To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Astor Piazzolla’s passing, we are making available for free viewing the full-length video of our Purcell Room concert début (available until 14:00 GMT Thursday, July 5) and have also uploaded two new videos (Revolucionario & Libertango) to our YouTube channel.
In addition, to mark the Anahit and Anastasios we will be appearing on The Arts Desk Radio Show on Monday, 9 July, to talk about Piazzolla’s life and work. Lastly, on Tuesday, 10 July at 16:30 GMT we will be performing live on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune and will later be talking to Suzy Klein about our favourite composer. Please tune in or visit BBC Radio 3’s website to listen to our performance.
Piazzolla’s life and work:
Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina. All four of his grandparents were immigrants to Argentina from Italy. His father, Vincente, sold and repaired motorcycles in Mar del Plata and chose the name Astor after a friend who had gone to the United States and become a violinist with the Chicago Symphony. It was the first sign that his son was to become a musician. In search of a better standard of living, Vincente took his family to New York City when Astor was just a baby. Astor was an indifferent student and initially showed no interest in the bandoneón that his father gave him when he was eight years old – baseball and boxing were far more important than school and music. At the age of thirteen, his formal education had ended and he began to become serious about music under the tutelage of pianist Béla Wilda, a former student of Rachmaninoff. Wilda introduced him to classical music which joined the tango music he heard from the phonograph records at home and the jazz he heard on the streets of New York to form the foundation for the music he would create in the future. The Piazzolla family returned to Argentina when Astor was sixteen and before he was twenty he was well on his way to a career as a performer and composer.
Piazzolla was a small man, a lover of practical jokes but intensely serious about his music. He had a work ethic unusual for musicians of the era and although he was rarely seen without a cigarette he avoided the addiction to drugs and alcohol that took toll on so many performers of the day. He was married twice and had two children with his first wife, Dedé. Piazzolla suffered a stroke in 1990 shortly after a performance with the Athens Orchestra of Colours, and died from complications two years later on July 4, 1992. During his lifetime Piazzolla was known as a performer who composed. His legacy is as a composer who performed.
Piazzolla was a competent pianist, but the bandoneón was the instrument on which he performed. The bandoneón was invented in Germany for use in churches as a less expensive alternative to an organ and named after the man who marketed it, Heinrich Band. It is related to the accordion but is bisonic (a single button sounds one note as the bellows is drawn and another note as it is pushed) and has a bafflingly complex button arrangement. It was brought to Argentina in the 1870’s by German sailors and was adopted by the early tango musicians as a much louder replacement for the flute. Listeners now identify it as the voice of tango. Piazzolla first performed with his bandoneón as a teenager in radio and talent shows in New York City. When he returned to Buenos Aires with his family in 1937, his talent on the instrument won him a position in one of the best tango orchestras, that of Anibal Troilo. He formed his own tango orchestra in 1946 with some success, making more than 30 records of traditional tango music composed by others but arranged by Piazzolla. In 1955, he broke from the traditional tango orchestra structure and formed an octet (two bandoneóns, two violins, a cello, an electric guitar, a double bass and a piano) but still played traditional tango. In 1961, he took the next step and began playing only self-composed music in a quintet (bandoneón, violin, electric guitar, double bass and piano). In following years, he formed several sextets and octets but the quintet was clearly his preferred ensemble. His ensembles played in cafés, clubs, concert halls and stadiums literally all over the world -hundreds of performances each year. He was a musician’s musician whose concerts were attended by the best musicians in the jazz and classical world. Many of them, like Gary Burton, Gerry Mulligan and the Kronos Quartet arranged to record and perform with him. As a performer, Piazzolla appeared before millions of people and created more than a thousand tracks of music spread across a discography of nearly two hundred records.
Piazzolla composed a few traditional tangos while still performing with the tango orchestra of Troilo, but he aspired to write serious music. In an audacious move, he approached Artur Rubinstein, who was performing in Buenos Aires, with a piano sonata he had written. Rubinstein looked at it and told Piazzolla if he was serious about composing, he would have to study. Piazzolla announced his willingness to study and Rubinstein made arrangements which led to Piazzolla becoming the first composition student of the young but prominent Argentine composer, Alberto Ginastera. Under Ginastera, Piazzolla wrote a three movement symphonic work, Buenos Aires (Opus 15), which was good enough to win the Sevitsky Prize, an annual composition award in Argentina. That prize granted him a trip to Paris in 1954, where he studied under Nadia Boulanger for four of a whirlwind seven months he and Dedé spent in Europe. Boulanger was one of the best known composition teachers of the twentieth century. Her students include Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones and many others. Mme. Boulanger observed that Piazzolla’s serious music was good but not great and that the “real Piazzolla” lived in the tango music he wrote. The two maintained a lifelong bond of genuine fondness, and Piazzolla took her advice and incorporated tango, at least the soul of tango, in his life’s work. Piazzolla remained a student of music the rest of his life and enjoyed particularly the study of the scores of Bartók and Stravinsky, two composers he particularly admired. Piazzolla had total mastery of musical theory and counterpoint, and unlike many of his twentieth century contemporaries, did not shy away from the use of lyric melody.
He composed at the piano, playing with his right hand and scoring with the left. He was a prolific composer and although there is no definitive count of his works, they certainly exceed a thousand. When he returned to Argentina from Paris, he began to perform his new tango-inspired works for the public, and they were not well received. His music was jeered at, and his daughter reports that even taxi drivers on the streets of Buenos Aires refused to pick him up. His music was not traditional tango nor was it classical or jazz – it was something entirely new. Piazzolla termed it “nuevo tango”, and it was celebrated for years on European stages before it was accepted in Argentina. It is still difficult to hear “tango” in his music. To paraphrase a New York Times critic, Piazzolla delivers the tango in the bass line and the music in the upper lines – that remains perhaps the best advice for listening to his music. He composed everything from solo works to movie scores to full symphonic works. Working with the Uruguayan poet, Horacio Ferrer, he composed canción and an oratorio (he termed it an “operita”), Maria de Buenos Aires; but most of his compositions were created to be played by his ensembles, and of those, the quintet was clearly his favourite.
Astor Piazzolla’s biographical information was written by Don von Schriltz