Bandleader, composer, instrumentalist
Although the tango had been a way of life as well as an expressive form of music and dance for a number of years before his birth, the legendary Argentinean bandoneon master Astor Piazzolla took the romantic, dangerous, and sultry traditional tango, added a healthy mix of jazz and classical styles, infused his own ideas, and created the nuevo tango. When Piazzolla was born in 1921 in Mar de Plata, Argentina, the tango was starting its meandering journey from bordellos and back streets to respectability all around the world. Nowhere was it more revered and worshiped than its birthplace—Buenos Aires. Soon after their only son’s birth, Vincent Piazzolla and wife Asunta Menetti moved the small family to New York City’s Little Italy. Attempting to maintain their cultural roots, Astor’s father gave his son a bandoneon, a version of the accordion with buttons and a deeper sound. By the age of nine, Astor had mastered the bandoneon and began to perform in public. Early musical influences included jazz masters Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, with a hearty infusion of Bach, Mozart, and Chopin. Many classical piano compositions were rearranged by a neighbor so the young musician could play them on the bandoneon.
At age 13, Piazzolla got his big break when Carlos Gardel, a famous Argentinean singer and actor, came to the United States to make a movie and records. Astor’s father presented his son to the celebrity, and Gardel was so impressed by the boy’s bandoneon talents that he invited him to accompany him on his current world tour. Because of his tender age, Astor was not allowed to go on the tour, but he did make his first recording with Gardel and the NBC Symphony. Piazzolla ultimately benefited from passing on the offer—Gardel’s plane crashed a year later and the great musician perished.
Before he turned 20, Astor and his family returned to Argentina for good. The young man made a meager living by playing his bandoneon in tango clubs, but what he really wanted to do was create and perform his own compositions. After boldly introducing himself to the famed Arthur Rubinstein, the pianist introduced Astor to musical maestro and composer Alberto Ginastera. Astor studied with Ginastera for six years, during which time the composer not only taught Piazzolla the fundamentals of music and composition, but the importance of intertwining all of the various arts.
In between studying, Piazzolla spent time with his children, Diana and Daniel, and their mother, painter
For the Record…
Born in 1921, in Mar de Plata, Argentina; died July 4, 1992; son of Vincent Piazzolla and Asunta Menetti; married Dede Baralis (divorced mid-1960s); children: Diana and Daniel.
Learned to play bandoneon as a child; recorded with Carlos Gardel and the NBC symphony, 1934; played with Anibal Troilo’s Orquesta Tipica in Buenos Aires, 1936-1944; formed own band, Orquesta del 46, 1946; awarded first price in Fabien Sevitsky Competition for Sinfonia Buenos Aires, which led to a scholarship from the French government and the opportunity to study with Nadia Boulanger, 1954; after receiving death threats in Argentina, moved to the United States, 1955; completed Tango-operita, 1958; scored several films and played with the Kronos Quartet; poor health cut short a 1989 American tour.
Dede Baralis. Around this time, the bandoneon player had also begun playing with the best tango orchestra in Buenos Aires, Anibal Troilo’s Orquesta Tipica. He played second bandoneon to Troilo for eight years.
By 1944 Piazzolla was ready to act upon the musical instincts that had been simmering in him for years. He broke off with Anibal Troilo and focused more of his time on composing. Still deeply interested in classical music, Piazzolla took courses on conducting. Many of his earlier pieces are decidedly influenced by Bach, Stravinsky, and other classical composers. His music began to take on a sound of its own as Piazzolla began to incorporate unusual elements into traditional tangos. In 1946 Piazzolla formed the band Orquesta del 46 so that he could perform his nuevo tango. Although he didn’t receive much support from tango traditionalists, he did garner interest from outsiders like American composer Aaron Copland. One of his first pieces, Sinfonia Buenos Aires— which received a first place award in the international Fabien Sevitsky Competition in Indianapolis—was met with boos and insults elsewhere. The people of Argentina were not yet ready for the sounds of the new tango.
In 1954 Astor took his family and musical talents to Paris, where he received a warm welcome. The French government offered Piazzolla and his wife fellowships specifically because of his prize winning Sinfonia. Astor began studying under the direction of composer Nadia Boulanger, who had worked with such impressive composers as Bernstein and Copland. While she marveled at his intricate compositions, Boulanger encouraged Piazzolla to search for himself in his music and to reach for his Argentinean roots.
According to legend, Boulanger one day persuaded Piazzolla to perform one of his tangos on the piano and promptly proclaimed, “This\s Piazzolla, not that. Throw the rest away!” After doing so, Piazzolla found peace for himself and his music. “I promised myself I’d write a tango a day and that’s what I did,” the musician was quoted in Americas.
Although he was gaining respect and popularity around the world, the artist was still not accepted in his native country. Returning to Buenos Aires in 1955, Piazzolla received death threats and mistreatment from tango extremists. At one point, a gun was pointed at his head by a disgruntled Argentinean who didn’t appreciate his use of jazz and non-traditional instruments. Undaunted, Piazzolla returned to the United States, where he spent an unproductive three years. “Colleagues in the United States urged him to compromise by writing ‘marketable’ stuff, especially for the movie industry, but he resisted and finally withdrew,” noted Caleb Bach in Americas.
After returning to Argentina, Piazzolla made his homeland breakthrough with Tango-operita in 1968. The folk opera was directly influenced by the works of George Gershwin, whom Piazzolla had admired for many years. Prior to this success, Piazzolla formed a new Quinteto Nuevo Tango that performed at his club, Jamaica. Many musicians, eager to work with the composer, often stopped by for a jam session.
During the 1970s Piazzolla’s music began to experience critical acclaim in his beloved Argentina. Early in the decade his hard work, extravagant lifestyle, jet setting and chain smoking gave Piazzolla a massive heart attack. The 54-year-old musician attempted to quiet his habits, but his resolutions lasted only a year before he was traveling around Europe, writing compositions feverishly. It was also during that decade Piazzolla’s mentor, Anibal Troilo, of the Anibal Troilo Orchestra, died.
Not one to stop working, Piazzolla began taking his musical efforts to the film stage and beyond. Some claim this final period of Piazzolla’s musical career was his finest. Music for the Roman Polanskifilm Frantic was scored by Piazzolla, along with Armagedón, Henri IV, and many others. In 1986 his compositions were featured in Tango Argentina, a Broadway musical. Even while concentrating on commissions for other artists, like the Kronos Quartet, Piazzolla never forgot his first love—the bandoneon. Piazzolla’s favorite bandoneon was inherited from Troilo. He used the instrument on Five Tango Sensations, a series of moody pieces for bandoneon and string quartet, played by the Kronos Quartet. His own tour of North America began in 1989 but was cut short on account of his deteriorating health. He was able, however, to see Placido Domingo play the leading role in his tango-opera Gardel.
Following many serious health ailments, including a debilitating stroke, Astor Piazzolla died a national hero in his beloved Argentina in 1992. No longer shunned by his countrymen and tango traditionalists, Piazzolla was revered as the man who brought life to the tango. He uncovered a new experience for the tango through his compositions. “For me,” he is often quoted as saying, “tango was always for the ear rather than the feet.”
The Vienna Concert, American Clavé, 1986.
Tango: Zero Hour, American Clavé, 1986.
The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night, American Clavé, 1987.
The New Tango with Gary Burton, Atlantic, 1987.
La Camorra: La Soledad de la Provocacion Apasionada, American Ciavé, 1989.
Tangos (3) for Bandoneon & Orchestra, Milan, 1990.
Maria De Buenos Aires, Milan, 1991.
Five Tango Sensations, Electra Nonesuch, 1991.
Lumiere, Tropical Storm, 1992.
The Lausanne Concert, Polygram Latino, 1992.
Sur, Milan, 1992.
The Central Park Concert, Chesky, 1994.
Piazzolla Boxed Set, Just a Memory, 1995.
World Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, Ltd., 1994.
Americas (English Edition), September-October 1991.
Chicago, May 1989.
El Mercurio, July 1989.
Esquire, May 1991.
High Fidelity, September 1986
www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~hread/astor/history.html, http://www.tango.montreal.qc.ca, and [email protected]
Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992) was an Argentine musician who revolutionized the tango form, infusing that passionate, somewhat melancholy dance tradition with elements of classical music and jazz. His "tango nuevo" (new tango) at first brought only angry rejection in his home country, but his energy and prolific creativity—"I promised myself I'd write a tango a day and that's what I did," he told Caleb Bach of Americas—finally brought his unique music to the attention of the world.
Even so, Piazzolla's death in 1992 merited only moderate notice from obituary writers outside Argentina, where he had slowly become a national icon. In his old age, Piazzolla was discovered by musical tastemakers, performing with hip groups like San Francisco's Kronos Quartet. In the decade after his death, however, his music exploded in popularity. Not easily classifiable as classical music, pop, jazz, or traditional tango, Piazzolla seemed fascinating to a generation of music fans who were used to crossing genre boundaries and hearing music that drew freely from various traditions. And there were few musicians of the 20th century who wove together diverse strands of their own experiences as skillfully as Astor Piazzolla did.
Moved with Family to New York
Born on March 11, 1921, in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Piazzolla was of Italian background. Argentines pronounce his name "Pia-SO-la." His family moved to New York in 1925, settling in the Little Italy neighborhood, and he learned to speak Spanish and English equally well. His father Vincent, a barber, however, longed to return to Argentina. He christened his motorcycle "The Spirit of Buenos Aires," and he spent $19 in a pawnshop on a bandoneón for his son. The bandoneón is a large Argentine version of the German concertina, an instrument related to the accordion. Piazzolla took lessons and learned quickly.
Numerous other influences were at work in Piazzolla's life in New York as well. He had hoped to become a boxer, giving up the dream after coming out on the losing end of matches against childhood friends Rocky Graziano and Jake La Motta. Piazzolla always felt that the sport had given him the toughness needed to survive in the world of music. "If you want to change the tango," he said in an interview quoted by Richard Williams in the London Guardian, "you had better learn boxing, or some other martial art." Piazzolla soaked up the jazz that was entering a golden age in New York, sneaking into clubs where Duke Ellington and other swing bandleaders created intricate musical arrangements that remained rooted in dance music yet reached new levels of subtlety. And a Hungarian-born pianist and neighbor, Bela Wilda, introduced Piazzolla to classical music.
Piazzolla immersed himself in the intellectual compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach, observing the complexities of such forms as the fugue, a sort of large-scale round in which new lines of music must enter with the same musical material already presented by the lines that have already begun. Piazzolla would later name Bach as a major influence, and he would go on to create such novel fusions as the tango fugue. His leap into the professional musical world, however, came about when he met one of Argentina's musical icons, vocalist Carlos Gardel, who was making a film in New York. Piazzolla was 13 at the time, and on the street he met an assistant of Gardel's who had lost his building key. Piazzolla volunteered to climb in through a window. The singer hired him as an interpreter and later, after discovering his musical talents, as a bandoneón player. Since he was so young, Piazzolla's family turned Gardel down when he offered Piazzolla a place in his touring band—a fortunate refusal, for Gardel was killed in a plane crash in 1935.
Piazzolla's family moved back to Argentina in 1936, and Piazzolla began playing in tango orchestras. He moved to Buenos Aires in 1938 and began writing arrangements, looking for chances to deepen his compositional skills. In 1939 he joined the greatest of the traditional tango orchestras, which was led by bandleader Anibal Troilo. Still fascinated by classical music, he knocked on the door of visiting piano virtuoso, Arthur Rubinstein. The star pianist came to the door with a plate of spaghetti and was impressed by Piazzolla's enthusiasm. Rubinstein arranged for Piazzolla to take composition lessons with Argentina's leading modernist-minded composer, Alberto Ginastera.
Wrote Classical Works
Piazzolla married Dedé Wolff in 1942, and the couple raised two children, Daniel and Diana. Under Ginastera, he began to study contemporary classical music and culture seriously. His arrangements for Troilo became so experimental that the bandleader began to censor them, and he left Troilo and formed his own group, Orquesta del 46. He told Bach that a new music was "gestating in my gut." Piazzolla wrote a series of increasingly ambitious classical works, culminating in the Sinfonia Buenos Aires in 1951. The work won first prize at the Sevitzky Competition in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1953, but Argentine audiences rejected the work because it used the allegedly low-class bandoneón in a classical setting. Tango audiences were no more receptive to Piazzolla's music, and a frustrated Piazzolla accepted a grant to study classical music in France.
He sought out the top French composition teacher of the century, Nadia Boulanger. She listened to various pieces he had written, and, upon hearing one of his tangos, she said (as Piazzolla recalled to Caleb Bach), "This is Piazzolla, not that [i.e., the other music he had brought]. Throw the rest away!" Piazzolla took the advice to heart and began writing the tangos that made him famous. It was tango, but with a strong contemporary classical influence in its density and its use of dissonant harmonies; Piazzolla once called it New Tango in Tails. Piazzolla also renewed his acquaintance with American jazz in Paris, and his new music was partially written out in the classical fashion, and partly improvised. At the center of its sound was Piazzolla's own bandoneón.
Argentines were still unreceptive to the music of Piazzolla's Octeto Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires Octet); he was refused service by an angry taxi driver, and one crazed tango traditionalist pointed a gun at him on the street. Piazzolla moved to New York in 1958, trying to find work performing in clubs or composing for films, but he had little success there. He returned to Argentina following his father's death in 1959, composing one of his most famous pieces in his father's honor, "Adiós Nonino" (Nonino was his father's nickname).
Opening a new club called Jamaica in Buenos Aires (he patterned it after the renowned New York jazz club Birdland) and paring his sound down to a jazz-like quintet consisting of bandoneón, violin, bass, piano, and electric guitar, Piazzolla and his Quinteto Tango Nuevo finally began to make headway with progressive elements of the Argentine public in the 1960s. One breakthrough came when his tango opera, María de Buenos Aires, was positively received after its premiere in 1968. Several instrumental excerpts from the opera, including the "Fuga y misterio" (Fugue and Mystery) became well known, and the surrealistic work, with a text by Uruguayan poet Horacio Ferrer, seemed to capture the spirit of the Argentine capital. "I am my town!" sings the opera's main character (in Spanish, as translated by the All Music Guide). "María tango, María slum, María night, María fatal passion, María of love of Buenos Aires, that's me." Individual Piazzolla tangos such as "Buenos Aires Hora Cero" (Buenos Aires Zero Hour) cemented the association between Piazzolla and the city that had at first derided his efforts.
Suffered Heart Attack
The hard-living Piazzolla, who enjoyed such pastimes as shark fishing, was divorced from his first wife in the mid-1960s and remarried twice. He expanded his group to a nonet for a series of concert recordings for Italian national radio starting in 1971, and also wrote a choral work, El Pueblo jovén, that was premiered in Saarbrücken, Germany. Piazzolla's reputation in Europe was on the rise, but he was slowed by a massive heart attack in 1973. Undeterred from his energetic pace, he spent much of the 1970s in Europe, living in a variety of places (including Ginastera's home in Switzerland for a time) and making recordings. Many of the Piazzolla recordings that remain available date from this period; some are authorized, while others were illicit tapings made as Piazzolla kept up a busy performance schedule in concert and on radio. He kept writing new pieces, including the acclaimed "Libertango."
Piazzolla returned to live in Buenos Aires in 1984 after scoring a huge success with a concert at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires the previous year. His return to the Western hemisphere helped stimulate a new awareness of his work in the United States, where a revival of interest in the tango and other classic ballroom dances also led music enthusiasts to his work. The cutting-edge, boundary-crossing Kronos Quartet commissioned a new piece from Piazzolla, and he complied, enjoying substantial sales with the Five Tango Sensations album. He wrote a concerto for bandoneón and orchestra, performing it with the prestigious orchestra of St. Luke's. In 1987 Piazzolla and his quintet performed in one of America's largest musical venues, New York City's Central Park. Piazzolla continued to compose new individual tangos and tango songs (the latter, often written with Ferrer, remain an underappreciated facet of his output, perhaps because of the language barrier that exists outside of Spanish-speaking countries). His music varied according to the ensemble and situation for which it was written but maintained a distinctive and instantly identifiable mixture of tango, contemporary classical music, and jazz. He composed a set of four tangos depicting Buenos Aires in different seasons, the Verano Porteño, Invierno Portenño, Otonño Portenño, and Primavera Portenña ("porteñ o," or "porteña," is an adjective referring to Buenos Aires), and they were often performed as a kind of tango counterpart to classical composer Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons group of violin concertos.
Piazzolla was about to launch a major tour of the U.S. and Europe in 1989 when he suffered a major stroke. He lived on for several years and was able to function after intensive physical therapy, but his more than 50-year performing career was over. Piazzolla died in Buenos Aires on July 4, 1992, but his popularity only continued its upward trend. Younger tango musicians in Argentina venerated him, and musicians of all kinds began to perform his compositions. They became staples of classical concerts after Latvian-born violinist Gidon Kremer and Chinese-born cellist Yo-Yo Ma issued highly successful recordings featuring Piazzolla works and demonstrated that it could easily survive the transfer from the bandoneón to more conventional classical instruments. Jazz musicians such as guitarist Al DiMeola also began to experiment with Piazzolla's music. His more than 1,000 compositions were beginning, as of the early twenty-first century, to assume the status of enduring classics, no matter what genre classification they may be given.
Piazzolla, Astor, and Natalio Gorin, Astor Piazzolla, trans. Fernando Gonzalez, Timber/Amadeus, 2001.
Americas, September-October 1991.
Billboard, December 6, 1997.
Guardian (London, England), November 27, 2004.
New York Times, July 6, 1992.
Times (London, England), July 21, 1992.
"Astor Piazzolla," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 10, 2006).
"Astor Piazzolla: Chronology of a Revolution," http://piazzolla.org/biography/biography-english.html (January 10, 2006).
Piazzolla, Astor, fiery Argentine bandoneón player, bandleader, composer, and arranger; b. Mar del Plata, March 11, 1921; d. Buenos Aires, July 5, 1992. He was taken to N.Y. in 1924, where he took up the bandoneón when he was 12. Upon settling in Buenos Aires in 1937, he began a career as a bandoneón player and arranger; also pursued training with Ginastera, and later was a scholarship student in Paris of Boulanger (1954–55). Upon his return to Buenos Aires, he organized his own band, and in 1960 founded the innovative Quinteto Nuevo Tango. From 1974 to 1985 he made his home in Paris; then returned to his homeland. Piazzolla was a master of the modern tango, embracing an avant-garde style incorporating classical and jazz elements with a piquant touch of modern dissonances. His other works included operas, theater music, film scores, concertos (including one for Bandoneón ), and chamber music.
C. Kuri, P., la música limite (Buenos Aires, 1992; 2nd ed., 1997); O. Lopéz Ruiz, P. loco loco loco: 25 años de labura y jodas conviviendo con un genio (Buenos Aires, 1994).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire