Hannemann’s Music Corner: The Romance
By RICHARD HANNEMANN
There are a variety of difficult and challenging pieces for the guitar – Recuerdos de Alhambra, Malaguena, Concierto de Aranjuez all come to mind (oh, and one I wrote “La Vida en Plaza”.)
But, oddly enough, one piece is much more challenging than you might expect: The Romance.
The Romance is not a particularly technically difficult piece. Nor is it particularly fast. But there are other reasons why it, and similar pieces, can be a real challenge.
First, the thing is ubiquitous.
Remember the movie “Blood and Sand” with Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth? Tyrone Power is a young bullfighter who is determined to pitch woo at Rita Hayworth.
He decides to win her heart with music. So there he is in the courtyard of the hacienda, and there she is looking – well, like Rita Hayworth looks – standing on the balcony.
But Tyrone can’t sing a note and doesn’t play an instrument so he is surrounded by musicians who can. As they play the camera does its close up on him, looking for all the world like a sick cow that has been hit over the head with a hammer (ladies, you have seen this look.)
The music is The Romance. The movie was ridiculously popular, the scene even more popular, and The Romance became its own little sensation.
If you play guitar you are always asked for the piece. Always. This is even more requested than “Stairway” (another ubiquitous piece.) So every guitarist plays it. Segovia played it; if it’s good enough for Segovia …
Secondly, it is fairly easy. Probably too easy. Definitely too easy. It is early beginner repertoire. And every beginner (except my students) learns it as their first or second “real” piece.
Easy, famous, popular, ubiquitous. Therein lies the challenge of The Romance.
Before I go further, understand that I actually like the piece. I like playing it. I like listening to it. It is a beautiful piece and I tend to agree with Mozart that, “music should be beautiful.”
That would be The Romance, when it is played well. Most of the time … it isn’t.
Part of the problem is that it is a beginning student piece and when the advanced guitarist plays it he/she tends to revert to playing it as they did when a student. Wooden. Mechanical. Technically correct.
You get the feeling that it was taught per force and learned per force. Like playing scales.
Part of the problem is that one is constantly playing it. Over and over and over and over. This gets a little old (it’s about 300-400 years old.) It gets a little dull. It gets boring. You can play it in your sleep.
You can be balancing the checkbook in your head while you are playing it. So there is tendency to want to just get it over and done with so one can move on to something interesting.
It gets played per force, and not every guitarist particularly enjoys playing it. Which may be the cause of the problem mentioned in the paragraph above.
How to play The Romance in an interesting way – interesting, that is, to the player since people really do love this piece and would be quite happy with the student version, which certainly does not count as a way to show off one’s virtuosity with the instrument. Therein lies another problem.
I have heard several guitarists approach the challenge by additive means. Means adding all sorts of stuff that isn’t in the score. Okay, Theme and Variations. I can work with this. Mozart did it, Beethoven did it, I do it.
Theme and Variations is difficult to do well since you have to remain true to the character of the music while advancing the music in a way that what you add is a natural extension of the theme.
Mostly what gets added to The Romance is busy work – a lot of arpeggios, speed scales (also known as diahreah fingers) and other “virtuoso” technique.
Virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity in the mistaken belief that audiences crave new, exciting, different 24/7/365 and are functionally (or disfunctionally) incapable of listening to slow music.
What seems to be wanted is the audience response of, “Oh, look at how fast he can play” rather than, “Oh, listen to how lovely the music is.” The Romance is not about playing like greased lightning.
Others have attempted to do the piece as jazz, blues, flamenco, and hard rock. Uhm, well … Okay, again, sometimes translating music from one genre to another works very nicely.
Sometimes it brings out aspects within the piece that weren’t apparent in the previous genre. “Me and Bobby McGee” was written by Kris Kristofferson as a straight country tune. Gordon Lightfoot did it as a folk tune. And then Janice Joplin turned it into whiskey blues rock.
Each version has its merits, each brings out an aspect of the song which is contained within the song. I’m not convinced The Romance lends itself well to this form of treatment.
What seems to be lacking is a basic understanding of the music of The Romance.
The Romance is about heart-felt love in all its incarnations. Wistful, yearning, shy and uncertain, joyful, sorrowful – every way in which we describe love, in which we feel love, in which we experience love, is contained in The Romance.
It is written from the heart, to the heart, for the heart. The real challenge of The Romance is not to make it interesting, but to play it from the heart and do so as if you were the author writing it for your own love and playing it for the very first time.
The Romance is not for the virtuoso technician. It is for the true musician who can stick to the score and use expressive techniques to bring out the full richness of the piece.
Shades of loud and soft, of increased or decreased speeds, lingering on a note, use of the vibrato, and other subtle playing techniques can make the music live and feel and be felt.
Unfortunately, we do, indeed, live in a world that is somewhat cynical; which still seems to be dominated by the phrase, “but can you dance to it?” in which loud and fast and in-your-ears are replacements for soft and slow and subtle.
The Romance is, perhaps, one of the most intensely passionate pieces of music ever written. But passion need not be, though often is, overamplified.
By learning to play this not-so-simple piece with innocence, affection, finesse and subtlety, with understanding and feeling, you can greatly add to the depth of musical meaningfullness throughout your entire repertoire.