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The bandoneon player and composer Astor Piazzolla was the preeminent figure in Argentine tango music, becoming the first to successfully combine it with European Classical influences and drastically broadening tango’s international appeal in the process.
Piazzolla once quipped “I was born in Mar del Plata, raised in New York, found my way while in París, but every time I get on the stage, people know I’m going to play the music of Buenos Aires.” However, it took him years of artistic development to finally realize the importance of this music to him. Although Piazzolla received his first bandoneon from his father when he was only eight years old, he expressed no immediate affinity for the instrument, and for a while preferred the piano as a more respectable, “serious” option. Piazzolla quickly gained proficiency in both instruments by studying with several teachers in New York City, most notably Bela Wilda, who fostered his interest in Bach and Rachmaninov.
In 1935 Piazzolla was offered the opportunity of a lifetime: touring South America with the tango superstar Carlos Gardel and his orchestra. However his father intervened, unwilling to let his son travel at such a young age. This decision proved more auspicious than the elder Piazzolla could have imagined, as a plane crash during that tour ended up killing Gardel and everyone in the band.
Piazzolla finally moved to Buenos Aires in 1938, at the age of 17, where he started by doing odd jobs in various tango orchestras, most notable with Anibal Troilo, and studying with the acclaimed Argentine Classical composerAlberto Ginastera. By the early 1940s, Piazzolla had begun forming his own bands, frequently featuring his own compositions which were becoming more and more progressive by the year. However, he soon begun doubting the artistic validity of tango again, and discontinued his bands in order to focus on composing and studying the great works of 20th century composers. One of his compositions from this period, “Buenos Aires” (1953), was notable for incorporating bandoneon into an orchestra, a move which at the time was highly controversial.
Upon returning to Argentina in 1955, Piazzolla began immediately pushing the boundaries of tango far past what most traditionalists would have liked. He formed the band Quinteto Tango Nuevo while in Buenos Aires in 1960, a group which would be one of the foremost exponents of modern tango. The quintet played in a classically-influenced chamber style instead of as an accompanying band for vocalists and dancers. Many of his songs from this period began to bear an overt jazz influence, which is notable in his composition “Adios Nonino” (1959), written for his father shortly after he passed away.
The year 1967 marked the beginning of a period of notable collaborations between Piazzolla and the Uruguayan-Argentine poet Horacio Ferrer, whose lyrics helped Piazzolla’s song reach a whole new level of popularity. Together, the two of them released the influential tango opera “María de Buenos Aires” in 1968 and a large number of songs, of which “Balada Para un Loco” (“Ballad of a Madman”) became his most successful hit to date.
Very soon Piazzolla was an expert in tango, saying "I learned the tricks of the tangeros, those intuitive tricks that helped me later on. I couldn't define them technically; they are forms of playing, forms of feeling; it's something that comes from inside, spontaneously." However, for years he had been seeking an opportunity to leave Argentina to broaden his knowledge of classical music. This moment came in 1954 when he received a scholarship to travel to Paris and study with the infamous musical pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, known as the no-nonsense mentor of countless prominent composers from the 20th century includingAaron Copland, Philip Glass and Quincy Jones. Piazzolla credits the year he spent with Boulanger as an instrumental period of his career, in which he came to appreciate the importance of tango and developed the tools to combine it with a more contemporary approach.
Although Piazzolla’s style was still incredibly polarizing in his native Argentina, he was beginning to enjoy great success in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe and the United States. The early 1970s witnessed many successful tours and a period of great productivity for Piazzolla, who by the end of his career could boast more than 750 compositions. In 1974 Piazzolla teamed up with the great American baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and several Italian musicians to record the album “Summit,” which proved to be immensely successful. Although he mostly led his own bands, Piazzolla would frequently collaborate with and compose for other famous artists, including his “Suite for Vibraphone and New Tango Quintet” which was premiered at the Montreux Jazz Festival with notable vibraphonist Gary Burton, a cello sonata called “Le Grand Tango” (1990) for Mstislav Rostropovich and the string quartet “Five Tango Sensations” (1989), commissioned by the Kronos Quartet.
Piazzolla’s immense influence is evident not just in the scope of his hundreds of songs and film scores, which include “The Exile of Gardel” (1985) and “Sur” (1987), but also in his novel approach. He was the first to incorporate contemporary classical harmony and counterpoint into the tango genre, in addition to a significant jazz influence. Although it took many years for his genius to be recognized, he is now viewed almost universally as one of the greatest Argentine composers. For the last decades of his life, Piazzolla seemed not to have doubts about the direction he knew his music must go, saying “I still can't believe that some pseudocritics continue to accuse me of having murdered tango. They have it backward. They should look at me as the savior of tango.”
Images courtesy of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tanguear and public domain