Reflections on Agustin Barrios Mangore’s Julia Florida

A primary reason we play any piece of music is because it touches us in some deeply personal manner. There exists within the piece some musical truth that resonates within us.

Such is the case with Agustin Barrios Mangore’s Julia Florida.

The first time I heard Barrios’ music was at the Festival International de La Guitare in Arles, France in 1975. John Williams programmed La Catedral in a solo concert. It was my introduction to John playing live, and let’s just say, he didn’t disappoint!

For all of us guitarists in the audience, it was the first time we had heard the Preludio, which now is routinely thought of as La Catedral’s first movement. Prior to this time, the Preludio to my knowledge had been difficult to locate for the general public. La Catedral is one of Barrios’ most performed works. I remember that I could not learn it fast enough after hearing John’s performance. John Williams was one of the first if not the first, to champion Barrios’s music in a major way and bring it to the attention of the general public. His commitment to the music was and is very genuine and inspirational.

As I began my career as a soloist, however, I simply ignored Barrios’ music, and yes, I will now admit that I had an attitude about it! I was quite an unbearable snob in my 20’s! ugh! 

According to Rico Stover, guitarist and author of the seminal book Six Silver Moonbeams: The Life and Times of Agustin Barrios Mangore, Julia Florida has proven to be Barrios most popular work. I came to play Julia Florida because I had been asked to include some Latin American music for a concert that I was playing last summer. In discussing what I might play with my dear friend, composer-guitarist Van Stiefel, he exclaimed, “I challenge you to play Julia Florida.” Van put it to me in that manner because he knew of my snobbery and lack of real appreciation of Barrios’ eminent gift and contribution to our repertoire. Since I’ve known Van—beginning as my student at Yale on through to the present—he has always been a great advocate and admirer of Barrios’ music.

Truth be told, I have always loved teaching Julia Florida, and because of this (and Van’s challenge) I decided it must be in the set with pieces by Brouwer, Villa-Lobos and Lauro.

From the commencement of my relationship with the piece, I have been struck by its soulfulness and honesty. I would die to write a piece this beautiful and balanced. It is a composition any composer could learn from and admire. I will always be grateful to Van for “ putting it to me” to learn it.

I love the two-bar introduction. It perfectly evokes the movement of waves, which is apt since it is subtitled  Barcarola. The melody that follows is to die for! The B-minor section is wonderfully mysterious and is a magnificent contrast to the D major opening section. The composer seamlessly modulates to the later A-minor section and skillfully returns to D major. The harmonics at the closing of the piece are iconic!

Barrios’ command of the guitar is second to none.  He had a magnificent intuitive sense of how to coax the most sublime sonorities from the instrument. Guitars do nothing but smile when Barrios’ music is played on them!

While practicing the piece, I found myself continuously adding little ornaments. I simply could not help myself! In addition to being a virtuoso and brilliant composer, Barrios had a reputation as a fabulous improviser. Below is a statement of Jose Candito Morales from guitarist-author Rico Stover’s seminal book Six Silver Moonbeams:

“Morales stated that many times he heard Barrios improvise in his own concerts, and when queried afterward why he “changed” a piece, he replied, “ Che, inspiration overtook me, and I forgot I was giving a concert!”

With this knowledge, I decided that Mangore would have approved of the wee passing tone I added in the repeat of the B-minor section and the flourish I added at the closing of the piece. I have often repeated the measure (5 measures form the end) prior to the closing harmonics in concert. Depending at the tempo that I am playing, it seems natural to do so. I did not repeat that measure in this recording. My little ornaments are played with the utmost respect to the legendary composer.

Rico Stover tells us that Barrios wrote Julia Florida in December of 1938 while living in Costa Rica. It was apparently a difficult time for the composer due to diminishing health and a lack of regular employment. Julia Florida was dedicated to Francisco Salazar’s niece, Julia Martinez whom Barrios taught.

In a recent email Richard elaborated:

“I met Julia in Costa Rica. She told me that Barrios smoked a lot and was a bit nervous. Maybe because she was so beautiful and he of course wanted her but restrained himself…. or maybe not? She never let on to me that anything at all went down between them and I somehow think that was the case. But, knowing Mangore’s history with women, I wouldn’t rule it out either.

And of course you know why she was called “ Julia Florida” by her family? She grew very fast in adolecence,”bloomed” and “shot up” at an early age (“florida’ means “bloomed” form florece = to bloom or flower).”

He must have been extremely fond of Ms. Martinez to write such a masterpiece. To quote again from Rico’s wonderful book, Leo Brouwer remarked:

“Barrios’s mind and the structure of his thoughts were romantic. Just as Bach continued to write suburb baroque music up to the year of his death (1750), well after the high baroque period had come to an end, Barrios was writing exquisite romantic music long after its passing in Europe”

He continues to say; “In Barrios there occurs a certain kind of innovation in the mid-19th century harmonic language which can only be done from a point later in time, out of the period.” Barrios great love for Chopin is evident. It is apparent in much of his music, hence his well earned title “the Chopin of the Guitar.” Perhaps this is why my college roommate and interpreter of Chopin extraordinaire, Chris Lewis, turned to me as John Williams was playing Barrios on stage and asked “ why don’t you play this music!?  It’s gorgeous!”

It has been said that Barrios was in no way musically in tune with his times. Perhaps this was because he lacked the formal musical education one might have had in Europe. For much of his early career Barrios was unaware of the European musical scene. That having been said, in his later travels he did meet people like Villa-Lobos who were writing in an extremely different musical language and employing dissonance in a manner one does not encounter in Barrios. The author Bacon Duarte Prado apparently has a postcard written to Barrios from Stravinsky. On some level Barrios must have been aware of the world-renowned composer’s work. Perhaps that is why Van called him the first “post-modern” composer in his notes for On Wet Roads on Autumn Nights for my CD Soepa.

Clearly, Barrios wrote the music he heard in his head and heart. Among its attributes, it is extremely honest music.

What more can we ask of an artist but to be true to him or herself thorough out life’s journey? Like thousands of other guitarist Julia Florida has an emotional truth within it that will always be dear to me, and one that I will continuously want to share with audiences for years to come.

Here is a manuscript in Barrios’s hand. It is illuminating to see the actual handwriting of the composer and how ornate it is. My dear friend Richard Savino just recently for his article generously sent this manuscript to me. This same one can be found in Rico Stover’s The Complete works of Agustin Barrios Mangore published by Mel Bay Editions in 2003. I highly recommend this edition. He explains that there was an earlier manuscript not in Barrios’s hand and a later one in Barrios’s hand that he found in Paraguay. In Rico’s edition he prints the later but shows you the differences. In my recording I do the earlier version. I’m sorry to admit more out of ignorance than preference! It’s not any less soulful!

I would also like to mention a wonderful article about Julia Florida by the virtuoso guitarist Carlos Bonell that Rico alerted me to. Here is the link: 

I would also like to include Rico Stovers website as he was so gernerous in corresponding with me for this article.

Barrios wrote an extensive amount of poetry. Below is his poem My Guitar. It is taken from Richard Stover’s SixSilver Moonbeams.

Mi Guitarra
Agustin Barrios Mangoré

Hay un hondo misterio en tu sonoro 
y ardiente corazón, guitarra mía, 
gozas pensando y hay en tu alegría 
transportes de pasión, gotas de lloro. 

Te dió su corazón el dulce moro, 
el ibero te dió, su alma bravia 
y la América virgen, se diría, 
puso en tí, de su amor, todo el tesoro. 

Por eso en tu cordaje soberano, 
que vibra con acento casi humano 
es a veces, tu voz como un lamento. 

Como queja de tu alma solitaria 
en cuya triste y mística plegaria 
florece sin cesar el sentimiento.

My Guitar 
Agustin Barrios Mangoré 

There is a deep mystery in your sonorous 
Garden heart, guitar of mine, 
You enjoy suffering, and in your joy 
Ecstasies of passion, teardrops of crying. 

The sweet Moor gave you your heart, 
The Iberian gave you your untamed soul 
And Virgin America, you might say, 
Put in you, because of its love, all the treasure. 

And so on your supreme strings 
That vibrate with an almost human accent 
There is, at times, your voice, like a lament. 

As a sigh from your lonely heart 
In whose sad and mystical plan 
Sentiment forever flourishes

Recommended reading: Richard Stover’s Six Silver Moonbeams.