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The Legnani 36 Caprices Op. 20

David Raleigh Arnold

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The complete title is 36 CAPRICCI per tutti i tuoni maggiori e minori per la CHITARRA, “36 Caprices in All Keys, Major and Minor, for Guitar.” Download from Boije. Mr. Boije penned a very few emendations in his copy, which will be yours. He did surprisingly well in my estimation.

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If you only want to print a page or two, I have them indexed here at OpenGuitar.

Introduction and Appraisal

Neither university nor conservatory curricula in Classical Guitar require mastery of the Legnani Caprices, Op. 20. Consequently, graduates and their teachers lack a sufficient understanding of not only that work but of the music of the other composers of the period as well.

This work of 36 pieces, each on a single page, was first published in late 1813 in Vienna by Artoria. Calling this “36 Caprices” instead of “36 Etudes” was entirely a commercial decision in my estimation.[1] They are etudes. After studying this work, you will see that its influence over other guitar players and composers was enormous. This brief biography from Naxos gives little indication of this, but it is easy in retrospect to see this influence even in works of Carcassi published 23 years later.

These Caprices have been characterized as “virtuoso” pieces, falsely implying both a lack of musical interest and a lack of continuing importance. On the contrary, these are not just for virtuosi, and they are nothing like the Paganini Caprices. Legnani knew the differences between the guitar and the violin far better than any scholar or would-be critic. These Caprices require and reward the taking of great pains in their execution, and that is what makes them difficult, not playing them at insane tempos as if the room were on fire. The Caprices were on the bleeding edge in their day, and sadly, for the most part, they remain so. Playing them should not be considered optional for a serious performer or for any composer who intends to write for the guitar today.

Legnani understood that the guitar had a bass, tenor and alto but no soprano. Only the best arrangers for guitar today take account of this in key choice and in voicing their arrangements or compositions. Writing for full exploitation of the instrument’s sonority is secondary when creating works for amateurs, but it is a necessity in concert works. Some of these pieces seem like orchestrations with singers as well as with instruments, not merely an orchestra, but an opera.

Legnani used unresolved ninths, thirteenth chords, and even altered chords freely. Resolving dissonances with chords but not with voices has been called chord sense. “Common practice” was not practiced as commonly as my training led me to believe. Consequently, these Caprices often seem incongruously modern.

The most important single resource that the guitar has for its expressiveness is not vibrato, timbre, legature or appoggiato or any such means of expression. Instead it is the ability to silence notes with precision and control, with or without resonant echoes, and perhaps even with a bit of noise, which gives the guitar the potential to sound far more human than a pianoforte ever could. I doubt that the idea of putting rests in melody lines in order to make the voices sound more human and expressive has occured to many guitarists who have not made a study of Legnani’s Op. 20. In several pieces in his Op. 60, Carcassi uses rests in exactly the same way. I do not believe that there is any accident or coincidence in that.


Usages in Artoria’s Notation

In 1813, Artoria followed a publishing convention called note nere (black notes).[2]

They also used the more modern “z” or “s” rest.[3]

The repeat sign had four dots instead of two.

Phrase marks and legature still present the same problem now as they did then.[4]

There are no triplet brackets.

Notes and rests are often centered rather than aligned.[5]

The term loco[6] was used as we might use “open position” today.

Legnani’s staccato dot is modern, but he often used it to indicate fingering indirectly.

Roman numbers are used for position in the modern manner, but barres are not specified.

Fermate[7] (stops) end each piece.

Usages of the Present Editor

The zero(th) measure is the pickup for the purpose of counting measures correctly.

To remove ambiguity for the pitches of notes, “e,” to “b,” will be the bass notes starting at the open ⑥, “c” to “b” the next octave, “c’ ” to “b’ ” the octave after that, and so forth.

I recognize three general types of finger stroke.

  1. appoggiato, coming to rest against the next lower string. When shallow, you can hardly tell the difference between it and the short stroke. When deep, you can, very much.
  2. corto, the compromise that is the way you usually play.
  3. lungo, a stroke using the extreme side of the finger and little or no nail, for playing very loudly or at a whisper. To lengthen your stroke is to tend more to that.

A Word of Caution

These Caprices require right hand techniques which are probably unfamiliar enough to slow you substantially, so there may well be enough stretching and barring to cause you to hurt yourself because of the slow tempos required at first, so be prepared. Here are a few recommendations before you start:

  1. Work on sustained barring. Take it slow to avoid injury.
  2. Learn all of Carcassi’s 25 Etudes Op. 60, paying special attention to right hand quieting of strings. If you have previously neglected to practice the muting of strings by the right hand fingers as well as by the thumb, do not hesitate to revert to the Method Op. 59. It probably won’t cost you much time, and it may actually save you some.
  3. Gain competence in all of Dynamic Guitar Technique. You don’t have to learn it, just practice it. The arpeggi are especially important, for stretching with ease and speed.


If you thought that there were two centuries of unqualified progress in guitar playing, you were greatly mistaken. These Caprices are unfinished business for most modern players and composers alike.

I hope to live long enough to finish this project, but to avoid needless repetition and back references, the pieces are arranged in what appears to me to be a decent order in which to learn them. I intend to lead you through all of them, correct all typos, explain the markings, and to clear a path to a beautiful and satisfying performance as best I am able. I expect that you will soon be enjoying learning and playing these very much. I still am.

–David Raleigh Arnold, March 2008

Study Guides

End Notes:

§1 Legnani designated at least one of his collections of caprices as “Studi o Capricci”, so the assertion is not totally without foundation.

§2 According to the interpretation of note nere by Heck and others, where there are two voices a bass note which starts a group of beamed notes should be assumed to have its length extended to the end of the group, in order to avoid having three voices on that staff. In the early works of Giuliani perhaps this interpretation might not be too bad, but if you rigidly apply this doctrine to these Caprices the result is far from acceptable. Instead you must regard note nere as an option to be applied very conservatively. I have based the extent of any such lengthening on the duration of the preceding and following bass notes, avoidance of a doubled third, and Legnani’s own explicit examples where no third voice is possible, considering everything rather than nothing.

§3 The new “z” quarter rest was in use by 1808. It is superior to the blackletter “R” rest from Gutenberg which we use today, and also to the “classical” rest which it was intended to replace. (The “classical” rest was like a mirror reversed eighth rest.) The “z” rest takes up less vertical space than the Gutenberg rest, so it is superior for solo guitar music where you so often must crowd the single stave. The “classical” quarter rest was easily confused with the eighth rest, so it caused many engraving mistakes and even today causes reading mistakes.

§4 The phrase mark may be called a legato. A slur is a legatura. The problem remains that at times a legato has indicated that as many as possible of the notes it spans should be legature. Very few players would choose to do that today, nor would most players then. Take it that a legato (n., phrase mark) should be played legato (adv., in a smooth and connected manner). It is a good idea to mark desired legature within legati, and it has never been incorrect to do so. See p. 40 of the Carcassi Method. Finally, sometimes legati indicate that the members of an arpeggio should be sounded to the end of the beam group, but in guitar music double stems are nearly always considered sufficient for that.

§5 Whole measure rests or notes constituting third or fourth voices in a measure can help to relieve the traffic at the beginning of the measure.

§6 loco was used to direct the placement of the left hand to the lowest frets where the notes are available. It usually indifferently dictates 1st or 2nd position.

§7 The fermata can be used as a substitute for fine. In this work they are used to indicate that you are not going to find more of the same piece on the next page.

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©2008 David Raleigh Arnold - http://www.openguitar.com