Alberto Ginastera

1916 1983

Alberto Ginastera

Composer

Biography

Alberto Ginastera was one of the leading 20th century Argentine composers. He established a solid reputation in both Argentina and overseas. He composed in many genres including orchestral, solo, chamber, opera, and film music. His music ranges widely, from nationalistic to experimental.

Ginastera was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1916 and showed signs of great musical ability from a young age. He began music lessons at the age of seven and entered the Conservatorio Williams at the age of twelve, graduating in 1935 with a gold medal in composition. He then entered the Conservatorio Nacional de Música, where he studied harmony with Anthos Palma, counterpoint with José Gil, and composition with José André.

Ginastera’s Panambi (1934-7) was premiered by José Castro at the Teatro Colón while he was still a student. It was described as being “a work of rhythmic verve and orchestral brilliance” and established the beginning of his composing career in Argentina. For his graduation piece,Psalm 150 (1938), he received a professor’s diploma. Two years later, Ginastera’s ballet version ofPanambi (1940) was successfully premiered leading to the commission ofEstancia (1941) by Lincoln Kirstein, the director of the American Ballet Caravan. However, the ballet was not performed until ten years later, due to the dissolution of Kirstein’s troupe. The orchestral suite was performed in 1943, and was well-received. During this period, Ginastera also wrote many short pieces, includingMalambo (1940), Cinco canciones populares argentinas (1943), and Obertura para el ‘Fausto’ criollo (1943).

Ginastera was considered one of the most accomplished composers of the Argentine nationalist movement and was appointed to teach at the Conservatorio Nacional and Liceo Militar General San Martín. A later intervention by the Péron government had him removed from the school. Taking advantage of his freedom from teaching, Ginastera travelled to the USA with his family from 1945 to 1947 with a Guggenheim grant. While in the US, he heard many excellent American orchestras and befriended Aaron Copland.

Upon his return to Argentina, Ginastera organised a local branch of the ISCM in 1947, in addition to establishing the Conservatorio de Música y Arte Escénico (1948) in La Plata, which he directed. The Péron government interfered in his career yet again in 1952 when they demanded he change the conservatory’s name. Due to his refusal, he was removed from the post until 1956, when the Péron government was defeated.

Ginastera’s output from the late 1940s through the 1950s was prolific. His String Quartet no. 1 (1948) gave a very powerful musical statement and employed elements such as abstract folk music and contemporary techniques. In 1951, the piece was selected for the ISCM Festival in Frankfurt. Other works from this time include his Piano Sonata no. 1 (1952),Variaciones concertantes (1953), and Pampeana no. 3(1954). In addition to these works, Ginastera was busy composing film music between 1942 and 1958. During that time he discovered that film music could be a very effective means of communication. The String Quartet no. 2 (1958) shows a combination of all of Ginastera’s previous styles and techniques. His early interest in serialism is also evident. The work was premiered in Washington DC at the First International American Music Festival and was performed by the prestigious Juilliard String Quartet. This performance established his reputation internationally. He was asked to present music at the following festival also, which became the Piano Concerto no. 1 (1961) and Cantata para América Mágica(1960). After the successes of these festivals, Ginastera was free to compose only by commission.

In 1962, Ginastera was appointed founding director of the Centro Lantinoamericano de Altos Estudios Musicales at the Instituto Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation. At this point, Ginastera resigned from all his other teaching positions. At the school, students received the opportunity to work with composers such as Copland, Messiaen, Xenakis, Nono, and Dallapiccola. During this period, Ginastera experimented wildly; he wrote his first opera,Don Rodrigo (1963-4), which utilizes many modern techniques such as serialism, microtones, extended vocal technique, and structural symmetry. The opera was premiered at Lincoln Center in New York with the New York State Theatre. The lead role was sung by the virtuoso Plácido Domingo, ensuring its success. This opera established his reputation as a major opera composer in the 20th century and led to the commission of a second opera,Bamarzo (1966-7), commissioned by the Opera Society of Washington. This opera featured explicit displays of eroticism which eventually led to controversy, though the work was initially positively received, and the cancellation of the performance in Buenos Aires. In protest to the cancellation of his production, Ginastera prohibited the performance of all his work until the ban was lifted.

Ginastera’s later years were marked by personal problems. His son had become ill and he and wife divorced. During this time he also had taken on many commissioned works, including another opera,Beatrix Cenci (1971). After meeting the Argentine cellist, Aurora Nátola, who supported him greatly, he was able to complete his works on time. The two married in 1971 and moved to Geneva, where he continued to compose.

While in Geneva, Ginastera’s output flourished. Works from this period include a large amount of cello music and also seven of the intended eight symphonic frescoes fromPapal vuh (1975). Although he died before completing the eighth fresco, the work can still be performed. Other commissions were left incomplete upon his death in 1983.

Ginastera’s music can be divided into four categories. Though he, himself, categorized his music into only three categories, historians later added a fourth to account for his final period. The three periods Ginastera named himself are, ‘objective nationalism’ (1934-47), ‘subjective nationalism’ (1947-57), and ‘neo-Expressionism’ (1958-1975). The fourth category added after his death has been named ‘final synthesis’ (1976-83). In his first period of composition, Ginastera focused on the national identity of Argentina, using many dances and folk melodies. His second period adds the allusion of vernacular events while his third period departs from nationalism and is very experimental. During the fourth period, many of his styles are integrated to form a new and unique style. Ginastera’s works led him to lead and be a member of many academies and receive several honorary doctorates.

Header image: courtesy of Revista Clarin Other images: courtesy of University Musical Society, Guitaar Salon and public domain