Thought Spots: Agustín Barrios’s Saudade from “La Catedral”

“La Catedral,” arguably Agustín Barrios’s most famous work, was not conceived at once. The second and third movements were written in Uruguay in 1921, reflecting the peace of the Cathedral’s interior and the tumult of the town outside. The Prelude, Saudade, was added in La Habana in 1938. (Different versions conflict as to the true genesis of the work, but these seem to be the most accepted facts.)

Saudade is a word of difficult translation, but it is associated with a feeling of longing, of remembrance. What is in the piece–or what was Barrios remembering–that made him add this first movement to the other two, which were inspired by and written in Uruguay?

Agustín Barrios: La Catedral, mvt. I, mm.1-4
Barrios Saudade

It would make sense to think that this Prelude is somehow related to Uruguay. Is it perhaps a milonga? Eduardo Fernández mentioned the idea to me many years ago, and later made a compelling case for it in a thorough analysis of the work, published in the Italian guitar magazine Il Fronimo.

The 3+3+2 subdivision typical of the milonga is embedded in the right hand pattern. Ring finger plays the high notes, and thumb (the strongest finger, carrying an accent) starts the second group of three. Since the campanella effect makes the right hand pattern not to coincide with the arppeggio’s contour, the 3+3+2 subdivision is not evident in most interpretations. Some performers maintain the lowest voices unaccented; others aim to create a dialog between the first and third strings, sort of an echo effect. In fact the thumb notes (the tenor voice in the first four bars) are usually the softest sounding ones. Without labeling any of the interpretations right or wrong, I however encourage you to consider this Saudade as a milonga, and thus place a slight volume or agogic accent on the fourth sixteenth of each measure.