Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Astor Piazzola (1921-1992)

Le Grand Tango for Cello and Piano


Like American Jazz, the Argentine Tango was born in poor neighborhoods, bars and brothels, the music of an urban underclass. In contrast to its contemporaries, Ragtime and early New Orleans Jazz, the Tango has always been associated with sex and violence. Borges’ poem , The Tango, (see page 8) could be as apt an evocation of the "Gangsta Rap" of the 1990's as it is of the Tango of the 1890's. Its repute was such, that during its early days it was considered too lascivious to be performed by women in public. It was danced on street corners by male couples. From the street corners it made its way to the brothels, where it became the dance of prostitute and pimp. From the prostitutes, it made its way to the sailors, who brought it back to their home ports.(This sounds more like the spread of disease than dance.) Marseilles was chief among these; and from there to Paris, where it became all the rage, as well as something to rage at. So corrosive was its influence on society and morality that the Archbishop of Paris, in his January 1, 1914 address, threatened excommunication to those who succumbed. "We condemn the dance of foreign origin known as the Tango, which by its lascivious nature offends morality. Christians ought not in conscience to take part in it. Confessors must in the administration of the Sacrament of Penance enforce these orders." The furor over this dance was such that the Ambassador of Argentina in Paris released the following statement in hopes of upholding his country’s honor. "The Tango," he wrote, "is a dance peculiar to the houses of ill-fame in Buenos Aires, and is never cultivated in respectable gatherings." As time passed, by the 1940s, the Tango had indeed become respectable, elegant even; just another ballroom dance like the Waltz, or Fox-trot. Peabody, anyone?


And now to matters musical. The Tango can vary in tempo, and mood. It can be vocal as well as instrumental, and can entail improvisation on its harmonic pattern as in Jazz. A typical ensemble, though any augmentation of players is possible, may consist of a violin or two, perhaps a piano, bass, and the instrument that gives the ensemble its characteristic tone color, the bandoneon. Originally from Germany, the bandoneon looks and sounds much like an accordion, except that the right hand plays upon buttons rather than a piano-like keyboard. It's a rather apt instrument for the spirit of this music, as some small violence is required to squeeze the sound out of it; a mere caress won’t do. The Tango ensemble has stronger ties to European sensibility than Jazz in that it does not require the drum and bass rhythm section, the backbone of all American Jazz ensemble playing . However, since any dance music (when it is serving as such) requires a longer duration in order to get the folks up and moving, the opportunity for improvisation presents itself to those skilled enough to do so.


There have been many Tango composers in its now century old tradition. Foremost among them was Astor Piazzola. Though born in Argentina, his family brought him to the United States when he was an infant. The family settled in New York City where Astor gained knowledge in both Classical Music and Jazz. Having also learned to play the bandoneon, in his mid-twenties he decided to return to Argentina, where he joined the band of Anibal Troilo as Bandoneonista. In Buenos Aires, he studied with Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, (whose Second String Quartet was performed by the SCS in its 1994 season). He also went to Paris to study with, who else, Nadia Boulanger. Upon his return to Argentina, he formed his own band, incorporating all that he had absorbed musically. His music outraged the Tango traditionalists, exhibiting as it did pungent dissonance, and a worse offense: rhythmic flexibility. This condemnation by the old guard endeared him to the young. His group Quintetto Nuevo Tango, founded in 1960, revived and revitalized the Tango. He and his group recorded extensively, and his compositions include works for the stage. He composed music for a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Comedie-Francaise, as well symphonic works. Piazzolla preferred to call his music "Music of Buenos Aires".


The Grand Tango for cello and piano contains all the qualities of his Tangos: daring harmonies, spiky dissonance, pulsing rhythm and syncopation, as well as glissandi (slides up and down the fingerboard), strikes to the instrument, and wide mood swings. This is as wonderful a rhapsody for cello and piano as was written by any composer, requiring a high degree of virtuosity by the players. Though played without pause, the work is comprised of three sections; the first rhythmically strident, alternating moods of violence and tenderness; the second, a lyrical melancholy song of simple texture, and the third a return to the rhythmic insistence of the first, with a wonderful bluesy part for piano, building in tempo and intensity to a grand climax. (I hope you’ll enjoy the piece, or I’ll never hear the end of it from the General Director.)

1996-97 Season, Program I , Sunday October 6, 1996

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All original text on this page copyright 1997 by Joseph Way