Tango nuevo: Piazzolla, Durán, Ginastera
The tango: a lascivious dance born in the bordellos of Buenos Aires. Or so goes the legend. There is some truth in it but the real story of how the genre came to define the Argentine identity is far richer. In the late nineteenth century, European immigrants, mainly from Italy and Spain, flooded into Argentina hoping to prosper from the agricultural boom. Many were unable to buy land, however, and settled instead in the working-class neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires. Homesick, and often poor and unemployed, these immigrants, along with the port city’s natives, gave expression to their daily struggles by creating a new hybrid art form.
The tango’s musical sources were as varied as its creators: a blend of Italian Mediterranean culture, Spanish flamenco and the Cuban habanera. Even its flagship instrument, the accordion-like bandoneón—invented in Germany as a portable organ for church services—was an unlikely protagonist. By the 1920s, Carlos Gardel, the “king” of tango, had popularized the genre’s sung form; and the tango’s acceptance by Parisian high society helped spread its popularity worldwide.
But even a vibrant tradition risks stagnating if not renewed. And sometimes what is required is an outsider’s fresh perspective. The burden to stop the “tango from becoming a relic of the past”, observed pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, fell on the shoulders of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992).
© 2008 Robert Rival
Boulanger considered Piazzolla’s music to be well-crafted and noted its debt to Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartók. But she thought it lacked spirit. When she learned that Piazzolla composed and arranged tangos for a living (he was ashamed of this), she asked him to play one. He reluctantly obliged. Boulanger then took his hands in hers and said: “Astor, this is beautiful. Here is the true Piazzolla—do not ever leave him.”
Calling this epiphany “the great revelation of my life”, Piazzolla returned to Argentina where he founded his famous Quintet (bandonenón, violin, piano, electric guitar, bass), the principal vehicle for his nuevo tango, a new style that incorporated the dissonant harmonies and cross-rhythms of twentieth-century classical masters. In the process, he took the tango off the dance floor and into the concert hall.
Piazzolla’s take on tango, however, met with fierce resistance from traditionalists. After one concert, an audience member asked snarkily: “Maestro, why don’t you play a tango?” The question haunted him throughout his career. In his memoirs, he even claimed to have once been beaten in the streets by a disgruntled member of tango’s old guard.
Las cuatro estaciones porteñas
Among the many pieces that Piazzolla wrote for his Quintet is Las cuatro estaciones porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires; “porteño” means “of Buenos Aires”). All four pieces bristle with energy, grating dissonances and percussive punch. Slow interludes provide contrasting moments of nostalgic lyricism. The fast-slow-fast scheme (except in Invernio porteño (winter) where it is reversed) is perhaps the most significant reference to the work’s famous predecessor, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Otherwise Piazzolla’s seasons, which were not even conceived as a set, have little to do with Vivaldi’s in either style or concept. Whereas Vivaldi’s are pastoral and literal (dogs barking, birds twittering and storms brewing), Piazzolla’s are urban, tied to a specific locality and depict each season’s essence rather than its literal sounds. Piazzolla wrote Verano porteño (summer) first, in 1965, and completed the rest by 1969.
Milonga del ángel, Muerte del ángel, Resurrección del angel, Tango del ángel
Even more loosely interrelated are the pieces that make up the “angel” series, four of which appear on this recording (composed between 1957 and 1965). The haunting Milonga del ángel (Milonga of the Angel) is one of Piazzolla’s signature pieces: soothing, yet tinged with yearning, it creeps under the skin. Muerte del ángel (Death of the Angel) begins and ends with a furious fugue that does as much to invigorate the tango as to breath new life into the old baroque form. The steady, descending chromatic bass line in Resurrección del ángel (Resurrection of the Angel) recalls the baroque symbol of lament. Tango del ángel (Tango of the Angel) is alternately driving and mellow.
Piazzolla was also much in demand as a film composer. In 1985, he composed the music for the award-winning El exilio de Gardel by the leftist Argentine director Fernando Solanas, who, despite his disapproval of Piazzolla’s “questionable opinions” about the brutal military dictatorship in the 1970s, recognized that Piazzolla “succeeded in expressing the anguish, melancholy, nostalgia and depression so typical of the man from Buenos Aires”. Oblivion, with its soaring lines and gently pulsating accompaniment, is the highlight of the score to another film, Enrico IV (1984), by Marco Bellocchio after Pirandello’s play.