Franco’s loss was America’s gain. In the 1950s, when the Spanish dictator made life unbearable for many who worked in the arts, one of those who fled was the guitarist, composer and poet Celedonio Romero. Settling in Southern California, he and his three sons became The Romeros, the quartet who brought the classical guitar to audiences across a broad swathe of America. Two of the brothers, Pepe and Celin, are still in the quartet, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year, starting with a concert in Los Angeles. Pepe took time out from a busy schedule at the Festival de Granada to speak to me; the words in this interview will, I hope, put across the honesty, thoughtfulness and musicality of the man, but the printed page, I fear, cannot do justice to his unbounded reserves of charm.

Pepe Romero
Pepe Romero

DK: We ask most musicians about how they first took up their instrument. But for you, I get the impression that there wasn’t really a choice. Was it conceivable that you would become anything other than a guitarist?

PR: It was never a choice, because as far back as I can remember, I was a guitar player. In the last conversation I had with my father, just minutes before he passed away, he told me “when you came into the world, I received you with my guitar playing. Tonight, when I leave, I want you to do the same for me, and I want my soul to go up with the sound of your guitar.” So I did. To me, that means that I was born with a guitar and I will die with a guitar.

How was it to grow up in a family in which the guitar is everywhere?

I grew up in a very difficult time in Spain. It was 1944, Franco was in full bloom and the situation was very hard for those that fought against him. We had a lot of financial and other difficulties, so I was able to witness the healing power, the comfort that music, that the guitar or any instrument can bring in difficult times. When everything is going well, it's easy to enjoy it for fun and for happiness. When things are not so good, it's wonderful to feel the comfort and the feeling of hope that music brings. When I was growing up, my father was always playing music. The day that my brother Celin was born, for example, was one of the most difficult days in the history of the Civil War, with nine German aeroplanes bombing Málaga at the very moment that Celin was born. My father was there in the bedroom; he was playing and he was making a transcription of Cádiz by Albéniz when Celin was being born, the bombs falling all over the place. He was always either playing or composing or arranging or writing poetry – he was a wonderful poet.

We were always visited by great writers, poets, painters, other instrumentalists, other guitarists, so we heard all kinds of stories. Tárrega’s pupil Rogelio Molina, came every weekend to play guitar with my father; he was too nervous to perform in public, but he was an independently wealthy man and it was in his house that Tárrega was staying when he wrote Recuerdos de la Alhambra.

I was home-schooled by my mother until 1957, when we went to California, so all my friends in Spain were grown-ups: musicians and artists. I didn't have friends of my own age until I moved to California.

Pepe Romero
Pepe Romero

That move took you from a place where classical guitar was everywhere to one where the guitar was mainly a popular or folk instrument. Was that difficult?

When we moved, Middle America, Southern America, many of the smaller cities had never had a classical guitar concert, so for us, it was a wonderful opportunity to share the history we had and to bring the guitar to audiences that had never heard it. My father played his first concert in 1958, I started playing recitals in Santa Barbara at the University right away, but in 1959, we gave the first concert where all four of us played, and in 1960, we gave the first official concert of the quartet and started touring.

We would travel, mostly by car, from one town to another playing 200 concerts a year in big and little cities. The United States in those days had a concert association called Community Concerts, who put on classical music concerts in every town, so we played them all. It was a wonderful feeling to share these magnificent things we brought with us – the Spanish guitar, classical music, a little bit of flamenco – and to see the reaction and the warmth with which the public accepted it.

Does playing concerts with very close family feel different from playing with other musicians?

With family, you know instinctively and completely what the other person is going to do. But I find that when you are playing music together, you kind of become family. To me, one of the great powers of music is the way it unites the spirits, the souls and the hearts not only of those that are performing but those who are listening.

You talked about the guitar's ability to console. Is the guitar exceptional in this?

I cannot really say that, because I don't play other instruments. But the guitar is unique in that you are embracing the instrument, you are feeling her vibrations with every part of you. You feel it in your chest, you feel it in your arms, in your legs because it's resting on them. I recall a letter being written by Debussy to a friend of his who went to Spain: he asked his friend to bring him a guitar because, he said, “there is nothing more than soothing than playing a chord in the guitar”. So he actually wanted to have a guitar as a therapeutic instrument.

Pepe Romero
Pepe Romero

Some of the great composers have written music for you. Tell us about turning music from printed page into reality...

What really touched me was that I actually got to see them compose, to be with them in the room when an idea came into their minds and see how they were able to turn that idea into music. I saw Rodrigo on a summer day holding his granddaughter, she was sleeping in his arms and he was touching her face, and all of a sudden, he started singing, in his very unusual voice, improvising a lullaby that became the second movement of the Concierto Andaluz. Federico Moreno Torroba told me one day how he conceived his Nocturno: one summer day, the breeze came in and it woke him up and he heard the clock strike two o'clock. I'm sure you know that piece: it has a beautiful short entrance and then there are two chords with a harmonic in the middle that sounds like a clock chime. So to see how they could turn human experiences into magnificent pieces of music helped me also to unite with composers I never have met and realise that printed music is a map to their most inner feelings and thoughts; then you unite your own reservoir of emotions or feelings. I have to say that some of my most wonderful experience with Spanish music was with an Englishman, because so many of the Spanish concertos, I recorded with Neville Marriner. Whether we were playing Rodrigo or Giuliani or whatever, it became really two hearts beating as one.

Your recording of Sones en La Giralda with Marriner is one that I thought was the most incredible piece of music...

It is. The funny thing about that, how that came about is that Nicanor Zabaleta transcribed the Aranjuez for harp. And Rodrigo, one day, smoking a Cuban cigar with me, says “Well, Nicanor has taken the Aranjuez – why don't you take Sones en La Giralda – I always wanted to hear that on guitar”. So I did. That recording was incredibly easy-going, we did all three concertos, the Sones, the Villa-Lobos concerto and the Tedesco Concerto in D, rehearsal and everything, in three sessions: one evening and the next day.

Pepe Romero with Neville Marriner © Carissa Sugg Romero
Pepe Romero with Neville Marriner
© Carissa Sugg Romero

In the six decades since your first concert, has the concert-playing world changed?

For me, no – but as a concertgoer, yes. Music in general is changing in a way that I kind of don't like because to many, virtuosity has become an end in itself. I like to think that virtuosity is the wealth that you bring to the music, so that you can express musically with greater ease what you want. Competitions tend to make people sound more similar and it's becoming more difficult to differentiate one young player from the other.

Particularly on guitar, I personally love to play without amplification and to hear the guitar without the amplification being a part, a crucial part, of the tone production. So I would like to see more people develop their tone so they can play acoustically. Of course, if you are playing a concert in a hall that has no acoustic whatsoever, then amplification, done tastefully, is wonderful. But who wants to amplify in Wigmore Hall?

For your own career, are there any points that you would say were pivotal?

World premières were always pivotal. I was fortunate to première three of Rodrigo’s five guitar concertos and transcribe Sones en la Giralda, with Torroba the same, with Morton Gould, with many composers. Also pivotal were the first times that I worked with people who became lifelong friends and partners, such as Neville Marriner such as Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos – Rafael I travelled the whole world with hundreds of concerts. Also collaborating with other instrumentalists, like guitar and voice with Victoria de los Ángeles or Elly Ameling, Thomas Quasthoff, Jessye Norman, those relationships were all pivotal times in my career and in the career of the quartet.

“Dos Pepes” - at Pepe Jr's workshop © Carissa Sugg Romero
“Dos Pepes” - at Pepe Jr's workshop
© Carissa Sugg Romero

Playing music with one’s children is always a deeply emotional experience, but you’ve gone one further: you play on instruments made by your son and grandson...

The night before last, I gave a recital in Granada. I finished the concert with a suite by my father and I played a guitar by my son. So for me, music, guitar and family is all one thing: I can't separate it. And I can't tell you eloquently enough the amazing joy I feel when I go to the workshop of my son and my grandson and I see their excitement with a certain piece of wood. My son just built an instrument from a very unusually dark piece of cedar and he was very excited about that piece of wood. I didn't understand what he saw there and he said “it's not what I see, it's what I feel in this piece of wood”. Last night, I was playing that guitar for the first time in my house here, and when I played it, it reminded me completely of the voice of Cesare Siepi: it has such a depth and profound low resonance.

All my life, I grew up in guitar shops. My father, when he needed to have a baby cedar for me, would take me to Francisco Dominguez in Málaga to the guitar shop and leave me there: I was a toddler, just walking, just crawling on the floor together with the wood shavings and the guitars that he was making. Later, I was very good friends with Miguel Rodriguez, with Manuel de la Chica here, with Hermann Hauser, and all my life I have loved the experience of watching the transformation from pieces of wood to a guitar. To me always, it was magical, and to have that done in my own family is amazing. I consider myself one of the luckiest men in the world.

Pepe and Celin Romero, with Pepe Jr and his 100th guitar © Carissa Sugg Romero
Pepe and Celin Romero, with Pepe Jr and his 100th guitar
© Carissa Sugg Romero

Sparafucile’s low F in Rigoletto, in Siepi’s recording with Cornell MacNeil, is one of the great notes in opera...

One of the most profound musical experiences I ever had was not with the guitar, it was at the old Metropolitan House in New York, where I heard Don Giovanni with Cesare Siepi. I was sitting in the middle of the house three quarters back, and the moment he sang his first note, I could feel the walls vibrating. It was just inside me, that sound, it was an experience that will live with me forever. So when I say that that guitar brought back to me the voice of Cesare Siepi, it's the highest compliment I can pay it.

Tell us something about your approach to teaching...

As a teacher, you have to work maybe more with the ears than with the hands. Playing the guitar has to feel good and sound good: if one of those two things is missing, you need to examine, see what is happening and face it, and to develop the relationship that you have with the string. The finger and the string have a very particular and intimate and profound physical relationship: the only way you can communicate to the guitar what you are feeling is in that fraction of the second that the string is on your finger. So you have to develop and to love that sense of touch and that sensitivity, and technically to realise that the sound is made by the guitar, not by your fingers; that is what is will enrich your palette of colours and your technique and the accuracy and the legato playing.

I think, for guitar players, it's very important to listen to other instruments, particularly vocal music and to feel that when we are playing, we are singing and the guitar is our voice. I believe that guitarists need to have a very rich musical education, of listening to symphonic music, opera, piano, string quartet, art songs and then of course the whole repertoire of the guitar.