Thursday, 5 July 2012

Barrios: Songs of Paraguay

I love finding a composer who really hits the spot and today's composer is just such a discovery for me.

The music of Paraguay's greatest classical composer Agustín Barrios (Mangoré) (1885-1944), 'The  `Paganini of the Guitar', is best known to guitarists and lovers of guitar music but is so full of delicacy and beauty that it should be known by all music lovers. In fact, getting to know the music of Barrios (hitherto just a name to me) has convinced me that the widely-quoted remark of classical guitarist John Williams that "As a guitarist/composer, Barrios is the best of the lot, regardless of era" is true. Mr. Williams goes on,  "His music is better formed, it's more poetic, it's more everything! And it's more of all those things in a timeless way." He's quite right on all points. There are so many gems by Barrios that it's hard to know where to begin. Still...

Barrios was steeped in the ways of the classical guitar. A virtuoso player himself, he studied the music of his great predecessors and himself stands firmly in that tradition. It was the Spaniard Francisco Tárrega from whom Barrios seems to have learned the most. (Tárrega is famed for his Memories of the Alhambra and for being the source for that old mobile phone ringtone, taken from his Gran Vals). Tárrega is often considered the 'Father' of 20th century classical guitar music but he was a true Romantic - and so was Barrios.

Like many of his contemporaries Barrios was keen to draw on the folk/popular music of his country, though - like Bela Bartok - he also drew generously on the folk/popular music traditions of several other countries in his region of the world. Also like Bartok, there are works based directly on existing folk tunes but also many that draw indirectly on the characteristics of genres of folk/popular song - their rhythms, accents, melodic shapes and modes. Some of the pieces associated with his own homeland are especially endearing - pieces like the Danzas Paraguayo No.1 (one of his most popular pieces)...

with its traditional galopa rhythm,...

...a rhythm also shared by the Danza Paraguayo No.2 (Jha, Che Valle! - "Oh my homeland!"), or the unforgettable Caazapá, with its characteristic Latin rhythms (mingling 6/8 and 3/4 time):

Nor can I resist the catchy Danza Paraguayo No.3, with its intriguing subtitle London Carapé

As an inveterate traveller, Barrios based many pieces on places he visited or lived in whilst away from his homeland. So we have the fleet-fingered Maxixe and the soulful Choro de Saudade, both based on a dances from Brazil; or Cueca from Chile; or a piece in Estilo uruguayo (in Uruguayan style)...and there's a Zamba and, of course, several tangos from Argentina, including the magical Don Pérez Freire (named after a Chilean composer/friend). His trip to Europe in the 1930s resulted in some Spanish-style pieces too, such as Leyenda de Espana.

There were other sides to Agustín Barrios. One was his fascination with the music of the past, sometimes resulting in pieces written in imitation of other composers. As a result there is a temptation to describe him as a neo-Classicist, especially when listening to some of his works imitating the manner of Bach or Mozart, but his was a wholly Romantic take on the masters of the past. 

The work where Bach's example shines brightest is the piece generally considered the composer's masterpiece, his La Catedral of 1921. There are three movements: Preludio (Saudade), Andante religioso and Allegro solemne. 'Saudade' means 'nostalgia' and this prelude certainly sounds to have more than merely a nostalgia for the beauty of Bach's music. It seems that the piece was composed while the composer was (as so often) abroad and in poor health, so a little nostalgia is entirely understandable. The movement certainly has the feel of a Bach prelude. The main melody of the Andante religioso was apparently suggested to him by the ringing of the church bells in Montevideo. (Can't say bells in England sound like that!) Barrios then enters the cathedral and hears the music of Bach on the organ and then, as the Allegro solemne begins, leaves the cathedral and re-enters the busy streets of the city to music that has something of the feel of a Bach toccata. 

This was far from being the only piece Barrios wrote inspired by his beloved Bach. There's also his tender Preludio in C minor (with shades of Chopin too) and the Preludio in G minor. 

Another masterpiece-in-miniature by Barrios (said to be his final piece) is Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios ("An Alm for the Love of God"). Here the tremolo style of Tárrega's Memories of the Alhambra is given a beautiful new lease of life - a magical fusion of harmony, melody, technical prowess and poetry. Apparently the repeated notes in the bass depict the knocking of a beggar at the door. Barrios was a true master of the tremolo technique, deploying it in other lyrical pieces, such as the spellbinding Un Sueño en la Floresta, Contemplación and the Canción de la Hilandera (inspired by watching a Mexican girl at a spinning wheel).

The romanticism of Barrios, also found in these pieces, blossoms again in the romance-style Confesión de Amor - a romantic love-song-without-words where the melody sings like a tenor. 

The influence of Romantic composers - Schumann and Chopin especially - can be heard in such pieces as the Romanza en Imitación al Violoncello (the tune is in the bass) and Estudio de Concierto (Schumann) and the Mazurka Apassionata (Chopin). The influence of the Classical composer is clearest in the minuets. You might like to try the Minuet in A major for a taste of Paraguayan-style Mozart.

Still, Tárrega was the truest guiding light for Barrios and the Paraguayan paid tribute to him with his Variations on a Theme of Tárrega. The theme (see below) was that of the Spaniard's wistful little gem Lagrima. Six variations follow, including more tremolo writing.

A few more random delights to finish. First, his Villancico de Navidad ('Christmas Carol'), a particularly lovely lullaby, and to follow that his similarly tender waltz El sueño de la muñequita ('The Sleep of the Little Doll'), with its enchanting use of harmonics in the middle section. Both are true beauties. Keeping to the family theme please also try his tuneful Madrecita! ('Little mother!'). For a charming Valse Boston (a French novelty the Paraguayan was quick to pick up on), please try his Junto a tu corazónLast of all, why not try Barrios himself playing his understandably popular Vals No.3? 

Barrios wrote a lot of pieces, so this survey has just dipped a big toe into his output. I do hope it has whetted your appetite to further explore 'The Paganini of Paraguay'.

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