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Ginastera, Alberto: 1916-1983: Argentine Composer

Alberto Ginastera: 1916-1983: Argentine composer

"His music drew nourishment from folklore but was cast in an advanced harmonic idiom," wrote music historian Joseph Machlis of composer Alberto Ginastera in his book Introduction to Contemporary Music. Ginastera integrated powerful musical symbols of Argentine identity with highly complex European and American compositional trends. Over his nearly 50-year career, he gained international critical acclaim and, as contemporary composers often failed to do, found substantial audiences for his music. Many observers consider him the greatest Latin American composer of the post-World War II era.

Of Catalonian and Italian descent, Ginastera was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 11, 1916. He showed musical talent from a very early age. "One day I went into the kitchen and played on all the pots and pans and other things I could get, to make a kitchen orchestra," he told the Washington Post. "I was spanked. They did not know then that what I was playing had in it the roots of Panambí and Estancia "two of the early compositions that put Ginastera on the musical map. Ginastera's parents signed him up for piano lessons when he was seven and enrolled him at the Williams Conservatory in Buenos Aires in 1928.

Composed Ballet Scores

Ginastera graduated from the Williams Conservatory in 1935 with a gold medal in composition and moved on to Argentina's National Conservatory. He began composing in the early 1930s but destroyed all copies of many of his early works. A suite of excerpts from Panambí, a ballet score, was performed in 1937 in a concert led by one of Argentina's leading conductors, and the entire ballet won the National Prize of Argentina three years later. Another ballet, Estancia, was commissioned by the American Ballet Caravan, an influential American company. Ginastera completed the work, and again a performance of orchestral excerpts excited audiences. But World War II delayed Ginastera's planned visit to the United States, and by the time he arrived after the war the company had been disbanded.

Nevertheless, Ginastera found American cultural freedom exhilarating. After clashing with the authoritarian government of Argentine strongman Juan Perón, he had been forced to resign a teaching position in Argentina, but in the United States his works were performed by major ensembles such as the NBC Symphony Orchestra. At the Tanglewood summer festival in Massachusetts, Ginastera studied with American composer Aaron Copland, whose folk-influenced yet intricately crafted music had affinities with Ginastera's own. In 1948 Ginastera returned to Argentina to direct the music school at the National University in the city of La Plata.

At a Glance . . .

Born Alberto Evaristo Ginastera on April 11, 1916, in Buenos Aires, Argentina; died on June 25, 1983, in Geneva, Switzerland; married Mercedes de Toro on December 11, 1941 (divorced); married Aurora Nátola (a cellist) in September 1971; children: (first marriage) two. Education: Williams Conservatory, Buenos Aires, gold medal graduate, 1935; National Conservatory of Argentina, graduate, 1938.

Career: Composer, 1937-83; National Conservatory of Argentina, faculty, 1941-46; National University, La Plata, faculty, 1948-mid-1950s; Catholic University of Argentina, dean of Musical Arts and Sciences, 1958-62; Latin American Center for Advanced Musical Studies, Buenos Aires, director, 1962-69.

Selected awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1942 (reception delayed until 1945); honorary doctorates from Yale University in 1968 and Temple University in 1975; UNESCO International Music Council music prize, 1981.

Ginastera's works up to this point had been in a predominantly nationalist idiom, flavored by Argentine folk melodies and rhythms. Yet his nationalism was of a compositionally rigorous kind; he did not simply quote folk melodies, but rather employed such procedures as the elaboration, over the span of an entire composition, of a characteristic guitar chord heard in Argentine gaucho or cowboy music. In the early 1950s, falling afoul once again of the Perónista government, Ginastera threw himself into composition and distilled these folk-flavored but formally sophisticated procedures down to ever more abstract levels. Such works as the Piano Sonata No. 1 and the Variaciones concertantes became among Ginastera's most widely played, and, almost alone among works by contemporary composers, enjoyed favor with both audiences and academic specialists.

Employed Serial Technique

After several years of making a living by composing film scores, Ginastera returned to teaching in 1958 when the political situation improved, setting up a new music school at the Catholic University of Argentina. Major American commissions for new works continued to flow his way. His Cantata para América Mágica and Piano Concerto No. 1 were performed at the Second Inter-American Music Festival in 1961. These works submerged the specifically Argentine elements of his style in favor of the complex "serialist" techniqueformulated in interwar Austria and elaborated in the United Statesthat was then in vogue. Serialist works developed entire structures from a specific permutation of the 12 notes available in the musical octavea procedure not unfamiliar to Ginastera, who even in his Argentine-flavored works had constructed large musical shapes from small melodic and harmonic cells.

The New York Times complained that in the Piano Concerto No. 1 "too many styles jostle," but generally such works found more favor in the experimentally minded United States than in Argentina. For a time Ginastera, like his tango-composing countryman Astor Piazzolla, found himself estranged from audiences in his native land. Ginastera composed three operas in the 1960s and early 1970s; Don Rodrigo, Bomarzo, and Beatrix Cenci found performances at major American opera houses (tenor Plácido Domingo starred in the Don Rodrigo premiere), but Bomarzo, which contained sexually explicit scenes, was banned in Argentina. Ginastera responded with a ban of his ownhe forbade performances of any of his works in Argentina until the restriction was lifted, and Bomarzo (which even in Washington had so disturbed some members of the original cast that they dropped out of the production) was performed in Buenos Aires in 1972.

Married Argentine Cellist

Beatrix Cenci, which featured rape and incest in its plot, was born during a personally turbulent period of Ginastera's life: he separated from his first wife Mercedes, with whom he had had two children, in 1969, and he was unable to compose for some months. This period of writer's block ended when Ginastera became romantically involved with the Argentine cellist Aurora Nátola; the two married in 1971, and Ginastera finished his opera in time for the inauguration of the new Kennedy Center in Washington. Many of the compositions from Ginastera's later years were written for or inspired by Aurora, including two concertos for cello and orchestra and the Serenata, which set love poems by the Chilean writer Pablo Neruda to music.

Ginastera and his wife settled in Geneva, Switzerland, and apart from a stream of lectures and visiting professorships, was able to compose full time; sometimes he remained awake and working until 5 a.m. His final works included a vast unfinished but performable symphonic work, Popol vuh, which was inspired by Mayan cosmology. In some of his late works he seemed to be trying to reintroduce into his style musical elements specific to the Western Hemisphere. Looking back on his career in a Washington Post interview in 1978, Ginastera discerned unity in his music despite the various stylistic changes it had undergone: "Always in my music there is this violent rhythm," he said. "Nature is there, sometimes calm, and sometimes with this violence." Ginastera died in Geneva on June 25, 1983. His wife Aurora told the New York Times that his death was "especially tragic because he so much wanted to compose more music."

Selected works

Panambí, ballet, 1937.

Estancia, ballet, 1941.

Piano Sonata No. 1, 1952.

Variaciones concertantes, for chamber orchestra, 1953.

Harp Concerto, 1956.

Concerto No. 1, for piano and orchestra, 1960.

Don Rodrigo, opera, 1964.

Bomarzo, opera, 1967.

Beatrix Cenci, 1971.

Serenata, songs on texts by Pablo Neruda, 1973.

Popol vuh, for orchestra, incomplete.



Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.

Machlis, Joseph, Introduction to Contemporary Music, 2nd edition, Norton, 1979.

Sadie, Stanley, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition, Grove, 2001.


New York Times, June 27, 1983, p. B7.

Washington Post, January 29, 1978, p. F3.


"Alberto Ginastera," All Classical Guide, (March 21, 2003).

James M. Manheim

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