Hermann Hauser, a master twentieth-century guitar maker, has had a great impact on the development of the classical guitar and founded a luthier dynasty that remains active today.
The master luthier’s work within the Spanish guitar-making tradition began as he met such guitarists as Miguel Llobet (presumably, in 1912) and Andres Segovia (in 1924) during their German concert tours. Hauser had the opportunity to examine the instruments they were using—guitars by Antonio de Torres and Manuel Ramirez. His acquaintance with Segovia, which evolved into a long creative collaboration, greatly influenced not only the artistic future of both, but also the overall development of the classical guitar. To fully measure the degree to which Andres Segovia was invested in this collaboration, it is worth noting that the musician had been striving to bring world recognition to the guitar and to expand guitarists’ repertoire as early as the 1920s. In order to make the guitar popular among musicians in general and composers in particular, he desperately needed an instrument that would promote his cause and possess a great expressive potential. Naturally, he began his search in his own land as Spanish luthiers had centuries of guitar-making experience and Spain was the home of an outstanding luthier of the past, Antonio de Torres. However, let us attempt to look at the situation through the eyes of the Spanish luthiers of the time. They grew up in the folk musical tradition, which is, unquestionably, a worthy and unique part of the Spanish music culture, and the instruments produced at the time were primarily intended for that type of music. The musicians who were trying to show off the guitar not as a folk instrument, but as an academic one were not only few in number, but could be counted on the fingers of one hand. It is, therefore, no surprise that the guitarist’s appeal to review and update a whole number of luthiers’ professional and artistic principles received little to no attention. In addition, Segovia was young and lacked authority. Another factor preventing success was that, according to his contemporaries and published interviews, his requirements for the perfect guitar were impressionistic and poetic rather than specific and practical. In his turn, Hermann Hauser, who had finished a School for Violin Making and found himself in the very center of Europe’s music culture, was in no need of lengthy explanations and turned out to be the very man to help Segovia. The luthier found the task motivating and began work on the new guitar model, which was later highly praised by several generations of musicians and termed ‘greatest guitar of our epoch’ by Segovia himself. What was the main attraction of his guitars and why are they so highly valued even today?
One of Hermann Hauser’s main achievements was the magnificent timbre palette of his instruments. At this point, I must digress. It is important to outline the distinction between a rich timbre palette and an uneven sound, which is often mistaken for it. Combining a rich timbre palette with an even and solid sound is a task that only few outstanding luthiers and musicians are capable of fulfilling. This is frequently discussed with regard to violin, as well. For example, a question frequently raised is whether the violin sound should be monolithic and homogeneous when a musician is switching between strings or whether each string should have its own unique voice. Proponents of the latter approach compare each string to a musical instrument. In this case, the luthier’s job is to make sure that all strings combined form a perfectly harmonious ensemble. The former approach is sometimes associated with the so called ‘golden period’ of Antonio Stradivari, while the latter is often mentioned with regard to the work of his younger, but no less outstanding contemporary, Guarneri del Gesu. Both trends have found their way into guitar-making.
It is necessary to note that, in the case of the guitar, the task is, on the whole, a more difficult one, as it is much harder to achieve even sound when playing the instrument with one’s fingers — due to varying finger length and nail shape — than when using a bow. Therefore, producing even sound on the guitar is a much more difficult task. This is a more serious issue than it would seem at first. Here is a simple example: when playing an instrument with uneven sound, every nuance has to be overly exaggerated; otherwise, it is bound to be buried in the midst of unevenly sounding notes. The habit of playing this way makes one’s manner grotesque and somewhat farcical — and, unfortunately, this flaw is not uncommon among guitarists. When the overall sound is even, the smallest nuances appear to be vivid and prominent. A solid and even sound also allows for easy and natural phrasing, which would, otherwise, be interrupted by the unevenness of the instrument’s timbre. It may seem a paradox, but true mastery of sound color begins with the skill of producing an even sound.
Therefore, such qualities as even and solid sound are an unquestionable priority for a guitar, even more so since, on the models derived from the classical seven-spring fan-bracing by Antonio de Torres, static sound was practically unattainable. The timbre palette could be richer or poorer and of varying quality. Real static guitar sound was a thing of the future, with its lattice bracing, double tops, etc.
Hermann Hauser was a great master of sound color, who managed to achieve something that no one was able to do before his time — and, in my personal opinion, whose artistic level was never surpassed by his successors. Hauser created an incredibly variable sound palette with practically no loss of solid nature of his instruments’ sound.
In this regard, it is worth noting that Hauser was developing a trend set out by Santos Hernandez—active harmonics, or a brighter guitar sound. In addition to expanding dramatic capacity, which I have already mentioned in my article on Santos Hernandez, active harmonics produce a further advantage. It is well-known that the sound timbre mainly depends on the nature and loudness (activity) of the harmonics that make up the sound spectrum. Therefore, the richer the harmonic content of the sound and the more active they are, the greater the instrument’s potential for sound change, that is the richer the timbre palette.
This feature of Hermann Hauser’s work brings about another characteristic typical of his guitars: the frequency spectrum of the master’s instruments (during the mature period of his work) is so agile that it mostly depends on the musician and not the guitar itself. In other words, the guitar seems to have no characteristic sound of its own, and it is created by the musician instead. Clearly, an instrument of this kind, on the one hand, allows for an enormous artistic capacity, but, on the other hand, it begs for a highly professional performer. To create a truly interesting and unique timbre and sound palette, the musician needs to possess not only high level of mastery, but also good musical taste and understanding of the desired outcome. The sound of such an instrument is a reflection of the musician’s inner life. This is not a quick process, either. Given the guitarist’s experience and mastery, the formation of a unique personal sound on instruments of this kind takes months or, sometimes, years.
Another parameter that needs to be mentioned with regard to Hermann Hauser’s works is volume and dynamics. Dynamics is not at all the same as volume, although the two concepts are somewhat overlapping. An instrument’s dynamics is not volume per se, as is often mistakenly believed, but the capacity to change the loudness of the sound. For example, two guitars can have the same maximum sound intensity. However, for one of them, a small change of force applied to produce sound leads to almost no change in volume, while a great change of force produces an irregular, jerky volume change. The second instrument, on the other hand, is very sensitive to the slightest alterations of force, and the change in volume is very consistent. Apparently, the first instrument will present quite a problem for the quality and variety of phrasing and, despite the same maximum intensity, we would rightly classify it as mediocre, while the second would, unquestionably, be recognized as an outstanding instrument. All of the above leads us to the logical conclusion that a guitar with a great expressive potential is not necessarily going to be the loudest one. A characteristic far more important is sound projection as, when it is limited, playing various shades of piano and mezzo forte is quite difficult, which makes the performer’s expression rather impoverished.
Hermann Hauser’s work is especially praiseworthy because he was able to achieve a significant increase in volume alongside very comfortable and controllable dynamics. Equally importantly, the increase in volume did not trigger the loss of any of the other valuable qualities of his guitars. It is worth noting that quite a few luthiers, both past and present, have strived to produce louder guitars (some of them even successfully so), but ended up losing some important characteristic or other: some have simplified the variety of dynamic shading and its controllability; others have sacrificed the timbre palette; in some cases the greater volume has come at a cost of greater physical effort required to play the instrument. These attempts to achieve volume at any price seem to ignore the lesson we should have learned from the electric guitar: its volume has practically no limit, but its esthetic potential is yet to catch up with that of much softer academic instruments.
Yet another quality changed by the luthier is the duration of sound, or sustain. Strangely enough, this quality is considered an undoubted and absolute advantage by classical guitarists. However, things are not that clear cut. Unlike the piano, for instance, the guitar has no dampers and, thus, a the composer’s intent. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is far from rare and is one of the reasons for blaming a guitar for producing ‘dirty’ sound and being out of tune. Damping long notes complicates playing and requires good performance technique. All this is especially significant for bass notes. In actual fact, one very rarely needs to play a bass note so long that it exceeds the instrument’s capacity. It happens a lot more often that a guitarist’s performance suffers from the distortion of sound imagery due to failure to finish the notes in time. Trebles, on the other hand, demonstrate a different case: short notes often prevent melodic coherence. It is hard to say with all confidence which is more difficult for a luthier: to prevent the bass notes of the guitar from being overly long or to make sure that the trebles are long enough and allow for greater smoothness. Both tasks are equally complicated.
This dilemma is relevant for all instruments where strings are the source of vibration and a note vibrates freely, unsupported by, for instance, the bow). This is easily explained: bass strings wound with steel wire (cannetille) have greater mass than smooth strings and are, therefore, more inert and able to sustain vibration longer. Thanks to this, string instruments with freely decaying vibration always have more sustained basses and shorter trebles. It is impossible to level the sustain of basses and trebles—and, probably, it is quite unnecessary, for it is a peculiar feature of a live acoustic instrument, long familiar to many generations of musicians and listeners. However, the attempts to overcome this disparity are justified.
Hermann Hauser was the first outstanding master luthier who was able to use his artistic intuition and structural ingenuity to even out this contradiction, to lengthen the higher notes considerably without also prolonging the basses. More than twenty years after Hauser’s time, this effect was also achieved by Ramirez III.
We have gradually approached a topic most difficult for written discussion — the esthetics of sound. In the beginning of this article, I have already touched upon this issue and now I would like to elaborate on it at greater length. To understand the events of those days, among other factors, it is necessary to remember that sound recording was only taking its first baby steps. Popular music as we know it did not exist, and the taste of listeners who attended academic concerts was much more refined and conservative. In light of this, the esthetics of sound produced by Hauser’s instruments, which was very close to that of a string quartet, contributed greatly to the guitar being recognized by the music community of the time. The opinion that Hauser never achieved a truly Spanish sound is regularly voiced on English-language message boards. This is quite true: as I have said, the great luthier’s guitars tend to lean towards the academic string quartet. Segovia used to call his guitar a small—or distant—orchestra. Probably, when the guitar is played by a virtuoso like Andres Segovia, even a statement this bold is no exaggeration. Another statement is also true, however: the esthetic influence of Hauser’s guitars was so great that he acquired a following even among Spanish masters, Ramirez III being the first, and thus gave rise to a new esthetic trend in the development of the Spanish guitar. (The readers who want to know more about ‘the true Spanish sound’ are advised to study the magnificent work of Miguel Rodriguez family of Cordoba).
The master luthier’s genius was also prominent in the fact that he gave a correct outline for the optimal development trend for the guitar—the rich nuancing potential intrinsic to the instrument itself due to the simple fact that the guitarist’s hands are in direct contact with the strings. To a great extent, this expands the capacity for precise sound control. However masterful the mallet and keyboard system of a grand piano, however perfect the bow, they are only but a medium in the control of an instrument. And a medium—even a perfect one—lowers control precision, and this is true not only in music. Hauser grasped the very core of the matter: the guitar, though a rather soft instrument, is able to compensate for this flaw through a great variety of degrees of volume, which are easy and convenient to control on the master luthier’s guitars. The qualities described above, along with an incredibly rich timbre palette, expand the potential for artistic expression, largely compensating for the lack of volume intrinsic to the guitar.
It must never be overlooked, however, that a guitar, even if it is a manifestation of genius, is only an instrument used to play music. With a guitar like that, we have a lot fewer limitations for implementing our ideas of music and sound that spring to mind when we look at the silent notation pages. The guitar opens up a wide variety of opportunities to bring this notation to life. However, the instrument alone does not mean that one’s performance will live in the history of music, for the main part is played not by the guitar, but by the skill of a talented musician.The master luthier began developing the model described above in the 1920s. The 1930s can be considered the mature period of his work. In my opinion, Hermann Hauser continued elaborating and perfecting his art well into the 1940s and until his very death in 1952.
The surviving instruments by Hermann Hauser are not mere historical museum objects—they are quite modern concert instruments, with volume, projection, and dynamics perfectly suited for the strictest requirements of the present day.
The esthetics of sound and structural ideas of Hermann Hauser have had a great impact on his followers, starting with Ramirez III, who, under the pressure from Segovia, altered the sound esthetics of his instruments to a great extent and brought them closer to the sound of Hauser’s guitars, and ending with contemporary luthiers and guitarists, who still find Hauser style guitars, or the Hauser model, some of the most popular instruments.