lute music.
An engaging and empathetic personality made Yepes an unusually persuasive teacher, particularly in the public format of a masterclass. Never an authoritarian, never a mandarin, he reached his students' minds with a judicious mixture of humour and information that greatly facilitated the learning process. An invariable custom was to draw more attention to a student's strong points than to the weak. As he put it, "As you grow in your strengths, you will forget your weaknesses". Many students, including those who subsequently became teachers, will remember with gratitude that it was Narciso Yepes who taught them that particular piece of wisdom.
Narciso Garca Yepes, guitarist and composer: born Lorca, Spain 14 November 1927; married Marysia Szummakowska (one son, one daughter); died Lorca 3 May 1997.
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