Notes on Torres' cardboard guitar
A search for the truth behind the apocryphal 19th century cardboard/papier mache guitar made by the father of the modern classical guitar (unpublished).
The Cardboard Guitar
from La Chitarra di Liuteria/Masterpieces of Guitarmaking
Stefano Grondona and Luca Waldner,
l’officina del libro, 2001
The material of this guitar is as unique as its history is fascinating: built with its back and ribs in cardboard (and there are no documents or personal testimonies to provide reasons for this unusual choice), it remained the property of Torres until his death, then passing through the hands of Tarrega and Llobet.
After Llobet's death (1938) the instrument remained with his heirs for some years, becoming part of the Torres collection at the Museo de la Musica in Barcelona in 1953. The mystery that already surrounded such an unusual instrument increased in a period in which its condition had deteriorated to a point where it could no longer be played. Twentieth-century authorities, from Prat to Romanillos and others, are united in their affirmation of the experimental and demonstrative character of this instrument, which is seen as being intended to prove that the soundboard (which in this case is
certainly of exceptional quality) is more important for the quality of the sound than any other element.
While such a hypothesis might appear plausible to a guitar maker of our own time, it does not correspond to the picture we have of Torres's way of thinking and working. If, first of all, it is unlikely that he had any interest in demonstrations for the benefit of others (if perhaps some in making experiments for himself), all the less was there a scientifically oriented public to whom to direct such a demonstration, which would anyway be open to various interpretations. Rather than attributing to Torres the thinking of our own times, we prefer to imagine an instrument maker who, reaching beyond the realm of technical experiment, takes pleasure in demonstrating, as a challenge to himself rather than for the amazement of others. that he can draw sound from a material baser than wood, and perhaps in proving that his art is almost capable of transcending material. (Indeed, we would like to believe that Torres himself made the cardboard for his instrument, thereby extending his creativity into the raw material itself)
Until recent times, the only record of the sound of this instrument was a description by Domingo Prat: “This guitar has an extraordinary sound, if perhaps a little muted, bland, and low, as the author of this dictionary was able to confirm when he played it in the house of Tarrega. Since then, no one has said anything more about the quality of its sound, generally adducing the instrument's poor condition as the reason: for a while it could not be played, being seriously damaged by a crack in the soundboard. Strangely, this attitude of renunciation has survived the recent extensive restoration of the instrument by the Yagüebrothers of Barcelona, guitar makers of rare sensitivity and experience in the restoration of instruments by Torres. As a result of the restoration we were able to try the instrument, not without some excitement. It was truly astonishing to discover that it has a cantabile quality that is in no sense inferior to that of the other Torres instruments we are familiar with. Only when one comes to terms with this fundamental aspect is it possible to give thought to matters of detail, and perhaps attribute to the cardboard a certain acoustic affinity with guitars made of lighter wood, such as cypress; but it should be remembered that, especially in the case of Torres, such differences in material (and in the resulting sound) are secondary to the instrument's predominant musical identity.
The rebirth of this sound - in a ceremony held at the Museo de la Musica in Barcelona in October 2000 - was as moving an occasion for us as it was for the Director of the museum and the small audience present. The excitement occasioned by this event was such that we have felt compelled to bring this experience, the only one of our time, to a wider public.
Listen to Stefano Grondona play Danza Española No. 5 on Torres' actual cardboard guitar.