Matteo Carcassi’s 25 Etudes for classical guitar are some of the most important studies written for the guitar. They provide a technical foundation for the intermediate to advanced player. In that sense they are excellent educational material, but they also provide wonderful pieces of music. The real challenge of these progressive studies is not simply mastering the difficult technical elements each study focuses on. A much bigger challenge is joining a well-rounded technique with a developed musicality.
Brief Biography of Carcassi
Matteo Carcassi was an Italian composer and guitarist who was born in Florence in 1796 and died in Paris in 1853. It appears that he settled in Paris from a relatively young age and it became his new home. In fact, Carcassi even served France as a soldier in the Napoleonic Wars. His first publications, for the solo guitar, were published in the 1820s.
Carcassi’s most important publication, however, was his Méthode complète pour la Guitare (Op. 59) in 1836. In it he announces the publication of “études Op. 60,” which would follow publication after the method. However, it appears the book was not published until either shortly before or shortly after Carcassi’s death in 1853. Brian Jeffrey includes a great deal of historical information about Carcassi and his etudes in his Tecla edition of the works.
25 Melodic and Progressive Etudes Op. 60
The French title of this set of etudes is 25 Etudes Mélodiques Progressives, or 25 Melodic and Progressive Studies. Thus, each etude is progressively more difficult than the previous. Each etude focuses on a different technical and/or musical element. Some focus on left-hand slurs, others on the barre, still others focus on scales or arpeggios, and some develop musical suspensions or dynamics. The etudes conclude with an exciting virtuosic piece (No. 25) that brings all of these elements together in a showstopper. The contrasting nature of each of the etudes means they work quite well when performed as a collection, but each also stands alone in its own right.
Below we’ll look at just four of the set of 25 etudes. Each of these etudes is available with full lessons, sheet music, and accompanying materials at CGC Academy.
No. 1, Allegro
Etude No. 1 primarily focuses on developing scales. However, one pitfall to avoid with this piece is to make it sound very metronomical and mechanical, as though you’re practicing scales. The best way to avoid this tendency is to create longer lines. Give your scales a destination through phrasing, breath, and dynamics. Avoid accents and try to link the notes together in a chain that make up a complete idea.
At measure 29 we have a series of pima arpeggios with some difficult left-hand shifts. To practice these, transform the arpeggios into block chords—where you play pima all at the same time. Then shift from block chord to block chord as smoothly, quickly, and in as relaxed a way as possible.
No. 3, Andantino
Etude No. 3 focuses on a sense of tension and resolution with each measure. This creates a dynamic decrescendo in the melody from beat 2 to beat 3.
In her masterclass on this etude at Classical Guitar Corner Academy, Laura Snowden encourages playing the melody, the bass, and the accompaniment separately. As you play each one, try singing it as well. This is a great approach so that you can give the shape to each line as you want it to sound ideally. Once you have the sound the way you want it for each voice you can then put everything back together. Try to maintain the shape you applied separately as you bring the elements together.
One tricky thing to take care of in this etude is bass stopping. There are several places where bass notes will ring over one another if you don’t stop them, and this can muddy up the line. Try to make it sound just like it does when you sing it.
No. 7, Allegro
While Etude No. 7 was not specifically written as a tremolo study—Carcassi only sparingly used the “a” finger—it can serve as a preparatory study for tremolo. What it does focus on is a transition from a tremolo-like pattern to a more arpeggio pattern, and all at a fairly fast tempo. This is a “motu perpetuo” piece, that is, it has perpetual motion, and so it is important to be able to build up stamina at faster speeds.
We can further use this study to develop right-hand preparation, speed, slurs in the left hand, different right-hand fingerings, and more. It really does bring multiple techniques together. Musically, it also challenges us to build excitement through the use of dynamics and drawing attention to the ever-changing harmonic structure.
Go here to get a full lesson on Carcassi Etude 7.
No. 16, Andante
Carcassi’s Etude No. 16 is a tender polyphonic study with a soaring cantabile melody and a detached chordal accompaniment below. The first thing to note about this piece is that we can automatically create a deeper sound by exploring a different fingering in fifth rather than first position. Moreover, if we pay close attention to the rests in the accompaniment and honor them, the melody stands out much more clearly.
Musically we can create a rich texture by adding dynamics and giving repeated notes shape and direction. At the end of each of these repeated notes there is always a downward step. By giving direction toward the repeated notes and then applying a decrescendo on the last descending note we create more interest on each of these figures.
Go here to watch a full lesson on Carcassi Etude 16.