For the opening concert in our new ‘Tune In’ series, we are featuring the music of Argentine composer, Astor Piazzolla, whose music has played a huge part in our ensemble’s history and, were he alive today, would be celebrating his 100th birthday this year.
Born in Mar del Plata in Argentina in 1921 to Italian immigrant parents, Piazzolla began displaying a precocious musical talent at a very early age. He was tutored by Hungarian pianist Bela Wilda, who had in turn been taught by Rachmaninoff himself, and Piazzolla was taught how to play Bach on a bandoneon he had bought in a New York pawn shop at the age of 8. The influence of Bach and other baroque composers such as Vivaldi would prove to play a pivotal role in his compositional style, in particular his use of counterpoint and fugues which appear time and again in the works you will hear in this concert.
However, aged 15, whilst playing in a variety of tango orchestras around his home town, he discovered the music of Elvino Vardaro, whose novel interpretation of the tango style greatly appealed to the young Piazzolla. However, it was around this time too that he encountered world-renowned pianist, Arthur Rubenstein, who, impressed by Piazzolla’s evident musical ability, advised him to use the money earned from playing in tango orchestras to pay for lessons with the most famous Argentine composer of the day, Alberto Ginastera. With him, he would study the works of Stravinsky, Bartok and Ravel amongst others, and under his tutelage he would also master orchestration. Indeed, his study with Ginastera proved to be so influential that by 1950, he almost abandoned the tango style altogether in his own compositions.
However, when Piazzolla entered his Buenas Aires Symphony in Three Movements for the Fabian Sevitzky Award, a work that provoked a fight in the audience for the inclusion of two bandoneons in a traditional orchestral setting, the French Government granted Piazzolla funds to pursue studies in Paris with noted composition teacher, Nadia Boulanger, and it was she who encouraged Piazzolla to channel his studies of traditional classical music and mastery of counterpoint into his rooting in the tango style. It was a true watershed moment!
Piazzolla would go on to reinvent the tango genre into what is now termed ‘tango nuevo’, literally ‘new tango’, and constructed his Orquestra de Cuerdas (String Orchestra) to alter traditional tango music to sound more akin to European chamber music, but still infused with traditional Latin dance rhythms. This highly atypical style was not always received well by the Argentine establishment, and Piazzolla would have to spend much of his professional career from then onwards in Europe or North America where the style was far more popular and appreciated more widely.
Vayamos al Diablo (literally, “Let’s go to the devil!”), written in 1965, is as good an example of this ‘tango nuevo’ style. With a highly energetic dance rhythm (with an unusual 7 beats per bar!) and coarse dissonances permeating the music, the work propels itself headlong into oblivion!
In contrast to the Devil, we’ve then combined two works based around the theme of the Angel which we’ve titled the ‘Angel’ Suite, comprising Muerte (death) and Milonga (a style tango with powerful accents on each beat). One can see the influence of Bach in the fugue present in the Milonga.
The next work features both the rhythmic and highly passionate elements highly typical of the tango style. Entitled Revirado (meaning ‘twisty’), it features a melody in the bandoneon that quite literally twists in and over itself.
Our next piece in the programme, Oblivion, is one of Piazzolla’s most well-known, achingly beautiful and haunting compositions; it is a piece that we as an ensemble have performed in our live concerts for many years and never tire of playing.
Perhaps one of the best examples of Vivaldi’s influence on Piazzolla is his composition entitled Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires). A work modelled on Vivaldi’s own ‘Four Seasons’, in particular the use of the solo violin which mimics Vivaldi’s own use of the instrument, tonight played by our guest director Jonathan Stone, we are going to play Verano (Summer).
In sharp contrast to the summer’s intense heat, Coral offers a more peaceful respite, with much slower, lugubrious tango rhythms now taking hold.
Following this, we play one of Piazzolla’s most timeless works, entitled Adiós Nonino. In 1959, whilst on one of his frequent stays in New York, he heard of the untimely passing of his father. As the story goes, Piazzolla retired into a room and in just a single hour, took the melody of his 1954 work Nonino, also incidentally dedicated to his father, and reworked it into a stunningly beautiful tribute. Because it was written so far from his native country and due to the melancholic background to its composition, it evokes a great sense of nostalgia and has even been adopted as a symbol of the Argentine diaspora.
The penultimate piece in our programme, Chiquilin de Bachin, is one of Piazzolla’s best known original songs, composed in the rhythm of a waltz with original lyrics by Uruguayan-Argentine lyricist, Horacio Ferrer. The song tells the story of a poverty-stricken boy who sells flowers in the cafés of Buenos Aires’ theatre district, and the music reflects the achingly sad tale of the boy longing to have a life like the other children he sees going to school and not having to find food for themselves as he must.
For the final work in the programme, we turn to what is, perhaps, Piazzolla’s most famous and most popular composition: Libertango. A work that has been rearranged in various guises for countless ensembles, it bears all the hallmarks of Piazzolla’s ‘tango nuevo’ style, complete with driving rhythms, soaring melodies, inventive harmonic progressions and brilliant contrapuntal writing.
© Credit: Alex Mackinder