The Allegro solemne movement of Barrios’ famous La catedral is one of the best known and most widely played pieces in the repertory. I have always enjoyed playing it. In order to understand this piece a bit better I decided to do a harmonic analysis. As is always the case I discovered harmonic relationships that I did not notice in the read through. I would like to discuss in more detail some of the more interesting features.
The piece is in B minor and other than the slight excursion into the relative major (D) in measures 9-15 and measures 52-59 with a cadence in D major, the piece pretty much stays in B minor. I think I expected more in the way of harmonic development for some reason. The harmony is quite traditional and straightforward using a rather conservative approach for the period which may have been intentional as the piece was inspired by J.S. Bach’s organ music which Barrios evidently heard one day while in a cathedral. Not to say that Bach was conservative with his harmony in any way; it just seems as if Barrios avoided some of the more adventurous Romantic harmonic tendencies.
Section one (mm. 1-59) begins in B minor and moves into D major (relative major) with the authentic cadence in measure fifty-nine. Note how he sometimes approaches the dominant (F# major) chromatically from below in this section with the fourth degree (E) ascending to E# and then to F# (dominant). He accomplishes this with two different harmonies. First with the traditional secondary leading-tone diminished triad as in measure seventeen and with the augmented sixth chord in measure forty-seven, although in this case only the interval of an augmented sixth is present in inversion. At first I assumed these two were the same until I took a closer look. Since many of these harmonies are implied I thought the presence of the G natural along with the E# strongly implied the augmented sixth chord whereas in the other instances, where the G is not present, the E# bass along with the other tones seemed to imply a diminished triad.
Section two (mm. 60-87) consists mainly of a succession of descending parallel tenths in the outer voices beginning with the D and F# (third and fifth of tonic) in measure sixty and moving down the scale arriving on the F# and A# in (root and third of dominant) in measure eighty. The resulting succession of first inversion triads are usually not considered a chord progression and so were not indicated as such. The important feature is the parallel descending tenths that connect the tonic and the dominant. Again we get that brief chromatic approach to the dominant in measure seventy-nine and again in measure eighty-three with both the secondary leading-tone and augmented sixth chords as we had in the previous section.
Section three (mm. 88-122) is basically a repeat of the second half of the first section (mm. 21-59) but this time with a cadence on the tonic (B minor).
Section four (mm. 123-153) is the development section. The use of the German augmented sixth chord (mm. 124-127, 135-138) is the meatiest part of this development. It was this that caught my attention on first hearing this piece and I had no idea what it was at the time. Barrios uses this harmony, as it has been used traditionally, as dominant preparation. It usually precedes the dominant or the tonic 6-4 chord. The interval of an augmented sixth contained in this harmony resolves in contrary motion to an octave, which in this case is the root of the dominant harmony. We have discussed this chord in detail in previous articles. Please refer to the Sor Op. 6 analyses for an in-depth explanation. There is also a very nice circle of fifths progression which begins in measure 141 on the dominant (F#) and works its way back to the dominant, completing a circle in measure 150. The root movement is as follows: F#-B-E-A-D-G-C#-F#. Of course there is one diminished fifth in this sequence in order to remain diatonic and not leave the home key.
The final section (mm. 154-201) is a restatement of the second half of section one with a coda added to finish things up nicely. The coda, beginning in measure 187, makes use of what is now a common blues/jazz interval progression. The bass line descends (B-A-G#-G-F#) while the inner voice ascends chromatically (D-D#-E-E#-F#) in a move from tonic to dominant. Harmonically this creates a series of chords which include a secondary dominant, a borrowed major IV chord and an augmented sixth chord as shown in the analysis. The idea of borrowing chords from the parallel major in a minor key is less common than the other way around. This E major triad can also be thought of as a diatonic IV chord generated by the ascending B melodic minor scale. The chromatic voice-leading is what is most important here and not so much how we rationalize the scale source. The chord is simply a bi-product of the voice-leading. This is an important thing to realize especially when dealing with nineteenth and twentieth century harmonic practice. This sets up the final cadence containing the great B minor arpeggios taking us to the top of the guitar’s range.
Once again I hope you enjoyed this journey as much as I have and find it useful in better understanding this great composition. The pdf file below contains the score and the analysis for your use. More to come with the analysis of the Preludio and Andante religioso.