Johann Kaspar Mertz
The guitar, for non-guitarists, is like a person you just met and don’t quite understand their language or ideas; however, once you get properly acquainted with it, it becomes an inseparable friend and sometimes a real mind-opener. Apart from its unique qualities, the intricate and extremely idiomatic style of the guitar allied to the absolute domain of other [louder] instruments have historically excluded it from the list of instruments of most major 19th-century composers. This fact didn’t necessarily mean, though, that 19th-century guitarists wouldn’t play some of the most famous pieces of their times, and they took a very important step towards social and artistic inclusion of their instrument: they started a wave of arrangements and transcriptions never seen before in the history of any instrument, getting into people’s houses with a great wealth of adaptations of famous songs, arias, piano pieces, and even arrangements from orchestral works! This ‘wave’ created an overwhelming popularity of the instrument particularly in great music centres such as Vienna, London, and Paris, particularly because of closed circles of aficionados who held regular meetings with the only purpose of enjoying the intimate and warm sound of the instrument.
One of the main guitarist-composers who arranged and transcribed famous works in a very idiomatic and appealing way was Austro-Hungarian composer János Gáspár Mertz (anglicized to Johann Kaspar Mertz). Being known in Vienna and abroad as one of the greatest virtuosos of the guitar, Mertz composed important works for the instrument that helped raising its status in times when the piano was absolutely dominant, and the musical language and possibilities were often associated to that instrument.
Mertz’s Bardenklänge, a set of short pieces for the guitar, is arguably his most important contribution to the repertoire of the instrument. His domain over guitar’s technique allied to a highly stylized Romanticism allowed Mertz to explore the instrument in a deeper level. The simple forms and virtuoso technique of his pieces are only a surface covering a much more intricate level of poetics, emotions, and ideals. One of the pieces that best show his main features as a composer is guitarists’ favourite Elegie für die Gitarre, an absolute masterpiece of expression for the instrument. Another important contribution came with the arrangements of six Schubert’s famous songs. At the time Schubert’s works were already quite famous, particularly in the genre in which the composer mastered his musical language in a deeper level, the Lied. Schubert himself is said to have known how to play the guitar (a very rare fact for a major 19th-century composer!), but this is a rather uncertain ‘urban legend’ as no one has been able to confirm this fact so far. What is important, though, is that the six songs transcribed by Mertz sound incredibly idiomatic on the guitar, supported by the clever usage of the counterpoint capacities of the instrument and a rather free and conscious structural adaptation. Ständchen (Serenade) is by far the most famous of Schubert’s Lieder, and one of the most performed pieces of all times. Mertz’s arrangement brings with it the colours, textures, and scents of 19th-century Viennese society, in which music was a matter of fact, an absolute necessity, something that happened as naturally as the nightingales’ singing of Schubert’s Serenade.