Ástor Piazzolla & Tango

Ástor Piazzolla & Tango

    Tango originally came from (at least in its Argentine form) brothels of the Buenos Aires working class (Moore and Clark 2012, 296). Male European immigrants in Argentina had to compete for women, so they danced to attract potential partners. Tango combines older Latin dances (zarzuela, habanera, candombe, milonga) and European ones (polka, waltz). The upper-classes of Argentina, France, and other European nations were unable to resist tango’s allure. Eventually, the bulk of society was drawn in by this innovative and festive dance:  the film Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and musician Carlos Gardel especially helped popularize the tango (Gorin 2001, 15). As tango became more mainstream, Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992) went on to be a master of tango. Starting in the 1950s, tango took a more radical turn, largely because of Piazzolla. While doing this, he retained tango’s…

…poignancy and lyricism while rejecting its tendencies toward sentimentality and bouts of morbid self-pity. He revised its harmonic language by incorporating influences of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Giacomo Puccini, and Olivier Messiaen, as well as the occasional nod to the cool jazz of Mulligan and Lennie Tristano. He moved away from the dance floor but infused the music with a new vitality by using three-part fugues, a walking bass, jazz-style improvisation, and urgent, brutish accents in echoes of Béla Bartók (Gorin 2001, 16).

    This description might seem eclectic, but it can be explained by his exposure to various styles. Piazzolla was an avid traveler and in turn absorbed a plethora of musical forms. He mainly went between four cities: New York, New York; Paris, France; Mar del Plata, Argentina; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Signs of talent and strong musical appetite became apparent unusually early. During his childhood in New York, he studied and gigged with local Argentine-American musicians, most notably the tango superstar Carlos Gardel (Azzi and Collier 2000, 12-15). But Piazzolla’s full immersion into tango truly began in Argentina. For example, he was an apprentice under respected tango band leader Aníbal Troilo (Azzi and Collier 2000, 24-25). 

    But, brimming with ideas and ripe to innovate, Piazzolla was no longer content under the tutelage of other composers. He was ready to display his own musical acumen. Piazzolla began to form his own ensembles, starting with Orquesta Típica de Astor Piazzolla in 1946 (Azzi and Collier 2000, 37). He would continue to lead small groups of tango musicians (duos, trios, etc.) for the rest of his career. Part of what made his ensembles pleasantly innovative were the arrangements and structures of his music, which harken back to his classical music training. He developed many of these skills during his lessons with the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, which is no small achievement: she taught many other classical composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and others.

    While talented, Piazzolla did face many challenges with his radical approaches to tango. For example, he formed an octet to perform and spread jazz-tango, which sparked a cultural war between the anti-piazzollistas (fans of traditional tango) and piazzollistas (supporters of his nuevo tango). The group’s use of electric guitar, a non-traditional tango instrument, sent many tango-puritans ablaze and crusading: Piazzolla even received death threats over this octet (Azzi and Collier 2000, 58-60). Another instrument that he emphasized, which also sparked fierce backlash, was the bandoneón, the first of which he received from his dad at eight years old (Azzi and Collier 2000, 8). The bandoneón (which you can hear at our Masterworks III concert) is similar to  the accordion. Think of tango’s diverse strands of influence as you listen to Piazzolla’s concerto at our concert. See if you can hear how it fits together like a puzzle—identify the tango, classical, jazz, and other components.

Written by Emily Ruth Allen, Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology (Florida State University)


Azzi, María Susana, and Simon Collier. 2000. Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gorin, Natalio. 2001. Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir. Translated, annotated, and expanded by Fernando Gonzalez. Portland: Amadeus Press.

Moore, Robin, and Walter Aaron Clark. 2012. Musics of Latin America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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