La Catedral by Augustín Barrios (1885–1944) is a programmatic piece that instantly captures the imagination of most who hear it, and as such sits at or near the pinnacle of pieces that classical guitarists yearn to play. Although it was originally composed in 1921, when the Paraguayan guitarist/composer fell ill while touring western Uruguay, the piece’s famous opening Prelude in B minor was added 18 years later, debuting in concert at the National Theatre in San Salvador, El Salvador, in July 1939; thus completing the master work we know today.
This first movement is distinctive, evocative, and blissfully stands on its own as a concert piece. This lesson will explore its modern arpeggios, left-hand- independence, melody and accompaniment, and the campanella effect.
Agustín Barrios has become regarded as perhaps the leading modern Romantic composer for the guitar. A polymath who some believe never fully realized his potential, Barrios died in relative poverty, largely unknown outside of Latin America. The Prelude to La Catedral, composed in 1938 and only added to the second and third movements a year and a half later, was written while Barrios was visiting Cuba. Not concertizing as much as he wanted and beset by financial woes, he was clearly in a reflective mood, as the piece carries the subtitle “Saudade.” This Portuguese word sometimes carries a melancholic shading and cannot be exactly translated into English, but the closest we can get is “reminisce.” There is currently only one known source for this prelude, a hand-written manuscript from the archives of the Paraguayan guitarist Caya Sila Godoy (1919–2014). Unlike the second and third movements of La Catedral, which have some divergence between autograph scores, there are no textual discrepancies on what Barrios composed in the prelude.
This opening piece is based on four right-hand arpeggio patterns which fully exploit the guitar’s strings and resonance, and is accomplished with a subtle campanella effect (see below). Barrios had a profound understanding of how harmony could be utilized on the unique landscape that is the fretboard, and he wrote music for the guitar, not guitar music. This reason alone makes it a challenging piece, added to which is its distinct melody. Micro Study 1 presents the main pattern, in Barrios’ original written two-voice format, in a simple harmonic structure to practice this very thing—clear voices. Once you have a handle on the first four bars, this pattern is transposed up an octave, thus posing a greater challenge for the LH and getting closer to the original. Here the fingers will need to accommodate the open strings with a slightly higher arch to their curve and the finger tip pointing directly into the fretboard. There should only be a slight increase in pressure on the fretted notes. If you find you are pressing down too much, have a closer look at your guitar action, which has a direct bearing on how easy this is to play and will cause LH distortion if too high. A fine sense of tonal balance, between fretted and open strings is essential as the open strings tend to overpower the delicate high fretted notes; along with an ability to separate the melody from the accompaniment. (See CG Winter 2016 for more advice on achieving this.)
Micro Study 2 advances the arpeggio practice, also with simplified harmony, this time to rehearse the four main arpeggio patterns. Practice each pattern until secure, and then place them all together to form one large sequence. Barrios uses an open string in pattern 1 (the root of the key); then all fretted notes in pattern 2; two open strings in pattern 3; and finally pattern 4 (technically two patterns) being the first cell of pattern 1 repeated. Pattern 4 is important; it is used to double the harmonic rate and excitement of the piece, to culminate in the coda, which then introduces new musical material. Barrios’ compositional genius lies in the variation he is able to further achieve with these arpeggios by shifting where the open strings are placed within each chord. Once you have an understanding of the basic patterns take a closer look at the full original score to fully appreciate the subtle variants to each one. This close analysis will also help cement the piece, its structure, and harmony into memory.
The prelude is in binary form (A B), with a coda, where Barrios utilizes B minor at length across the fretboard. The main idea, bars 1–4, are extended and re-harmonized in section A, and developed in section B. One of the challenges for the LH in this piece is to lift fingers out of chord shapes to use again while still playing. Micro Study 3 addresses this by isolating a demanding set of changes to play cleanly—bars 8 to 12—and relocating these chords into the middle of the fretboard for ease of practice. The fingers that need to be infinitesimally released ahead of time have been clearly marked and sequenced with arrows; note the fingering suggestion, no barre, in bar 2 of the micro study (bar 9 of the original). If you have never tried moving left-hand fingers independently while playing with the RH, go slow. Deliberate and purposeful practice is what is required here. This truly is one of those woodshed moments that necessitates patience, so perfect it one bar at a time. Once you can play it at position VII, put it back up to position X. You will then only need to get comfortable accommodating the fingers against the guitar body and the smaller fret spacing. To achieve this, pivot the LH elbow to ease the changes.
The coda further exploits the campanella (little bell) effect—notes ringing over each other as pealing bells do—which pervades this piece. To achieve this, Barrios used high fretted notes alongside open strings. This is a very efficient technique for scales and arpeggios whose keys allow the open strings to be exploited, in this case: D major = open D, B, G, and E strings. Micro Study 4 employs the B minor scale up the fretboard, in campanella, and proposes a popular alternate fingering back down through Barrios’ original idea at bar 45.
There is a fair amount of shifting in this piece and it is generally executed with the little finger as it traces the melody down the fretboard. The little finger is easily strained, so apply pressure gently and do not push past any pain. Barrios begins on fret 14 and slowly winds the melody down the frets, generally a bar at a time, with a brief pause on an open E at bar 33, to finally finish up on the leading tone A sharp (string 3) at bar 42. These melodic notes need to be executed with legato shifting, so no big gaps. To achieve this, lead all chord changes with the finger on the melody. A top tip, stolen from watching John Williams play live, is to use very subtle violin slides into any shift that has a gap bigger that two or three frets, thus joining up the bars and creating smooth phrases. This melodic line will also need to be supported by vibrato—a lot of vibrato—so loosen the chosen LH finger in the socket, and match the rhythm of the vibrato to your tempo.
The prelude finishes with a series of natural harmonics in broken and frozen chord form. Two great tips for getting clear sounding harmonics: First make sure your RH fingertip is exactly over the fret wire of choice for the broken chord run; secondly when playing the frozen chord harmonics, move your RH back toward the bridge, allowing the string more room to vibrate and thus achieving a clearer tone. Note that the run can also be played artificially by leaving the B minor barre down.
Interestingly, there is a discrepancy between the recorded versions of this piece and the last written harmonic at bar 47. Barrios’ clearly has it placed at the 12th fret in his autograph score, whereas modern players continue on at the 19th fret, the difference between the tonic and the dominant degree the of B minor scale. This error has possibly been allowed to proliferate due to the early printed (Faber Music) version of 1979 having all the harmonics at the 19th fret, whereas Rico Stover’s updated authoritative Mel Bay version of 2003 is accurate with the original score. So check your editions and be aware of any editorial changes that distort Barrios’ ideas or fingerings. This issue also raises the question: Why have modern editors insisted on setting this prelude in 2 or 3 voices? Barrios was more than capable of notating that himself (see Julia Florida) and yet chose not to. Is it possible he was trying to achieve another sonority? Or did he feel that the implied polyphony was self-evident? If so, was this a further, visual, reference to Bach and the second movement?
Modern players also tend to follow Barrios’ fingering in bar 27 adding in an E on string 3, not what he actually notated: an F#.
Barrios made sure that whoever played this piece after him would understand its programmatic nature, and by extension the whole of La Catedral. Each one of its movements has a specified subtitle along with a main mode of expression, thus unifying the three pieces. In this case, the Prelude, subtitled, as mentioned earlier, Saudade, lists its main expression as ben marcato il canto (a well-marked singing line). These two very simple directions are really all you need to get into the character of this piece. Dr. Rico Stover, in his definitive book on Barrios, Six Silver Moonbeams, points out that this prelude also has an “improvised quality” to it. This final suggestion will facilitate any performance of it, as traditionally preludes were used by musicians as a warm-up for hands, to “get” into key, and almost always improvised. In this case, Barrios supplied a superlative opening to one of his seminal works.