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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Echoes of Barrios

Carlos in Montevideo's Cathedral, Plaza Matrix, 12th February 2013

- I was in Montevideo's Cathedral last week-

I was in Montevideo, Uruguay last week for various reasons, one being its delicious summer climate, another that the city’s Cathedral inspired Agustín Barrios to compose, play and record La Catedral.

In the guitar world there is some controversy as to which cathedral inspired Barrios, with one in San Jose competing for the honour, but there are no doubts in Montevideo. "Four blocks along, and seven blocks up", said a policemen, one of many I came across on almost every corner. The streets are straight as a die, just like New York, although the comparison ends there. La Plaza Matrix is an unassuming square, one like so many with a charming public garden in the middle, flanked by cafes and shops. Little has changed here since the time of Barrios.

One side of the square is taken over by the Cathedral façade, a modest affair, its flat frontage set back only a few feet from the pavement. Dating back to the 18th century it started life as a church, and still now has only discrete amounts of gold and silver, with tasteful marble statues scattered around. Dignitaries and historical figures associated with Montevideo have found their last resting place here in La Catedral Metropolitana. Very striking are the white painted arches that sweep high and low along the nave from entrance to altar, just like the opening bars of Barrios' Allegro with its repeated arpeggio figuration.

The expanse of white walls serves to emphasise the oval ceiling above, creating the optical illusion of a great height that leads the eye to the disappearing point at its centre. This, together with the considerable echo, reminded me of the second part of the Allegro where the same passages alternate, first loudly and then quietly.

Rico Stover, the Barrios publisher and scholar has written about the composition:
“Passing by the church one day, he heard from within the music of J.S. Bach being played on the mighty church organ. The Andante religioso represents this impression. Upon its termination Barrios once again walks out into the busy street…the bustling, hurried temporal world. The Allegro solemne represents this contrasting impression.

As I stepped out of the Cathedral it was past 10am. Vendors were starting to set up their stalls loaded with antiques and memorabilia within the garden. There were bronze paper weights, postcards from the 1900s, beautifully hand crafted jewellery made in France and Italy in the 1940s, and even a well-thumbed book of Carlos Gardel's tango verses published during his lifetime.

A strangely warm and nostalgic feeling came over me as I imagined Barrios himself strolling through this square, and if not this square one very much like it. He may have sat at one of the pavement cafés, while shielding his eyes from the sun's rays as they suddenly beamed down from above a rooftop for the first time that morning. He would have reflected on the beauty of the Cathedral, its flowing contours a visual counterpart to the phrasing and rhythms of music. If he had arrived in the early morning he may have paused to listen to the excited chatter of birds circling the treetops while sitting on a bench with flowers and bushes at his feet. By late morning, bemused, he would have observed from his table the build-up of human activity in the square, and as both visitor and artist felt part of it and outside it.

Some things have indeed changed since the time of Barrios. But in the larger scheme of things they are not significant. The important things change little or very slowly and will forever be a spur to artistic creativity, be they mother nature, human behaviour or even... cathedrals.

16th February 2013, London

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Printed from: http://www.carlosbonell.com/blog/?p=2211 .
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