An Annotated List of Guitar Icons Composed After 1945

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The following list was written in November 2004 by Philip Graulty and Chelsea Green. At the time, both authors were graduate students studying Classical Guitar Performance at the University of California, Los Angeles. While some information may now be outdated, we hope the list can serve as a reference for guitarists and aficionados alike. In time, we hope to update the list and include YouTube links and a comments section. Until then, enjoy reading!

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"An Annotated List of Guitar Icons Composed After 1945"

By Philip Graulty and Chelsea Green
November 2004

Preface
This annotated list is an assemblage of what we consider to be the thirty most iconic compositions for guitar composed after 1945. This may include, but is not limited to, pieces written for solo guitar, two guitars, three guitars, chamber ensembles, electric guitar, and guitar and voice. The list has been arranged, to the best of our knowledge, by date of composition and/or publication. In cases where multiple entries share a year, the entries are set in order of the composers’ births. We are indebted to Gloria Cheng for inspiring us to create this list and to Peter Yates for his guidance. 

1953: Igor Stravinsky, Russian (1882-1971)
Four Russian Songs, flute, guitar, harp, and voice

The guitar is a vital addition to the group in this vigorous chamber piece that pulsates and spits bright colors in the manner of the Rite of Spring. Aside from the fact that one of the greatest composers wrote for the guitar, Four Russian Songs is iconic for its expert use of the virtues of the instrument. Stravinsky managed to create his hallmark strange and strident beauty with this delicate ensemble. Each instrument is given a distinct voice and yet the blend of timbres is transfixing. (CG)

1953: Theodore Norman, American (1912-1997)
Two Twelve Tone Pieces, guitar

Theodore Norman’s Two Twelve Tone Pieces for Guitar are the first twelve-tone works for solo guitar ever to be published. Although both works are a mere two pages in length, their significance in the guitar’s history is invaluable. Through Norman’s example, other modern works for guitar shortly followed such as Krenek’s Suite and Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître. As the earliest example of serialism on guitar, Norman’s Two Pieces are remarkable examples of precise writing on an instrument whose surface had barely been scratched at the time. (PG)

1953: Pierre Boulez, French (b.1925)
Le Marteau sans Maître, chamber ensemble

When this work premiered in Paris it shocked a conservative public that proved resistant to the new serial language. Boulez fondly refers to this event as a “magnificent scandal.” Clearly, this work is iconic for its place in the evolution of classical culture alone. It is also iconic due to the well-placed inclusion of guitar in the small ensemble of percussion instruments, flute, and voice. Boulez, like Stravinsky at this time, found a way to make the guitar a necessary addition to his ensemble. (CG)

1957: Ernst Krenek, Austrian (1900-1991)
Suite for Guitar, guitar

The five-movement suite generates from a twelve-tone row wherein three-note groupings relate to one another through inversion, retrograde motion, and transposition.  Each movement establishes a rhythmic theme around the pitch series. As the material advances, Krenek loosens his compositional grip enough to allow certain pitches to recur and/or remain as pedal tones. Like all quality serial pieces, the suite relies on dynamic, tempi, rhythmic, and color changes to establish a meaningful character. Perhaps it is the relaxing of the serial rules technique that gives this piece enough emotive warmth to raise it to icon status. (CG)

1960: Francis Poulenc, French (1899-1963)
Sarabande, guitar

Although very humble about his contributions to music, Francis Poulenc was one of the most gifted composers of the 20th century. Three years before his death, he composed his only work for guitar, a brief sarabande. With its simple melodic contours and bare chordal textures, this lovely miniature stands alone in an era of complex modernism. Calm and melancholy throughout, the Sarabande is iconic for the beauty Poulenc manages to portray in a short, yet captivating, three-minute breath. (PG)

1962: Carlos Chavez, Mexican (1899-1978)
Three Pieces for Guitar, guitar

In the early 1920s, Carlos Chavez began writing Three Pieces for Andrés Segovia. However, the work was soon rejected as its language lay outside the scope of Segovia’s conservative tastes. Consequently, Three Pieces was abandoned until 1962 when Chavez completed the composition at the request of guitarist Jesus Silva. In 1969, more than forty years after its conception, the work was finally premiered in New York City. With sparse melodies, brute rasqueados, and a folk-like quality, Chavez’s Mexican heritage is evident throughout this iconic work. (PG)

1963: Benjamin Britten, English (1913-1976)
Nocturnal after John Dowland, guitar

Commissioned by Julian Bream, Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal is considered by many to be the greatest piece ever written for the guitar. The work is a set of variations based on the John Dowland song Come, Heavy Sleep, and much like Britten’s other works, it is largely concerned with dreams and death. In the first seven movements, Britten explores insomnia and the disturbances associated with the dream world. In the eighth and final movement however, the piece finally awakens into the pure light of Dowland’s song. Whether or not Bream and Britten were aware at the time, this eighteen-minute masterpiece would mark the beginning of the end to Segovia’s conservative reign over the guitar’s repertoire. For its substantial impact on the direction of classical guitar, Nocturnal is without a doubt one of the most iconic works of the 20th century. (PG)

1968: Dominick Argento, American (b.1927)
Letters from Composers, guitar and voice

In this cycle of seven songs sentiments from the letters of significant composers such as Chopin, Schubert, and Bach are set to music. Each song is a distinct hybrid of Argento’s modern sensibility fused with stylistic elements borrowed from whichever composer is being quoted. The guitar music is dramatically different for each song, as the instrument’s potential as an accompaniment to voice is explored and expanded. (CG)

1971: William Walton, British (1902-1983)
Five Bagatelles, guitar

Tonal, hip-shaking, and fun-loving, these five dance movements are an exciting and showy addition to the solo guitar repertoire. The outer movements are the most technically demanding and rhythmic, while the inner three movements evoke exotic places and sensual love affairs. The dance forms are transformed to be neither Latin nor European; instead they are distinctly Walton. This work is iconic for the same reason as Britten’s Nocturnal. Together, they created a new era in classical guitar repertoire that was liberated from the conservative standards set by Andrés Segovia. (CG)

1973: Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Austrian (1919-1994)
Hexachord 1 und 2, one or two guitars

Roman Haubenstock-Ramati was a descendant of the Second Viennese School and a proponent of the Schoenberg tradition. In the late 1950s, he developed a system of graphic notation to be used for subsequent works. Hexachord is one example in which there are 64 fields (8 x 8) on a single page. Haubenstock-Ramati indicates that the fields can be played in various directions with various left-hand fingerings, giving each performance a unique character. Whether the piece is performed as a solo or duo, it succeeds in creating a rich landscape of pitches and rhythms that are interwoven to create one lush sound. (PG)

1973: Peter Maxwell Davies, British (b. 1934)
Dark Angels, guitar and voice

This piece is not only iconic because of the status of its composer and his relatively large output for the guitar, but also for the extraordinary manner by which it tells a disturbing tale and paints a macabre landscape. In three movements, two for voice and guitar and one for solo guitar, Davies convinces even the most logical of listeners to pay heed to a curse on an abandoned Scottish village which culminated in the drowning of two brothers. Davies possesses a clear understanding of the capabilities of the guitar and requires nothing more than is needed to manifest his vision. On the other hand, he is not afraid to make use of extended techniques either. Whether or not one appreciates Davies gothic sensibility, his mastery of guitar composition would be nearly impossible to dispute. (CG)

1976: Alberto Ginastera, Argentine (1916-1983)
Sonata for Guitar, guitar

Alberto Ginastera is one of the great Argentine nationalist composers of the 20th century. Considering his status, it is ironic that it took him sixty years to write for the guitar, Argentina’s national instrument. Commissioned and premiered by the Brazilian guitarist Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Sonata was instantly received as one of the most important works for the guitar. Ginastera’s combination of South American rhythms and avant-garde techniques made this work unprecedented for its time. A perfect synthesis of nationalism and modernism, Sonata will remain iconic for its unique hybrid of styles. (PG)

1976: Hans Werner Henze, German (b. 1926)
Royal Winter Music, Sonata No. 1, guitar

This thirty-minute extended sonata on Shakespearean characters is one of the longest pieces for solo guitar. Henze believes the guitar “posses a richness of sound capable of embracing everything one might find in a gigantic contemporary orchestra.” He explores these capabilities by recreating the guitar as an actor portraying, in each movement, a different character from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Movements range from frantic and chromatic to poised and tonal.  Royal Winter Musicis of icon status for its grand scale and expressiveness. Henze’s other works for guitar are also worth a serious exploration. (CG)

1976: Barbara Kolb, American (b.1939)
The Sentences, guitar and voice

This short and complex work is one of Kolb’s finest. Kolb remains one of only a few women composers to write for the guitar and to create quality works for guitar and voice.  Her work is lyrical, colorful and atonal. Both voice and guitar are made to utilize extended techniques that are always subtly integrated to secure a unified style. (CG)

1977: Helmut Lachenmann, German (b. 1935)
Salut fur Caldwell, two guitars

This work comes from an era in Lachenmann’s development when he abandoned his prior compositional methods to reframe instrumental technique and musical culture from a radical perspective. In Salut, basic assumptions regarding the function of music are questioned. Lachenmann chose to write for the guitar precisely because music culture harbors so many expectations of its sounds. These expectations are what Lachenmann decided to challenge in his duo. The end result is void of guitar clichés, and yet the listener senses them lurking in the work’s unconscious mind. This composition is an icon for its philosophical as well as musical intentions. (CG)

1982: Scott Johnson, American (b. 1952)
John Somebody, electric guitar and tape

In 1982, Scott Johnson achieved iconic status with his first major composition John Somebody. An advocate of both classical and popular music, he took it upon himself to “heal the divorce” between the two extremes. By doing so, he became one of the first composers to blend rock with art music and to mimic speech with instruments. Looping and layering fragments of one sentence and mimicking these motifs on guitar, Johnson created an unprecedented work that is unmatched to this day. (PG)

1983: Elliott Carter, American (b. 1908)
Changes, guitar

As described by Elliott Carter, “Changes, for guitar solo, is music of mercurial contrasts of character and mood, unified by its harmonic structure.” These short contrasts, which break up basic harmonic sections, are what render the piece unique. Carter’s unreserved compositional approach showcases the vast range of colors that can only be found on the guitar. His dynamics and timbre – harmonics, ponticello, vibrato, and rasqueado – take advantage of the instruments capabilities, making the seven-minute piece wildly enjoyable for both performer and listener. Changesis a diamond among the many stones in the guitar’s repertoire. (PG)

1983: Michael Tippett, English (1905-1998)
The Blue Guitar, guitar

The Blue Guitar is one of many compositions written for the great Julian Bream. The piece was inspired by a 1934 Wallace Stevens poem, which was itself inspired by a Picasso painting bearing the same name. As Tippett explains, “all that remained from the poem were three moods, or gestures, which suggested titles for the movements – Transforming, Dreaming, and Juggling.” The piece was Tippett’s first and only attempt at the solo guitar, and thus it finds itself on our list. (PG)

1984: Milton Babbitt, American (b.1916)
Composition for Guitar, guitar

Babbitt’s signature brand of serialism defines the style of this eight-minute piece. The score is laden with performance indications such as pizzicato, sul. pont., glissando, tremolo, and rapid-fire dynamics. Unusual rhythms and changing meters create another set of complexities meant to keep both performer and listener on their toes. This piece is iconic by virtue of the fact that the composer succeeds in manifesting his meticulously uttered voice for the medium of classical guitar solo. (CG)

1984: Matthew Elgart, American (b. 1958)
Snack Shop, two prepared guitars

Shortly after Cage invented prepared piano, a handful of guitarists began to explore the possibilities of guitar preparation. Elgart’s duo requires fishing sinkers fitted to strings for a gong effect and alligator clips placed above frets for a rattle effect, to name a few. This piece is representative of an entire convention that is itself iconic. Preparations work especially well on the guitar and quality prepared pieces are a significant contribution to our repertoire. (CG)

1987: Luciano Berio, Italian (1925-2003)
Sequenza XI, guitar

Luciano Berio once confessed that the guitar Sequenza cost him as much work as all the other Sequenzas combined. With that said, he still admitted to Eliot Fisk – to whom the piece was dedicated – that he “didn’t consider it to be the final version.” Berio’s Sequenza XI is one of the most intense and dramatic pieces ever written for guitar. Speaking in a language that is nothing short of genius, he seems to utilize every color and timbre possible on the instrument.  Although Berio was inspired by the folk tradition of flamenco, the piece’s vast soundscape is anything but Spanish. Like all Sequenzas, it should come as no surprise that XI lands on a list of icons. (PG)

1987: Steve Reich, American (b. 1936)
Electric Counterpoint, electric guitar and tape

Electric Counterpoint is the last of three compositions by Steve Reich for solo instrument and tape. Written for jazz guitarist, Pat Metheny, the work requires a soloist to perform a single line along with twelve pre-recorded guitar tracks. Throughout each of the three movements, various canons appear in as many as nine voices at a time. Although Reich employs a driving eighth-note among the parts, the piece manages to remain peaceful, allowing the listener to unwind and submerge themselves in an endless array of sounds. For its stimulating energy, yet serene surface, this piece is an icon among the few minimalist works for guitar. (PG)

1987: Leo Brouwer, Cuban (b. 1939)
Concerto de Toronto, guitar and orchestra

Leo Brouwer is probably the most prolific composer for guitar, having written six concertos and numerous smaller works and etudes. His fourth, Concerto de Toronto was composed for long-time friend and colleague John Williams. “This was musically the most challenging and rewarding, dynamic and beautiful of any guitar concerto I knew,” Williams commented. Brouwer’s self described neo-Romantic style and Afro-Cuban inspiration makes this piece a pleasure to hear. (PG)

1993: James Phillipsen, American (b. 1968)
Trio No. 1, three guitars

Fast-moving and capricious, Trio No. 1 fuses diverse modern compositional methods. The opening introduces a minimalist melodic fragment that races over unpredictable chordal entrances.  Later sections build into a frenzy of atonality. The closing returns to minimalist figures juxtaposed against rich and brooding harmonies.  This piece is unpublished and therefore not widely known. However, Philip and I (and our trio partner, Marc) intend to convince listeners of its iconic status. (CG)

1994: George Crumb, American (b. 1929)
Quest, guitar and chamber ensemble

While George Crumb had composed for various plucked instruments in the past, his first attempt for guitar came in 1994 at the request of David Starobin. Composing for the instrument however, was much harder than he had anticipated. “I initially toyed with the idea of a piece for guitar alone, but feelings of insecurity in regard to guitar technique and idiom led me quickly to the conception of an ensemble work,” Crumb explains. The inclusion of harp, saxophone, vibraphone, and various percussion gives the piece a “colorful palette of timbral and sonoric possibilities.” With unusual instrumentation and a consistent treatment of the guitar as the principal voice, Questis unlike any other chamber piece for guitar. (PG)

1995: Toru Takemitsu, Japanese (1930-1996)
In the Woods, guitar

These three pieces were the last full work written by the composer, who once told Julian Bream that of all the instruments to write for, he loved the guitar the most. The pieces meander forward without revisiting material, all the while evoking a contemplative playfulness. Wainscot Pondpossesses the most formal structure wherein a dance emerges from deep within rich, earthy textures. Rosedalemoves slowly without metrical indications and is characterized by atonal runs and arpeggiations interwoven with four-note chords. Muir Woods employs changing meters and tempi and explores a range of colors from bright harmonics to booming bass chords. Takemitsu wrote a vast amount of music for the guitar and this is considered by many to be his best work for the instrument. (CG)

1996: Steve Mackey, American (b. 1956)
Grungy, electric guitar

If Julian Bream and Jimi Hendrix miraculously had offspring, their first-born would be Steve Mackey. An electric guitar virtuoso and classical composer, Mackey writes music that fuses styles, taking everything great about the guitar and pushing it to the extreme. As its name implies, Grungy is full of loud distortion, rock riffs, and heavy metal clichés. The only thing separating it from an Eddie Van Halen solo is its precise classical form (no offense Eddie). For its ability to work equally well at a dive bar or recital hall, Grungy earns the right to be called an icon. (PG)

1999: Terry Riley, American (b. 1935)
The Book of Abbeyozzud, guitar, percussion, and violin

The guitar is the one instrument of Riley’s ensemble to consistently play in this planned series of twenty-eight pieces. As Riley states, the works are “indebted to the great Spanish music traditions and to those traditions upon which Spanish music owes its heritage.” Indeed, the ever-inventive composer explores traditions ranging from ancient Indian ragas to improvisatory jazz. For its multi-cultural scope and conceptual depth, this series places as a more recent icon.  (CG)

2002: Lou Harrison, American (1917-2003)
Scenes from Nek Chand, national steel guitar

Lou Harrison considered himself a maverick, often demanding unusual instruments for his music. Such a case is Scenes from Nek Chand, which Harrison wrote one year before his death. The three-movement piece requires a custom-fretted National steel guitar in just intonation, of which only two have been made. With a unique fret board, the player must learn a new technique in order to play. Inspired by the sliding sounds used on Hawaiian guitars and the microtonality of Asian music, Nek Chand is an extraordinary addition to the guitar’s repertoire. (PG)

2003: John Zorn, American (b. 1953)
Masada Guitars, solo guitar series

While he is better known as an avant-garde jazz player and composer, Zorn bares his classical compositional roots in this hauntingly beautiful set of solo guitar pieces alluding to ancient Jewish culture. Though modern conventions abound, the listener never loses sight of a past effortlessly brought to life through Zorn’s melodies and modalities (and the heartfelt playing of guitarists Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, and Tim Sparks). For experimentation, expert genre blending, and a one-of-a-kind voice, Masada Guitars qualifies as an icon, albeit a peripheral one. (CG)