Leo Brouwer (L) and Eric Pénicaud (R) | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Recollections: Leo Brouwer

My first exposure to Leo Brouwer – the name and the music – happened sometime in 1981 when I heard the German guitarist Wolfgang Condin performing at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. At that time, I had been a largely rock-preoccupied guitar player for a few years, with only a vague idea about the world of the classical guitar. Yes, we knew it existed out there, like a luxury yacht wafting disdainfully past us mere scruffy fishing boats, bestowing upon us only a whiff of its grand being. At that time, very little recorded music was available at all, and sheet music was almost completely inaccessible in Darjeeling where I grew up.

My experience with classical guitar repertoire till then was limited to studies of easier Spanish and Italian pieces, and the odd Bach transcription, all of which had been laboriously hand-copied for me by my brother Jeta. My cousin Anmole was a frequently pestered source for sheet music to copy, as well as for advice on guitar matters in general. Fortunately for me, I did have some listening exposure to Western classical music as such through a few dedicated, knowledgeable and well-intentioned music teachers at school. To be able to decipher written music at all, I had to repeatedly ask my sister Jaya for help, as she had been through several grades of piano at school. For me, then, “reading music” involved painfully counting staff lines and using an intuitive (and glacially slow) algebraic method to count time. But actually being able to memorize and play through these pieces was enough to tell me that yes, there is actually a bespoke luxury yacht out there in the dark open waters. And that you must have a footstool to even get a look-in.

Condin commenced his recital with Leo Brouwer’s Canticum.

I was transfixed, as was much of the audience, though almost certainly not for the same reasons. I looked around me. The well-dressed, elite cream of Delhi’s cultural circuit seemed appalled. Deeply appalled. This wasn’t what a harmless little guitar concert was supposed to deliver?

For me, listening to Canticum was curiously reassuring. I realized in a flash that classical guitar music was not only about the plink-a-plonk Carcassi and Carulli studies which I already detested then, or the sparse and clinical counterpoint of Bach, or even necessarily about the footstool (though Condin did use one). Classical guitar music – indeed, all real music – was about sonic texture.

Condin went on to assuage ruffled sensibilities by playing fluffy staples such as Fernando Sor’s Variations on a Theme of Mozart. I’d stopped paying attention by then, wondering who Leo Brouwer was.

In subsequent years, I continued to play the guitar, generally preoccupied with jazz styles, with substantial exposure to rock and pop performances on the side. Somewhere out there, the classical guitar yacht still cruised on. Sheet music remained near-impossible to buy, but the Xerox Corporation did make hand-copying redundant in 1980s India. I made the occasional attempt to play repertoire pieces when I could find and photocopy them, including works by Agustin Barrios. La Catedral and Gavota al Estilo Antiguo were played with due seriousness on a Hobner H120 steel-strung acoustic guitar – for at that time I didn’t own, or could source, a real nylon-strung classical guitar (it was rather strange to discover, long after, that Barrios recorded frequently with steel strings). My brother made me a wooden footstool which was a big help.

Then, one day, a friend showed up with a photocopy of Leo Brouwer’s Elogio de la Danza.

I played through it. It displayed everything I then expected a Brouwer work to be – dissonance, dynamism, complex timing – visceral texture. I was intrigued with the indication for the second movement – obstinato and not ostinato. It seemed that Maestro Brouwer had a sense of humour, after all.

I’ve studied several pieces from Brouwer’s oeuvre since then – El Decameron NegroHika: In Memoriam Toru Takemitsu and Cuban Landscape with Bells for the Trinity College LTCL and ATCL recitals, Sonata and Preludios Epigramaticoswhich were featured at a recent PGS recital, Variations on a Theme by Django ReinhardtCanticum itself, Tarantos, many of the Estudios SencillosCuban Landscape with SadnessUn Dia de Novembre, and a few more. I’ve not even really touched the tip of the iceberg that represents his prodigious output and makes him a quintessential figure in the history of the classical guitar. Leo Brouwer began his career as a composer-guitarist in his teens. An injury stopped his performing career, but as a composer and orchestral conductor he has continued to remain extremely active. His compositional style itself has evolved, passed through transitions which continue even today, and has created a tremendous body of work, bristling with unique tonal innovations, which provides guitarists with a lifetime of study.

I’ve been very fortunate to have had a handful of lessons with Adam Khan and Veet Ohnemus, who have both studied with Brouwer. These sessions were helpful in providing essential insights into interpretation. My first meeting with Adam was marked by an enthusiastic handshake, during which I couldn’t help exclaiming “I’m so happy to shake the hand that must have shaken that of Brouwer’s!”

While Brouwer’s solo work is well known and regarded in guitar circles, his ensemble writing is relatively less noted by guitar players. This is despite the fact that he has prolifically composed for films, has written for guitar ensembles and has 11 Concertos to his name. The first work I heard representing this facet of Brouwer was the Concerto de Toronto as recorded by John Williams in 1998 with the London Sinfonia, Stephen Mercurio conducting. This Concerto, written in 1987, is marked by a relative absence of dissonance and complex timekeeping and reverts to an almost classical-period sensibility which makes it very accessible to listeners unfamiliar with Brouwer’s repertoire.

I obtained the sheet music for Concerto de Toronto out of sheer curiosity, including a piano reduction of the orchestral score by Daniel Toussiant. Since then, I’ve played through the guitar parts, been astonished by the sheer finger-friendliness of Brouwer’s writing, and wished that I could find a pianist who would agree to play the piano reduction to actually perform the work. I even tried to sequence some of the piano score as a MIDI file just to hear what was intended, and realised that it needed a real pianist.

I performed the Concerto de Toronto with Rosemarie Eilert on the piano on 14 January, 2016 at the Mazda Hall, Pune. Extracts from the recital, kindly supported by the Poona Music Society, are online: 


Revised and republished with permission from the Pune Guitar Society