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Manuel Y. Ferrer was regarded during his lifetime as one of America’s finest virtuoso guitarists. He was born in San Antonio, Baja California (Mexico) of Spanish parents. During childhood he displayed a musical gift and was fond of strumming his parent’s guitar, so thrilled with the sound that he constructed a crude imitation of their instrument. Later, he commenced the serious study of the guitar in earnest, and when about eighteen, left his native town, travelling by stage coach to Santa Barbara, in Alta California.

He met a priest at mission Santa Barbara, a skilled guitarist, who gave him advanced instructions. Ferrer trained diligently, with the heightened enthusiasm that would gradually established his reputation in the musical world. In 1850 he moved to San Francisco, where his public debut took place at a guitar concert in the Metropolian Theatre on September 18, 1854. On November 22 of the following year, he performed with pianist Gustave A. Scott and harpist William McKorkell at the Music Hall.

Ferrer taught guitar and performed in San Francisco for fifty years. His wife Jesusita de Vivar was also a musician, as were three of his ten children: Adele (guitar), Carmelita (mandolin), and Ricardo (violin). The family toured in the east in 1891, where they performed at the White House and the Vanderbilt mansion in New York. His public appearances as a guitar soloist, and also as a member of a guitar quartet, were very frequent in the San Francisco Bay Area.

He was a born musician, who possessed an intense and accurate musical memory, and a very refined ear. Ferrer was a member of the famous Bohemian Cub of San Francisco, to whom he dedicated his mazurka, Alexandrina in the present volume. For several years he was conductor of the mandolin band, El Mandolinita. The music performed by this orchestra was solely Ferrer’s compositions and arrangements. He published numerous pieces for guitar solo, but many of his works remained in manuscript. (Whether they have survived or not is not known to the current editor.) One of his students, Vahdah Olcott Bickford, organized the first guitar society in America, the American Guitar Society (1923). Mrs. Bickford, herself a distinguished guitarist, describes her teacher in the following passage:

In stature Ferrer was short, with dark complexion and small piercing black eyes. When I knew him, his jet black hair was tinged with grey. He was kind and gentle to a degree and a man of very few words. In his teaching, however, he was very methodical and strict, though not unnecessarily harsh, invariably playing with the pupil, and though three or four years previous to his death he broke his arm, so that his hand was apparently stiff, he still possessed a wonderful execution. He did not retain the astonishing brilliancy and dazzling technique of his youth, as he was past his seventieth year then; but to me there is a quality more beautiful and effective than dazzling brilliancy — the soulful quality — and Ferrer possessed this in a high degree with a sufficient amount of the former.

When Ferrer touched the strings of the guitar, the sounds entered the heart, and his chords made music which lifted the soul to a higher plane. One of his favourite solos was his arrangement of a selection from Puccini’s La Bohème , which remains in manuscript. His last original composition entitled: Arbor Villa a mazurka, was written two years before his death, and is also unpublished, and I am proud to possess a copy written by his own hand.

He taught the guitar up to the time of his death, which occurred very suddenly on June 1, 1904. He had gone from his home in Oakland to San Francisco to teach, and gave several lessons, when he was suddenly taken ill, and went to the home of his daughter. Later he was removed to hospital, where he died the same day, his third wife surviving him for several years.

Oliver Ditson of Boston published this volume of his works, two hundred and twenty-seven pages of guitar solos, songs with guitar and a few duos for two guitars. It is surprising that a musician that was so nationally and internationally famous in the 19th century is almost unknown today, even to fellow guitarists. Very little information about his life remains. An obituary in the San Francisco Morning Call, October 9, 1888, tells of the funeral services held for his eldest daughter Jovita, who lived to be 28.

Just prior to his death he was engaged in a second volume, which was nearing completion. Ferrer transcribed compositions that he found most suited for the guitar, and these are so adapted that they appear as if originally composed for the guitar. His thorough fingering and indications for various right-hand techniques are explained in his introduction to this volume, which was first published in 1882. Ferrer has organized the volume into four parts: Easy, Medium Difficulty, Difficult and Vocal Music with guitar accompaniment.
Grateful acknowledgement is due the Oakland Public Library for the 2002 edition.

Philip J.Bone: The Guitar & Mandoline: Biographies of Celebrated Players and Composers, London:Schott & Co.LTD. First edition 1914, second enlarged 1954, reprint of second edition with new preface, 1972.

Mary Kay Duggan: The California Sheet Music Project, Berkeley, California.

Listen to
"Alexandrina" (Mazurka)

Mazurka, Waltz, Schottish
by Manuel Y. Ferrer


The works of Manuel Y. Ferrer were collected in an album entitled Compositions and Arrangements for the Guitar published in San Francisco in 1882 and reprinted in Boston by Oliver Ditson in 1915. A number of his pieces arranged for piano also appear in the sheet music collection. The album is spiral-bound with clear plastic covers and sturdy for regular use.


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