The Unsung Years: It Took Many Years for Barrios to Get his Due

BY GRAHAM WADE | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR

Following the death of Agustín Barrios Mangoré on August 7, 1944, his compositions and recordings remained virtually unknown to the international guitar fraternity for some 30 years. The floodgates were eventually opened in 1977 by the release of John Williams—Barrios, a remarkable LP featuring 15 compositions. In the liner notes, Williams wrote how he was “indebted to Carlos Payet of San Salvador for providing me with a lot of the then-unpublished music during a visit he made to London in 1969; at that time one or two well-known Barrios pieces had always been published, but the unexpected addition of so many more beautiful pieces has sustained in me a constant enthusiasm for one of our instrument’s greatest personalities.”

Carlos “Payet”—later identified as Dr. Carlos Rodriguez Payés, an El Salvadoran doctor of medicine, amateur guitarist, and head of the Mangoré Association—was indeed an ardent Barrios archivist. Barrios biographer Richard “Rico” Stover, author of Six Silver Moonbeams: The Life & Times of Agustín Barrios Mangoré, met Payés in El Salvador in 1974 and returned to the U.S. with 80 music manuscripts, and it was Stover’s multi-volume edition of the music of Barrios, published by Belwin-Mills, to which Williams referred.

The earliest Barrios publications in my collection are Las Abejas (Estudio), published in 1954, and a 1955 edition of La Catedral, both published by Ediciones Musicales Mundo Guaraní. In 1955, Laurindo Almeida recorded an album entitled Guitar Music of Latin America, which included Barrios’ Preludio Para Guitarra, Op. 5, No. 1 and Choro de Saudade. Considering Almeida’s pioneering intention of resurrecting superb music from oblivion, the recording did not attract much attention, and his edition of Barrios’ La Catedral—published in 1968 by Brazilliance Music Publishing—didn’t find much support from the world’s guitarists, either.

The next available recording of Barrios was Medallón Antiguo, which appeared on José Luis Gonzalez’s Portrait of the Guitar (CBS) in 1968. (The liner notes observed that little was known about the composer except that “he was of Indian descent and a gifted guitarist and composer.”) In 1970, Alirio Díaz’s Guitar Music of Spain and Latin America (EMI) featured Aire de Zamba, Danza Paraguaya, and Cueca. This was followed by Díaz’s editions of Danza Paraguaya (1973), Cueca (1976), and Aire de Zamba (1977), published by Edizioni G. Zanibon (Padua, Italy).

A rare short clip of Alirio Díaz playing part of Danza Paraguaya:


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In 1973, John Williams Plays Music from England, Japan, and Latin America (CBS) included a brilliant recording of Danza Paraguaya, though the only description of the composer was “Barrios, a Paraguayan Indian.” In the late ’60s and early ’70s, historians of the classical guitar such as Frederic V. Grunfeld, Alexander Bellow, and Harvey Turnbull did not offer Barrios a single mention. Finally, in Guitars: From the Renaissance to Rock (Paddington Press, 1977), Tom and Mary Evans included a few paragraphs on the composer, with the reservation that his music “appears exciting and attractive (and is often extremely difficult to play),” but is “ultimately ‘salon’ music.”

As previously mentioned, John Williams’ 1977 recording and his subsequent recitals of Barrios’ music changed our perception. Putting together my first book, Traditions of the Classical Guitar, in the late 1970s, I was fortunate enough to catch the tide of admiration which Williams stimulated, and I included a chapter on Barrios, “The Mysterious Box.” At the time, I was accused of excessive zeal, but looking back, I don’t consider myself too far outside the ballpark: “An image emerged of a kind of primeval Liszt of the guitar world, a flamboyant artist, frequently dressed as an Indian, whose large hands and inward genius gave him a unique capacity as player and composer. . . . New vistas of guitar possibility opened up before the eyes of eager performers. The repertoire, loaded down in the ’60s with a surfeit of intellectualism, was now restored to its roots. . . . The exuberance in Barrios’ music suddenly achieved for the guitar what Dylan Thomas had for poetry—the infusion of color, dark forces, and complete disdain for academic subtleties.”

In the four decades since then, Agustín Barrios Mangoré has dominated the guitar repertoire. Recitalists have identified closely with the composer, and audiences love his music. Dozens of recordings now contain his compositions, and we have also been able to listen to Barrios’ own recordings. There is a rich treasury of Barrios editions for anyone who wishes to play his work. Moreover, we have Stover’s fascinating biography, as well as other beautiful publications, including Carlos Salcedo’s El Inalcanzable: Agustín Barrios Mangoré (Republic of Paraguay, 2007), an ample, coffee-table compendium of information, photographs, and documents.

It’s a strange contrast to the years of Barrios famine, but well worth the wait.

(To read Mark Small’s article on “The Barrios Renaissance,” also from the Spring 2019 issue, click here. )