Even with the distance of time, Ida Presti is for many of us the greatest guitarist of this century” Ako Ito, 1984
Ida Presti was one of the most extraordinary classical guitarists of the twentieth century. She was a child prodigy who attracted acclaim from the eminent musicians and composers of the age. She is now best known for her guitar duets with her husband and long-time collaborator, Alexandre Lagoya although her earlier solo performances and compositions are now regaining interest with contemporary performers and securing her name as one of the great musicians of all time.
“Our Child Will Become a Great Guitarist”
It would appear that Presti’s father, Claude Montagnon, had her future planned before her birth. The story goes that after returning from a recital by the great Spanish guitarist, Andres Segovia, Montagnon declared to his heavily pregnant wife that, “Our child will become a great guitarist.” It is unlikely that this expectant father would know quite the prescience of his declaration.
Presti was born, Yvette Montagnon on 16th September 1924 in a suburb of Paris. True to his word, Claude Montagnon became his daughter’s first guitar teacher from the age of six. He took the decision that Ida Presti (taking her Sicilian mother’s maiden name) was more fitting for a guitar virtuoso and her first performances were under this nom de plume. She also received lessons in music theory from acclaimed Italian luthier, Mario Maccaferri, who is best remembered for making Django Reindhardt’s guitars of choice.
Presti’s first public performance came at the age of eight and in 1935, at the age of ten, she performed her first full-length concert in Paris at the Salle Pleyel. News of the prodigy spread and in 1937 she made her first recording with the HMV record label. She was the only musician under twelve to ever be invited to perform at the Pasdeloup concerts and the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire for two consecutive years.
A miracle of facility and grace. Emile Pujol, 1935
In September 1938 Claude Montagnon died from a heart attack and the 13 year old Presti became the sole bread-winner for her mother and sister. Little is known of Presti’s life during the Second World War in Paris other than she married her first husband, Henry Rigaud in 1943 and a year later her daughter, Elizabeth was born. With her father’s strict influence now gone, Presti enjoyed nightclubs and playing with the Spanish gypsy musicians. By all accounts she lived a rather bohemian lifestyle at this time and loved to sing folk songs with her friends until the early hours.
The Female Mozart
Shortly after the end of the war, Presti visited the home of André Verdier, president of the Amis de la Guitare (Friends of the Guitar) of Paris. She was received with much admiration and it was here, many years later, that she met fellow guitarist, Alexandre Lagoya.
In 1948 Presti was invited to perform the Paris premiere of Joaquín Rodrigo’s celebrated Concierto de Aranjuez at Théâtre des Champs Elysées. The honour for such a young guitarist shouldn’t be underestimated. The Spanish premiere in Barcelona had been performed by renowned guitarist and composer, Regino Sainz de la Maza who was 46 and at the height of his career.
Kotzia noted that “Ida Presti was not only a child prodigy possessing at an early age a technique enviable even by today’s standards. In her twenties ‘The Female Mozart’, as some music critics hailed her, never ceased to astonish her audiences with her fabulous playing and her youthful exuberance.”
Partnership with Alexandre Lagoya
Presti met fellow guitarist Alexandre Lagoya in 1951 and a year later they married. They began performing as a duo alongside Presti’s career as a soloist. In 1956, Presti took the decision to play exclusively with her husband as the Duo Presti-Lagoya.
Over the next ten years a number of new pieces were written especially for the duo by composers including Rodrigo, Pierre Petit and Federico Moreno Torroba. They also composed themselves and developed the repertoire guitar duets considerably. They toured extensively and racked up over 2,000 performances across the world.
The Legacy of Ida Presti
Presti died tragically young, at the age of 42 whilst on tour of the United States. Although some mystery surrounds the exact circumstances it appears likely that she died of a haemorrhage caused by an undiagnosed tumour on the lung. Her death was mourned by the classical music community across the globe.
Her talent as a composer has received increased attention in recent years and many of the world’s great classical guitarist have included Presti in their repertoires. This piece, performed by Australian guitarist, Meredith Connie, was written for Andres Segovia by Presti in 1962. Let’s hope Ida Presti’s extraordinary contribution to classical guitar through both performance and composition continues to gain recognition and her name is remembered alongside Segovia which whom such mutual respect was held.
“She played so well, that you couldn’t realise she played well, because you received the music in such an accomplished way that you were allowed to forget she was playing an instrument.” Andres Segovia
Further reading on Ida Presti
Eleftheria Kotzia: “Wish You Were Here: Ida Presti 1924-1967”, in: Classical Guitar, May 1992.
Candice Mowbray: “Ida Presti as a Solo Performer and Composer of Works for Solo Guitar”, 2012