ASTOR PIAZZOLLA  (1921-1992)

"Piazzolla took tango out of cheap places, where it was just entertainment, just popular tunes in a coffee shop.  His music is of a higher quality. I don't reject the roots of tango.  There were many wonderful tangos written before Piazzolla, but he works with more sophisticated material; the emotion in his music is more profound.
                                                                                  ----Latvian violinist, Guidon Kremer

Piazzolla was instrumental in the renaissance of the tango after World War II.  Born in 1921 in Mar del Plata, Argentina, he moved to New York’s lower East Side at a young age.  Oddly, it was in New York, where he lived from age three to fifteen that he developed nostalgia for a country he scarcely remembered.  His father bought him a bandoneón when he was eight years old and he taught himself to play, composing his first tango when he was eleven years old. He was soon swept up in the newest craze in America-- the tango of Argentina. When only 13 years old , he was invited to tour Latin America by tango singer superstar Carlos Gardel. Piazzolla never made the tour, in the course of which Gardel died in a plane crash, but he was soon back in Argentina, playing in the band of Anibal Troilo. While in Argentina, he also studied composition with Alberto Ginastera.

In 1946,  Piazzolla formed his own tango orchestra, but after only four years, he decided to concentrate on classical music, composing for chamber ensembles and symphonic groups.  In 1954, on a scholarship from the French government, he studied in Paris under Nadia Boulanger, the mentor of Aaron Copland and Philip Glass.  She recognized Piazzolla’s talent and urged him to go back to composing tangos. He returned to New York, but stayed only two years before finding himself again in Buenos Aires.  There he put together his famed “Quinteto” – bandoneón, violin, piano, guitar, and double bass.  The Quintet traveled all over the world, bringing the influence of jazz and contemporary “classical” music to the traditional tango.  As Piazzolla himself said, “It may not be tango, but it mirrors the spirit of our city and of today’s porteño”.

Piazzolla's "nuevo tango" was not well received in Argentina but gained great recognition throughout the rest of the world, and during the 1960's Piazzolla toured widely and produced some of his best music.  This was just the beginning of a very successful, prolific and creative music career.

Resolved to update the tango, Piazzolla succeeded in shocking tango traditionalists by infusing his tangos with the harmonic language he had learned in Paris, -- Bartok, Schoenberg, and Messiaen--, with the rhythms influenced by Stravinsky and by jazz, in addition to melodic innovations that many saw as severing tango from its roots.  During his lifetime, Astor Piazzolla produced over  one hundred works. On July 4, 1992, Astor Piazzolla passed away in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina.


by Horacio Ferrer

Piazzolla and Ferrer

I first fell in love with the tango as a small child. I admired the orchestra of Anfbal Troilo and his young bandoneon player and arranger, Astor Piazzolla, who was to be idolized not only by me but by the whole of the world and to play a large part in my life. It was not long before Astor became a leading conductor, although he was still only twenty-six. I was still at school. I applauded him in the cafes where he played - playing that was bold, refined and marked by great artistic sensitivity. This was in 1948. One evening, when the concert was over, I spoke to him and told him reverently how much I admired his music and how much it meant to me. The emotion of that fourteen-year-old youth, who already recited poems in schools, on street corners and in department stores, while accompanying himself on the guitar, made him smile. I wrote to him while he was studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Fate itself must have had a hand in his reply: he and his wife Dede would be stopping off in Montevideo on their way home to Buenos Aires. I was waiting for him at the harbor and took him to the Club de la Guardia Nueva, a low dive frequented by us young aficionados of the avant-garde tango. There he was received with tumultuous applause by three hundred students. In spite at our love of the city, neither of us two authors of Maria de Buenos Aires was born in Buenos Aires. Following his visit to my home city of Montevideo, Astor invited me to his own birthplace in Mar del Plata. It was here that I really got to know him. Astor was a gifted musician. Music welled forth from him whenever he sat down at the piano, eager to spend the whole day composing. His left hand flew over the music manuscript paper as he struck a number at chords with enviable assurance. "Most of what I compose", he commented, "I am not composing but am already actually playing it," The affinity and affection that bound us together meant that I wrote the introductions for his concerts or jotted down my ideas in the form of liner notes and programmer notes.

Piazzolla, Ferrer

And when my first volume of poems, Romancero Canvengue, appeared in 1967, his reaction was: "You are doing in your poetry is what I am doing in my music. From now on we shall compose together. Think up a subject for the musical and lyric stage." Two months later I handed him the finished libretto of Maria de Buenos Aires and, inspired by Astor’s own work, took my courage in both hands and made suggestions for each scene, suggestions that he welcomed in almost every case. In order to reflect the various periods and levels of existence through which Maria passes, I suggested that he should use different types of tango (traditional, romance, song, modern), milonga and waltz, together with a number of rural tunes from the pampas. "I much appreciate all these suggestions of yours, Horacio," Astor said to me. "Many people think I write only purely instrumental music - now they'll see that that's not the case." From start to finish, Maria de Buenos Aires contains powerful, brilliant and affecting music of altogether exceptional artistry. Like everything else that we did during the next twenty years, it was composed with exactly the same delight. He spent the summer of 1968 in eastern Uruguay composing more than half the music with my bandoneón, which he liked so much that I had the pleasure of giving it to him. The rest he wrote at his home in Buenos Aires, where I visited him in the early autumn - astonished, happy and feeling closer than ever to this generous, enthusiastic, shy, sensual, ironic and sentimental man, a man with the aura of an angel and a devil and the heart of a lion. We gave the first performance at the Sala Planeta on May 8, 1968, with an eleven-man band, in a version compiled and orchestrated by Astor, and with Amelita Baltar as Maria, Hector de Rosas in the male roles (Gorrion, Ladron and Analista) and with myself as EI Duende. The brief spoken choruses were taken by ourselves and a few of our friends. Between May and September we gave 120 performances and recorded our little opera on two LPs that are still around all over the world today. The following year, 1969, we enjoyed our greatest success with Balada para un loco, a tango drawn from the same material as Maria. Like everything else that we did during the next twenty years, it was composed with exactly the same delight.


Poet Horacio Ferrer was born in Montevideo in 1933 in an environment of learning and art. His Uruguayan father was a professor of history and geography and was a founder of the riverbank performers Troupe Ateniense. His Argentine mother was a singer from a family of poets and writers. His grandparents' home in Buenos Aires was filled with writers and musicians. His parents took him to see zarzuelas and operettas, and he often tagged along with them to the cafes at night. His uncle Arturo Ferrer played piano and sang him tango lyrics. Another uncle, Lorenzo Hamilton, taught him guitar and Creole milongas
He thus took an abiding interest in the tango, endeavoring to put his imprint on its dance lyrics. His earliest efforts in the 1950s embodied the themes and style of his later, more emphatically surreal works. While a student in architecture, he started a weekly radio program devoted to the tango, especially to the avant-garde trends newly emerging. In 1954, he began organizing concerts under the aegis of his Club de la Guardia Nueva. Performing groups included the Anibal Troilo Orquesta and Astor Piazzolla's Octeto Buenos Aires. Ferrer met Piazzolla soon after the latter's return from Paris in 1955. 

He illustrated and directed the magazine Tangueando during the 1950-60s and after quitting his architecture studies, worked for the Montividean morning paper EI Dia. In the meantime, he brought out his first book, The Tango: Its History and Evolution and began writing lyrics on commission from major collaborators, including Troilo and Piazzolla. This led to a series of projects with Piazzolla, the first of which was the 'operita' Maria de Buenos Aires, premiered at the Planet in Buenos Aires in 1968 with Piazzolla's ten-piece orchestra. The following year, they turned out a series of tangos called 'baladas' of which the Balada para un loco became Piazzolla's first big hit. They also produced an oratorio EI Pueblo Joven. A prolific lyricist, he wrote words for tangos by other musicians, including Julio De Caro, Pedro Laurenz, Armando Pontier and Osvaldo Pugliese. He sealed his credentials as a tango historian With EI Arte del Tango, Arte Popular de Buenos Aires in 1970, which he followed up in 1980 with a three-volume, 2000-page edition.