Classical, cosmopolitan, Baroque and Italian elements in the tangos of Astor Piazzolla

Piazzolla sipped classical music and distilled it in the tango. He achieved that tango maintained its musical identity while expanding its second person plural. This process is directly linked to:

  1. the musician’s cosmopolitan background;
  2. his musical influences;
  3. and to the notorious presence of Italians in Argentina since the 19th century, who took with them their music (tradition).

Astor Piazzolla has composed tangos, popular music since its inception, and within the tango, he has been even in his most irrigated productions of academic refinements, traditional or transgressive, and also for his typical jazz flexibility. The peculiarity of his foray into other repertoires, especially into the classical one, was that in addition to the technical sophistication and the novelties that these music styles brought to tango, it allowed Astor to expand and to renew the tango music.

These fruitful classical and jazz influences, while creating the Tango Nuevo (New Tango), rejuvenated the tango at the compositional and interpretive levels thus preventing tango of becoming restricted to something sealed, stuck in the past, turned into folklore – something that would end up restricting to museum stuff. The culture that might have been photographed in sepia – a photograph technique that would be favored by the well-known nostalgic inclination of the gifted Argentinian people – moved forward like a real plot, escaping the lenity of beforehand censors agents, and so it will resist while there is a tanguero who refuses to accept that the tango history concludes in an endless ritornello.

If I had to choose just one music to demonstrate Piazzolla’s musical trajectory and how he acted on tango, it would be Four, for Tango (for string quartet). We just need to pay attention to the fuzzy elements in which this composition is embedded to perceive that this music definitely is a tango. That’s what I tried to demonstrate with further analysis. [Portuguese words; English version coming soon.]

The taste for reviewing the decadence

After Piazzolla, a tango also can: be polyphonic, go beyond the vocal model of accompanied melody, dare in the harmony spectrum, have great sessions of improvisation, use electronic resources and unusual instruments uncommon to tango, and fuse others styles uncommon to Argentine music, etc.

Piazzolla managed the tango to be much more than it was, releasing it from its orthodoxies.

Today, so-called tango bands and orchestras are impressively different from each other as are Astillero, Bajofondo, El Cachivache, La Chicana, La Orquesta Típica Julián Peralta, Orquesta Típica Fernández Fierro, Quinteto Negro La Boca, etc.

This massive aesthetic dilation came – perhaps the only way it could have come – by the influence of classical music. As T. S. Eliot points in the essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, true artists belong to the future because they are the guardians of the past; they are not antagonists of the tradition but the last defenders of it – kind of conservative safeguard, as some Marxists would argue. Also, jazz, a music that conciliates traditions, contributed to the creation of Piazzolla’s musical character, and to create an open style that does not tear apart itself from what makes it unique.

The mentioned process occurred amid social and musical tensions, as we would expect to be on the Buenos Aires side of the force. As Nicolas Sosa Baccarelli affirmed in El tango: el reflejo de lo que lo somos (Tango: a reflection of what we are): “Above all tango is sadness, it is our mania to seek sadness; it is this habit of inventing nostalgia to the extreme conviction that everything is gone, that nothing will be as it was before – it is the taste for reviewing the decadence.”

A Kafkaesque trial

Measuring national identity is an exaggerated and sterile attempt that, I honestly don’t know why, has always been attempted. Supposedly Piazzolla was not Argentinian enough. This alleged lapse was aggravated, on the musical side, by the unfair label “jazz-tango” and by the assimilation erudite, classical influences; and on the biographical side, it was aggravated by the musician’s cosmopolitan experience – for example, by his coexistence with European avant-garde musicians (when he was at the traditional Conservatoire de Paris), and with jazz musicians (when he was in the USA, Canada or Japan).

Presumably, these are some vicissitudes that influenced the way Piazzolla wrote and played tango. Piazzolla’s contemporary tango fans accused him of not writing the “real tango”, the “true” Argentinian national color, and even they claim that his music was not dancing enough to be named tango. Nowadays, this dim perception is almost gone. Almost.

Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla and Lionel “The One Who Emigrated Too Soon” Messi moved from Argentina before the unpredictably, specific time that many Argentinians fellows appear to consider the minimum to form an Argentinian national self: in other words, to impose on the individual what makes someone indelibly argentino, that is, nostalgia y anhelo (nostalgia and longing). World fame is not enough to forgive Messi and Piazzolla for “not being” Argentinians such as Pugliese, Troilo, Maradona, or Tevez. In fact, the world fame earned by those two international stars generally increases the perception that they would not be quite “Argentinians”.

Piazzolla’s music enjoys much greater posthumous fame than the one he lived, including in Argentina – a redemption in reverse mode, the traitor forgives the betrayed.

At risk, we can say it seems that hardcore Argentinians expect Piazzolla and Messi to say “forgive me for betraying me”, in the mood of Nelson Rodrigues’ Perdoa-me por me traíres.

Some notes on how Piazzolla is related to the Italian musical primacy in the 17th and 18th centuries

According to the book A History of Western Music by Donald J. Grout and Claude V. Palisca “in Germany, in the second half of the [17th] century, the Italian style was the main foundation upon which the German composers built [their music]; Bach’s art owes much to Italy, and Händel’s work is as Italian as German. At the end of the Baroque, Europe’s music has become an international language with Italian roots. (…) The musical primacy of Italy during the Baroque was not absolute, but not even countries that retained their own national language escaped the Italian influence (…) Italian conceptions dominated the musical thinking of this period. From the mid-16th to the middle of the 18th century Italy was the most influential country in Europe in the musical field”. “Concerto Italiano [Italian Concerto], for harpsichord by Bach, summarizes this influence; it is also worth noting that the original title was Concert to Italian Taste”.

Concerto, the musical form, comes from the Italian Baroque. A soloist (concerto solista) or group of soloists (concerto grosso) dialogues and challenges a larger group that accompanies it. This group, in the case of a concerto grosso [gross concert], is called ripieno (the filling).

In the 20th century, many concerts were composed for orchestra. “Concert for orchestra” sounds like a misunderstanding or contradictory, but, if we think about it more closely, we will see that it is a concept that actually reinforces the idea of a soloist versus an ensemble: in this case, the orchestra is the virtuoso – i.e., soloists and soloist groups emerge from inside the orchestra to dialogue with the ensemble that accompanies it, which is some small groups who arise from the very same orchestra.

Piazzolla composed the Concierto de Nácar [Nácar Concert] for nine solo musicians and symphony orchestra, the Concierto Duplo [Double Concert] for bandoneon, guitar and string orchestra and the Bandoneon Concert (known as Aconcágua). Astor also composed the Concerto for Quintet, which follows the common idea in the 20th century and ever since of a concert for orchestra, an incipient idea in the concert of the Baroque that alternated tutti and soli, as the third movement of the Concerto alla Rustica by Vivaldi. Concerto for Orchestra is also the title of a composition by the Hungarian Béla Bartók.

In the first place a musical form, concerto also means a social activity, the social event whose name is simply concert (or classical concert, if you will). Concert is a word whose etymology, despite not absolute, seems to have been born of the Latin words conserere (to meet, to participate, to join) and certamen (competition, dispute, fight).

The Baroque era is the base and a landmark of the beginning of the music that would reign for the next three centuries. Adding the fact that even in the 19th-century Italian style remained very strong in classical music, as demonstrated by the Italian opera style’s success, we can recognize that Italian musical primacy in the 17th and 18th centuries and Italian immigration to Argentina in the 19th century have a special influence on tango.

Italian Baroque in Piazzolla

Piazzolla should be understood a music maker of the Baroque era – claims Alejandro Marcelo Drago in Instrumental tango idioms in the symphonic works and orchestral arrangements of Astor Piazzolla () – meaning that Astor played, composed, organized and orchestrated, thus merging these activities as a Baroque era musician would merge them.

Among the similarities of the works of Piazzolla with those of the Baroque era are vocal recitatives and instrumental recitatives; typical phrases; harmonic conduction patterns; cadences; etc. Please listen to this Vivaldi Concerto for 4 violins, and you will notice a very Italian and energetic ethos present in the ensembles that Piazzolla led.

Even considering those mentioned similarities, Piazzolla phrasing flexibility stands out. Considering his life, his typical relaxed phrasing should be credited more to the Baroque style than to jazz. This recitative of María de Buenos Aires, similar to Vivaldi’s, has the mentioned characteristics. (For those who do not know the technical term “recitative”: recitative, as the name evokes, I would say it is a way of singing with similarities of reciting.)

The tango-song tradition, with its emphasis on the lyrics, also echoes this aspect. In fact, the dramatic musical operetta, a genre Piazzolla clearly appreciated, comes from the Baroque. (Being more accurate, it comes from before the Baroque.)

Piazzolla collaborated in many famous works with the Uruguayan poet Horacio Ferrer. Their partnership is known especially by the tango-operetta María de Buenos Aires as well as the tango-song Balada para un loco (Balada for a madman).

Always pointed by critics, the little danceability of some Piazzolla’s compositions can be explained by the influence of classical music. In addition to the phrasal freedoms, i.e., the relaxed phrasing mentioned above, he used a lot of imitative polyphonic style, which is a way of writing whose apex within the Tonality is the compositional technique known as Fugue. (By fugue I mean voices imitating others while chasing themselves, like a mirrored fugue. And with voices I mean melody lines, not only sing.) The main consequence of using this compositional technique, the Fugue, is to restrict the number of people capable of dancing to the music using that technique. Besides professional dancers and dancers capable of avant-garde dances, not many amateurs are able to dance it. I would not suggest to anyone to start trying to dance with Piazzolla’s Fugue 9, composed for his ensemble Conjunto 9, active between 1971 and 1972 – the band of nine musicians of which Piazzolla was the most famous one.

Fugue 9, such as so many Piazzolla’s works, has recurrent rhythmic-melodic motifs coming from the Baroque which were widely used by the famous Argentinian. These motifs are exemplified by Fugue in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier #1, by J. S. Bach.

Speaking about melodies, from the Italian Baroque Piazzolla also inherited the taste for melodic virtuosity and implicit polyphony. That’s precisely what we can hear in Tango Etude [Tango-Study] for solo violin.

Tango harmony and most popular music “live” within the tonal system, something also called Tonality. The harmonic rhythm of tango is often slow, but it is commonly accelerated in some passages known as the Circle of Fifths, as it happens in the middle of the first movement of the Winter, from The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi. It is another idea we can find in Baroque (even if it is not exclusive to that period) that remains present in tango and it is characteristic of it.

A descending chromatic progression, pronounced by the double bass and accompanied by the piano, is used to evoke a wail feeling – a lament, the same way the Baroque basso lamento evokes it. That’s we can hear in Vuelvo al sur [I get back to the south].

(The basso lamento also arrives to Bossa Nova and to Brazilian popular songs alike, the precisely subject studied and exemplified by music critic Alex Ross in Bossa Nova, basso lamento.)

Usually, tangueros use a special harmony known as Augmented Sixth as a harmonic function named secondary Dominant, especially in its called Neapolitan form – which is another clear influence of Italian opera that sounds like a typical tango harmony progression. This cadence was recurrently used on tense melodic moments, for example, when French & Italian composer Jean-Baptiste Lully uses it at the moment that the singer sings “My heart howls”.

The typical compositional texture of tango is a melody with accompaniment, something that can be described as a drawing over a background. “Melody has been the fundamental principle of the traditional popular song; it is what makes it possible to memorize the words and to join in the singing. All folk traditions contain a repertoire of song-melodies, built from repeatable elements”, wrote the philosopher Roger Scruton in Music and Morality. Melody with accompaniment is also the texture of most of the popular music and the typical texture of the Classic and Romantic periods. Who tweaked this trend in tango, influenced by the Baroque, was Piazzolla, by inserting intricate, interdependent voices.

Compare the contrast of the flatter Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 (Andante) [red shapes] with the frizzy Bach’s Ricercar for 6 parts, BWV 1079.

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“The role each instrument plays in the musical texture points to another aspect of what characterizes the tango. Usually, in the instrumental narrative, violins and bandoneons carry the melody, while piano and acoustic contrabass provide the harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment.” (Tracing Tangueros: Argentine Tango Instrumental Music, by Kacey Link and Kristin Wendland) This division of roles was so common in the Baroque and was consolidated in it.

A melody played in the lower region of the sonorous spectrum, the one where the acoustic double bass follows the pianist’s left hand, provides a harmonic support which is complemented by the right hand of the keyboard instrument (in the Baroque era, it was usually the harpsichord or keyboard instruments alike), in order to provide continuity and rhythmic support. In Baroque, most of these sorts of melodies are composed (meaning that they were actually written), contrary to the harmonic accompaniment, that was an improvised mood. Those melodies are called basso continuo (in English, which is also called figured bass). Please listen to this demonstration, is fun and self-explanatory.

Piazzolla seems to have learned from Giovanni Battista Draghi, Pergolesi the man himself. Compare the basso continuo of his famous and beautiful Stabat Mater, composed in his last year of life, with Michelangelo 70 by Piazzolla: separated by a time span of almost three centuries, they are indisputably similar. Another detail to note in Stabat Mater: the solo voices draw the kind of counterpoint that Piazzolla would put between bandoneon and violin.

Bass lines are also a point somewhere in the middle of the triangle formed by tango, baroque and jazz vertices. In this case, we are talking about the famous Walking Bass: the melodic style so used in jazz – and, of course, also in blues. (It should be emphasized here that downstairs is a melodic style played by many other instruments as well as by the bass itself, in this specific case, by the guitar – or by the organ in this remarkable Bach’s music.)

One of the ways classical composers highlight more the harmonic filling than the bass line is transforming the bass line into what is called basso ostinato (obstinate bass). Piazzolla did a few times. To a better understanding of what we are talking about here, please pay attention to the loop played by the acoustic bass at the beginning of Sur: regreso al amor [Sur: Return to Love].

Piazzolla wrote program music too, a type of musical composition we can refer to it as a descriptive one, whose most famous example is the Baroque suite The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi. Other erudite composers made such music, especially those of Romanticism, a period in which the relevance of this sort of music has increased so much that it has become an autonomous genre. We are referring to a type of music with extra-musical appeals, which evokes things generally considered non-musical in a strict, narrow sense – it is something evocative, descriptive, something almost narrative, almost a verbal justification to the music.

Another exemplary Baroque program music is the Capricho on the farewell of a beloved brother, BWV 992, by Bach. Please notice in it how the subpart titles bring something beyond the musical aspect: Friends surround him and try to dissuade him from marching; They explain to him the dangers he can encounter; The lament of friends; As you cannot be dissuaded, say goodbye to him; etc.

The following songs by Piazzolla also are examples of music with a program, a piece of program music: Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas [Four Porteñas Seasons] and Five Tango Sensations (Sleeping, Dreaming; Loving; Anxiety; Awakening; Fear).

Argentina that gave birth to the tango

“Tango and Argentinians share a hybrid and obscure origin. We are the descendants of a traumatic encounter. Natural children of nostalgia and heaping, the immigrant defrauded and displaced by wars, and the criollo affected by wire fences, the Bible and the law; that is, the immigrant. We came from this group, from this struggle. Heirs to the disgraceful history of the old continent and the misfortune of a pampa ‘without history’, we have debated those years if we should identify with both, and yet we do not recognize any.” – Baccarelli, in: El tango: el reflejo de lo que lo somos (Tango: a reflection of what we are).

In the mid-19th century, Argentina received a new wave of immigration. These emigres, living among people who already lived in Argentina, began to have a sense of national uniqueness and, of course, they started to have their own social crops – in other words, their own mixed culture, a modified new Argentinian culture. This new immigrant wave was mainly of Italians. (The same happened to Ribeirão Preto, my hometown a mid-size city in the interior of the state of São Paulo, southeastern Brazil). It had its peak between the end of the Paraguayan War and the beginning of World War 1 when the Argentine population goes from representing 0.13% of the world population to 0.55% in the 1930s and ever since.

Also, many European Jews emigrated to Argentina. A considerable number of them were musicians who found in the incipient tango activities a way of making money, in the same way as the tanos did it. (Tano is a word typical of the Spanish spoken in the Rio de la Plata [The Silver River] region – which is synonymous of Italian people.)

“The tanos stayed in tango. Some preserved their surnames, others became or mingled with Criollo words, there were even those who made them sound like a French name, but they always kept on playing, writing and dancing during the tango course of the century.” – Baccarelli, in: La inmigración italiana y el tango[Italian immigration and tango]

A look at the tango names is like watching an Italian football match (or “soccer match”, as our mates from the USA and Australians would say): De Caro, Discepolo, Greco, Ponzio, Contursi, Firpo, Maglio, Maffia, Canaro, Lomuto, Di Sarli, Pugliese, D’Arienzo…

… And Piazzolla, who is a son of Italians.

Piazzolla, a compound noun

In 1925, Piazzolla’s family moved to the United States when he was four years old. “Even though he lived in the USA, Piazzolla grew up in a house that emitted the sounds of Argentinian tango. His father appreciated the tango of Gardel and De Caro, and he bought a bandoneon for the infant Astor when he was 8 years old. In 1934, at 13, Piazzolla had the privileged opportunity to meet and work with the mythical Carlos Gardel, who was filming in New York City. In addition to acting as a translator for the international tango star, Piazzolla accompanied Gardel playing the bandoneon and had a small role in the movie El día que me quieras, [released in 1935]” – how described by K. Link and K. Wendland in Tracing Tangueros.

Julio Nudler, in Astor Piazzolla: el tango fulminante [Astor Piazzolla: the fulminant tango], affirmed that Piazzolla’s de facto debut in tango environment happened two years after his return to Mar del Plata in 1938: “(…) the precise time when tango awakened rapidly from its relative lethargy began around 1930”. “His baptism in tango came when he replaced Rodriguez in Troilo’s orchestra. El Gordo [The Fat One], quickly impressed by the 18-year-old who knew the whole repertoire of the orchestra with no need to read sheet music, gave him a permanent seat in the famous ensemble. In addition to playing bandoneon, Piazzolla eventually wrote arrangements for Troilo’s ensemble too. It was during this period that Piazzolla was caught by classical music, an interest inspired by his admiration for the great Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein.”

In 1941, at age 20, as a result of the enchantment of classical music, Piazzolla sought formal musical instruction.

He began his remarkable six years of composition studies with the remarkable Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera to whom Astor attributes much of the substance of his musical formation, especially in what concerns orchestration techniques: “thanks to musical instruction with Ginastera I started making new arrangements. I had to understand the orchestra [as a music organism], and started composing string quartets for tango groups.” Among so many examples of Ginastera in Piazzolla, we can hear it clearly in orchestrations such as the tango-operetta María de Buenos Aires and the Concierto para bandoneón, in the dense textures of Four, for Tango, and in his famous music called Soledad, which brings to our memory one of the Ginastera’s Danzas argentinas [Argentinian Dances], especially the Danza de la moza donosa [something: The Dance of The Girl Who Donates].

Ginastera influence over Piazzolla also extends to the Sinfonía Buenos Aires [The Buenos Aires Symphony], which is the music that won, in 1953, the contest Fabián Sevitzky, a prize that allowed Astor to study a year in Paris with internationally renowned musician Nadia Boulanger.

The Parisian period, in addition to the in-depth study of technical issues of classical music, was important for Piazzolla both for his contact with European erudite avant-garde composers and for the affirmation of his tango identity. It remained for the story that after Boulanger and Piazzolla were lost by countless scores, she asked him to play Argentine music. Then he played Triunfal [Triumphal], and Nadia would have replied, “Astor, this is beautiful. I liked very much. This is the real Piazzolla! – never let him go”.

In 1955, Piazzolla returned to Buenos Aires and started his new artistic project, referred to as Tango Nuevo [The New Tango]. The so-called post-French revolution was received with reservations by the Argentine public: “in Argentina, you can change everything except tango. It was like conversion to another religion. It was as if I, a Christian, had become a Buddhist or an Islamic” – told him. Researchers Link and Wendland explain that Piazzolla, hoping to achieve better success, relocated his family to New York in 1958.

In 1960 Piazzolla and his family returned to Buenos Aires where he created his second major group, the famous Quinteto Tango Nuevo [The New Tango Quintet]. Among his groups, the Quinteto Tango Nuevo was the one who lasted the longest. This band, now referred to as Primero Quinteto [The First Quintet], displayed the typical modern tango quintet: bandoneon, violin, piano, guitar, and double bass. Primero Quinteto recorded Piazzolla interpreta a Piazzolla [Piazzolla plays Piazzolla], which featured his compositions only, including the first recording of Adiós, Nonino [Farewell, Granddaddy] and his tribute to Argentinian tanguero Julio De Caro, De Caríssimo [Dearest De Caro].

If in the 1950s Piazzolla went deep down into classical music, the 1970s were the years of jazz experimentalism.

Piazzolla embarked on a variety of experimental ensembles, such as the famous Conjunto 9 [The Band 9], in 1971, with which he experimented a mix of tango, jazz, and rock & roll, and recorded two albums, Música popular contemporânea de la ciudad de Buenos Aires [Contemporary Popular Music of the City of Buenos Aires] (1 and 2).

In 1973, Piazzolla began a partnership with Gerry Mulligan, a cool-jazz musician he had idolized since his days in Paris in the 1950s. Together they recorded the album Summit, which includes Twenty years ago and Twenty years after, which represent, respectively, Piazzolla’s desire to play with Mulligan and his dream that came true with the recording of the mentioned album (Summit).

In 1975, Piazzolla formed another experimental group, the Electronic Octet. In contrast to other groups, the Electronic Octet repertoire featured a large amount of improvisation, and its sound is closer to progressive rock (especially the British one) than to tango. You can see and hear a sample of that in a few cloudy and rare videos.

In 1978, Piazzolla formed the renowned Second Quintet – his most successful group – with the same instruments chosen for the First Quintet. This remarkable group traveled the world for eleven years and created two notable albums: Tango: Zero Hour and La camorra.

In the late 1980s, after four surgeries due to his heart attack, Astor dedicated himself to two smaller projects: the Sextet and his collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, which recorded the impressive Four, for Tango.

Piazzolla’s last artistic endeavor was the mentioned album Five Tango Sensations (1991), recorded by the Kronos Quartet.

Astor Piazzolla suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1990. He died in 1992, on the 4th of July. Although Piazzolla died decades ago, his music continues to be a huge worldwide success phenomenon and to be played and listened to throughout the world, either by officially published sheet music or by arrangements and transcriptions that neither editors nor heirs can control; and there are numerous books and websites about Piazzolla written in and translated to multiple languages.

AdAdiós, nonino, Piazzolla’s biggest musical success, is burial music. Composed in honor of his grandfather who had just died, more than a farewell – such as Mozart’s Requiem – is aroaragainst death. And it could not be so different: after all, art despises the brevity of life.

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Coda:

  • This story was first published in Portuguese on the blog Tango 30 in November 2016.
  • Tanguedia de Amor was the very first Piazzolla album I heard. (Thanks, dad!)
  • Tanguedia = tango + tragedia (tragedy). Such a neologism, hermanos.
  • If you can read in Portuguese, for a more in-depth study of Piazzolla and tango history, I modestly recommend a 65-minute read (according to Medium) that I wrote as a research to write this Piazzolla story – it is called Panorama da História do Tango. (I expect to make the English version sooner or later.)


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