The Hummingbird Problem: a Tale of Two Oscars
By Jorge Caballero
Aside from his Lecciones de Guitarra, guitarists around the world know Julio Sagreras (1879 – 1942) for a short piece titled El Colibrí (“The Hummingbird”). This piece is a fine addition to a player’s repertoire. The version published by Ricordi Americana in 1954 lays out the piece in 2 pages, and it includes the following subtitle: “in imitation of the hummingbird’s flight.” Fingerings are almost redundantly marked –like most older editions, and aside from one or two obvious errors in fingering indications, the music is coherent and pleasant to read.
El Colibrí is often used as an opportunity to showcase the quickness of our fingers, and therefore we often hear it played as fast as possible. Interestingly, Sagreras does not indicate a tempo at the beginning of the piece. Yet, curiously enough, in spite of all of the performances available, it is likely that we have never heard this piece played correctly.
This problem was brought to my attention when I was 12 years old. My teachers encouraged me to give El Colibrí a try. I didn’t know much about it, other than it was fun and difficult. Upon reading it, I wasn’t particularly fond of it musically, but it was fun and difficult, so I learned it nonetheless. The first time I played it in a lesson, though, my teacher, Oscar Zamora, said I wasn’t playing it correctly upon hearing the first bars. When I tried playing it again, he said the same. After a third attempt and the same answer, I was stumped. When he finally pointed to my mistake, the tiny difference between what I played and the original made sense on paper, but it still presented a puzzle that wasn’t easy to solve. I’ll write both versions here to explain.
This is what Sagreras wrote:
And this is what I played:
Do you see the difference? And, can you hear the difference?
It is difficult to play what Sagreras wrote correctly. By stretching the time of the portamento from a semiquaver (as written by Sagreras) into a quaver, we no longer play a portamento, but a glissando, a clear deviation from the original. Also, Sagreras writes 4 semiquavers in the first beat. That implies four points of attack in the first beat. My version, aside from the glissando instead of portamento, only has 3. An obvious difference. Just to be clear, it is possible to play it as written, but the speed of the slide required for the portamento causes the fifth string to squeak so much that the noise it produces is louder than the pitch you should hear. The question then becomes, how can we play that portamento as quickly as required without string noise endangering comprehensibility of pitch?
My teacher demonstrated how I should play it. He did do slowly, at a practice tempo. I could do it that way, but alas, things changed when I played faster. No matter what I tried, I ended up with the same problem once I resumed a normal tempo, and as someone said to me once, “once you hear it, you can’t un-hear it.” Every time I played the opening, all I could hear was a mistake. I left my lesson being aware of the problem, but without a solution.
Interestingly, a quick survey through videos on YouTube shows that from amateur to professional musician, wittingly or unwittingly, everyone plays the version I played at age 12, while no one plays the original. This is unsettling to me. Is this a deliberate choice or, as it was in my case, just an oversight? If it is an oversight, well, now we know. Let’s try to do better. But if it wasn’t, what is the reason behind the change? Can we provide a logical argument for it?
Although I never expressed it out loud, I had one simple counter argument to what my teacher said: the way I had played it was easier, and perhaps sounded better at a faster tempo than the original. Also, I now know that playing portamenti would have been easier in Sagreras’ time, when strings were softer and difficult to come by –therefore, older and less prone to squeaks. So my counter argument, though intuitive, wasn’t without merit. But I must also admit that saying it sounds better this way, or it’s easier this way is a convenient answer to justify an oversight. Could I really say that it wasn’t my inability to find a technical solution to play the original what compelled my “it sounds better” argument?
Problems like the one in El Colibrí are often found in music. They lead to a common question about interpretation: can we draw a definable line between taking interpretive license and unregulated freedom? And if so, what parameters can there be to define it?
Interpreting music is difficult. It is a search for meaning. As such, it varies according to the perspective of the musician and his degree of knowledge and experience. Thus, musical intuition plays a critical role in the process, often making determinations based on whether something sounds “good” or not. From that perspective, my approach to El Colibrí wasn’t altogether bad. It is easy to argue that “my version” sounded good. It did.
However, interpretation is not based on intuition alone. There are objective elements in the written music that point to how sound should be enunciated. The complications in interpretation arise when trying to separate the objective from the subjective, and figuring out the degree of flexibility that may exist within them. In a private conversation, Oscar Ghiglia, told me that, in his view, young musicians often do not interpret what is written in music, but instead, they “layer” an interpretation on top of the written music. Specifically, if a player found something in music he did not understand, rather than struggle with questions of interpretation and meaning, they took the easier route of disagreeing with what was written, and playing what they felt should have been written (“my version sounds better”). Interpretation is then the laborious process of finding meaning within the objective, the ambiguous, and the subjective information in the original text. Looking at it from that perspective, what I did with El Colibrí was precisely what Oscar called “layering an interpretation”: transform the music into something it wasn’t because I could not figure out what to do with the original (though unwittingly). To say that it sounded better or it was easier, although not entirely meritless, was ultimately irrelevant. Both Oscars –my teacher and Ghiglia, were right.
But even more disquieting is to concede the idea that hundreds (if not thousands) of guitarists spanning three quarters of a century have been playing this piece incorrectly without anyone noticing. How is that possible? What about Sagreras himself? Did he play the opening the way he wrote it? And if he did, how did he do it? Did he consider the version everyone else plays a mistake, or was he okay with it? Unfortunately, we may never know.
Think about the implications this has on everyone else who plays the guitar. Whether you are a student, an amateur, or a professional player, when you hear someone play something you have not studied personally, how do you know whether the performer is giving a proper rendition of the piece, when even an iconic showpiece in the literature is played incorrectly? And if you cannot make that assessment, and your evaluations can only be guided by your heuristic listening experience, can you objectively say that a performance was “good” or “bad”? How many performances you thought were good were actually good, or the opposite? And finally, how many pieces in the repertoire suffer the same problem? Francisco Tárrega’s Capricho Arabe, one of the most iconic pieces in the guitar literature, comes to mind. The opening phrase of the piece has been played in a variety of ways throughout the years, mainly, with rubato in measure 2 and without establishing a pulse throughout, cadenza-style. Most versions usually sound good, but an interpretation that observes the proportions of the time signature as written by Tárrega is hard to come by.
Or the case of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Etude No. 8, which was played following Segovia’s rhythmic alteration for many years. Segovia’s rhythmic modification effectively changes the nature of this section of the Etude. By shortening the length of the semiquavers Villa Lobos wrote, the music shifts from its Ballad-like form into a kind of Tango. It also compels a need for rushing the 4th measure of the example below (affretando) which, as the published version shows, was never intended by Villa Lobos.
H. Villa-Lobos, Etude 8, published version (Max Eschig)
I should point out that blind adherence to rhythmic strictness is not tantamount to good interpretation. As a matter of fact, metric regularity in classical music is only the product of the necessities of music notation and a useful tool for learning the logic of rhythm. But for many centuries, common practice among musicians has advocated a flexibility of meter to accommodate the natural discourse of music. In the Middle Ages, this was represented by pneumatic notation and its text-centred objective, which allowed rhythmic freedom in performance. And in the Baroque, the French style of Notes Inégales accomplished something similar: to add unpredictability to what is arguably a beat-centred musical aesthetic. The problem with El Colibrí, however, is related to the rhythmic consequences arising for not observing the four semiquavers in the original. We obtain something else if we don’t. Arguably, the flexibility we obtain by stretching the portamento into two semiquavers could be said to sound better than the original. But, are we disagreeing with Sagreras’ writing here for unadulterated artistic reasons, or because we lack the technical means to play what he wrote, or perhaps because we don’t understand the rhythmic difference between his version and “mine” as a matter of interpretive meaning? At which point the facile line of “it’s easier to play it this way” ought to supplant the rational aspects of interpretation, especially when confronted with such a clear discrepancy between written context and execution as we see here? Stating that the version I played is “good” in spite of what the music says and without a better answer than “it sounds better” or “it’s easier this way” is problematic, since it assumes that observance of the written music is superfluous. It ignores the problems of interpretation, and assumes that it was Sagreras who made the mistake of writing it that way; a mistake he repeated every time this musical phrase reappears in the piece. How does that make any sense?
Over the years I have continued to reflect on El Colibrí, trying to make a more faithful interpretation of the written content; that is, with a portamento into the second semiquaver. Using old bass strings does help, but it is so impractical for everything else that I have searched for some technical procedure to reduce the portamento noise. One idea I came up with was to not shift from 1st position to 6th position at once, as the piece would normally require, and instead to shift only to about 4th or 5th position at first. This would force finger 2 to reach E3 by turning on its side. Once the portamento was played, I would complete the shift to 6th position. This is decidedly awkward, and not too effective, but it does make finger 2 lighter and reduces squeaking by removing some of its friction against the string.
Another option would be to use finger 3 instead of two in the opening, provided I press the string from the side of the finger. That reduces some of the portamento noise, too, and it is a better option than using finger 2 for the same procedure. The improvement in quality these produce, however, is small. But sometimes, that is all we can hope for.
I do wonder that Sagreras may think about this. For sure, he would disagree on my latter option, since he clearly indicated finger 2 for the opening... If I could just talk to him, I would ask him what he thought of the result. If we both agreed that it sounds better, then all is settled. But I don’t have that option, so, like all of us, I am left to interpret, to search for meaning, all the while avoiding the slippery slope of convenient logic. The Hummingbird Problem may never be fully solved, but the lesson it imparts about interpretation is worth the search for an answer.
© Jorge Caballero, 2021. All rights reserved.