Chapter 1:

by Franco Ghisalberti
translation by David Hallworth

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A young Taraffo, probably his first passport photo

Pasquale Taraffo was born in Genoa on November 14, 1887.  His father Giuseppe was an ironworker and his mother Alfonsina a housewife.   Pasquale had three brothers, Giovanni, Pietro and Rinaldo and one sister, Maria.

Giuseppe loved music and played the guitar, a popular instrument at that time because of its low cost and portability.  He passed on this passion for music to all his children, each of whom chose an instrument and specialty of their own.  Giovanni played the mandola, Pasquale the guitar, Pietro dedicated himself to the guitar and the mouth organ (and became a true maestro, as can be confirmed by the two tracks of his released on CD).  Rinaldo played the violin and the guitar, and Maria sang, always accompanied by a member of the family.

There was a great following for popular folk music in those days, regardless of social status.  Many people played instruments or sang, solo or in choirs.  Theaters were springing up in Italian cities and many different types of performance were on the bill, from lyric operas and operettas - much loved by the middle class - to plays and concerts.  There was no cinema, radio or television then, of course, and the first gramophones for 78s didn't appear until the 1920s.

At nine years of age Pasquale Taraffo was already entertaining the public with his exceptional talent as a guitarist.  He was very popular with his audience, among whom were two noted Genoese ship-owners, Prospero Lavarello and Stefano Censini, who became his patrons, supporting him and organizing concerts to promote his career.

Taraffo was always profoundly grateful to them.  He dedicated the songs "Prospero" and "Stefania" to them, and even named his two children after them in recognition of the fundamental importance these men had in his life, both on a personal level and as an artist.

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Music was played with accordion and guitar  in the military service

At an early age, Taraffo felt the need for a more complete instrument capable of playing a greater number of strings, adopting a special fourteen-string guitar that he took everywhere he went, even on military service in 1910.  This was the beginning of a warm and productive relationship with the lute maker Settimio Gazzo, who made him several multi-stringed guitars, including the 14-string model that, along with its pedestal became his inseparable companion for the rest of his life.

His mastery of this particular guitar greatly stimulated its use in Liguria, where it originated.  It also had a great effect on Settimio Gazzo, who gave up his studies to divide his time between a fixed job in the academic world and his preferred profession of lute maker.  Settimio took great pleasure in the enthusiasm with which Taraffo's audience greeted his performances.

It was in these performances that Taraffo developed a new style that was followed by many guitarists.  Unfortunately, the premature death of the artist and the passage of time led to a decline in the use of the multi-stringed guitar in Genoa.

Taraffo was loved by his audience.  His solo performances all over Italy were always met with public success and critical acclaim.  At home he became a great star, performing in the greatest theaters beside the most famous names.

In 1910 he ventured to spread his fame overseas, to neighboring Spain.  In Barcelona, after playing forty consecutive nights in the same theater, the public and the press called him, "The God of the Guitar."

Despite his attachment to his city and his family, he was finding Europe confining, and set off across the ocean.  He left in September 1925 on the steamship Re Vittorio for Buenos Aires.  Once there, alone and without help, he met members of the press and the theater and had them listen to his playing.

Within a very short time, his concerts were being joyfully received by both the public and the press.  Enthusiastic headlines at the time defined him as “the best of all,” “the erupting volcano of technique” and Cabe Sutor (from Latin).

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On board the ‘Re Vittorio’, heading for Buenos Aires

Taraffo was self-taught on the guitar and was a true master of this instrument.  He had the gift of finding extraordinary tonalities and the technical ability to adapt airs from operas for his instrument.  Wherever he performed, his skill and creativity captured the public's admiration.

As well as Buenos Aires, Montevideo and the surrounding region, he almost certainly played in Brazil.  He returned from Brazil to Buenos Aires in 1926 on the steamship Meduana, but there is very little documentation of this trip.

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Ready for a concert

Taraffo was reserved, good-natured, and a good listener, as well as being a pleasurable guitarist to hear.  He was a quiet, gentle man who loved his city and his family very much.  These feelings led him to take on tours which were too short, or ended prematurely, and so were unprofitable.

Upon his return from South America, he spent a brief period in Italy and performed as a soloist in various concerts, but by September, 1926 he had joined "Amadeo Garesio's Artistic Agency" which toured throughout South America.  The concert of September 24, 1927 at the Royal Theatre di Montevideo, which was part of this tour, was well received by both the public and the press.

At that time there were no amplification systems, even in the largest theaters.  The quality of the concert experience depended to a great extent on the power and ability of the guitarist.

Taraffo spent most of 1928 in Italy, performing concerts with Nino Catania on mandolin, his brother Pietro on guitar and harmonica, and musical legend Zara Prima singing.

In December he crossed the Atlantic again, this time to the United States.  His first stop was New York, where he stayed until May.  This was a period of great activity and immense satisfaction for him.  There is a film from that period in which, for just a moment, he performs the piece "Stefania" - highly recommended viewing for anyone wishing to know more about this grand artist.

On board the ‘Conte Grande’ with an opera singer

Two concerts at the Gallo Theatre on December 20 and 30 furthered the legend and added testimony to the skill of this musician.  There were sixteen composers on the playbill: from Grieg, Liszt and Schubert to Tarrega, Albeniz and Sousa, as well as Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Monti, etc.  In this varied program there was no place for a six string guitar, but with his fourteen strings, Taraffo shone.  Newspapers of the day reported that the large audience was completely fascinated by the guitarist.  Among the spectators were groups of Italian VIPs, diplomats and stars of the Metropolitan Opera who had come to the second show after hearing of the success of the first.

This concert was distinguished by the presence of the singers from the Metropolitan who were usually involved in productions at this grand theater.  Though unused to Taraffo's improvisational style, they all spoke warmly of him and publicly recognized his extraordinary talent.

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The tenor Frederic Jagel gave him a photograph with the following inscription: "To Pasquale Taraffo, distinctive musician and guitar virtuoso, with all the best wishes."  This singer had trod the stage of the Metropolitan for many years in starring roles.
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The violinist Vasa Prihoda, discovered by Toscanini, who became a most acclaimed composer and teacher, and whose recordings are still available on CD, gave him a photograph with the following dedication: "To the Great Guitarist Pasquale Taraffo."
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The Bohemian violinist Vasa Prihoda

The tenor Giacomo Lauri Volpi gave Taraffo a photograph with the following dedication: "To the great guitarist Pasquale Taraffo who has raised to the most exquisite dignity of art an instrument which is so typically Italian."  Volpi was a graduate in law but preferred lyric singing and had reached the highest level.  He vied with Beniamino Gigli for the favor of the international public in the wake of the great Caruso.  He was one of the highest paid singers of the Metropolitan, a well-regarded teacher (one of his students was Franco Corelli) and a respected music critic.
The tenor  Giacomo Lauri Volpi
At the end of May, after a series of concerts in the area, he moved on to California, where he found his fame had preceded him.  Here he met his compatriot Guido Deiro, the greatest accordionist in America.  Deiro had been so successful in variety shows that he enjoyed the finest automobiles, luxurious houses and a yacht.  The two became friends and colleagues, cementing their rapport with courteous exchanges such as the covering by Deiro of the theme of "Prospero" which they then each recorded, separately, with their own instruments on the Columbia Electric Process discs.  They performed a series of concerts together, organized by Deiro, which were a great success with the audience and the local press.  After a concert on June 14 at the Liberty Theater, Taraffo left California.

Taraffo and Guido Deiro in front of the great accordionist’s Cadillac

His return to Italy found him, once again, with the partners he had left to tour in the United States.  Tired of working alone, discouraged by inadequate financial results, and wanting to stay closer to his family, he decided to pursue a less stressful activity and became part of the orchestra of Argentinean conductor Eduardo Bianco with his fellow townsman and friend, the singer Mario Cappello.  With this orchestra, which performed on the ocean liner Conte Grande, he performed on three Mediterranean cruises from mid July to mid September 1933.  His performances on board and in the various ports always met with great success.

At the end of the year he went back to South America for another tour.  On his way home he passed through New York, where his admirers had organized a celebratory concert and lunch at Balilla's Restaurant.  After only five days in New York he boarded the ship Roma to leave the United States.  It was to be his last visit.

For the rest of the year and the beginning of 1935 he worked in Eduardo Bianco's orchestra, performing all over Europe and parts of Asia .

In August 1936 he returned to Argentina with Cappello.  They performed many concerts and made radio broadcasts at Radio Cultura and Radio Fenix.

The two were to have continued the tour across Latin America, but Pasquale Taraffo's gastric ulcer, from which he had suffered for some time, began to aggravate him and he was admitted to the Ramos Mejia Hospital.  He passed away there at 22:45 on April 24, 1937.  He was only fifty years old.  The funeral was held two days later and was attended by many, including many of his compatriots.

He was buried in the Chacarita Cemetery, far from his beloved Genoa.

Pietro and Pasquale Taraffo in Turin, 1929

To complete this sketch of the artist, we include an appreciation of him by Professor Lazzaro Maria De Bernardis, written on May 23, 1959 on the occasion of Taraffo's commemoration by the city of Genoa at the Carlo Felice theater.

The Ente Manifestazioni Genovesi (Genoa Department of Cultural Events) has chosen to honor the memory of the guitarist Pasquale Taraffo with this musical evening of a truly popular nature. Taraffo, a unique artist whose name became a byword for extraordinary talent, whose renown spread across the world, was always associated with the name of his native city. He preferred a life of straitened circumstances in his beloved Genoa to dreams of fortunes in distant lands.

Taraffo’s fame grew over numerous concert tours of Europe and America , and lived on after his untimely death, 22 years ago, April 4th 1937, while on tour in Buenos Aires . In fact is could be said that at the very moment of his passing away, aged just fifty, he achieved legendary status. In many Latin American countries, where the guitar is the national instrument and where there is an abundance of excellent musicians,  it is still common to hear phrases such as “He’s a Taraffo” or “plays like Taraffo” to refer to a great guitarist. His lasting impact is reflected in the number of articles that still appear in newspapers and magazines around the world about his art, his great virtuosity, and his life as an artist.

Whoever heard his rich, imaginative, absolutely inimitable playing style (inimitable above all, one would imagine, due to the virtual physical impossibility of some of his feats) would understand the staggering enthusiasm he inspired in his audiences, and the impassioned plaudits he received. He had such technical ability that the nickname “the Paganini of the guitar” was no exaggeration. This, together with an imagination clearly rooted in his popular folk traditions of his modest beginnings, and an ear finely tuned to the tastes of his day, inspired him to a rich peak of inventiveness in the genre of “variazione brillante.” Taraffo transformed his instrument into a veritable magic box and conjured magnificent cascades of opulent sound from it. The amazement stirred by his technical brilliance gave way to pure emotion when his fingers caressed a flowing melody from the instrument, accompanied by an internal stream of grace notes, priceless counterpoints and wonderful countermelodies, all of which gave the very real impression of many instruments playing together. “An orchestra in an instrument,” as a New York newspaper put it.

If we examine for a moment the Taraffo phenomenon from a critical point of view, it becomes clear that his ability to “reharmonize” was considered perhaps even more important than his prodigious technical abilities. Without altering the composer’s harmonic progression, Taraffo revitalized the intermediate parts of a composition by elaborating in ways that it would be all but impossible to repeat. And it is important to note that his excellence at handling an instrument was matched by his ignorance of musical theory. As had been quite rightly stated, Taraffo “was born with the harmonic system already fully developed in his head.” Add to this a Mozart-like musical memory that allowed him to reproduce a whole piece of music having heard it only once, and the heart of an artist, and the result is “pure music”.  The movement of his hands on the instrument was a constant source of wonderment: both in the more complex positions of the left hand and in the incredibly intricate arpeggios and “tremolos” of the right hand.

A parallel could be drawn with this immense talent, of which many – inside and outside Genoa – preserve the memory: one wonders if the same providence that gave birth to that ‘prodigious instrument of the violin,’ Nicolò Paganini, in Genoa 100 years earlier, could repeat itself a century later in the same city with that ‘prodigious instrument of the guitar’ Pasquale Taraffo. Putting the name of Taraffo alongside that of Paganini should sound neither artificial nor irreverent. There is much in common between the two artists in terms of culture: they each took the technical and expressive resources of their instruments as far as they could go. The violinist’s creative superiority lay in the fact that his achievements have been preserved, at least in essence, in written documents; which the guitarist neglected to leave us. All that survives him are the accounts of his contemporaries and the efforts to emulate his style in a typically Genoese school of guitar playing.

Their differences in wealth (Paganini left an enormous fortune, Taraffo died in relative poverty) were partly a product of the times they lived in, and partly the result of Taraffo’s inability to manage the economic side of his artistic career, of his nonchalant attitude to money, his generosity, and his love for Genoa, which he would leave with great reluctance, only to hurry back – sometimes in the middle of a concert tour – when his homesickness grew too painful for him to bear.

The fact of the matter is that Taraffo – “U Roa” (the Wheel) as his friends called him in Genoa, was unaware of his own importance as an artist, and of the possibilities that his talents held in store for him. He lived for the guitar, and was unconcerned whether those he amazed and delighted with his magical realm of sound were the well-heeled audience of a grand theatre in New York or Vienna , or a group of longshoremen in a smoky Genovese tavern.

There is something beautiful in the nature of his detachment from the world around him, and in the fundamental humility of an artist continually striving for excellence, and never satisfied with the results. He, too, could have left a substantial inheritance to his wife and daughter, who still live in Genoa and have cherished and preserved his memory and heritage, but he left them a different legacy: a name that is still loved and revered throughout the world, twenty-two years after his passing.

His native city still pays homage to that name, with affection and respect, through the Ente Manifestazioni Genovesi. Today, the instrument ennobled by Taraffo is returning to prominence and revealing its marvelous possibilities to ever larger numbers of aficionados. As a tribute to the artist who did so much to put the guitar on the cultural map, and in so many hearts, the City Hall of Genoa is staging this concert in its most prestigious concert hall, the Teatro Comunale dell’Opera.

About the Author

Franco Ghisalberti was born in Genoa, Italy in 1927.  Growing up, he witnessed the development of many new technologies, including music recording, radio and sound for motion pictures.  He lived through the devastation and the tragedies of World War II, an experience which helped shape his character.  After a very active and successful career as an entrepreneur, he devoted his time to collecting old 78 rpm records, one of his favorite hobbies.  By recovering the sounds recorded on such records, he has made it possible to preserve songs and musical compositions which otherwise would have been lost forever.  He has also conducted meticulous research on guitarist Pasquale Taraffo, following his own father’s admiration for this artist’s tremendous talent.  As part of his study of Taraffo's music, Franco has produced the CDs dedicated to the guitarist and has gathered all the documentation published on

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