Fifty years ago, the study of guitar history was in a rudimentary state (woefully short on verifiable facts, and worryingly long on unsubstantiated anecdotes), with even professional performers having little idea of the full extent and richness of their instrument’s repertoire. A key figure in the emergence of guitar history as a formal area of study was Tom Heck, whose death was announced recently. A fine obituary paying tribute to his long life and his many achievements (which extended far beyond the guitar) can be found in a newspaper from Santa Barbara (his home town since 2001) at
So here (on behalf of my Consortium colleagues) I would like to concentrate specifically on his key contribution to the history and understanding of the guitar.
Many of us first encountered Tom’s name, thanks to his groundbreaking PhD thesis: “The birth of the classic guitar and its cultivation in Vienna, reflected in the career and compositions of Mauro Giuliani (d.1829)” (Yale University, 1970). As its name suggests, this thesis sought to locate the roots of the modern guitar (especially in Italy) during the late eighteenth century, and demonstrated how the Italian virtuoso Giuliani had been a key figure in developing the instrument’s popularity in early-nineteenth-century Vienna. The depth and originality of Tom’s research (much of it conducted in Austria in 1968-9, thanks to a Fulbright Fellowship), his meticulous attention to detail, and his ability to place guitar history within a wider musical context were a revelation to younger scholars like me when I first encountered it. I can still remember the deep impression that this thesis made on me when I was able to read it in London (via a rare microfilm copy) in 1983. I learned a great deal about Giuliani’s life and work, but more importantly, this thesis set the gold standard for how all research into plucked instruments should be conducted. Thankfully, the essence of this pioneering work eventually became much more widely available, when it was published in book form as “Mauro Giuliani: Virtuoso Guitarist and Composer” (Columbus: Editions Orphée, 1995).
Years later, I was able to meet Tom in person in Cambridge, when he became a founding member of the Consortium for Guitar Research at Sidney Sussex. Unassuming, immensely knowledgeable, and with a quietly subversive sense of humour, he was generous and helpful to colleagues, endlessly curious to learn about newly rediscovered guitar music, and willing to discuss different ways of looking at guitar history. He was always open to new ideas, and was never defensive about his own work, because its quality and reliability still speaks for itself, more than half a century after its first appearance. He and his wife Anne became frequent visitors to the UK, and Tom regularly attended our gatherings until his failing health finally prevented him from travelling a couple of years ago.
For much of his career, Tom worked as a librarian, being director of the Music and Dance Library at The Ohio State University for more than two decades. He was also one of the founding members of the Guitar Foundation of America (1973), whose journal Soundboard is well known to guitarists worldwide. In 2015, he also created a special annual edition, entitled Soundboard Scholar, which concentrated more exclusively on historical research.
The Consortium for Guitar Research has now been in existence for more than a decade, and the death of a member is one of the sad inevitabilities of life. But Tom leaves behind him a legacy of scholarship that sets the standard for the rest of us, as well as many fond memories of a funny, warm, and exemplary colleague.