C. F. Martin & His Guitars, 1796-1873

By Boye, Gary R. | Notes, September 2004 | Go to article overview

C. F. Martin & His Guitars, 1796-1873


Boye, Gary R., Notes


C. F. Martin & His Guitars, 1796-1873. By Philip F. Gura. Chapel Hill; London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. [xix, 250 p. ISBN 0-8708-2801-7. $45.] Illustrations, color plates, glossary, bibliographic references, index.

The name C. F. Martin conjures up images of pre-World War II era guitars now worth thousands of dollars. The Martin Company's twentieth-century guitars have reigned supreme in many forms of American popular music, but most modern performers and collectors are only vaguely aware of the nineteenth-century origins of the company. Martin guitars from this early period are not generally the ones sought alter by performers, although collectors may find such instruments more appealing after the publication of the present work. Philip F. Gura's new book on the founder of the Martin empire, Christian Frederick Martin (1790-1873), delves into a side of American musical history and of the guitar that is almost totally unexplored, and gives us a portrait of a master craftsman and businessman.

The first chapter is the only weak one in the book, primarily because of an over-reliance on such outdated and notoriously fallible secondary sources as Philip J. Bone'sThe Guitar and Mondata: Biographies of Celebrated Plyaers and Composers (London: Schott & Company, 1954). Such sources are prone to be overly zealous in lhcir evaluation of the guitar's importance in history and lack an overall perspective of the repertoire. For example, Ferdinando Carulli's L'harmonie appliquée a la guitare (Paris: Petit, 1825) was certainly not the first method to focus on the guitar as an accompaniment instrument (p. 8); this was done at least as early as 1682 in Nicolas Matteis' The Falae Consonances of Musick (London: J. Carr; reprint, Monaco: Editions Chanterelle, 1980), and there are many other references to the subject in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century tablatures and treatises. One also feels that Gum has exaggerated the impact of the guitar in the 1830s by relying too much on references such as Bone's or on self-serving comments by period guitarists. Does a pattern for a guitar-shaped pin cushion really show that the guitar "had permeated American culture" (p. 18) or was this just a novelty? Even the most avid guitar scholar is forced to admit that, however popular the guitar became, the primary musical culture in the 1820s and 1830s rested well outside of the relatively narrow reaches of "guitarmania." The author has perhaps picked up some of the evangelical tone used in mid-twentieth-eentuiy guitar scholarship, which seeks as much to promote and justify the instrument as to explore its history. One also wonders if the pedagogical materials-studies and method books-of such composers as Fernando Sor, Mauro Ciuliani, and Matteo Garcassi are forced too much into the foreground of the narrative. Are Sor's studies really his "most important contribution to the emergent culture of the guitar" (p. 5)? Most important to whom and in what way? Finally, at least a mention of the English guitar (which was actually a type of cittern and not a true guitar) might have been appropriate, since it was popular in latc-eightcenth-ccntury England and America aud was often referred to confusingly as "guitar" in American references into the nineteenth century.

Gura is on much Hrmer ground, as a professor of English, when discussing nineteenth-century literary references to the guitar, and on bedrock when he moves into the primary section of the book: a look at C. F. Martin's guitar-making career based on primary resources. The amount of surviving documentation of Martin's career is truly astonishing: Gura uncovered ledgers, daybooks, and journals covering much of the period from the late 1830s aud then from 1850 till the end of Martin's life and beyond (these sources are listed in the appendices beginning on p. 191). In addition, the author uses a large number of letters in the Martin archives, census information, city directories, and advertising to fill in the "missing decade" of the 1840s and flesh out the narrative elsewhere. …

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