Featured Harp Guitar of the Month

The Mystery Maccaferri

by Gregg Miner, May 6, 2007
Revised May 23, 2007

Part of a 4-part Special Harpguitars.net Feature

 


(image copyright Music on Earth)

Here is a fascinating harp guitar puzzle.

While a very few select Maccaferri aficionados have known about this instrument for some time, I only learned of it in January, 2005, when observant harp guitar fan Karla Fisher mentioned it on the Harpguitars.net Forum.  She had spotted it in a brand new DVD release, which I will discuss below.  It then took me another month or two until I was finally able to see this DVD for myself (it took that long to convince my Los Angeles neighbor and avid guitar fan, Frank Doucette, to purchase a copy.  Hey, I have to save on research costs where I can!).

Meanwhile, as I waited impatiently for Frank to splurge, I tapped writer Michael Simmons (extremely knowledgeable about Maccaferri and harp guitars both) to provide any information he could.  He knew of it, of course (apparently I still travel in the wrong guitar circles), and asked friend Randy Osborne of Fine Fretted String Instruments to supply me with a good reproduction of the single known image of this "mystery" Maccaferri from a 1947 magazine cover.

The second part of this story is the identity of the player of the harp guitar himself.  This was a total surprise to all of us on the Harpguitars.net Forum also (but perhaps not to classical guitar fans).  Before I tell you, would you like to guess who our (very) young harp guitarist at right is?


(image copyright Music on Earth)

Last chance......

.........

.........

 

 

That is 13-year-old Julian Bream, about to make his classical guitar performing debut!

The story goes that Bream (just on the cusp of discovery) was visiting the London offices of Banjo, Mandolin & Guitar Magazine, harp guitar in tow.  A couple photos were taken, and one was used on the next cover in June 1947.

But how in the world did young Bream come to acquire a Maccaferri harp guitar, and what happened to it?

It wasn't until I had actually posted a simpler version of this article that I learned the (nearly) whole remarkable story from Stuart Button's marvelous 2006 book, Julian Bream: The Foundations of a Musical Career.  I would recommend that everyone read it, as Button devotes a whole chapter to this story - one of a very few that presents a detailed historical picture of the clash between the 6-string guitar and harp guitar - perhaps the latter's "last chance" in the classical guitar world (until today's resurgence).

Button shows (through surviving letters) that Bream's first guitar teacher, Boris Perott, happened to own a ten-course (4+6) wappen-shape Russian harp guitar (seen at right), and actively advocated the use of extra strings.  More significantly, Bream's father Henry (an amateur guitarist), after hearing the tone and projection of Perott's instrument, became completely convinced of the merit of a harp guitar for offering more sound and additional voicings.  Henry was so taken with Perott's instrument that he incorporated it into the new logo of London's Philharmonic Society of Guitarists (seen at right), of which he was then librarian and Dr. Perott president.  

In fact, Henry was so confident that a guitar with extra strings was the right instrument for his prodigy son that he took it upon himself to acquire one - and found at Selmer's London facility this second-hand Maccaferri, said to be the Maestros' own concert guitar.  It appears that it was unlabeled, but that the Selmer manager, one Ben Davies, had organized some of Maccaferri's recitals and "verified" that this was indeed Maccaferri's recital guitar.  Henry stated in his August 26, 1946 letter that he intended to write Maccaferri (now in New York) directly about the provenance, but no result to this inquiry seems to be known.  My suspicion is that, as just another of Maccaferri's endless evolutionary experiments (see The Harp Guitars of Mario Maccaferri), it may very well be that he performed on it for a short period.  However, as he has not been seen photographed with this specimen, and otherwise seems to have clearly preferred models with a hollow, single arm (see Player of Month), it is equally likely that Maccaferri used it little or not at all, and that Davies was embellishing its provenance for a sale.


(image courtesy of Randy Osborne at Fine Fretted Instruments)

Dr. Boris Perott (physician, and president of the PSG)

Henry describes "two soundboards, a tone reflector," and a "beautifully carved back."  Clearly, this is an important instrument for the study on the development of Maccaferri and Selmer guitars!  Henry further described it as "certainly the best guitar we have met with."

Julian Bream (who on the DVD, refers to it simply as a "nine-string guitar" - which is also what Maccaferri would have advertised it as) immediately began using the Maccaferri, playing it at meetings of the PSG, where it immediately caused controversy.  It is worth noting that it appears from Mr. Bream's correspondence that Julian was, in fact, using the extra strings for certain pieces in these early performances (only one is named: "I Capuletti ed I Montecchi" by Bellini) - in essence, he temporarily became a true "harp guitarist." 

Alas, two events conspired to derail young Julian's erstwhile harp guitar career:  The first was that Wilfred Appleby, the editor of the PSG's Bulletin, and most vocal member of the Society, was totally against what he referred to as "Maccaferri's monstrosity," "that 'fool guitar'," and "freak instrument."  Appleby also wrote that "no music requiring extra strings is really representative guitar music, so it can be ignored..."  Ouch!  As the promoter of young Julian's debut concert, Appleby was adamant that he play a "normal" classical guitar, and of course won the argument, lending Bream a six-string instrument which he had to very quickly adapt to.  The second event was that Bream had also just abandoned the extra-strings-advocating Perott as a mentor and teacher, due to Perott's instruction to keep the "pinky" anchored to the soundboard, which Bream realized even at his tender age would ruin his ability to play the Spanish repertoire. 

Thus begins and ends the career of the most celebrated almost-harp-guitarist of our time.  Ironically Bream did take up another multi-course instrument later in his career - the lute.  What might have happened to the harp guitar world today if he had instead simply picked up his old Maccaferri to play lute repertoire?  Oh, to think what might have been!


(image copyright Music on Earth)

After receiving the tantalizing BMG cover above, I was doubly anxious to see what images were on the new DVD, Julian Bream - My Life in Music.  Alas, no video - just a photograph, shown in a quick pan.  This photo appears in the Button book as well, but with no additional views.  It is a second photo from the BMG session, but another cryptic one.  Agonizingly, in neither photo do we get enough details.  We can’t see the sub-bass string attachment extension - we only know that there is no hollow arm.  In one photo, we can see a large oval soundhole.  Other than the fact that the cutaway looks basically “Maccaferrian,” and Bream (and Button) identifying it as a Maccaferri, I might never have guessed what it was.  Another distinctive feature is the bridge saddle, separated into three pieces for compensation.  And of course, without the research of Button, from Bream's father's letters, we would not have known that it had an internal reflector and double soundboard construction.
How to date this one?  Maccaferri had another harp guitar with a theorboed headstock (as opposed to a hollow arm extension) in his 1928 catalog, but it has a round soundhole and no cutaway.  The present instrument is likely later, possibly a second variation on the 1928 catalog instrument or just a one-shot experiment.  It is the only oval Maccaferri soundhole I am aware of; the cutaway design more similar to the later Selmers than the 1920s series.  François Charle (author of The Story of Maccaferri Selmer Guitars) agrees that this was made sometime between Maccaferri’s Mozzani period and his Selmer period, stating: "I already knew this photo but I don't have any information about the guitar.  It looks very much like a Maccaferri, but between the Mozzani time and the Selmer era.  Maybe something Maccaferri built when he was in London before returning to Paris for Selmer.  Near the one he is playing in the photo on page 30 of my book.Charle's London guess is a good one, as the instrument was found in the London Selmer location.

Button relates that Bream's father traded the instrument in for a Calace guitar by June of 1947.  If any Julian Bream historian or anyone else has additional images of this instrument, history or information as to its current whereabouts, please contact me!


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Sources:
François Charle, Michael Simmons, Julian Bream: The Foundations of a Musical Career by Stuart W. Button



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