Composer • Bandoneon
• 1921 — 1992
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"For me," Astor Piazzolla once said, "tango was always for the ear rather than the feet." Piazzolla expanded upon one of the great popular dance traditions of the Western Hemisphere, constantly crossing and recrossing the line between popular and classical music.
A tango master not of the barrooms but of the concert hall, Astor Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 1921. His family moved to New York's Little Italy, and his musical education was shaped by American jazz and pop. But his father gave him a bandoneón, a large Argentine concertina, to keep the family's connection to Argentine culture alive, and he also studied classical music. In 1934, he recorded with the Argentine tango pioneer Carlos Gardel, who soon would be killed in a plane crash. Returning to Argentina, he played the bandoneón in a Buenos Aires tango orchestra from 1936 to 1944, but the world of classical music had made a deep impression on him. A chance meeting with the great pianist Artur Rubinstein brought him into contact with Alberto Ginastera, Argentina's leading composer, and that led to several years of classical study. Piazzolla's Sinfonia Buenos Aires gained international acclaim but was poorly received in the composer's home country.
In 1954, Piazzolla went to Paris for further classical studies with the most famous composition teacher of the time, Nadia Boulanger. However, the experience led him to reconnect with the tango; Boulanger, after hearing him play one of his tango pieces, told him to discard the rest of his compositions. Back in Argentina, Piazzolla created nuevo tango (new tango), which broke sharply with the genre's traditional sound, and once again antagonized tango's Argentine partisans (he was even beaten up on the street on one occasion). Abroad, however, Piazzolla's reputation began to spread. Often written for his Quinteto Tango Nuevo (formed in 1960), featuring violin, guitar, piano, bass, and bandoneón, Piazzolla's more than 750 tango compositions included complex harmonies drawn from the world of modern concert music. The 1968 stage work Maria de Buenos Aires, inspired by Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, finally won over tango traditionalists, and for the last two decades of his life Piazzolla was an Argentine hero. Internationally, his reputation with both popular and specialized audiences continued to grow; his compositions became part of the 1986 musical Tango Argentina and also attracted progressive musicians like the members of the Kronos Quartet, who recorded Piazzolla's Five Tango Sensations of 1989. He died in Buenos Aires on July 5, 1992.
Piazzolla reawakened interest in the tango, and the international exposure given his works touched off a series of tango films, stage productions, and recordings. The key to Piazzolla's popularity was that no matter how much he experimented with the musical materials of the tango, he never lost touch with its sensual yet despairing emotional essence. The popularity of Piazzolla's unique blend of tango, classical music, and jazz continued to grow after his death. Jazz musicians, such as guitarists Al di Meola and Charlie Byrd and the vibraphonist Gary Burton have used Piazzolla's music as a point of departure, and classical performers as well took to his music; at the end of the 1990s, recordings by the famed Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer showed that despite its association with the bandoneón, Piazzolla's music could be transferred to other instruments. At the turn of the century, Piazzolla's boundary-crossing music was continuing to gain listeners of all kinds.