by Franco Ghisalberti
translation by David Hallworth
Taraffo was born in
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.
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.
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.
|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.
mastery of this particular guitar greatly stimulated its use in
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
was loved by his audience. His solo performances all over
1910 he ventured to spread his fame overseas, to
neighboring Spain. In
his attachment to his city and his family, he was finding
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).
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.
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.
his return from South America, he spent a brief period in
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.
spent most of
December he crossed the Atlantic again, this time to the
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.
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.
|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.
|The tenor Frederic Jagel
|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."
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
the end of the year he went back to
the rest of the year and the beginning of 1935 he worked in Eduardo
Bianco's orchestra, performing all over Europe and parts of
August 1936 he returned to
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
was buried in the Chacarita
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
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
Taraffo’s fame grew over numerous concert
tours of Europe and
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
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
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
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,
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