The Hungarian Fantasy: a new creative approach to Mertz’s works

The guitar knows a contradiction that is perhaps unique in the music world: in fact, most of its original repertoire cannot reasonably be considered as such. I believe that all my readers will agree that pieces such as the Sonata by A.Josè or the Invocacion et Danse by J.Rodrigo cannot be considered under any point of view original works for guitar, except for the instrumental destination mentioned in the title. Their manuscripts are series of passages sometimes practically unplayable and require a remarkable arrangement work by the interpreter, in order to be satisfactorily performed from an instrumental and musical point of view. However, the contradiction reaches the paradox when one moves on to a repertoire that is considered above suspicion 'original'. If instruments such as the 5-choir baroque guitar or the German baroque lute are evidently different from the modern guitar (in terms of structure, number of strings, tuning, techniques used etc) the situation becomes more complicated when the degree of similarity with our instrument increases. The romantic guitar and its repertoire (from Sor to Regondi) are considered to be untouchable pillars of our musical world, and rightly so. In fact, they gave us unforgettable masterpieces which are the basis of our musical and instrumental education still nowadays. Yet, as strange as it may sound, even this repertoire cannot be considered completely original. Giuliani, for example, constantly used the thumb of his left hand as an active finger on the keyboard. Some passages are therefore almost unplayable with due fluency and require a 'transcription' for modern guitar and sometimes very adventurous fingering changes.

However, one of the composers where the paradox reaches almost grotesque levels is J.K.Mertz. Perhaps enchanted by the beauty of some of his 'original' works, we forget that some of them were composed for an instrument that has little in common with ours, both in terms of structure and techniques used. Analyzing one of Mertz's most loved and performed pieces, the Hungarian Fantasy (FU), I would like to offer you a new, more creative approach to his repertoire. Therefore, in this blog you will find some enlightening examples which will show you what kind of remarkable problems with are confronted with when studying this music. Nevertheless, you will also find suggestions on how to troubleshoot them thanks to strategies which you can use, if you wish, also for other works by Mertz which present the same type of problems.

David and Goliath

(David doesn't always win)

Here is a photo of the guitar for which Mertz composed the FU:

As we can see, the instrument has 10 strings, 4 of which are floating basses placed obliquely with respect to the strings. The reason for their position is that one could continue to use the thumb of the left hand on the fretboard on the 6th string. The disadvantages of performing a work conceived for this instrument on a modern six-string guitar are therefore more than evident. It would be like to ask a pianist to play Beethoven’s op.111 on Mozart's fortepiano without using the thumbs of both hands. Still, the FU is considered without hesitation an original piece and is treated in all guitar competitions and Conservatories programs as such!

Rhythmic and melodic interference

caused by the octave raising

The most obvious problem we encounter is that the range/tuning of our guitar does not allow us to play at the right high the low notes of the floating basses. The only option we have is to raise them by one octave and yet, this method involves more complications than we might think. Let's take, for instance, this exemplary passage:

By analyzing it schematically we can find out the 3 following structural elements:

- A melody at the top voice

- An accompaniment part consisting of a bass voice (in red with 'x') and an internal voice with repeated chords (in blue).

The issue to be resolved most urgently is undoubtedly adapting the octave of the Dx. For this reason, in almost all the recordings or performances that I have had the opportunity to listen to, the problem is solved simply by raising the Dx by one octave. In doing so, however, we obtain the following rhythmic scenario in the lower part:

The Dx and the Dx of the accompaniment are now at the same height and, due to the missing change of octave present in the original, they collide and blend, producing an acoustic illusion such that the bass line is perceived as a sequence of 7 consecutive D (followed by C# - B, green rectangle). The effect is very clumsy, especially in view of the fact that the original version included a typical 'um-pa-pa-pa' accompaniment that we had already heard in the two preceding bars:

On the contrary, by only arising the Dx we obtain: pa-pa-pa-pa pa-pa-pa-pa etc. Really very inelegant! The solution is simple and also easy to perform:

The Dx simply replaces the blue Dx.

Other passages in which we encounter a similar problem are the following and can be solved, with the right dose of creativity, by following the same principle previously adopted.

  • Original:

  • Arrangement:

Another example:

  • Original:

  • Arrangement:

(in the last two chords of example C, for a proper conduct of the voices, the C in the third space has been removed)

Low, too low

(after F. Nietzsche)

In this very interesting passage no less than 3 basses (red squared) are used melodically. This puts us, at first sight, in front of an unsolvable problem.

  • Original:

The three basses in the red rectangle are obviously unplayable on a six-string guitar. How then can we keep this sense of descent till the B (8va) and then go back up to the E at the very end of the cadenza? In this case, we need to use the Lateral Thinking, that is, to exit the logical system to enter the creative one. Below I propose the solution that, among the many that I have found, seems to me the most suitable for the virtuosic gesture of this passage.

  • Arrangement:

Instead of raising only the 3 basses by one octave (and upsetting the line by creating a zigzag in the melody very far from the original idea) I chose to implement this procedure to the whole cadenza.

Short, too short

(see above)

In the following example, simply raising an octave of the bass D will inevitably result in the cessation of its sound.

  • Original:

  • Arrangement (A = D stops after the third chord, B = the chord lasts till the fourth to last chord of the bar):

The only way to hold the D throughout the bar is to arrange it like this:

In the same way, you can arrange the same passage, chromatically varied, which appears a little later, also because it seems that it is the only way to keep the low D throughout the bar.

  • Original:

  • Arrangement:

The following passage presents a further complication: indeed, the bass, once raised, does not correspond to an open string and yet must continue to resonate throughout the measure.

  • Original:

We are therefore forced firstly to raise the C by one octave and then to adapt the structure of the chord and the fingering of the rest of the passage so that the bass can last, if not for all its value, at least for a large part of it:

  • Arrangement:


The tonal field of C Major is prepared unequivocally by the previous cadence of dominant, so we can without major problems remove the E from the chord. Furthermore, immediately afterwards there is an E in the melody which thus immediately completes the already obvious C major harmony.

The thumb as a pedal trigger

We have just mentioned the dominant cadence preceding the passage illustrated above. This puts us in front of a series of problems connected with the use on the {6} string of the thumb of the left hand (indicated by the sign ^). Indeed, we should not only seek a finger for replacing it but also take into consideration which consequences has the fact that, in some cases, it could remain on the fret for a longer duration than that indicated by the value of the note on which was placed.

  • Original:

In our case, it seems evident that Mertz's fingering implies a dominant pedal on the note G, for the thumb can easily remain on the fret till the end of the bar. A standard fingering on modern guitar (with a barrè at III, using thus the 1 on the G) will cause the damping of the G on the fourth eighth of the bar, due to the necessary change of position from III to I. If we want to preserve the SOL until the end of the measure, we will be forced to arrange the fingering in the following way.


When I grow up I'll be a piano

The last example is strictly related to the constructive aspect of the 10-string guitar, let's see it.

  • Original:

An execution on a 6-string guitar, apart from raising an octave of the A with the symbol 8va and omitting the subsequent A (loco) in order to avoid a clash within the 2 notes, must also consider the fact that on the Mertz guitar the A of the {10} string is at a considerable distance from the {5} string, a distance that the thumb of the right hand must cover in order to pulsate the two A in succession. This causes a rather larger time space between the two notes, producing a piano-like effect of broken chord, like in the following example.

  • R.Schumann: Fantasia op.17, III mvt (Langsam getragen):

Therefore, a performance on a 6-string guitar might look like this.

  • Arrangement:

Or even, considering the rather slow tempo (Maestoso), one could play even on a 10 strings guitar with this rhythm:


All works by Mertz confront us with the problems dealt with in this article, and many passages of them require our work as arrangers. The fact that the composer systematically used the thumb of his left-hand does not spare us even the works he composed for six-string guitar. With this blog, I hope I have given you a small but clear guide to untangle you in the jungle of bass and thumbs of this beautiful music.

I thank you heartily for having read this blog until the end and hope it will be of some use for you. Please, share your thoughts on this topic in the comment section below, they are very welcome! Take care and see you next time!



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