Barrios, Agustín Pìo

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Agustín Pìo Barrios

Paraguayan musician and composer Agustín Barrios Mangoré (1885-1944) was one of the foremost classical guitarists of his day, and arguably the most important guitarist in South America. During his career, he toured incessantly, visiting practically every country in South and Central America as well as performing in Europe. His work blends traditional folk music with more sophisticated elements of classical music to create a unique sound. Long forgotten outside of Latin America, over the last few decades the music of Barrios has enjoyed an international revival.

Received Early Training in Paraguay

Born May 23, 1885, in the small town of San Juan Bautista de las Misiones in Paraguay, musician and composer Agustín Pìo Barrios (later called Barrios Mangoré) came from a humble background. His father, Doroteo, had come to Paraguay from Argentina and worked as Paraguay's commercial vice-consul; his mother, Martina Ferreira, was a native Paraguayan who worked as a school-teacher. One of seven brothers, Barrios developed a love of guitar from his father and an interest in literature from his mother. Barrios first began playing guitar at the age of seven and quickly became known in his community as a child prodigy. Renowned guitarist Gustavo Sosa Escalada heard Barrios play during a trip to San Juan Batista and soon convinced Barrios' parents to send young Agustín to the Instituto Paraguayo in Asuncion, about 125 from San Juan Batista. There, the young Barrios developed his guitar talent under the tutelage of Escalada and learned music theory from Italian violinist Nicolino Pellegrini.

At the age of 18, Barrios played his first professional concert at the National Theater in Asuncion. His performance impressed both music fans and critics. Soon, Barrios began composing and performing his own pieces; Peter Sensier and Richard D. Stover noted in their Grove Music Online biography of Barrios that “although he lacked a formal musical education, Barrios … wrote guitar music of high quality that combined many of the characteristics of his predecessors, Sor and Tarrega.” Barrios performed both with his instructor Sosa Escalada and with his brother, Francisco Martin, who had become a poet. Barrios and his brother toured Paraguay, writing and performing music.

Began Touring South America

In 1910, Barrios left Paraguay to give a week's worth of concerts in Argentina. He instead remained in Buenos Aires for the better part of two years, initially intending to save money so as to be able to marry a sweetheart in Asuncion who had bore him a son. However, Barrios was somewhat disorganized and carefree about business matters, and was unable to save money. Rather, he used the time to perfect his guitar technique and repertoire and studying the works of other guitarists, including Julio Sagreras, Domingo Pratt, and Miguel Llobet. Some time around late 1910 or 1911, Barrios seemed to have traveled to Chile and perhaps Peru. On this trip, he met Martín Gil, who was influential in Argentina's musical world and became an early supporter of Barrios's talent.

Barrios returned to Buenos Aires briefly, departing in 1912 to travel to Uruguay for a lengthy concert tour. There, he studied with Antonio Gimenez Manjon. Writing in “Minstrels of Magical Strings,” Caleb Bach noted that “he also established an enduring friendship with a prosperous landowner, Martin Borda y Pagola, who … soon become something of an emotional anchor and confidant to the impulsive, passionate young man.” Borda y Pagola also encouraged Barrios to write manuscripts of his compositions instead of carrying his music in his head, as he was inclined to do. Barrios remained in Uruguay for about three years; Richard D. Stover commented in Six Silver Moonbeams: The Life and Times of Agustín Barrios Mangoré that “these years … were no doubt a period of expansion and growth.”

From 1916 to 1920, Barrios lived primarily in Sao Paolo, Brazil, performing there and in other cities in the area. Having left Paraguay, he was presumably surprised to learn that his own death was being reported in Paraguayan newspapers in September 1918. This strange event would recur later in Barrios's life; in 1934, he was reported to have died first in a Mexican newspaper and then a few months later in the papers of Venezuela. This first false report seems to have stemmed from the death of an Argentine guitarist who happened to have the same name. The living Barrios, however, benefited from publicity generated by the many tributes made by those believing him to be deceased.

Enjoyed Successes and Faced Failures

Beginning in 1917 and lasting for about a decade, he experienced an outpouring of creative growth: aside from playing many concerts, he wrote 76 new compositions, transcribed 39 works, and added 20 pieces by other composers to his own repertoire. In 1919, he met renowned Italian conductor Gino Marinuzzi, who questioned his technical choice of using metal, rather than the usual gut, strings. Barrios—reputedly at Marinuzzi's suggestion— adopted the use of small rubber beads on some of his strings to eliminate the metallic twang. That same year, he performed a concert for the President of Brazil, an event which Grove Music Online claimed to be the beginning of “his first real successes.”

After leaving Brazil in 1920, Barrios returned to Montevideo, Uruguay. He remained there for several weeks, performing concerts that combined classical European works with modern Latin American ones, including many of his own compositions. In 1921, Barrios traveled through parts of Uruguay and Argentina. During this tour, he became ill with what was probably typhus, a bacterial infection that plagued him for several months. Despite his illness, in 1921 Barrios composed the work that Stover claimed “is no doubt Barrios's most widely played composition, La Catedral … [which] figures among the concert guitar's greatest repertoire.” In September 1921, Barrios—essentially recovered from his illness—voyaged to Buenos Aires to record music. While in Buenos Aires, Barrios became acquainted with famed Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia. This year also marked Barrios's first published compositions.

The following year, Barrios toured parts of Chile and Brazil before at last returning to his native Paraguay. The first native Paraguayan to find success and fame outside of the country, he was a source of national pride for his fellow Paraguayans, who received him with much admiration. He spent the next few years primarily based there. During this era, he wrote two of his most important works, Danza Paraguaya No. 1 and Danza Paraguaya No. 2. These pieces reflected traditional musical rhythms and sounds of his homeland. He also performed throughout the country, again accompanied by his brother Francisco Martin. In Paraguay he was also reunited with his former instructors Pellegrini and Escalada. However, the financial support Barrios had hoped to find in native country failed to materialize. Regretfully, he realized that could not remain permanently in Paraguay and left the country in 1925. He was accompanied by Tomás Salomini, who would serve as his patron for many years to come.

For the second half of the decade, Barrios split his time between Uruguay and Argentina. Despite his best efforts, Bach noted that “his reputation declined. Especially in Buenos Aires he was perceived as musician who clung to old-fashioned ways and as a provincial who could not compete with Segovia, who by then enjoyed an international reputation.” Somewhat disheartened, Barrios moved to Brazil in 1929. He soon met a dancer named Gloria Seban; although the couple apparently never legally married, they presented themselves as man and wife for the remainder of Barrios's life.

Mangoré Caused Career Revival

From 1930, Barrios began performing under the pseudonym Chief Nitsuga Mangoré. Whether this persona stemmed from an attempt to garner a larger audience than he had as Agustín Barrios or simply from a whim, over the next few years it became that which Barrios publicly espoused. Basing this persona on a sixteenth-century chieftain from the indigenous Guarani culture, Barrios appeared in costume and employed poetry and props to enhance his guitar concerts. It seems likely that either Seban or Barrios's brother, who was traveling with Barrios at the time, made an influence on the creation and development of this character. Promoting himself as the greatest guitarist in the world, Barrios resumed touring. Over the next few years, Barrios took the Mangoré identity through much of South and Central America, parts of the Caribbean, and finally Mexico. There, Salomini convinced Barrios to give up the identity, believing it to be undignified. Barrios retired the character Mangoré in 1933, but retained the professional name of “Barrios Mangoré.”

In 1934, Salomini arranged a performance for Barrios in Cuba. From there, Barrios, his wife, and the Salomini family traveled to Europe, fulfilling a dream of many years. Barrios spent several weeks in Brussels, Belgium, where he played at the Royal Conservatory of Music. On this trip, Barrios also met and befriended Igor Stravinsky. Leaving Brussels, the group traveled to Berlin, Germany, where they remained in an apartment rented for Salomini for about fifteen months. In Berlin, Barrios played no concerts, but did perform on Radio Deutschland. In late 1935, the Salominis returned to Paraguay while the Barrioses traveled to Spain. In Spain, Barrios performed a concert in Madrid and is reported to have played for Queen Victoria Eugenia. However, the encroaching Spanish Civil War forced Barrios and his wife to return to South America.

Barrios stayed briefly in Venezuela before embarking on a tour of the Caribbean. He visited Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti before spending several months in Cuba. In financial difficulties, Barrios traveled to Costa Rica, but performed few concerts there.

Spent Final Years as Instructor

In July 1939, Barrios came to El Salvador to perform a concert series. That September he traveled to Guatemala, where he reportedly experienced a minor heart attack. Despite this, he soon ventured to Mexico City. There, he suffered a major heart attack; some claim that this happened while Barrios was performing and caused him to collapse onstage. After this heart attack, Barrios was advised to rest and never again regained complete strength. He returned to El Salvador and settled there, receiving a professorship at the National Conservancy from President Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, an appreciator of guitar and a fan of Barrios.

Although Barrios continued to play occasional concerts, he dedicated the majority of his time to teaching. His pupils admired him, and he required them to play to the utmost of their abilities. Between 1940 and 1944, Barrios composed many guitar works, including some pieces for two and three guitars. His final work, Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios was composed in May 1944; Caleb Bach described this work as “a tremolo composition featuring a soprano line that rides above an ostinato motif said to represent a beggar's knocking at the door of heaven.” That same year, RCA Victor asked Barrios to come to the United States to record. However, this long hoped for trip never occurred. On August 7, 1944, Barrios suffered heart failure and died. Stover reported that “the priest who attended him [at the time of his death] proclaimed, ‘This is the first time I have witnessed the death of a Saint.’ ”

During Barrios's life, he composed something over 300 works for solo guitar. Primarily between 1912 and 1929, Barrios made over 30 recordings, including what may have been the first recording of a classical guitarist on vinyl record. These recordings are remarkably clear for the technology of their day. For many years after Barrios's death, however, his life and work were remembered only in his native Paraguay. However, beginning in the 1970s, his music again found a wider audience thanks to the performances of Australian guitar John Williams and American guitarist Richard Stover. Today, the music of Barrios is part of the classical guitar repertory and receives ever-increasing attention.


Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, 5 vols., Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996.

Stover, Richard P., Six Silver Moonbeams: The Life and Times and Agustín Barrios Mangoré, Querico Publications, 1992.


“Barrios Mangoré, Agustín” Grove Music Online, (November 26, 2007).

Student Resource Center—College Edition Expanded, (November 26, 2007).

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