Tárrega's youth was certainly colourful. In one of his more fractious moments as a very small child, he was thrown into a canal by his childminder. Although a neighbour fished him out, the canal in Villareal was not especially clean, and he contracted an eye disease that left him nearly blind for the rest of his life.
Tárrega was first taught the guitar in Castellón by one Manuel González, the blind beggar in the local marina. His father helped him to receive tuition from a number of more established teachers, sending him to Barcelona (at personal expense that he couldn't afford) to be taught by the then-famous Julián Arcas. Unfortunately, Arcas wasn't there when he arrived, and the ten year old boy ran away to make a living playing in the bars at Barcelona. His devoted father found out and hot-footed it to Barcelona to rescue him from living on the streets, but didn't have the money for a train ticket home - which had to be earned by the young Francisco playing a few more bar gigs. Subsequently, Francisco ran away from home again, this time to be retrieved from a band of gypsies in Valencia. He ran off a third time, but returned when his family was in financial trouble to help out with his income from piano playing.
By his early teens, Tárrega was a thoroughly competent guitarist and pianist, and he certainly had the ability to charm wealthy patrons. He was given a guitar by Antonio Torres, the guitar-making innovator who is spoken of by afficionados in the same hushed tones as violinists use of Stradivari. He was sponsored by a local Count in Valencia (who eventually threw him out when he failed to stop his gypsy friends invading the Count's home). In 1874, he was sponsored by a wealthy local merchant, Antonio Canesa, to enter the Madrid conservatory. His most famous piece, the tremolo piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra, was written for a later patroness, the wealthy widow Doña Concha Martínez.
Tárrega's music is a wonderful fusion of classical precision, Spanish folk influence and his own unique genius. His Preludes remain a mainstay of the learning process for today's guitarists: they are technically undemanding compared to the later virtuoso fireworks of Rodrigo and the South American composers such as Villa-Lobos and Barrios, but are miniatures of great concentrated beauty. Lágrima ("tear"), the third prelude written on a visit to London, is one of the finest, most economical musical expressions of longing written for any instrument. Two works influenced by Arab music, the Danza Mora and Capricho Arabe also remain highly popular.
Tárrega also has the dubious distinction of having written what is probably, for all the wrong reasons, the world's most often heard melody. Bars 14-17 of his Grand Vals were selected by Finnish executives Anssi Vanjoki and Lauri Kivinen to become what the world now knows as the "Nokia Ring Tone".
11th December 2008