The Hermann Hauser Guitar

The Hermann Hauser Guitar, Munich, 1922
– used in Pavane pour une Infante Défunte by Maurice Ravel, Homenaje: Tombeau pour Claude Debussy by Mauel de Falla, Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tárrega

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Hermann Hauser I was one of the most famous guitar makers of the twentieth century. Originally a cabinet maker, he began his career before 1920, producing some of the most famous instruments by a non-Spanish luthier into the 1950’s. His fame rests primarily on two important connections–his success in building instruments in the post-Torres tradition, beginning in 1924, and in supplying some of the most famous guitarists of the mid-century, principally Andrés Segovia. In a memorial article on his life in Guitar Review in 1954, Segovia remarked: “The guitars had been constructed by Hauser. I examined them all and immediately foresaw the potential of this superb artisan if only his mastery might be applied to the construction of the guitar in the Spanish pattern as immutably fixed by Torres and Ramírez.” (quoted from Antonio Torres: Guitar Maker–His Life and Work, by José Romanillos).
But before Hauser met Segovia in 1924 he was constructing guitars and guitar/lute hybrids (lute body, guitar tuning, neck, frets and head) in quite another tradition, that of the Viennese luthier Stauffer. This type of guitar is believed to have been originated by the Italian 19th c. guitarist and composer Luigi Legnani. The design spread, with multi-string variations, into Eastern Europe, Russia and the Ukraine.

The somewhat narrow neck is a joinery construction, consisting of a head (joined with a V-joint), a mitred heel-block, an overlayed fingerboard, and the mechanical component, a bolt (turned by a small brass key) which allows the neck to raise and lower the action (string) height. The neck and body are actually not “joined” at all except by the bolt, and are kept in place by the tension of the strings.

The body also has an unusual design, not related the the famous plantilla (plan or outline) of the turn-of-the-century Spanish lutherie school. It has a full lower bout and small-shouldered upper bout, with a bridge identical to that seen on the guitar owned by Berlioz, made by Grobert of Paris nearly a century earlier. The bridge has a rounded bottom profile, a metal fret inserted where the bone nut would normally be found, and pins in the 19th c. fashion. The soundboard has two main bars running radially down to the end-block, passing on either side of the bridge, with a plate and some smaller bars. The timber of the soundboard is medium to wide grain, with some “bear-claw” figure.

The body of the guitar is thinner than a Spanish instrument, with a very arched back made from a single piece of figured maple. The rosette is made from purfling, rather than tiles on end grain, a further reference to western European lutherie. The neck and body have a different balance point from Spanish guitars which balance at the mid-point (the heel). Hauser’s guitar is comparatively neck-heavy. It’s my feeling that the density of the neck and thickness of the ebony fingerboard helps to give the instrument a distinctive sustaining quality reminiscent of the piano.

The notable feature of the sound of the instrument is the lack of boominess which we associate with Spanish guitars. They seem to favor the D and A strings with a tonal emphasis in the baritone. Hauser’s guitar emphasizes the alto. This is particularly evident in notes played above the 12th fret, which are exceptionally well in tune. The high register lacks the woodiness of instruments which have less dense material under the upper frets.

In choosing material to play on this instrument I have tried to see its tradition as a continuation of a Classical rather than a Romantic viewpoint. Anyone who looks over the history of the guitar during the beginning of the 20th century will note the virtual abscence of recitals and recorded repertoire in a strictly Classical style; no Mozart or Haydn, no Beethoven, no Baroque music. It remained for the army of transcribers to find appropriate music which lent itself to the guitar, and that lacuna was ably filled, first by Tárrega, later by Llobet, Segovia, and Pujol (who did much to re-instate the vihuela and baroque guitar composers), and much later by Bream, Williams and the British School.

I was particularly interested to observe how well this guitar worked with neo-Classical compositions: Falla and Ravel as I have recorded here, but also Frank Martin, Ponce, Krenek and the delightful and challenging transcriptions of Classical period music by Erwin Schwarz-Reiflingen (Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and others).

As a footnote, it has been difficult in informal discussion with other musicians who play piano, guitar, winds and strings whose design was set, as Segovia observed, in the late 19th century, to convince them that in essence they are playing period instruments which do not reflect the musical aesthetic of the last fifty years. While luthiers and acoustic music instrument design has concentrated on being ever louder to fill larger spaces, the electronic and recording industries have all but obviated this design goal. With modern microphones and digital recording, the internet and downloading, any instrument can re-claim its validity long as we see it as acting within its traditions. This is what the concept of period instruments embodies: Pertinence is only a matter of reaching and communicating with the audience. An instrument as profoundly well-made and distinctively designed for its musical values, as the Hauser is, reminds us of this independent validity.

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