Recently, I started learning “La Catedral” by Agustin Barrios. I’m one of those who like to know as much as I can about every repertoire song I play. I believe that knowing the circumstances, motives and historical background in which a song was written can and should make a difference in your performance. So I decided to start reading and researching about the song. To my surprise, the information found on the subject is diverse. There are some differences in the facts shared by people about this masterpiece. The differences found are related to places and motives for writing the composition.

So what I want to do, is share some information and historical background of this composition. This is information I retrieved from interviews, written documents and blogs from some of the most dedicated professors, performers and historians on the music of Agustin Barrios. They are: Richard “Rico” Stover, Cesar Amaro, Jesus Benites Reyes, Richard Chapman, Berta Rojas and Victor M. Oxley.

“La Catedral” was composed in 1921. This undeniable fact is commonly agreed by all Barrios researchers. At the time Barrios lived in Uruguay at the ABC Hotel that was owned by one of his friends Romulo Bonilla. It is said, he was sick at the time and he was staying at the hotel which was really close to the Cathedral at Montevideo. The story said that he was able to hear the bells of the church from his hotel room and that was his inspiration for the composition.

Originally, “La Catedral” had only two movements:Andante Religioso and Allegro Solemne. It is by these two movements that he described his experience with the Cathedral. It is said the “Andante Religioso” movement was composed after hearing an organ player performing some Bach music at the church; this music represents spirituality and tranquility.  The “Allegro Solemne” represents the chaos that he experienced after exiting the Cathedral; the sound of the cars, people walking and the intense way of living that was experienced outside the walls of the church. This movement represents the abandonment of tranquility and the spiritual atmosphere he experienced inside the cathedral. The contrasting sections are meant to represent the differences in his experience from the inside and outside of the Cathedral.

Later, in 1938 while in Habana, Cuba, Barrios composed the “Prelude” that came to be the first movement of this composition. It was entitled Preludio Saudade. “Saudade” is a Portuguese word that means nostalgic, with melancholy. It is said that this movement was performed individually by Barrios before adding it as the first movement of “La Catedral” in 1939.

The real motive for writing this movement is unknown. Some argue the motive was a kind of sadness he had experience because of the death of his wife (his sentimental partner since we have no records of his marriage) Gloria Silva (Zevan according to some authors). But, we know as a fact that Gloria Zevan was with him at the moment of his death in August, 1944 in El Salvador. Regardless of the motivations for writing this movement, I believe we all agree that this prelude just enhanced the beauty of this incredible composition. Also, it clearly adds to the marks of religiousness and spirituality portrayed in the suite.

So far, a pretty straight forward compilation of details; now the question, where are the differences in the accounts?

One of the main differences that we find in the account is in regards to which cathedral he used as an inspiration for the composition. While Cesar Amaro, Richard Stover and others believe it was the cathedral of San Jose at Montevideo in Uruguay; Alfred Escande published a list on the internet demonstrating that there’s no cathedral in Montevideo called San Jose. The only cathedral in that city is called “Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepción”. Therefore, they argue the name of this cathedral was wrong if this was Barrios source of inspiration.

Others believe the real inspiration for the composition comes from the cathedral of “San Juan de las Misiones” in Paraguay. This was his birthplace and it is said that after spending some time out of the city he came back to his home town and went to the cathedral. As he enters the church, he hears an organist performing one of Bach’s Chorales in a very sublime way and he immediately imagined a group of angels singing a melody. This melody is believed to be portrayed in the first measure of the second movement “Andante Religioso”, originally the first movement. This sublime experience gave birth to the now second movement of “La Catedral”. While still in his sublime experience he walks out of the church and was shocked by all the chaos outside the walls of the church. That served as the inspiration for the last movement of the suite the “Allegro Solemne”. But an interesting fact is that “San Juan Bautista de las Misiones” didn’t have a cathedral until the year 1957 and the bishop at that time was Ramon Pastor Bogarin Argaña.

The last discrepancy about the source of inspiration is that many believe the first movement, the prelude’s source of inspiration, was the cathedral of Costa Rica instead of the one in Habana, Cuba. It is said that Barrios lived in Costa Rica around the years 1938 – 1939 and that it was there in a place called “Ezcasu” that he was inspired to write the prelude that became the first movement of the suite. What we know is that although it was composed in 1938 it was officially included in “La Catedral” in 1939. Several concert programs from Habana, Cuba and El Salvador witness this fact.

Also, there is a discrepancy about this movement in regards to the motives for writing it. There is one belief that it was written because of financial problems and another that Barrios was suffering from a kind of depression that lead him to compose the prelude. Also, as mentioned before, his woman at the time had died and he decided to write the prelude as a grief or mourning song. Many believe that because of these circumstances he decided to write this as a totally separate work. Although it is said to have been performed several time as a solo piece before making it as a part of the suite; the harmony, the structure, the rhythmic and melodic motives are overwhelming evidence of the intention for this prelude to be a part of “La Catedral”.

We could mention that half way in the 20th century it was a common trend in Europe to write music with 3 movements. Generally, this kind of music was highly regarded by listeners, it was considered intellectual music. This could have been one of the motives for the elaboration on the prelude and make it a whole suite.

On a different note, you may be wondering about the style of the suite. It is said that this composition was Barrios tribute to Bach. He was a great admirer of J.S. Bach works and he was one of the first guitarists to have performed a whole Lute Suite (No. 1); in an original transcription from the lute to the guitar. This is why we can hear a clear contrapuntist style in the different movements and sections of this masterpiece. It was intended to portray the beauty and the extravaganza of the Baroque period.

This concludes my little research of this magnificent composition. I hope that you have gained some insights about this incredible composition. Submerge yourself in the wonderful music of Chief Nitsuga Mangoré. Enjoy the beauty of one of the greatest “magum opus” ever created, “La Catedral”.

“Preludio Saudade” last movement to be composed (1938):

preludio cleaned

“Andante Religioso” originally the first movement (1921):

Andante-La Catedral-Ultima version 1925

This is the cathedral at “Montevideo” in Uruguay at the times of Agustin Barrios (1921):

Foto-Antigua-Catedral-de-Montevideo-Uruguay

Present times “Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion”:

Montevideokathedrale

This is the cathedral at “La Habana”, Cuba:

Copy of la catedral de la habana

For more information on the subject please refer to the following books:

  1. Six Silver Moonbeams: The Life and Times of Agustin Barrios by Richard Stover.
  2. Agustin Pio Barrios Mangore, Ritos, Cultos, Sacrilegios Y Profanaciones by Victor M. Oxley.
  3. Agustin Barrios Mangore: Genio de la Guitarra by Candido Morales.

Pictures of sheet music retrieved from: http://lacatedraldebarrios.blogspot.com/2010/12/la-magica-catedral-de-agustin-pio.html