Fritz Buss and Narciso Yepes
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Studies with Yepes
Viktor van Niekerk: Fritz, you had the opportunity to meet Andres Segovia in 1956 when he visited South Africa to perform at the Johannesburg Music Festival. I understand that he was pleased with your playing. What happened during this meeting?
Fritz Buss: Well, it was very interesting and, for me, very nerve-wracking. Not much happened really, I just played for him (several things) and he said, "Well, you haven't had a teacher, but that sometimes might be better than having one."
[Laughs.] Subsequently he offered me the opportunity to come to study with him at one of his master classes in Santiago de Compostela.
VvN: You were initially more interested in Segovia than Narciso Yepes.
FB: Oh yes! We
all were. At that time he was
the man, and he was the only one that was making many recordings. So we were all interested, in more or less degrees, in Segovia. Yes, definitely. Of course, I also had heard a recording of Yepes. But somehow I just didn't take notice of it because, I think, we were all so influenced and taken by Segovia that when it came to many other recordings we
didn't really listen.
VvN: In 1960 (four years after you met Segovia) Yepes visited South Africa for what became the first of his numerous concert tours of the country. What was your impression of Yepes after attending this recital, and why had it changed?
FB: Well, I think, for me the main event was when Yepes played Bach's
Chaconne - his own transcription - and also, I noticed immediately that he had a different sitting stance. He played in a different way from the positions that we were all using at that time. That was the first thing that struck me before he even started to play. However, my biggest impression was definitely that
Chaconne. I'd never, ever heard such clarity, such separation of contrapuntal lines, and not a single mistake whatsoever - not that that is very important - but I was utterly and completely stunned at that performance.
VvN: Yepes, like Segovia, invited you to study with him in Spain. Why did you take up the offer from Yepes?
FB: Well, after Segovia invited me to go to Santiago de Compostela I was encouraged and really started working. Through Segovia I got the method by Emilio Pujol and I really worked through that as much as I could. So I had another four years of working very hard on the instrument. Then, after hearing that performance of Yepes in the Great Hall of Wits University, I made sure that I would meet Yepes. I met him and I played for him. During that meeting an idea occurred to me and I said, "Would you like to go to the Kruger National Park?" and his eyes lit up and became very big. He said, "Yes! Yes!" He looked at his schedule and we had about four days. I took one of my students, Timothy Walker, with and the three of us went to the game reserve. Before we left, Yepes said, "But take your guitar, I want to hear you again." So I took my guitar along to the Kruger Park where we had a beautiful time and every night I played for him and he played for us. I asked him to go through the
Chaconne. He said, "I'm very happy because I have just written out the
Chaconne from memory and sent it to Marysia, my wife, and she told me I didn't make a mistake." After that meeting I met him once or twice more and he said to me, "I will write to you in September and if I am in Madrid next year then you can come and study with me."
VvN: Your first official lesson with Yepes was on 5 January 1961, and you spent the rest of that year studying with him in Spain. What was his approach to teaching the guitar?
FB: Well, first of all, he always had an underlying kindness toward his students - or toward me anyway, I can only talk of my own experience - toward the nervous and shivering student in front of this Maestro. But the first thing he said to me was, "You have to realize, we are not just learning the guitar now - we are learning about music, because that is the most important thing. We only make use of the guitar to express the music."
VvN: How did studying with him influence your own teaching?
FB: One thing is not to break a pupil down. People have come to me even if they have little talent, but with the desire to play. Who am I to say, "You are no-good"? That's a bad thing to do. You have to find a way, and I must say, in most cases they all learn something and they're happy and the guitar becomes a way of life for them. And always to say that music is something that you take with you through your life. Often they ask me, "How long will it take me to learn the guitar?" My answer is always...forever.
VvN: This was Yepes's philosophy as well, wasn't it? to focus only on the positive and always to strive for greater perfection.
FB: That's right. He always concentrated on my strong points. He never ran me down. He never made me feel inferior. I had three lessons with him in a week and some mornings I would say to him, "Mr. Yepes, today I don't feel like playing." He used to say, "Okay, come, let's have some coffee. We will talk." And there I learnt perhaps as much, if not sometimes more, than I did in the lessons.
VvN: What was the most important thing you learnt from him?
FB: The most important is to put the music first. Music, guitar, yourself, in that order. But, Yepes had a way of learning music that is impossible for me and perhaps for many guitarists to do, which was that he never touched the guitar until he had thoroughly studied and memorized the score. He had the fortunate ability that whatever he read he could hear perfectly and was therefore able to tell, before he picked up the guitar, what the composer was after. That was in particular with regard to the modern works. With the traditional works most of us already hear them in our minds. But with anything new, like the Concerto [
Trois Graphiques] by Maurice Ohana, he would look over the music for hours, sort of mumbling, like singing, in a way.
[Laughs.] He had very bad eyesight, so he had a magnifying glass and he hovered about two or three inches over the score with his left eye, reading and memorizing the music.
VvN: You think he had a photographic memory...is it also true that, in order to get around, he would memorize maps of new cities he travelled to for his concert tours?
FB: That's right. And there is one thing I'd like to mention here that put a lot of people off. They didn't understand. If you first met Narciso, he would look at you and then his eyes would flick very rapidly to left, right, left, right, left, right and then stop. At that moment (because there were several holes in his vision) he then had seen your face and now remembered your face. And that action often put people off because they did not understand his situation.
The 10-String Guitar
VvN: Of course, when you first met Yepes, and subsequently during your first period of study in Spain, he was still using a six-string guitar. However, I believe you had first-hand experience of his dissatisfaction and his search for a new instrument.
FB: Oh yes, this is very important. This really was something. This happened to be some time in March 1961. Timothy [Walker] and I went to Yepes's concert, which was an all-Bach concert, of his lute music, played on the six-string guitar. While he was playing I felt this uneasiness in him. So when the concert was finished and we went to get some coffee, I said to him, "Narciso, I had the feeling you were not happy." He said, "How can I be happy? I only played half of Bach." So I asked him, "What do you mean?" He said, "Yes. All the music I had to rearrange, leave the basses out or play them at a higher octave. I know that tonight there were very important musicians and people in the audience and I felt that I had cheated them by playing only half of Bach."
VvN: In your practical experience, how much of an improvement did the ten-string guitar really offer? And what other benefits are there in using the ten-string?
FB: Well, apart from the obvious, that you can use it for
baroque music and also in
modern music where you have the opportunity of using the extra strings, I still play much of the traditional guitar repertoire. The ten-string balanced out the overtone [
sympathetic resonance] situation by a very large degree. It makes the instrument far more balanced. If there are overtones you don't want, stop them. It's as simple as that, but on a six-string you don't have that choice. As Yepes used to say, "I cannot stop something that I don't have." If there was a disruptive overtone he was perfectly capable of stopping it. It is impossible for me, now, to play a six-string guitar for any length of time because I wouldn't hear what I want to hear. I couldn't interpret the way I would like to, especially in slow movements. On the six-string guitar one always has this
Ton Angst, a fear of running out of sound. On a ten-string you can perform and interpret, especially slow movements, far better than on a six-string guitar.
Technique and Performance
VvN: Aside from his instrument, what set Yepes apart from his contemporaries?
FB: Well, one could never say to Narciso that something is impossible. He took the example from his teacher, [Vicente] Asencio, who said to him, "Can you do this on the guitar?" And he played for him some
prestissimo scales on the piano, in a beautiful
legato way. And Yepes said, "No, no, we can't do that." And Asencio said to him, "You have so much talent. Why do you play this instrument and not the violin or piano?" This is when Yepes started to develop new techniques that enabled him to do what could be done on the piano. If you listen to his playing, especially in fast passages, it's almost like a pianist. Now, I know we can't sound exactly like pianists - we don't have to sound like pianists - but at least we can learn from them as far as the music is concerned. Definitely. Anyone who has his later recording of the
Concierto de Aranjuez, just to mention one thing, could listen to the last few bars of
second movement, to that trill, which sounds like a pianist would play it. Listen to most other guitarists and you hear them battling, trying to slur these notes. Yepes, however, had invented a technique to play such trills with three fingers of the right hand. That is just one little example, and there are many of them. I have based some of my own
Thirty Etudes on that technique, the three-finger playing of fast figures, trills, scales, and so on. Perhaps today this is no longer anything surprising, but at that time certain guitarists picked up on the fact that Yepes used three fingers to play scales and denounced this. It is a ridiculous mentality. It's just as well as telling a pianist never to use his thumbs.
VvN: Which of his recordings would you recommend to listeners?
FB: One I would say is his all-Tarrega recording [1983, Deutsche Grammophon, 410 655-2]. Then he did a whole disc of Scarlatti [
1984, Deutsche Grammophon, 413 783-2 & 457 325-2], which I think is just unreal. To me that record is superior to anything I've ever heard. The other one is a disc of Rodrigo's solo guitar works [1987, Deutsche Grammophon, 419 620-2]. I don't know how he plays like that, because I hadn't seen him after that recording. It's not that we lost touch, but I never had the opportunity to ask him about that. Those three records in particular and I would also mention his first recording of the Bach
Chaconne [London Records, CM 9270], which was still on a six-string. It was just an unbelievable recording. It's very old. You'll not find it anymore, but I still have it, and it's full of scratches.
VvN: You always have entertaining stories to tell, stories, which one would have to experience first-hand, in an oral setting, to appreciate fully. Nonetheless, would you share a memory of Yepes' sense of humour?
[Laughs.] I remember in Paris, we were running down some big stairs after a concert at the university and a young man was running up to Yepes in the opposite direction saying,"Mr. Yepes, I believe you play a ten-string guitar!" So, without stopping, Yepes said, "Yes! Yes! A string for each finger!" He had a tremendous, almost sardonic sense of humour.
VvN: You also have first-hand experience of some remarkable events that underscore his exceptional abilities.
FB: Oh my goodness! He had to play a concert in Germany. We went to check the hall and he looked at the printed programme and his face fell. He said, "But this is the wrong programme." So he looked at me and he said, "Have you studied the
Chaconne lately?" I said, "Yes, I've been busy with it." He said, "Come on, let's get to the room and go through the
Chaconne. I will have to play the programme as printed, but at least let's go through the
Chaconne so I remember."
[Laughs.] For about two hours we worked on the
Chaconne and then, that night, he just sat there and played a different concert than what he had imagined he should play.
VvN: How did the concert go?
FB: Oh, absolutely 100%. There was nothing wrong with it. In any event, whenever Yepes came to South Africa he usually sent in about four or five different programmes, plus two or three concertos for us to choose from. He would just play any of them. He had, without a doubt, the biggest repertoire of any guitarist. There are no two ways about that. He had an enormous repertoire.
Also, I remember an incident in Paris when a young man at a master class was having trouble with the fingering of
The King of Denmark's Galliard by John Dowland. Looking at the music, Yepes took his left hand and put it on his right forearm, worked out the fingering, wrote it in pencil, took the guitar, and just played it.
There was also an incident when he had to play a concert in Windhoek [Namibia]. It was a particularly difficult concert. He played, among other things, the Asencio suite [
Collectici intim]. And just as he was playing his second piece there was a power failure. Not a light in sight. You just saw this shadow sitting on the stage, just continuing, just carrying on, playing as if nothing had happened. So at the interval I rushed backstage; I said, "Narciso, what are we going to do?" He said, "Nothing. I have the habit."
[Laughs.] I said, "Would you like candles?" He said, "No, no, they flicker. No, no, I'm fine. There's nothing to be done. I have the habit." So he played the whole concert in the dark.
On the plane to this concert in Windhoek I asked him to help me a little with the fingering for the Second Lute Suite by Silvius Weiss, which he had transcribed for ten-string guitar. I had the music with me, which he had given me. So he took the whole Suite, pulled out his fountain pen, and proceded for the next half an hour
[laughs] to write all the fingering for all the movements from memory. I'm sure some other musicians could do that too, but for me it was a revelation.
S.L. Weiss -
Allemande, Sonata 2 (London Ms.),
autograph transcription by Narciso Yepes
VvN: What advice do you have for today's young players?
FB: I would like to say, you don't have to imitate Yepes, but
listen. Listen carefully and you will hear things you do not hear with many other guitarists. You will hear not just guitar playing, but first and foremost the ideas behind the composers' music. Listen to his performance of the
Concierto de Aranjuez, especially the slow movement and the
cadenza. Listen carefully and you will hear what the guitar is really capable of doing. Narciso always told me to listen. Listen to orchestras. Listen to modern music. Listen to the great musicians. That's where you learn
(This interview took place in Johannesburg, in 2004.)
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Copyright, 2004 by Viktor van Niekerk.
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