Heinrich Albert and the First Guitar Quartet

Heinrich Albert and the First Guitar Quartet

by Allan Morris

In recent years, guitarists—as well as the wider music world—have embraced the novel medium of the guitar quartet. At the time of this writing, an Internet search of the phrase “guitar quartet” yields in excess of 2500 “hits,” dramatically illustrating the genre’s widespread popularity. Many of these are the World Wide Web home pages of professional quartets, amateur groups, and school ensembles actively promoting their concerts, repertory, and in many cases, their recordings. Now, after the turn of the century, a hundred-year retrospective of the genre would be in order, and the following overview will focus on the activities, personnel, and repertory of perhaps the first professional guitar quartet. This serves as a pretext for an introduction to the life and music of Heinrich Albert (1870-1950), an important German virtuoso guitarist of the early twentieth century.

Guitar quartet activity has become truly international in scope. There are quartets named after the cities of Los Angeles, Vancouver, Tokyo, Prague, Stockholm, and York, with other quartets spread throughout the world. Such international ensembles include the English Guitar Quartet, Argentina’s Santa Fe Quartet, Brazil’s Quarternaglia, Helsinki’s JAM Quartet, Monaco’s Aighetta Quartet, Italy’s Quartetto Federico Moreno-Torroba, Switzerland’s Guitars A Quattro, and Germany’s Guitar 4Mation. The repertory of these quartets includes music specifically written for the genre by contemporary composers, including such names as Joaquin Rodrigo, Federico Moreno-Torroba, and Leo Brouwer, as well as arrangements of every type of music from Bach, Mozart and Stravinsky, to pop songs, tangos, and ragtime.

This worldwide proliferation of active guitar quartets, recordings, publications, and new music prompts the question as to the origins of all this. Who, what, where, and when was the first guitar quartet? Many would consider Los Romeros as the first professional guitar quartet, and it is indeed difficult to find any indications of guitar quartets previous to them. The history of Los Romeros as international concert and recording artists dates back to 1961 when they toured in America for the first time shortly after emigrating from Spain. Originally formed by Celidonio Romero (1913-1996) and his three sons Celin, Pepe, and Angel, the “Royal Family of the Guitar” is still active today with founding members Celin and Pepe joined by Celin’s son Celino and Angel’s son Lito.

Before the era of Los Romeros, however, guitar quartet activity thrived at the amateur and student level, especially in the United States. In 1948, for example, the “Chronicle” of the New York Society of the Classical Guitar mentions that the chairman ” . . .is constantly busy writing arrangements for duos, trios, and quartetts [sic], and these are presented as soon as the players are thoroughly coached.”[1] The International Guitar Research Archives[2] lists a number of guitar quartet arrangements including those by the director of the American Guitar Society, Vahdah Olcott-Bickford (1885-1980), which date from the early twentieth century. There is no reason to doubt that ensemble combinations, including quartets, were regularly heard at various guitar society meetings worldwide.

In the 1950s, the Guitar Music Catalogue of the C.F. Peters Corporation listed two guitar quartets, clearly indicating a demand for such repertory. Arranged by Heinrich Albert, these works were the Quartet Op. 21, by Carulli, and the Quartet Op. 15, by Sor. Both appeared in a series of guitar chamber music entitled Die Gitarre in der Haus- und Kammermusik (1800-1840) originally published by Zimmerman in Frankfurt.[3] An editorial introduction in these publications says that Heinrich Albert, endeavoring to create guitar sounds after the model of the string quartet, formed a guitar quartet before World War I for which he contributed a number of original works and arrangements. The quartets are scored for two guitars (Primgitarren) and two terz guitars (Terzgitarren). The editor points out that the terz guitar was an instrument of the period 1800-1840 that the modern player can duplicate for the arrangements by placing a capo on the third fret of a normal guitar. The introduction also points out that a Quintbassogitarre had been required for the fourth guitar part, but for the edition, was transcribed for modern guitar.

Karl Huber, in a published dissertation[4] on the German guitar scene around the turn of the twentieth century, relates much of the following information on the activities of Albert’s guitar ensemble, the Munich Guitar Quartet. Arguably the first professional guitar quartet, this ensemble performed numerous recitals throughout Southern Germany, and inspired the formation of other guitar quartets.

Their nineteenth-century predecessors active in Vienna, France and Italy primarily influenced guitarists in Germany around the turn of the twentieth century. Names such as Giuliani, Merz, Carulli, and Sor dominated the repertory of the German guitarists. According to Louise Walker, the Spanish School of the twentieth century (i.e. Tarrega, Llobet, Pujol, and Segovia) did not exert influence in Germany until the 1920s.[5] Prominent guitarists and guitar teachers in early twentieth-century Germany and Austria were Heinrich Albert and Hans Bischoff in Munich, Karl Henze in Berlin, Georg Meier in Hamburg, Margarete Müller in Dresden, and Jakob Ortner, Joseph Zuth, Viktor Kolon, and Louise Walker in Vienna. In Munich, there was a particularly large organization of guitarists formed earlier in the nineteenth century called the Internationale Gitarristen-Verband that made Munich much the center of German guitar activity.

Fritz Buek,[6] who sought to bypass the available repertory of nineteenth-century duos and trios, [7] founded the Munich Guitar Quartet in 1907. The string quartet was after all the most important combination of chamber instruments,[8] and Buek sought to emulate its prestige and repertory with a quartet of guitars. The original members were Buek, Hans Ritter, Dr. Hermann Rensch, and Karl Kern—all keen amateur guitarists. Later, in an endeavor to add some musical credibility and leadership to the ensemble, Buek recruited the most famous concert guitarist in Bavaria, Heinrich Albert, to join the quartet, replacing Hans Ritter before their first public concert in 1909.[9]

A key point in the formation of the Munich Guitar Quartet was that they took the range and instrumental disposition of the string quartet as a model. Their solution was an ensemble made up of one normal guitar, two terz guitars, and a quintbassoguitar. A portrait of the ensemble holding their guitars shows a fantastic collection of historical instruments (Figure 1).[10]

Figure 1.  The Munich Guitar Quartet c1914.  Heinrich Albert, Fritz Buek, Hermann Rensch, Karl Kern.

Albert performed on a Terz Bogengitarre (tuned a minor third higher than a normal guitar) that also had several sympathetic strings. Buek played a Lyra-Terzgitarre with 24 frets and also a number of sympathetic strings. Rensch is shown with a Quintbassogitarre (tuned a fifth lower than a normal guitar) with an extra, unfretted bass string. Kern is holding a Wappenformgitarre (an instrument shaped like a large mandolin) with a number of free bass strings, which could have been tuned to a chromatic scale. The combination of these guitars replicated the range of the string quartet, and also provided a variety of instrumental timbres and tones. This ensemble of different guitar types seems to have inspired later quartets, as Huber mentions a guitar quartet active in Berlin after 1925 that played on instruments “after the Munich model.”[11]

The quartet performed numerous times in Munich and toured throughout Bavaria, mostly appearing at guitar society meetings. Their first public concert was in March or April 1909 at a meeting of the Mailänder Mandolin Club of Munich. On April 20, 1912, they appeared before an artistic society in Nuremberg, and performed Anton Diabelli’s Grand Quartetto, Albert’s own composition Menuett, and a guitar quartet by Filippo Gragnani.[12] Albert also performed, as a soloist, the Hungarian Fantasie by Mertz. The quartet appeared regularly with other artists, such as the guitarist Luigi Mozzani[13] in 1910, the violinist Fritz Vogel in Bayreuth in 1912, and the Norwegian “lute-singer” Astrid Jordan[14] in Immenstadt in 1912. Critical reaction to these recitals seems to have been entirely positive, as glowing reviews regularly appeared in the journal Die Gitarrefreund.

The influence of the Munich Guitar Quartet was far-reaching throughout Germany and Austria, as many more ensembles inspired by them appeared after the war. There are indications that guitar quartets were later active in Berlin, Vienna, Brünn, Stettin, Reichenberg, Stuttgart, and Darmstadt. Because they sought out historic as well as contemporary repertory, the Munich Guitar Quartet motivated the creation of a number of arrangements and original works for the medium. Matthäus Roemer, a student of Albert, produced quartet compositions after 1918, as did the prominent Munich guitarist Heinz Bischoff. Other composers who produced works for the quartet were Markus Schwerdhöfer and Heinrich Scherrer.

After the war, Albert left the quartet, and they carried on through the 1920s with his position on first terz guitar filled by Hermann Hauser (1882-1952). The fame Hauser would later enjoy, as one of the great guitar builders of the twentieth century, is attributable to his time with the quartet. He was exposed to the practical side of performing on historical guitars, and applied this experience to further develop the techniques of the nineteenth-century Viennese guitar builders. This influence, combined with a study of the Torres-type guitar brought to Germany in the 1920s by Miguel Llobet, factored into the refinement of his guitar-building skills.

The success of the Munich Guitar Quartet, and the inspiration for quartet activities that followed, owed much to the musical guidance of Heinrich Albert. Unfortunately, most guitarists today know little of his work and career. Albert was born in Warzburg in 1870, and as a teenager studied piano, violin, and horn. Before the age of 24, he had traveled as an orchestral musician to Switzerland, Sweden, and Russia. In 1894, upon entering a music shop in Trieste and overhearing Silvio Negri practicing the guitar, he was immediately inspired to take lessons on the instrument. He took to it naturally, and by 1895 was frequently working as a chamber music guitarist in Munich. In 1900, Albert was appointed guitarist of the Royal Theater, and in 1909 the ruling dynasty of Munich honored him with the title “Court Chamber Virtuoso.”[15] As a brilliant performer, he achieved fame throughout Germany and Austria, displaying astonishing skill and a rich, colorful sound. Louise Walker later recalled Albert as a handsome, soft-spoken man with steel-blue eyes set against a fair complexion and white-streaked hair.[16] After 1920, his fame and influence began to fade, however, as most German guitarists, along with much of Europe, turned to the mentoring influence of Tarrega, and adopted the techniques and repertory of the Spanish School. Even though he remained active as a soloist, accompanist, and chamber musician into the 1940s, Albert was practically forgotten by the time of his death in 1950. Some feel it was the technical and musical efforts of both Tarrega and Albert that initiated a twentieth-century renaissance of the guitar, and that the pioneering genius of Albert has been misunderstood, neglected, and unjustly overshadowed by the accomplishments of Tarrega.[17]

Albert’s compositions for guitar date from 1895. His works list includes many solos, duos, trios, songs, and chamber works employing various combinations of instruments with guitar. He published a detailed guitar method (Lehrgang für künstlerisches Gitarrespiel), a series on interpretation (Solospielsudien in drei Heften), and a collection of 66 etudes in 6 volumes. Of particular interest are his two original guitar quartets, composed before World War I, which were the first experiments in this genre. Zimmerman published both these quartets under a title that translates as “Two Quartets for 4 Guitars (2 terz guitars and 2 first guitars, or a Quintbasso guitar for the 4th part) by Chamber Virtuoso Heinrich Albert.” The first quartet, dating from perhaps as early as 1907, is titled “Quartet No. 1 in 4 movements” and the second, dating from 1913, is “Quartet No. 2 in C-minor.”[18] Huber, who reproduces the first movement of Quartet No. 1 transcribed for four equal guitars, describes it as having a strong classical element, clearly modeled after typical 4-movement sonatas.[19]

Albert’s transcriptions and arrangements for guitar quartet included the previously mentioned works by Diabelli and Gragnani, as well as the two published in the series Die Gitarre in der Haus- und Kammermusik 1800-1840. From these indications, it is clear that the arrangements performed by the Munich Guitar Quartet would have appealed primarily to guitarists. In fact, promotional material labeled the repertory of the Munich Guitar Quartet as “Pearls of old and new guitar literature . . .. Performed with impeccable purity and artistic taste.”[20] Albert did not arrange well-known string quartets or piano music that would have broadened the appeal of the quartet to a wider public, but rather concentrated on the limiting repertory of nineteenth-century guitar chamber music. This separates Albert from Tarrega, Llobet, and later, Segovia, as the Spaniards arranged and performed the piano works of Albeniz and Granados, as well as the music of Bach, Handel, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Chopin. The popularity and influence of the Spanish School resulted from their efforts to place the guitar firmly in the mainstream of instrumental music making.

Albert’s arrangement of Fernando Sor’s Sonata Op. 15b is worth closer attention, as the notion of taking a work for solo guitar and arranging it for guitar quartet was certainly a fascinating and original innovation.[21] The sonata seems to have been particularly suited for such an arrangement, since Brian Jeffery describes it as ” . . . an uncompromising work, developing its ideas to the full and concentrating on musical values rather than on what the guitar can easily do.”[22] Albert calls for the first and second terz guitars to play in the original key of C-major which effectively changes the concert, or sounding key, to Eb-major. Then, employing a number of techniques, such as octave doublings, filled-in harmonies, and expansion of the range and textural depth, he creates a highly effective arrangement that stands on its own as a quartet. An example of the opening of the work shows a few of these techniques, offering a new perspective on a familiar work for solo guitar (Example 1). Surely, present day guitar quartet ensembles should explore the repertory left by this pioneer of the genre.

From Munich in the years before World War I, to today’s worldwide popularity and proliferation of these ensembles, the history of the guitar quartet distinctively spans the twentieth century. The first such ensemble, the Munich Guitar Quartet, provided a model for the formation of other quartets, inspired a number of composers to write and arrange for the new medium, and was a major factor in the education of influential luthier Hermann Hauser. Heinrich Albert’s key role at the turn of the century formed a link between nineteenth-century guitar tradition, and the Spanish school of Tarrega. His musical activities, devoted to the guitar quartet medium for a number of years, prepared the way for the twentieth-century guitar renaissance that spread from Spain, through Germany and Central Europe, and then throughout the world.


Bone, Philip J. The Guitar and Mandoline: Biographies of Celebrated Players and Composers. London: 1914.

Hoek, Jan-Anton van. Die Gitarrenmusik im 19. Jahrhundert: Geschichte, Technik, Interpretation. Wilhelmshaven: Heinrichshofen, 1983.

Huber, Karl. Die Wiederbelebung des künstlerischen Gitarrespiels um 1900: Untersuchungen zur Sozialgeschichte des Laienmusikwesens und zur Tradition der klassischen Gitarre. Augsburg: Lisardo, 1995.

Prat, Domingo. Diccionario de Guitarristas. Buenos Aires: 1934.

Prowrozniak, Józef. Gitarren-Lexikon. Berlin: Neue Musik, 1988.

Walker, Louise. Eine Leben mit der Gitarre. Frankfurt: Zimmermann, 1989.

Zuth, Josef. Handbuch der Laute und Gitarre. Vienna: 1926.


[1] Guitar Review 8 (1949), p. 48. Back

[2] Found online at

For an introduction to this resource, see Ron Purcell, “Vadah Olcott-Bickford: The International Guitar Research Archives,” Guitar Review 111 (Winter, 1998), pp. 1-9. Back

[3] The quartet by Carulli is an arrangement of the Sonata in A-major, Op. 21, No. 1 for piano and guitar, and the quartet by Sor is an arrangement of the Sonata in C-major, Op. 15b for solo guitar. Back

[4] Karl Huber, Die Wiederbelebung des künstlerischen Gitarrespiels um 1900: Untersuchungen zur Sozialgeschichte des Laienmusikwesens und zur Tradition der klassischen Gitarre (Augsburg: Lisardo, 1995). Back

[5] See Louise Walker, Ein Leben mit der Gitarre (Frankfurt: Zimmermann, 1989), p. 34. Back

[6] Fritz Buek (1864-1942) was by profession a painter in Munich, and a competent amateur guitarist. He served as director of the Munich Guitar Society from 1908-1938 and was editor of the German guitar journal Die Gitarrefreund.  He also wrote Die Gitarre und ihre Meister (Berlin, 1926). Back

[7] There are a number of original guitar trios from the nineteenth century by such composers as Anton Diabelli, Marc’Aurelio Zani de Ferranti, Filippo Gragnani, and Antoine L’Hoyer. I have recently learned that there is in fact a guitar quartet published by L’Hoyer, dating from c1825. Back

[8] Quartets for four identical instruments, like guitar quartets, are rare in the genres of chamber music.  Michael Tilmouth, in the New Grove Dictionary (1980) article “Quartet” (Vol. 15, pp. 498-99) does not even consider quartets for four equal voices.  He cites the string quartet and piano quartet as the most important combinations in chamber music. Back

[9] Hans Ritter (1878-1950) would later form an ensemble called the Munich Guitar Chamber Trio. Back

[10] Die Gitarrefreund (1914/1), p. 1. Back

[11] See Huber, p. 167. Back

[12] The Menuet is perhaps a movement from one of Albert’s two original guitar quartets (more information to follow). The other works were probably the guitar trios by these composers (Diabelli, Op. 62 and Gragnani, Op. 12) for which Albert arranged a fourth part—most likely a bass part exploiting the extended range of the quintbassoguitar. Back

[13] Luigi Mozzani (1869-1943) was a celebrated Italian virtuoso who had lived in Germany from 1900.  He was famous for the novelty of being able to produce a mandolin-like tremolo on the guitar using his fingernails. Just as Huber claims that Albert was as influential as Tarrega, Angelo Gilardino emphasizes the importance of Mozzani as the Italian equivalent of Tarrega.  See Guitar Review 115 (Winter 1999), p. 5 and p. 15. Back

[14] Jordan often performed song recitals in Munich accompanied by Heinrich Albert from about 1910. Back

[15] Kammervirtuosen der Könnigin. Back

[16] Louise Walker, p. 34. Back

[17] In addition to Huber, Jan-Anton van Hoek expresses this point of view in Die Gitarrenmusik im 19. Jahrhundert: Geschichte, Technik, Interpretation (Wilhelmshaven: Heinrichshofen, 1983), pp. 81-84. Back

[18] The original German is: SPIELMUSIC FÜR / GITARRE ODER LAUTE / ZWEI Quartette / für 4 Gitarren / 2 Terz- und 2 Primgitarren oder eine Quintbasso-Gitarre für die 4re Stimme / von / Kammervirtuos / Heinrich Albert . . . N°1 Quartett in 4 Sätzen . . . N°2 Quartett in C moll.  Leipzig: Zimmermann. Back

[19] Huber, p. 232.  The titles of the individual movements are 1. Allegro con brio (Sonata form), 2. Andante religioso, 3. Menuett, 4. Rondo. Back

[20] Perlen der älteren und neureren Gitarreliterature . . . in tadelloser Reinheit und künstlerischen Geschmack vorgetragen. Back

[21] Gilbert Biberian has also recomposed this work for guitar quartet, and he states that Heinrich Albert’s arrangement provided the incentive to create a more substantial work based on Sor’s music.  This is published as: Sor-Biberian, Quartet in C for Four Guitars (New York: Belwin Mills, 1977). Back

[22] Brian Jeffrey, Fernando Sor: Composer and Guitarist (London: Tecla Editions, 1977), p. 37. Back

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