May 1941
volume LIX
number 5
page 351-352

Luigi Legnani, Guitar Virtuoso and Composer

By George C. Krick

DURING THE LATTER PART of the year 1819 there arrived in Vienna an unknown artist announcing a guitar recital. Up to this time no one had heard of Luigi Legnani, guitar virtuoso from Italy. Curiosity was responsible for a fair sized audience; there were many who some years before had come under the spell of the matchless Mauro Giuliani and with skepticism awaited the performance of this newcomer. To the Viennese a guitar recital was no novelty, and they were ready to be "shown." Legnani's first performance was a smashing success, and the critics were unanimous in their praise of his marvelous technic and beautiful tone. In 1820 and 1821 we find him back in Italy, giving concerts in Ravenna and other Italian cities; he returned to Vienna in 1822, where he gave three concerts repeating his former triumphs.

Fetis, in his "Musical Biographies", mentions Milan as the birthplace of Luigi Legnani; but this has been proven incorrect as, according to birth records later found in Ferrara, this is the city where he was born on November 7th, 1790.

When the boy was nine years of age his family moved to Ravenna, where his musical studies began. His natural musical endowments enabled him to master all of the string instruments in short order, but eventually the guitar became his favorite and on it he bestowed his great talent and industry. Nature had also blessed him with an exceptional tenor voice, and at seventeen he appeared in the theater in Ravenna, singing arias by Cimarosa, Donizetti and Rossini, playing his own accompaniments on the guitar.

In the same theater, and later in Milan, he made his debut as guitar virtuoso with great success which led him to go on to Vienna, the magnet that attracted all the guitarists of that period. After the first of his recitals one of the critics wrote thus: "It seems almost impossible to believe that one could produce the orchestral effects on the guitar as demonstrated by Luigi Legnani in his concert. In his hands the guitar sings, the melody always clearly outlined, and the accompanying parts are perfect in every detail. His technical feats are astounding and surpass anything ever heard here in Vienna, especially the playing of one of the variations in his Fantasia with the left hand alone."

Legnani's restless nature did not permit him to remain very long in any one place, and in the next ten years we find him giving concerts in Germany, Switzerland, Russia and in France. While in Paris he joined the Guitaristic Circle organized by Ferdinand Sor, which counted among its members such illustrious artists as Carcassi, Aguado, Zani de Ferranti and others.

About 1836 the celebrated violinist, Paganini, invited Legnani to his Villa Gajona near Parma and for several months these two artists worked together, preparing for a joint concert tour, which took them to a number of European cities and ended in 1837 with two concerts in Italy, one in Turin and another in Parma. Needless to say, the compositions presented by these two artists were most difficult and had never been heard before. Among these was a sonata especially written by Paganini for violin and guitar, which was later published in Leipzig. Legnani had always shown great interest in the making of guitars and the improvement of existing models. During his days in Vienna, he offered many suggestions concerning their construction to several leading Viennese guitar makers; and the instruments made according to instructions by Legnani, became quite famous. Very little is known of the later years in the life of the artist. In 1862 he retired to Ravenna, where he lived until his death in 1877.

Like most of the great guitarists of that period, Legnani was practically self-taught. In his early years he received a thorough grounding in harmony, counterpoint and composition, and used the method of Carulli as foundation for his guitar technic. His sound musicianship, however, soon led him to discover new harmonic effects on the instrument, and his compositions proved that here was a master far in advance of many of his contemporaries. In his concerts Legnani presented only his own compositions and arrangements, a custom that seemed to be a favorite with the guitar virtuosos during these early years. More than two hundred and fifty published works from his pen prove him a most prolific composer, and it is to be regretted that many of these are now out of print and can be found only in the musical libraries of Vienna and other cities. Of those still being published are: "Op. 16, Grande Variazioni"; Op. 19, Fantasia; "Op. 32, Potpourri and Caprlce"; Op. 34, Grand Capriccio; Op. 61, Grand Fantasie; "Op. 201, Introduction and Variations on a theme from 'Norma'"; "Op. 202, Andante and Allegro from 'William Tell'"; Op. 204, Rondoletto Scherzoso; "Op. 224, Introduction, Theme and Variations"; "Thirty-six Short Valses" without opus number. Scherzo, Opus 10, consists of a Theme with four variations and coda, with a notation from the composer that "the four variations are to be played with the left hand alone," which would tax the technic of any accomplished guitarist. "Opus 20", a volume of thirty-six capriccios, is perhaps the best known of his compositions, and should be in the library of every guitarist. This opus includes a series of concert etudes in all keys, and even if Legnani had left to posterity nothing but these thirty-six etudes, his name would be cherished by every lover of the classic guitar.