How Barrios was rescued from obscurity

Authos Graham Wade

AGUSTÍN BARRIOS MANGORÉ died fifty years ago on 7 August, 1944. The posthumous history of his reputation from gross neglect to a position of permanence in the central pantheon of the repertoire is one of the most remarkable aspects of recent guitar developments. Laurindo Almeida, one of the earliest advocates for Barrios, recorded two of his works, Preludio para Guitarra opus 5 and Chôro da Saudade, in the 1950s on an album entitled Guitar Music of Latin America (Capitol P832 1). Preludio (op. 5 no. 1) had been published by Ricordi Americana (Buenos Aires) in 1957, following an early edition of La Catedral by Mondo Guarani (Buenos Aires, 1955). Vals op. 8 no. 4 was published in 1959, also by Ricordi Americana. Laurindo Almeida’s sleeve notes revealed the following information about an otherwise unknown and somewhat mysterious composer:

Agustín Barrios was born in Paraguay and died in San Salvador in 1944. But his success as a guitarist throughout South America truly made him a kind of international citizen. He began playing the guitar as a young boy and quickly became a virtuoso. To expand the capabilities of his chosen instrument, he frequently tuned the two lowest strings a whole tone below the normal tuning of E and A and also used steel strings instead of gut…

The same wording was used almost a decade later when Almeida’s edition of La Catedral appeared (pub. Brazilliance Music Publishing Inc. 1968), by which time he had also issued his version of Aconquija from Suite Andina (undated, Brazilliance Music, no. 69).

Laurindo Almeida must therefore be regarded as one of the pioneer advocates of the music of Barrios, though neither his recordings nor his editions seem to have attracted the attention they merited for bringing to light the music of an exciting artist long neglected. The next recording of music by Barrios appeared on Portrait of the Guitar (CBS 61654) by José Luis González (1968) with an interpretation of Medallon Antiguo. The sleeve notes duly mentioned that little was known about the composer ‘except that he was of Indian descent and was a gifted guitarist and composer’.

The final phase of Barrios’ obscurity was marked by a celebrated recording by Alirio Díaz of Aire de Zamba, Danza Paraguaya, and Cueca, on Guitar Music of Spain and Latin America (EMI HQS 1175) in 1970. Díaz’ editions of Danza Paraguaya (1973), Cueca (1976) and Aire de Zamba (1977) were published by Edizioni G. Zanibon (Padua, Italy), but by then the veil of mysteriousness had been lifted and the name of Barrios was beginning to feature in concert programmes and guitar periodicals throughout the world. This was a considerable change. Three popular histories of the classical guitar, The Art and Times of the Guitar by Frederic V. Grunfeld (New York: Macmillan, 1969), The Illustrated History of the Guitar by Alexander Bellow (New York: Colombo, 1970), and Harvey Turnbull’s The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present Day (London: Batsford, 1974), had not deemed Barrios worth a single mention, such was his apparent insignificance in twentieth-century guitar history. This unfortunate embargo was broken in Guitars: from the Renaissance to Rock (London: Paddington Press, 1977) by Tom and Mary Evans, who provided the reader with several paragraphs of information on the composer though they dismissed his music, which ‘appears exciting and attractive (and is often extremely difficult to play)’, as ‘ultimately “salon” music’. (p 215)

The difference in the world’s awareness of Barrios over the course of the 1970s was brought about by the work of John Williams, whose whole-hearted advocacy of the composer gave authority and meaning to new perspectives of twentieth-century guitar developments. Williams did not allow himself the luxury of dismissing Barrios as a mere ‘salon’ composer but recognised in his music enduring qualities of great importance to our understanding of guitar history. Far from being a minor and obscure figure from the Paraguayan jungle, Barrios was acknowledged as a central force in the evolution of the guitar after Tárrega. After giving many recitals dedicated to Barrios, as well as numerous radio broadcasts and television appearances, Williams eventually released his long awaited Barrios album, John Williams–Barrios (John Williams Plays the Music of Barrios) (CBS 76662, issued in 1977, and later issued on compact disc, Latin American Guitar Music by Barrios and Ponce, Sony SBK 47669, 1991. Williams recorded his first Barrios composition, Danza Paraguaya in 1973 on CBS 73205.) His sleeve notes to the 1977 recording are an enthusiastic statement of missionary zeal:

Barrios is increasingly appreciated today as the outstanding guitarist-composer of his time, I would say of any time, for the qualities of inventiveness and obvious love of the instrument. He was the first guitarist to make records from 1909, and the first to play a complete Bach lute suite on the guitar. As well as being a virtuoso player, he composed hundreds of pieces, some in baroque style showing his affection and reverence for Bach, many inspired by the nineteenth-century romantics like Chopin, and others simply expressing himself through the popular song and dance forms of Latin American countries.

In the sleeve notes Williams thanked his friends Robert Tucker and Jason Waldron for their work in Barrios research, including the making of ‘accurate transcriptions’, and also acknowledged his debt to Carlos Payet of San Salvador, who had provided a number of unpublished pieces in 1969. Over the years a considerable degree of competitiveness has arisen in the compilation of Barrios editions. Among the earliest compilations to be published were the four volumes by Richard D. Stover, entitled The Guitar Works of Agustín Barrios Mangoré (Belwin Mills, New York) issued as ‘The First Definitive Collection’. Of these, volume one appeared in 1976, volumes two and three a year later, and volume four in 1985. Stover collected these works during two trips to Central America and his preface to each volume sets out his intentions:

This collection is the first comprehensive publication of the entire works of Agustín Barrios Mangoré, first guitarist/composer from the New World of truly universal importance. The significance of the works of Mangoré centers in their definition of a newer, more complex level of technique, influenced by but evolving independently from European models. The maturation of the guitaristic art as it is practised in the countries of Iberoamérica has flowered in the genius of Barrios Mangoré.

This edition is not analytical nor comparative in its scope; it is designed for the performer student and teacher. All accidentals are given as found in the original manuscripts…

Stover also mentions that Barrios made recordings, circa 1915–30, and that ‘when applicable, the recorded version has been taken as the preferred and final form’. The four books offer a total of eighty compositions, including transcriptions such as the Adagio from Beethoven’s Sonata op. 27, no. 2 (Moonlight). Items not included in the four volumes were published separately in 1979 by Belwin Mills and include Sueño en la Floresta, Maxixe, Cueca, and Vals op. 8, no. 3.

A year after Stover’s first volume appeared, the Zen-On Music Company of Tokyo, Japan began publication of a four-volume Barrios compendium, edited by Jesus Benites R. Numbers one and two appeared in 1977, number three in 1979, and number four in 1982. The collection offers eighty-seven items, including a few transcriptions. Editorially the volumes offer few concessions to the West, giving the preface only in Japanese (though at least the titles are put into English as well as Japanese).

In 1978 Richard Stover published two articles in Soundboard, vol. 5, nos 2 and 3, under the title of Agustín Barrios Mangoré: forgotten master of the guitar. These two biographical essays provided the forerunner to Stover’s monumental full length biography, Six Silver Moonbeams: the life and times of Agustín Barrios Mangoré (Clovis, CA: Querico Publications 1992). Stover’s investigations into Barrios had begun in 1974 when he was an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Cruz. In his acknowledgments Stover comments:

After initial field research in Central America and Mexico, I was somewhat amazed by the fact that I had discovered something of great importance for the guitar: the legacy of a genius who died forgotten and whose life and work had somehow become intertwined with mine as if almost by destiny.

The focus on Barrios was further intensified by the publication in 1980 of a double LP featuring none other than the original recordings, entitled simply Agustín Barrios (El Maestro Records EM 8002), with an accompanying booklet written by Richard D. Stover, complete with an assortment of photographs. For some time prior to this release, cassette tapes of various kinds of Barrios’ recordings had been in circulation but the El Maestro project, emanating from California, was a very significant addition to the history of the early twentieth-century guitar. The pieces on the album were La Catedral, Valses nos 3 & 4, Contemplación, Romanza, Tarentella, Un Sueño en la Floresta, Bourée (Bach), Minuet (Beethoven), Träumerei (Schumann), Capricho Arabe (Tárrega), Danza Paraguaya, Cueca, Aconquija, Junto a tu Corazón, Aire de Zamba, Maxixe, Confesión, Santa, Madrigal-Gavota, Pericón, Caazapa and Oración.

The publishers, Chanterelle, issued a three volume Historical Recording selection of Barrios’ recordings on cassette tape in 1988, under the title Agustin Barrios: the guitar recordings (1910–42). This was ultimately issued on compact disc by Chanterelle Verlag in 1993, with liner notes by Robert Tucker.

Returning to the availability of the central compositions in sheet music form, an interesting edition was published in 1983 by Chris Dumigan entitled The Recordings of Agustín Barrios (Northampton, England: Hampton Music Publishers). The rationale behind this publication was unashamedly to transcribe the exact notes of the recordings of Barrios, whatever difficulties (such as differing versions) this might involve, as Dumigan explains in his introduction to the edition:

In the end, I decided that the recordings, whether they were the final versions or not, were a valid document in themselves. They were a valuable insight into performances which Barrios was obviously happy with, and was content to have marketed on gramophone records and therefore they were an end in themselves…So I decided to commit these recordings onto paper in an effort to provide another equally valid source of Barrios pieces…

Jason Waldron’s three volumes (published 1985, 1986, 1987 respectively) comprising twenty pieces by Barrios, also followed the recordings. The back cover of the editions comments:

Barrios left very little manuscript of his original guitar compositions due mainly to the fact that he would change the music during performance but happily he did make a series of recordings prior to 1920 and it is from these that a lot of the present edition is based.

Jason Waldron has a special place in the Barrios revival for several of his arrangements were performed and recorded by John Williams in the 1970s.

The most recent editions of thirty-six pieces by Barrios, in two volumes (published by Schott, 1991), are by Raymond Burley, a British guitarist. Duplicating the preface in each volume, Burley sets out his approach as follows:

This collection of eighteen concert works by Agustín Barrios Mangoré has been compiled as a result of listening to the composer’s own recordings (Chanterelle Historical Recordings, CHR 001/3), together with my direct practical experience of performing the music in concert; both activities have made me increasingly dissatisfied with many of the editions currently available. I am offering here, not the ‘definitive’ Barrios collection (for such a thing may never exist), but what I consider to be accurate and practical versions of eighteen of the best works from this composer.

The Barrios canon is now presumably as complete as it ever will be, with adequate choice available when buying the printed music. A few new items have been added by Richard D. Stover over recent years, including Theme and Variations on Punto Guanacasteco, Variations on a Theme of Tárrega, Fabinia, and Sargento Cabral (Zamba), as well as Abri la Puerta mi China, dated 25 December, 1905 by Stover in the biography (p 22) and therefore considered one of the earliest compositions extant.

From the 1980s an avalanche of recordings of the music of Barrios has descended onto the market. so that there is no longer much of an element of surprise in the offerings by recitalists. It is perhaps worth recalling that the earliest recording of La Catedral, following Barrios’ own work in the studio, appears to have been by Oscar Caceres in 1968 on his album, Les Grandes Études pour Guitare (Erato STU 70614). La Catedral has proved to be a work which continues to fascinate recitalists; guitarists who have recorded the work so far include John Williams (1977), Horst Klee (1980), Göran Sollscher (1980), Vladimir Mikulka (1986), Wulfin Lieske (1987), Deborah Mariotti (1988), Sharon Isbin (1990), and Jesus Castro Balbi (1992).

While La Catedral now seems to receive the benediction of an annual recording, there has also been some interest in offering an all-Barrios recording. Following Williams’ pioneering album of 1977, Wolfgang Lendle on Romantic Virtuoso Guitar Music (SAPHLR, IN830.46, 1987) and Jesus Castro Balbi on Agustín Barrios (OPS 49-9209, 1992), both ventured to issue an all-Barrios compact disc. It is truly amazing how in the space of two decades Barrios has gone from being one of the neglected unknowns to his present position of eminence. Though his music has often begun to assume the over familiarity characteristic of the guitar works of Villa-Lobos, Barrios continues to speak in a brutal age directly to the human heart. The half-centenary of his death in 1944 will be remembered by guitarists throughout the world and this article gratefully acknowledges the work of all those who made this grand revival possible.

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