Pictures:  Rodrigo, Victoria Kahmi, the Gardens of the Palace of Aranjuez.

I think it is probably safe to say that the Rodrigo guitar concerto—the Concierto de Aranjuez—is the most beloved guitar work ever written. I know that is saying a lot, but the widespread appeal of this concerto—and particularly its second movement—goes well beyond guitar aficionados to a much wider general audience.

Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999) had an interesting, and inspiring, life story. Born in Valencia, Spain in 1901, he lost his sight to diphtheria at the age of three and was totally blind for the rest of his life. In his childhood and adolescence, he was taught how to play violin, piano, and guitar by rote, and learned music theory and composition by Braille. All of his subsequent compositions were written in Braille and then transcribed for publication.

Rodrigo’s lack of sight did not deter him from living a full and musical life. He studied piano and composition with Paul Dukas in Paris, as well as musicology under Andre Pirro. His published compositions date from 1923 when he was just 22 years old. Twenty years later, he was awarded Spain’s National Prize for Orchestra for his “Cinco piezas infantiles.” He taught at the prestigious (and enormous, with 86,000 students) Complutense University of Madrid from the 1940’s until his death. In 1983, Rodrigo was awarded Spain’s highest award for composition, the Premio Nacional de Musica. He was raised to the nobility by King Juan Carlos in 1991, and given the title of “Marques de los Jardines de Aranjuez”—Marquis of the Gardens of Aranjuez.

Aranjuez was a town in central Spain, south of Madrid. Rodrigo’s most famous work, the Concierto de Aranjuez, takes its inspiration—according to the composer—from the sounds of nature and the evocation of 16th century Spain associated with the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, built by Phillip II.

The bereft intensity of sadness heard in the Adagio movement is without doubt why this work is one of the best known in all of 20th century art music. The actual circumstances of this work’s creation did not come out until many years after its composition, eventually told by his wife. While a student in Paris, Rodrigo had fallen in love with a Turkish pianist, Victoria Kamhi. They had met in 1929 and were married in 1933. Kahmi was a promising pianist, but she gave up her career and her musical life in order to facilitate his. The couple’s first pregnancy, in 1937, ended in a miscarriage. Rodrigo was racked with grief and pain at this loss, feelings that could only come out in this second movement. This association—his mourning for a lost child and this movement of the concerto—is not just conjecture. It certainly underscores the personal meditation on loss one hears in this music.

Rodrigo was a fine pianist, but he did not play the guitar. Nevertheless, he still manages, in his guitar music, to capture the role of the guitar in the Spanish psyche. As you will hear from the very beginning of the work, this Adagio movement also features the English horn as a solo instrument. These two instruments have a dialogue of sadness at the outset of the work—perhaps the English horn is Victoria, the guitar Joaquin?


Live performances of the work, as you can imagine, are problematic. Since the classical guitar, even in the hands of a master, can only project so far into a large hall, the balance between soloist and orchestra is very delicate. I’m not sure whether all solo guitarists in this concerto customarily use amplification. I’ve heard it both ways. Tiraje and I heard the great Pepe Romero perform the concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony some years ago, and he did not use amplification. We were not sitting that far away—maybe the tenth row, on the orchestra level—and yet his sound did not always carry. In many live recordings, such as can be heard on YouTube, the guitarist is being helped by amplification—which is preferable, I think. This particular clip—featuring a guitarist I’ve loved my whole life, John Williams—seems to have taken place in the humongous Royal Albert Hall in London, in which case amplification for the guitar would absolutely have been necessary.

If you have not heard this work before, I would strongly suggest savoring it. Wait until you have the time—10 minutes or so—to really hear it out.


And, I would be remiss if I did not also mention that the outer movements are a joy to hear as well—lively and ever so Spanish. For that pleasure, you may want to listen to Pepe Romero with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting: