Romanza. Spanish Ballad. Spanish Romance. Three titles from one publication alone - the infamous “All Time Classical Guitar” compendium that many of us grew up on - for this most iconic yet enigmatic staple of the guitar repertoire. The piece’s enigma derives not only from the fact that, rather unusually for a musical composition, it possesses no definite fixed title, but also because its provenance remains unknown, and is therefore usually credited mysteriously as ‘anon’ or ‘trad’ in published versions. "Romance Anónimo", “Estudio en Mi de Rubira", “Romance de España", "Romance de Amor", "Romance of the Guitar", "Romance d'Amour"; thank you Wikipedia for filling in the gaps in my knowledge of alternative names for this single piece of music, and for informing me that the finger of suspicion for its authorship might point at anyone from Sor to Yepes! Phew. For the sake of simplicity, for the remainder of this article I will refer to the piece only as ‘Romanza’.
When I recently read a question on an internet classical guitar forum, conspicuously tentative in its tone, from a young guitarist asking whether it’s still acceptable to perform ‘Romanza’, I appreciated the ridicule-fearing tone entirely. This is the classical guitar equivalent of ‘Wonderwall’ or “Smoke On The Water”, so in a day and age when even the most patronisingly unadventurous of pub cover bands would never dare trot out that dreaded power chord riff or Noel Gallagher’s uber-famous jangly intro, I found the question, along with the caution it expressed, to be well founded. By the time I happened upon the article the asker had already received the full spectrum of opinions by way of response, but having long been concerned about the narrowness of the standard classical guitar repertoire, reading that post inspired me to explore some thoughts on the matter.
To directly address the question of whether ‘Romanza’ should still be performed in public, my short answer has to be ‘yes’, simply because - three hail Marys - I play it myself. Having always been determined to keep the old chestnut at a suitably safe (think Chernobyl exclusion zone) distance from my concert programmes, I was horrified to find it sneaking its way in through the back door at unexpected moments; when confronted by that crippling surge of adrenaline at the start of a concert that renders just about everything impossible, causing the supposedly straightforward icebreaker you’d picked to suddenly feel enormously risky. When performing in an unfamiliar venue or in front of a new audience, and that initial nervousness prompts you to err on the side of the utterly safe and familiar. When my long term and still yet to be precisely diagnosed chronic overuse performance injury feels particularly aggravated, and my poor battered abductor pollicis brevis desperately needs a break from heavy barre chord work, meaning that finishing on “La Catedral” as grandiosely envisaged beforehand is no longer medically possible. (For me personally, this is the most positive reason for slipping ‘Romanza’ into a set at short notice, so hopefully I'll at some point compose an original piece based on open strings that consciously avoids barre chords to fill the gap? Watch this space!)
Anyway, so much for my own reasons for playing ‘Romanza’. As for the much larger and more relevant question of which factors have caused it to be maintained as a standard of the repertoire, handed down through countless generations of guitarists to the present day, perhaps we could speculate that the piece’s enduring popularity can be attributed to it being at the same time both quintessentially Spanish and quintessentially guitaristic. The soft romantic lilt, contrasting minor-major-minor ABA structure, endless possibilities for expressive use of tone, timbre and rubato, as well as ringing open string arpeggio figurations certainly qualify it for this dual honour. I would also suspect that the combination of familiarity and technical ease (at least up until the major key section!) has served to make ‘Romanza’ an attractive proposition to a great many guitarists besides myself. For the restaurant or wedding performer, it is the ultimate easy ‘filler’ piece. For teachers, it is the ultimate introduction to Spanish guitar music that is both accessible and educational for learners. ‘Romanza’ has, it appears, much to recommend it.
If we were, just for the sake of raining on the parade of the popular, which is always a noble aim in itself, to examine the factors that ought not recommend the piece, chief among them would be - paradoxically - its sheer ubiquity. Every non-guitarist who has a six string gathering dust in their spare room or attic can play that treacherous opening melody. Like ‘Wonderwall’ or “Smoke On The Water”, ‘Romanza’ constitutes the most unimaginative of banal programme choices. It may still be alive and kicking, but is as close to being done to death as is Bach’s “Prelude in D Minor”, or the word ‘Brexit’ in the current English lexicon.
There is also the more thorny question of the piece’s quality. Without possessing any hard data on the matter, my gut alone tells me that many, many more musically intriguing and intellectually sophisticated compositions have fallen by the wayside down the years while it has survived. My lack of data to back up this assertion can be justified by the probability that the hypothetical pieces concerned, along with their composers, are by definition obscure and thus not preserved in performance or recording. Yet somehow I know they exist, just like I somehow know that wandering into any small to medium sized music venue across the U.K. would introduce me to a pop artist more interesting than Ed Sheeran. The rhythmically simplistic and relentless melody of ‘Romanza’ gives nod to the plebeian associations of the guitar, and serves as a reminder of the reason the Royal Academy of Music refused to accept it as a viable instrument until Julian Bream came along and demonstrated to that institution how wholly misplaced their traditionalistic snobbery was.
I mentioned earlier that I have for some time felt uncomfortably aware of the static and stale nature of the established guitar repertoire, even as it continues to inspire promising young players to aspire to become the next Williams, John Mills or Segovia. Yet it is a fact that most if not all of these pieces will retain their deserved if disproportionate place in the concert programmes of talented performers for decades or even centuries to come, assuming the human race is fortunate enough to survive that long. For ‘Asturias’ and “Variations on a Theme of Mozart”, the musical excitement and not to be underestimated allure of the “look at what I can do” factor is enough to elevate these pieces to milestone status in the eyes of any ambitious budding guitarist. ‘Recuerdos’ (I don’t even need to type its full name) will forever remain the de facto tremolo standard. ‘Romanza’ by contrast is no badge of honour; it survives essentially because it is too big not to. Like Wonderwall, it simply is. And just as it can be guaranteed that socially awkward teenage boys with unwashed shoulder-length hair will still bash out shaky renditions of Deep Purple’s classic long after no-one recalls the name of the band, let alone of its members who crafted that iconic riff, so will ‘Romanza’ long outlive us all.
Love it or loathe it, it’s here to stay..