Andrés Segovia has an immovable status as the father of modern classical guitar, he put the foundations for all that came later. Without him this modest instrument today would be relegated only to popular and folk music.
That said, there is also many people who criticize his attitudes and even his playing technique, he is no more untouchable for the new generation of guitarists.
One thing that many people consider notable about Segovia is his relationship with guitar composer Agustin Barrios Mangore, whose name today is present almost always in the repertoire of classical guitarists and is often considered one of the finest composers for the instrument (as a Chopin of the guitar, quoting John Williams).
Despite the recognition Barrios receives today, he was relatively unknown in the world of classical guitar during his lifetime. He didn’t tour Europe or the United States, he played concerts in Latin America, with success, but the small market didn’t permit him make a great amount of money. He didn’t become a world figure, unlike his counterpart Segovia, who filled prestigious theaters in the most important cities in the world.
Although Barrios came from a country relatively isolated from the musical world, we can’t say that he didn’t have the chance to burst his career. He spent a good deal of time in one of world’s cultural centers of the time: Buenos Aires. He didn’t take advantage of this favorable environment, he dedicated to play concerts and make records consistent of mostly popular tunes, and stayed away from the growing classical guitar community in Buenos Aires. Llobet, Segovia and other notable guitarists regularly traveled to play concerts in this city with a great and welcoming public.
Barrios directed himself more towards the popular music public, this was due to several reasons discussed elsewhere. Later, he had another big opportunity to further his career, when meeting Gino Marinuzzi, the world famous conductor of La Scala Opera of Milan in Rio de Janeiro. He played a private concert for the notable musician and some of his friends and were warmly congratulated. If he had maintained contact with Marinuzzi, he could have made some contacts with impresarios in Europe and arrange some concerts.
Other, and probably the best opportunity he had (although this time it didn’t depend much of him) was when meeting Andres Segovia. The Maestro Segovia, at the time they met, still wasn’t the world authority of guitar that he would become in later years, but was nevertheless in a much better position than Barrios, he was playing concerts in South America and Europe.
Segovia had heard about Barrios before they met in 1921. Miguel Herrera Klinger (an Uruguayan biographer) declared that in certain occasion he overheard a conversation in a guitar store in Buenos Aires between Andrés Segovia, Regino Sáinz de la Maza and Domingo Prat regarding Barrios. They were discussing about the metal strings the Paraguayan used. Sáinz de la Maza was the only one who did not reject steel strings, as long as it was Barrios who played on them. To what Segovia said: “Well, as far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t know what to do with that wire fence”. This happened around 1912, when Barrios still wasn’t a mature guitarist and Segovia was just starting his career.
They met finally in 1921, in Buenos Aires. Segovia was gaining more and more recognition at this time, he was in a much better position that Barrios, that determined the way that the encounter happened: Barrios attending a concert by Segovia. After the concert they where introduced by a friend of both. They talked politely and Barrios promised to visit him.
This visit happened some time later in Segovia’s home (Barrios was the one who had to go after Segovia). Klinger declared about this encounter: “Barrios played a cascade of musical gems for the great Segovia who was surprised…better yet: he was floored. Nearly 2 hours later he was congratulated by the Maestro. One particular work he liked very much and indicated he would play in his concerts. Barrios gave him an original copy with a dedication. The work that Segovia said he would like to program in his concerts he never played. And logically so: if he had played it, with the extraordinary abilities he possessed he would have elevated Barrios to inaccessible heights, thus detracting from his own artistic prestige.”
The work that Klinger is talking about here is La Catedral, one of Barrios masterpieces. There is the possibility that Barrios never got to give a copy to Segovia, as he hadn’t any with him, he had to ask a friend to send it from Uruguay. We don’t know for sure if the copy arrived at time, before Segovia left Buenos Aires. But if Segovia had been sincere he would have helped Barrios to arrange concerts in Europe and the United States. Many years later, Barrios would realize that Segovia wasn’t his friend and say about him that he was “deaf in the heart”. Barrios acknowledged that Segovia was an outstanding technician but he didn’t see himself as being in any way “less of a technician”. Barrios was proud of his identity as a composer, which involved skills and talents quite beyond the “mere” acquirement of physical virtuosity.
This is the commonly accepted version, that Segovia had some envy and fear of being replaced by Barrios as a guitar authority, and because of that he ignored him. There were also other reasons for that rejections that weren’t related to competition. These are technical and musical reasons.
Segovia was famous as a harsh critic, he never doubted of criticizing important musical figures like Narciso Yepes and his 10-string guitar, Paco de Lucía and Abel Carlevaro. He had a clear vision of what classical guitar should be and didn’t accept anyone who was heading in another direction. Barrios was one of them. Barrios played using metal strings, a really good reason for Segovia to reject him. Also it could be that he didn’t like the music of Barrios, as it had sometimes a Latin American folklore character. He despised anything that related the guitar to folk music.
It is famous the quotation of Segovia saying that Barrios “isn’t a good composer for the guitar”. David Norton, the student that asked Segovia about Barrios in a masterclass made the following post in the online forum at delcamp.com:
Everyone here knows the quote: “In public, I heard Segovia say that ‘Barrios was not a good composer for the guitar.'” Richard Stover has repeated this statement for years, as a mantra of sorts.
But that’s not the whole story. This post is. You see, as fate would have it, I was the student who asked Segovia about Barrios that afternoon, and this excerpted quote is his response to me.
The context is this. Segovia had done a masterclass at California State University – Northridge (CSUN). I’m thinking this was April 1981 or 1982. Not important. The class was concluded and I, along with 20 or 30 others, was up in front hovering. Circumstances were such that Segovia was answering a few questions from the students. I found myself not 4 feet from him, with Stover (my teacher at the time) right next to me.
I asked, “Maestro, what is your opinion of the music of Barrios which has become so popular recently?” His wife asked me to repeat it, because naturally they were not really listening. I did, she translated.
Segovia paused, and it was clear that he was struggling for the right words. “Barrios …. he was not …. he did not write …. all small pieces (he gestured with his hands, thumb and forefinger indicating smallness) …. not like Ponce, who wrote large. No, in comparison to Ponce or Castelnuovo, Barrios is not good composer for la guitarra.”
Stover only really heard the last bit. He was several shades beyond furious with me for asking: “You HAD to ask HIM, in front of God and everyone!! And he just dismissed my entire life’s work. Thank you very much!!.” And he stomped off. A week later, he apologized for over-reacting, and said “So what? He’s an old man, who cares what he thinks? People with any brains know better about Barrios.”
And no one who wasn’t there that afternoon would ever have known of this conversation, if Stover himself hadn’t spent the following years restating it over and over, and then attacking it.
So there you have it, at least as well as I recall the incident from 23-24 years ago. In context, a 90-year-old man, who was obviously very fatigued from 3 hours of teaching, speaking in English (which was never his strong point), and his actual statement is not nearly as damning as the sound-bite Stover has published over the years.
Make of it as you will.
There was another encounter between the two masters, many years later, at the end of Barrios’ life. In March of 1944 Segovia visited San Salvador to play a concert. The two masters met and spent several hours chatting in Segovia’s hotel room. Not even a note was played, as Barrios was in bad physical shape and Segovia felt a certain amount of pity for his “foe”, as he was forgotten and poor in a relatively isolated country and Segovia knew the fame and recognition that his talent merited.
They had a polite and cordial meeting, where Segovia left Barrios a set of gut strings as a gift.
This story sheds light to his opinion regarding Barrios’ music. Segovia admired Barrios as a musicianship but didn’t want to popularize his music with a folk character, his goal was to show to the world that the guitar could be considered an instrument of art music. This could also be mixed, but I doubt it, with jealously.
We can blame Segovia for not showing Barrios to the world, but Barrios never did much to become what he should. He wasn’t interested in it. His music was for the people he knew. This can be understood in his biography below.
We can’t know for sure the reasons for Segovia rejecting Barrios, we can only speculate. What we know is that a big opportunity was wasted both by Barrios and Segovia to make classical guitar even greater.