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ClassicsOnline Home » BARRIOS MANGORE: Guitar Music, Vol. 3
Whilst he is now considered by some to be the greatest of all guitarist-composers, it is curious to think that the music of the Paraguayan Agustín Pío Barrios Mangoré fell into neglect for over three decades after his death. This recording comprises many of his smaller works, including the hauntingly beautiful Caazapá, and Medallon Antiguo (Old Medallion), named after a piece of jewellery worn by an opera singer from Buenos Aires with whom Barrios fell in love.
By David Denton
Agustín Barrios Mangoré (1885-1944)
Guitar Music, Volume 3
Agustín Pio Barrios (the Mangoré was added later) was born in Paraguay in 1885, and began playing his father's guitar at the age of seven. In Asunción, the capital, he studied guitar and the fundamentals of music. His extensive Latin-American travels began in his mid-twenties with a visit to Buenos Aires. He did not burst upon the world as a fully-formed academy-trained concert artist, but spent many years playing in cinemas, theatres, cafés and various private functions, as guitarists do today in order to earn a modest living.
The fame Barrios acquired throughout Latin-America was not to be repeated in Europe until the 1970s, a generation after his death in 1944. He had visited Belgium, Germany and Spain in 1936, but that was the year in which the Spanish Civil War began: there could not have been a worse time to visit a country normally sympathetic to the guitar. Seeing no career opportunities, and moreover aware of a growing sense of danger, he returned to South America, where his art was so deeply rooted and where he felt at home.
Perhaps no other great guitarist has been so unaware, or if not unaware then at least oblivious, of mainstream developments in music. In his youth Barrios was exposed to music up to and including the Romantics. Beyond that, development in western music was largely harmonic, and he had no need of it. In the traditional music of his native Paraguay and the other countries of South and Latin America, in which there was a strong rhythmic element, he found a vast treasure-house of material. His supreme ability to create captivating guitar music did the rest.
It should also be remembered that the profession of Barrios as a performer meant pleasing an audience, and that meant the maxixe and the milonga, the pericón and the polka, the cueca and the zamba, and other dances and songs from the rich folkloric heritage of South American music. From the beginning his own compositions formed a large part of his performing repertoire, and he found that they charmed and touched his listeners no less than the music he took directly from the tradition. Later, when his knowledge of European music became wider, he expanded his programmes still further, adding not only original pieces by Sor, Tárrega, Malats, Turina, Coste and Giuliani, but also arrangements from the music of Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Schubert, Donizetti, Mendelssohn, Verdi and others.
There was a time when Barrios advertised himself as 'The Paganini of the guitar from the jungles of Paraguay '. During this period he added the Guaraní name Mangoré to his own, and took to playing the first half of each concert wearing Indian head-dress; in the second half he would wear European-style evening dress. According to one acquaintance, by 1936 there was no sign of the Guaraní head-dress, nor of the name Mangoré.
Barrios's enthusiasm for recording ensured that his skill and artistry were preserved from early in his career. He was among the first classical guitarists to take advantage of rapidly improving recording techniques, issuing records on the Artigas and Atlanta labels as early as 1913. These were acoustic recordings, an early system that could be surprisingly kind to the human voice but could not record the guitar with much fidelity. The many later recordings for Odeon are electrical and are much better. All these recordings are of immense value, not only because of the insights they give into the playing of Barrios but also because not every piece was published in a playable form. One problem is that Barrios is reputed never to have played anything the same way twice, making the word 'definitive' even more inaccurate than usual. What we have, though, is more than enough to enable us to recognise Agustín Barrios for what he was: a unique and brilliant guitarist with a strong creative drive whose great fertility left a legacy of music rich in charm and poetry. The range and subtlety of modern recording techniques have underlined those qualities, and the reputation of Agustin Barrios Mangoré has never been higher.
Compositionally, Barrios covered a very wide range. His sense of wonderment at what the guitar was capable of never left him, though naive early experiments (including an imitation of the cello) were soon abandoned in favour of more considered works in which national styles (Spanish, Uruguayan, etc.) were incorporated. A considerable number of studies were written, with a technical purpose in mind but often containing some phrase or passage of imagination that lifts the piece out of the ordinary. Many pieces were written as a tribute to friends and colleagues - Fabiniana, for example, which is described as 'an improvisation remembering Eduardo Fabini'. Fabini was a celebrated Uruguayan violinist and composer known to have shared a concert platform with Barrios. The Medallon Antiguo (Old Medallion) was a piece of jewellery worn by a Buenos Aires opera singer with whom Barrios fell in love. Its first three notes are said to come from a Pergolesi song that she sang. País de Abanico could mean the country of the fan, but the word país is also given to the fabric of a fan. The tango Don Pérez Freire was named after Osmán Pérez Freire, a Chilean composer of popular music.
Folklore, such as the hauntingly beautiful Caazapá, forms a large and important part of the Barrios repertoire; even when the basis of a piece is a traditional melody, the poetry and the emotion he packs into a few short lines explains why his music is admired so much by listeners who have tuned into the guitar's expressive capabilities. The music of Agustín Barrios does not translate to other instruments, and so long as there are talented guitarists around to play it there seems no reason why the attempt should be made.
Some longer works, not represented here, where the longest work plays for less than four and a half minutes, are outlets for the deeper side of Barrios's nature, in which a personal philosophy contained elements of the mythical, the romantic, and even what might be called the religious, though not in any formal sense: the service of art was the goal, not the worship of God. But his smaller works, even the treatments of popular dances and songs, show touches of genius that lift them above the merely charming and agreeable, and it is this unique quality, in conjunction with his mastery of the guitar and his ability to exploit every aspect of technique, that puts him on the highest level of composers who have written for the guitar.
I am indebted to Richard D. Stover's book Six Silver Moonbeams for biographical information - essential reading for those who wish to know more about the fascinating and complex personality of Agustín Barrios Mangoré.
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BARRIOS MANGORE: Guitar Music, Vol. 3