Writing a melody is 'like walking on a graveyard. It’s full of dead composers'

Italian classical guitarist Oscar Ghiglia pulls no punches when it comes to his students or his peers

I meet Oscar Ghiglia at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he is due to give a masterclass. He turns up 45 minutes late, an amiable, garrulous 79-year-old. We end up in a cramped practice cubicle, and after fending off a viola-player who has booked it, the guitarist is happy to talk 19 to the dozen.

I first encountered Ghiglia when I was a music student at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena. He gave the impression of being a musician who just happened to be a guitarist, and completely transcended the instrument.

Unfortunately, in all the intervening years, I never came across him performing in Ireland. But later this month, he will take part in a Music Network residency at the National Opera House during Wexford Festival Opera.

Ghiglia was born into an artistic family in 1938. His father, grandfather and one of his uncles were all painters. His mother was a pianist. Portraits were his father’s speciality.


“One day my father put a guitar in my hands and started painting a portrait of me with a poncho on. He taught me to put a finger here, a finger there, and then strum. That was D major. Then he taught me another chord, and another one. And when the picture was done I knew about four or five chords. I started singing some songs and people would sing along. I thought it was very nice.”

Before that he had been painting. “I had a certain talent . . . I was told later that my father probably didn’t dig having another painter in the family. So he put a guitar in my hand.”

His education was not straightforward. “At the time when I grew up, to have a career was the least of our worries. The main thing was to survive. Just after the war, you can imagine. I didn’t even go to school. Schools were not very popular in my family. My mother never put a foot in a school. She was taught at home. My father never did, either. It was not common. It became common after the war, when we had the republic.”

He began studying in the Santa Cecilia Conservatory in Rome. “I felt that that was it. You know, we all need some kind of a cupola around us, some protective thing.” He found that in music, both at the Santa Cecilia and later under the great Andrés Segovia in Siena. His father, however, sent him “a funny drawing showing a beggar with a dog, begging in the street and playing a guitar, and wrote, ‘This is your future.’ I didn’t mind. I didn’t believe him.”

In 1963 he won first prizes at a number of important guitar competitions, and the following year had invitations to play in the US and Japan. His performing career has hardly let up since, and in 1976 he took over Segovia’s classes in Siena.

For Ghiglia, Segovia’s importance cannot be overstated. “I could say that the guitar wouldn’t exist without him. When he started performing, the guitar was enclosed in a very limited circle . . . After he left us – Segovia died in 1987 – concert series gave up the guitar, gave up solo guitar concerts. They prefer chamber music or groups or orchestras.

“It became a problem. I have the advantage of playing and teaching. Teaching is my sister profession, and it’s what I really love. When I play, it is as if I were teaching, in a way, and vice versa.”

”When I am teaching,” he explains, “I am performing, I am acting, I am telling stories, I am making music a kind of subject that is like a language. It is a language that is not based on words, fortunately, but on emotions. Sounds that speak to us.

“That is what I find lacking in today’s young players who don’t have the opportunity of playing many concerts. Some do not even have the call to perform in public. But they need the guitar in order to live, and what they do is they either make guitars, or play and win competitions. Competitions have multiplied. They became competition players, which is quite different from being a concert player.”

When I ask about his relationship with Segovia, he says, “I had him inside me before I went to him . . . When I played and I was doing this or doing that, he seemed to connect all those things that I was doing by myself and gave me the impression that it was easy, it was just natural. There were no worries about musicology, or style, things that today threaten the soul of the performance.”

What he wants his students to do is “to feel responsible, to look and listen to music and to make sure they are not following some particular trend, some particular convention, but are true to themselves”. The challenge there he likens to “teaching them how to speak. They have the score there. They start playing and sometimes they forget where they are, but their fingers keep playing because their fingers have their own memory. Perhaps in the middle they hear the voice of their teacher saying, ‘No! Yes! No!’, so I tell them to wipe out all of that and just respond to what they hear.”

His main advice is to sing. “Sing intervals, one after the other, every day, until the intervals start talking to them. I did that. I used to walk every day, singing all intervals within one octave, all 12 of them, recognising them by their feeling, by their smell, I would say.”

He tells the story of an encounter with the composer Franco Donatoni, who also taught in Siena. "He had written pieces for guitar, including one or two pieces for me. When I played them he came and said, 'Oscar, where did you find all that poetry? I didn't put it in.' I said, 'I'm sorry, but you didn't put anything in, just the form. But the notes were there before. And the poetry is in the notes.' "

Was Donatoni pleased? “I don’t think so. He was surprised, and I think he felt a little bit attacked. Sometimes he would choose the notes throwing a dice, or pulling sticks.

“Choice is a deadly thing. Today, to choose the notes that form a melody, it’s like walking on a graveyard. It’s full of dead composers. Verdi when he heard an opera by Zandonai, he was in a box at the theatre and Zandonai was watching him, and every five minutes Verdi would take his hat off and put it back on. Zandonai later asked him, ‘Was something wrong? Was it too hot? Were there mosquitoes?’ ‘No. I was just greeting all the composers that passed by.’ ”

Oscar Ghiglia perform at the National Opera House, Wexford, on October 23rd at 8pm, bit.ly/2i0fpmu. As part of a Music Network/Wexford residency, Redmond O'Toole performs with violinist Chloë Hanslip on October 24th, and an International Guitar Quartet performs on November 18th. Wexford Festival Opera runs from October 19 to November 5. wexfordopera.com