At 77 years old (at the time of this interview), Marcelino Lopez continues to build his own classical guitars while, in between his own models, also restores and repairs historical instruments such as violas, vihuelas and violins, of which he has an extensive personal collection, for his clients around the world in Japan, the US, Belgium, France and Spain. Lopez spends most of his time in his workshop, dedicating his nights to studying the guitar, which he plays everyday and upon nightly investigation, he recently learned that it’s possible that the classical guitar could have roots dating back to the 2nd century B.C in Roman times, which dismount the popular theory that the classical guitar has Arab origins. Marcelino’s hobbies include opera, the singing artform that he practices regularly for many years now and an artform which is the subject of many of Marcelino’s paintings.
Marcelino explains that the guitar is the most fragile, gentil instrument that exists. “I own 200-year-old violins and they are still fully in tact, although you may find the ocassional woodworm wandering around or a minor blemish. They are smaller and besides they do not have braces that go across in many directions for reinforcement like the guitar does, since once the wood is settled and strengthened, it tends to get aggravated and possibly morph with drastic changes in humidity, especially if the back and sides are made up of mahogany or rosewood.
The guitar aids in avoiding osteoarthritis at a later age. It can be studied with guided method like the students of Fortea or Tárrega did. And, if anyone has a strong interest in playing, it is never too late to start learning.”
-How did you get started as a luthier?
Well, I started by playing the guitar. Then, I went through many years of shortages of all peace and order, so as soon as I turned 14 years old, in order to be able to help at home, I found a job in a cabinetmaking workshop that was on Calle Del Olmo. Learning how to make cabinets helped me tremendously. My mom’s brother once gave me a guitar from Valencia that was beat up and chipped all over, and my dad and I decided to fix it, and since that guitar, I made one approximately the same and until now I continue to build off that model that I first saw. My dad knew nothing about music, but he was a very good hands-on worker so he helped me with the materials and moral support.
-Where did you receive your first guitar lessons?
I studied with a great instructor, musician and composer named Daniel Fortea, an alumn (at the same time) of Francisco Tárrega – who is considered the founder of the school of modern guitar. Classes were amazing, they were unforgettable [Marcelino gets emotional while on the subject of his late teacher]. I took guitar and musical interpretation lessons from 1948 until Fortea’s death in 1953. Some of us, as his disciples, would tag along with him on Saturdays to watch the famous concerts held at the Teatro Monumental. Fortea had a great ability to teach and he was a great composer as well. Still, today, I play pieces that I learned during those years.
-How do you remember the first guitar you made?
It was a very well-made guitar with a cedar top and back and sides composed of many pieces of pine wood. I didn’t keep it because a school friend of mine had begged me to sell it to him, so I finally gave in and sold it to him for 375 pesetas (now about 2.25 euro, $2.45) around 1950 or 1952. I didn’t have another guitar until I built another one about two years later. The very first plantilla I used in 1949 is the one I used until 1972. Now, I use many plantillas, for example I use Julian Llorrente’s plantilla from 1859 to build historic guitars that are ordered.
-Who orders these historic models?
It’s almost always foreign customers, and if I don’t already have plantillas for these historic models, I have to make some. I began making replicas of older, antique instruments about 50 years ago. I made five violins, two of which are in the Palace of Guitars in Japan. Currently, I’m reproducing a famous, painted viola for my own collection; its parts are from the year 1600, and it is dedicated to a famous British luthier. I’m a maniac when it comes to instruments. I have many Japanese clients who are great concert guitarists. You know, when these Japanese players encounter all of the amazing guitars by great masters like Santos Hernandez, Enrique Garcia or Marcelo Barbero – you know what they say when they hear what these instruments produce? Well, they never ask for their prices. They book a flight, buy the guitar and take it home with them right away.
-You’ve sold your guitars to the Union Musical, right?
When I had made five or six guitars, my father advised that I should show at least one of them to the Union Musical, located in San Jeronimo. So I did, and the manager, besides buying it from me, asked how many guitars I could make; I answered: ‘including the finish and all other final touches, I could make one per month.’ “Well then, we’ll buy them all from you!” he said. That’s how I maintained a commercial relationship with them from 1951 to 1977.
-You also apply the finish on your guitars.
Yes. Shellac is a resin from trees found in India and you dissolve it with alcohol that is heated to about 205 degrees farenheit; the whole shellac is then macerated over the course of a week. Then you use a piece of pumice and a muñequilla (a cotton cloth dipped in varnish and covered with another cloth) to apply the varnish so that it merges with the wood. You can’t apply a thick coat of industrial varnish because then it takes away from the sound. Building guitars is a long process because it’s a profession after all.
-Over the course of centuries, the guitar has changed in shape and form and in the number of strings it has.
Baroque guitars employ five courses, that is, they have five sets of double strings, each pair being tuned in unison with its partner string. When it comes to the six string guitar, there are accounts of it existing in Paris dating back to the 18th century. It is the modern guitar as we know it, known as the Spanish guitar. Guitars from Spain are super valuable because of the legacy of master builder Antonio de Torres (Almeria, 1817-1892), who slightly widened the body of the guitar. All foreign luthiers have copied him. Based on Torres’ design, all instruments have proper intonation and they are very sensitive.
-You state that the classical Spanish guitar has Roman origins.
It seems that miracles ended with Jesus Christ, but this is a miracle – [Marcelino shows me a framed reproduction of a funeral stele from the second century BC, of which its original is conserved in the Museo de Arte Romano de Merida, and on which there’s a statue of a girl, named Lutata Lupatia who is holding a guitar]. A revolution has organized after my discovery, and a congressional meeting will convene as well. The guitar has been attributed to the Arabs, but about 18 centuries ago, they were tribes dispersed across many deserts.
-Do you agree that the first documented testimony was the compiled Cantigas de Alfonso X el sabio?
Yes, and although they are from the 13th century, they seem to be the oldest testimony. There are many iconographic testimonies found in cathedral porticos on which are representations of elderly from the book of Apocalypse playing instruments, just as you can contemplate about the cathedrals in Santiago de Compostela and San Martin de Noia, where there are testimonies of four guitars.
-In Spain, there are distinct schools of guitar-making.
We have the Escuela Andaluza whose most important era was the Pagés saga and we also have the Escuela de Madrid, which holds a very important place in guitarmaking history. Some years ago, El Ministerio de Cultura asked me to appraise a guitar, which was going up for auction, made by a luthier in Madrid named Lorenzo Alonso. It was a complete masterpiece and thanks to my appraisal, the state acquired it. At that time, I’d proposed to the authorities that they should create a Guitar Museum, just like the one in Japan, and I keep trying, though I’m beginning to get tired. Bruxelles has the biggest museum of instruments among all European countries; Paris has one and Sweden has 35 exhibitions of state-owned collections, while here in Spain the creation of such museums is in continual vindication by musicologist Antonio Aguirre.
-You collect instruments.
I started about 50 years ago and I currently have very unique vihuelas, violas but especially guitars made by the master luthiers, like Manuel Ramirez, who is from the Madrid school, and from whom Enrique Garcia and Santos Hernandez learned the art.
-Who is your favorite virtuoso guitar player?
Andrés Segovia. I built him a guitar, but in the end it wasn’t meant to be. He played concerts for 80 years and only stopped by once in 1962 for a cataract operation in Madrid. I went to his first concerts in 1952, along with my teacher and parents, which were held in the famous Palacio de la Musica. It was an indescribable event because as soon as the doors opened, people came in like a whirlwind, and some of them remained standing, while others sat in the main lobby to watch Segovia’s performance. Narciso Yepes was great, but of course, Andrés Segovia was Andrés Segovia. Really, I don’t know any other Spanish classical guitarist that stood out.
-Do you see a future for the Spanish classical guitar?
In reality, Spanish guitar makers now and for many years past make a living off orders from Japan. The guitar is studied less and less here in Spain. It seems like an easy instrument to play but no it really is not. The piano, for example, has its own difficulties, and one can drop dead getting through all of them. Whoever thinks will have a very easy time playing the guitar is wrong. Daily study and practice for hours are required.
-Are there any notable Spanish composers?
Spain proudly has marvelous composers like Francisco Tárrega, Fernando Sor and Daniel Fortea, whoh are the most important ones, and millions of concerts can be played with their music, then there are others like Joaquín Rodrigo, whose ‘Concierto de aranjuez’ for guitar and orchestra is very famous (premiered by Regino Sainz de la Maza in 1944). Narciso Yepes has a spectacular recording of it made in 1957. Andrés Segovia never played it because it wasn’t dedicated to him. And with good reason! However, Segovia did play ‘Fantasia para un gentilhombre’ since Rodrigo dedicated it to him.
-What good can music be to the elderly?
It helps a lot. It rids me of sorrow and loneliness because of course my kids left home a long time ago. I’m alone but this profession, literature and culture are what fill me up with life.
-What other hobbies do you have?
Opera, and once a week for six years now I sing Italian operas, reading from scores, accompanied by a piano professor. During this next course, I want to do a recital at the Escuela Superior de Canto de Madrid. Come the season, I also like to go to the big piano and orchestra conciertos.
-Can you relate to any well known musician or composer?
Ah, you know, this is an interesting story. There’s a singer-songwriter named Raymon, who I don’t know personally, and whose picture I saw in the papers and I realized by the front of the guitar that it was one I’d made. Of course, the front profile of the guitar is where each builder gets to put his/her personal seal! I contacted him over the phone, and he later wrote me a pleasant letters in which he explains that his wife had given him that guitar in 1969, and with it, he’s done most of his performances and written beautiful melodies.
Marcelino Lopez studies and plays the guitar in night classes, usually sleeping in the early mornings because he focuses better that way. He’s preparing a recording of 25 classic works by Bach, Italian composer Mateo Carcassi, the spaniards Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega and Daniel Fortea and Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, amongst others, which will be interpreted on 12 historical guitars by master luthiers from Jose Recio (Cadiz, 1783) to even one of his very own made in 2004.
– “El Luthier Marcelino Lopez Nieto” by Andrea Garcia (original article and interview in Spanish)
English translation by: Reyes Gonzalez
In addition to the articles on Contreras this issue of Orfeo has an interview with Pepe Romero about Contreras, a great interview with Marcelino Lopez Nieto with a spread of some amazing instruments from his collection and quite a bit more. Click here to see the full issue of Orfeo.
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