‘Tango, for me, was always for the ear more than the feet’. Thus Astor Piazzolla, the man who took one of the most popular dances in the western world to great heights. In so doing, he overstepped the border between popular and classical music time and time again. He was the master of the tango – not for bars and cafes, but for the concert hall. Perhaps his greatest achievement was to combine the classical Argentinian tango with the musical world of Debussy and Ravel, and to elevate it to ‘serious’ art. During his lifetime, Piazzolla witnessed the continuous transformation of the national dance of Argentina, and it was this gradual evolution that he wished to capture in musical notation, as in his Histoire du Tango.
From Mar del Plata in Argentina, where Astor was born in 1921, the family moved to the Little Italy district of New York, where his ears overflowed with American jazz and pop. But his father gave him a bandoneón, a large Argentinian concert instrument, so that he could keep alive the family’s ties with the culture of their homeland. Meanwhile, Astor studied classical music. In 1934 he already made recordings with the great Argentinian tango pioneer Carlos Gardel, who died soon afterwards in a plane crash. After returning to Argentina, Piazzolla played the bandoneón in a tango orchestra in Buenos Aires from 1936-1944. The amalgam of jazz and tango that he developed was an early version of what he was later to call tango nuevo.
In Argentina, however, classical music continued to tug at him. Through a chance meeting with the pianist Artur Rubinstein, Piazzolla came into contact with Alberto Ginastera, the leading Argentinian composer of the period. Years of involvement in classical music were to follow, under the guiding hand of Ginastera. In 1954, Piazzolla even went to Nadia Boulanger in Paris, the most famous composition teacher of the time. And it was through this experience that he got back on the track of the tango, for when Boulanger heard him play his own tangos, she told him to throw away all his other compositions. Back in his homeland he developed the tango nuevo, breaking with the traditional sound of the tango with which his countrymen were so familiar. Considerable antagonism was his reward, and even a punch-up in the streets.
Piazzolla’s star rose quickly, however, particularly outside his country. He became famous for his ensemble Quinteto Tango Nuevo, founded in 1960, and his oeuvre grew to more than 750 modern tango compositions. In 1968 even the most hardened devotees of the traditional tango were won over by Maria de Buenos Aires, a stage production inspired by Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. For the last twenty years of his life, Piazzolla was a national hero in Argentinia. Progressive classical musicians too, including the members of the Kronos Quartet, did not pass by his door. Astor Piazzolla died in Buenos Aires on 5 July 1992