Happy Monday to all!
Or at least I hope it’s Monday… I have to be honest, the past few weeks have been spent in preparation for my doctoral comprehensive exams that begin next week. What that entails is basically what the name implies: three days of cumulative exams that cover the range of all of music theory and music history, as well as encompassing my coursework I have taken throughout my time in the program. But since my phone told me today is indeed Monday, the music must go on!
As I have been preparing for my exams, I have enjoyed revisiting parts of the history of music that I have either not thought about in a while or just forgotten. There are so many stories of incredible creativity and ingenuity that has pushed musical artform forward over the years. These often involve extraordinary individuals creating works inluenced by several factors, like historical influence, current trends in the world around them, and a personal style and flair. The truly great innovators stand out in music history because they use what knowledge and resources are readily available and create something new entirely. Such is the case with today’s music, the nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla.
Piazzolla was a tango composer, arranger, and bandoneon player born in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 1921. His formative years came after moving to New York with his family when he was four. There he was exposed to the tango orchestras of fellow Argentians Carlos Gardel and Julio de Caro, as well as jazz and classical music like J.S. Bach, and was given a bandoneon that his father purchased at a pawn shop. Piazzolla composed his first tango at age 11 and began studying with Hungarian pianist, Bela Wilda, who was a student of famed composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, and who taught young Astor to play Bach on his new bandoneon. Piazzolla’s own account tells it like this:
“We lived in a very long house and there, at the back, beyond a courtyard, there was a window and from there, the sound of a piano was heard. It hypnotized me, I stood still beside it. Later I came to know it was a piece by Bach and that the pianist practiced nine hours a day. He was Bela Wilda and soon he became my teacher.”
Isn’t it amazing how the tiniest things can inspire greatness in others. He went on to study with Argenitian classical composer Alberto Ginastera, where he was immersed in the Western classical tradition, and then traveled to Paris to study with legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, a trip won by a competition sponsored by the French government.
Piazzolla’s central claim to faim was his ability to combine the tango music of his native Argentina with Western classical style and technique, a genre referred to as nuevo tango, or “new tango.” Features like Passacalglia, a circulating bass line in harmonic sequence, or an imitative fugue are techniques of 17th and 18th century counterpoint (how notes move against one another) and are pervasive through Piazzolla’s later works. Blending the rhythmic and melodic elements of tango with stylistic features from the West at first was controversial back home, but it helped to spread his fame through Europe and North America. Also a renown bandoneon virtuoso, Piazzolla spent the next several decades traveling the world regularly performing his own compositions with a vareity of ensembles. Eventually, his reputation as the world’s leading composer of tango was established, and his music is still performed frequently around the world. Concerts will often include his music admist music of Bach because of their close ties.
I am sure after reading this so far you have been thinking loudly, “but what the heck is a bandoneo?!” Well, a bandoneon is a concertina (family of reed instruments that includes the harmonica and accordion) that is most popular in Argentina and Uruguay, and is a staple of most tango ensembles. It is held between both hands while propped onto the player’s knee and pumped back and forth while pressing various buttons to produce corresponding sounds. Contrary to the accordion, the bandoneon is bisonoric, which means it produces different pitches when pushed and pulled. Accordions are unisonoric, producing the same sound pushed or pulled, but include register switches, which create a wider variety of sound and are missing from most bandoneons.
The piece I have included today is Piazzolla’s “Fuga y Misterio,” a perfect example of his nuevo tango style. The fuga, spanish for “fugue,” begins the work, and for those also wondering “what is a fugue?!” it starts with a melody called a “subject” that is then passed along while a secondary melody called a “counter-subject” is played simultaneously. In the Baroque period, a fugue was seen as the crowning achievement of counterpoint. Therefore, it is so cool to here a fugue here in the style of a tango.
Enjoy the infectiousness of Astor Piazzolla, seen here tearing up the bandoneon!