– a man possessed, by a note obsessed
For YouTube link click here to my own recording of the work. The timings below refer to this video.
There is scarcely another work in the music of Barrios which reveals such an obsession. I am referring to the note “a”. It is such that from now on I will write it in capitals as simply “A”. Through the piece it makes 127 appearances – that is, on average once every 2.12 seconds. The strange thing about “A” is that its recurrence is not obvious, but discrete, almost disguised. By implication, this disguised obsession may refer to Julia Florida herself, after whom the piece is named. That is a conjecture I leave you to ponder. Julia Martinez de Rodriguez was one of Barrios’ guitar students, and the niece of Francisco Salazar, a guitar aficionado, wealthy architect, artist and good friend of the composer. The piece was written in Costa Rica in 1938 while the composer was recovering from an illness and living in a house owned by Salazar.
More about that note “A”
“A” occurs both in the tonic chord D and the dominant chord A, and alternates between the two throughout the piece. It peaks in a stunning sequence of chords from 2.48″ (bar 52). “A” begins or ends melodic phrases more than 40 times. Through the work “A” occurs in all four octaves acting as either melody note, bass note or inner voice note.
The emotional curves of Julia Florida: summary
Increasing excitement – Signs of obsession – Development/ intensity – Hesitation – Definitely obsessed now – Repeat of opening: contemplation –
– Coda: Acceptance/finality
In the first 60 seconds “A” appears 33 times in different octaves as melody or harmony note.
0.39” on YouTube link
The tune makes an extra big jump of a 6th and lingers in the highest octave of the guitar – increased hope and excitement?
0.42” on YouTube link
Signs of obsession
Obsession kicks in – “A” sounds on the first beat of every bar.
1.02” on YouTube link
An episode alternating Bminor and Eminor offers a break from “A”.
1.22” on YouTube link
One of the most beautiful moments is this G minor chord with a Bflat, the note next door to “A”.
2.04” on YouTube link
The melody assumes a continuos downward quaver movement, creating a sense of freedom and elation.
2.12” on YouTube link
Here begins a hesitating sequence with an E#. But do not be misled. As far away as that seems from “A” this is all an elaborate ruse to lead us back there. Here is how it works: E# belongs to the C# major chord which is the dominant of F# major which is the dominant of Bminor. From there it is easy: a falling bass line leads us to A minor. Yes, that’s right we are back with “A” at 2.37″ (bar 48).
2.37” on YouTube link
Definitely obsessed now
The rhythm of the melody changes with a six note quaver sequence ending on the last note of each bar. This produces both a suspended feeling and an emphasis on the sixth note of every other bar, which, of course, is “A”.
2.48” on YouTube link
Here begins perhaps the most beautiful harmonic sequence with “A” at its apex. The pace of “A” apperances quickens: the sixth note “A” appears in every bar five times in a row, the last four in harmonics, taking us on a chordal journey through Aminor – A7 – F#diminished – G7, and finally landing on A7 again (with an E in the bass). The music comes to a stop, for “A” now hangs in the air, in an unresolved dominant 7th, its pathos accentuated by the bass note E. Instinctively the listener feels we have reached a turning point. And indeed we have, for the piece now starts all over again from the beginning.
3.06” on YouTube link
Repeat of opening: contemplation
Bar 1 – 4 (second time round): “A” now sounds like a contemplative echo of the beautiful harmonic sequence which preceded it: less about hope, more about acceptance.
4.01” on YouTube link
Coda bar 57 – the end: Julia Florida ends with a slow climb through harmonics to the top note “D” (an octave above the first string 10th fret), in the style of the slow movement of Rodrigo’s Aranjuez Concerto which was composed around the same time between 1938-1939. Barrios may have been familiar with the Baroque convention of ascending notes symbolising the ascent of a departed soul to heaven. The musical effect here is one of peace, beauty and finality – or, if you prefer to conjecture, resignation and acceptance.
Role model Barcarolles
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy:3 “Venetian Gondola Songs” from Songs without Words provided the inspiration for many composers. Chopin gave the barcarolle a darker twist in his masterly Barcarolle Op 60 while Offenbach captured a lighter feeling in the Tales of Hoffmann
References and suggestions:
Listen here to Richard Stover talk about meeting Julia (Florida) Martinez de Rodriguez.
Six Silver Moonbeams: The Life and Times of Agustin Barrios Mangore by Richard D. Stover (May 1992) contains a wealth of information.
Music publication details: The Guitar Works of Agustín Barrios Mangoré. Volume 3 edited by Richard Stover, published Belwin-Mills, 1977
A second edition by Richard Stover of Julia Florida published in volume 2 by Mel Bay Publications, 2003, contains notable differences from the Belwin-Mills edition published in 1977 on which I have based this article.
First published on 17th October 2014, London