That Dangerous Tango

Anne-Louise Luccarini celebrates Astor Piazzolla

Anne-Louise Luccarini celebrates Astor Piazzolla

Domed forehead, deep frown, ravaged face… thick grey moustache, unsmiling, like a priest or matador. He hitches his right foot on to the chair, where the bandoneόn player usually sits, and bends low over the instrument resting on his thigh as if to ask it a private question. The sweetness and visceral melancholy of the reply that sighs and throbs through the silence, is overpoweringly sensual, true tango, a simulacrum of the act of love. One critic wrote: “In Piazzolla’s hands, tango is dangerous music.”

Astor Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata, south of Buenos Aires, on 11 March 1921 to parents of Italian stock. Work was scarce, and when the baby was three his father decided to try his luck in America, as his father had tried in Argentina. So Piazzolla grew up in New York, learning to defend himself on the streets of Little Italy. He listened to his father’s phonograph records, taken by the tango that sang nostalgically of the homeland he could not remember. His father spotted a square squeezebox in a pawn shop one day. It was an old bandoneόn, and he bought it for Astor’s birthday: upon it, a pianist in a neighbouring apartment taught him to play Bach. Odd-jobbing for Carlos Gardel, he learnt to play tango. When the family moved back to Mar del Plata in 1936, Piazzolla began playing for milongas (dance events), then got a job in Buenos Aires making tango arrangements. Hearing Arthur Rubinstein play at the Teatro Colon, he rushed home and wrote a concerto which he took to the great pianist. Rubinstein looked at it and said mildly, “Why don’t you study?” Study he did, becoming Alberto Ginastera’s first private pupil. That was in the daytime, but he continued to work gigs at night.

In 1953 he won a grant to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. Mademoiselle glanced at the pile of scores, listened to him play, and told him she heard plenty of Bartok, Stravinsky and Ravel, but…“I thought she’d throw me from the fourth floor,” he said later. Instead, Boulanger (strict but wise) listened to one of his tangos. “That,” she said, taking his hand, “is Astor Piazzolla”. During his year with her, she taught him how to use counterpoint and fugue to establish his own language, and to be himself within that language.

Piazzolla took this new style home to Buenos Aires, this tango nuevo, and they hated it. Violently. They said he had destroyed the Argentine tango. The truth was that traditional tango was as old-fashioned as the Charleston. Though rejected in Argentina, he was hailed everywhere else. During the years of military dictatorship in Buenos Aires, Italy became his base.

The quintet format of violin, guitar, piano, bass and bandoneόn became a preferred canvas. Piazzolla innovated constantly, improvising within passacaglia, introducing dissonance and chromatic harmony, even fugue. In Paris he teamed with Gerry Mulligan. He composed for Rostropovich. Heart surgery could not stop him, he toured unceasingly, and always returned home, where the pendulum eventually swung his way.
Today, Barenboim and Argerich play Piazzolla, but so they should: what would really make him smile is the Latvian Gidon Kremer’s passionate advocacy, ranking his music alongside that of Gubaidulina and Kancheli. “It will have the perfume of my land,” Piazzolla once said. “I am Argentinian”.

Listen now

Original broadcast date: Sunday 14 March 2021 at 3pm

Fine Music Magazine

In Conversation with Gerard Willems AM

Catherine Peake talks to Gerard Willems about his music. Gerard Willems is best known as the Dutch-born pianist whose recordings of Beethoven’s pian...

Paris, 1921

Nicky Gluch examines Fauré’s Piano quintet no 2 The film Midnight in Paris premises on the ideathat each of us has an era to which we believe we we...

International Women’s Day

Paul Cooke Celebrates Australia’s Female Composers It can’t have been easy for any Australian composer in the first decades of the 20th century! R...