In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Astor Piazzolla

  • Introduction
  • Overviews in Reference Works
  • Biographical Research
  • Interviews
  • Memoirs
  • Piazzolla and Baroque Procedures
  • Piazzolla and Traditional Tango
  • Piazzolla and the tango cantado
  • Piazzolla and Peronism (1946–1955)
  • Early Works in the Classical Tradition
  • Film Scores
  • Reception
  • Catalogues
  • Journals
  • Bibliographies
  • Iconography
  • Discography
  • Selected Reissued Recordings
  • Documentaries and Films of Performances

Music Astor Piazzolla
by
Omar García Brunelli
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0322

Introduction

Astor Piazzolla (b. 1921–d. 1992) is one of Argentina’s most prominent composers. A prodigious musician, he was as active in popular music circles as he was committed to mastering the classical canon. From the five years of training in the art music tradition with a then young Alberto Ginastera (1940–1945) and studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger (1954–1955), he acquired a solid foundation. As a virtuoso of the bandoneón, he was among the most formidable performers in the history of tango and played his own art music works for that instrument and orchestra. He started his career in 1939 and remained professionally active until 1989. A majority of his compositions can be assigned to the semantic field of popular music, from which he emerged as the iconoclastic innovator of traditional tango, forging his own normative language that was to jolt traditionalists and impact the genre at home and abroad. Transcending national borders, Piazzolla was viewed as a controversial exponent of tango’s avant-garde. He developed his innovations between 1955 and 1972, although in later years he continued searching for new ideas on the basis of his unique language, which already had been solidly established. In a process masterfully addressed by Carlos Kuri in “Agonía del género y potencia del nombre” (cited under Comprehensive Studies), Piazzolla transformed tango by transgressing the boundaries of genre and opening it up to the alterity of other musics. As a symbol of progressive culture in Argentina during the 1960s, his vanguardist language met with the vigorous rejection of culturally conservative sectors of the population. What Piazzolla forged was firmly anchored in rhizomatic tango, a genre whose stylistic variants he had assimilated with the fluency of a master. Certain characteristics define three stages in the course of his prolific career. In the domain of popular music, Piazzolla started in 1939 as a performer in the orchestra of Aníbal Troilo (b. 1914–d. 1975), a central figure in tango’s history. From Troilo, Piazzolla learned the secrets of a craft from which he emerged as an independent figure who, by 1953, had reached distinction. During the following stage, he formed iconic chamber groups for which he wrote music that would monopolize the discourse of tango for decades, starting with the Octeto Buenos Aires in 1955 and the point of articulation between tradition and New Tango. In pieces for the Octeto converge Piazzolla’s knowledge of traditional tango, principles of classical composition, and a significant jazz influence that would surface in greater harmonic and rhythmic complexity and in his approach to structure. His stay in the United States in 1958 altered rhythmic and melodic compositional layers. The sum of these sediments and experiences, initially in Argentina and later in Europe, intersected in the formulation of a style that characterized his music from the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s until 1977. Between 1978 and 1989, Piazzolla toured the world with his quintet and his output slackened. Once his original language was established, trademarks from tango were consistently appropriated at structural levels of his neoclassical aesthetics. This article has been translated into English by Malena Kuss.

Overviews in Reference Works

Foppa 1961 represents an early recognition of Piazzolla as composer from the perspective of incidental music for plays. As it surveys some of his noteworthy early works in both the popular and savant domains, Foppa also serves as incontrovertible evidence that Piazzolla was solidifying his agency as a driving force in the cultural life of Buenos Aires, where he engaged with filmmakers and playwrights associated with the vanguard. Published a decade later, Arizaga 1971 includes him in a national dictionary that provides a general panorama of Argentinian music, highlighting his dual ascription to hierarchicized and class-specific musical practices. Piazzolla’s prestige abroad, which took off in the early 1970s, attracted the attention of international lexicography. In Italian, Basso 1988 addresses almost exclusively his tango-based works, which were gaining ground in Europe, and, in particular, Piazzolla’s collaboration with Milva, the iconic vocalist who was highly regarded in intellectual circles. His art music works continued to be ignored due to a lack of access to scores and recordings. Consequently, Eisen 2001 captures elements from the myth-making in progress when it mentions Piazzolla’s brief encounter with Gardel, Borges, and Nadia Boulanger, while defining characteristics of his Nuevo Tango. Still, at the onset of the twenty-first century, Piazzolla’s neoclassical works, devoid of cultural markers, were only surfacing in crossovers, such as when the prestigious Kronos Quartet commissioned a work from Piazzolla (Four for Tango, 1988). García Brunelli 2001 covers the totality of Piazzolla’s compositions, but the dearth of published scores and recordings of the art music works at the time continued curbing the reception toward the tango-based repertoire. Despite this hindrance, García Brunelli continued advocating for the need to consider the totality of Piazzolla’s production, also conceding that the academic works lacked the concision, balance, expansive beauty, and melo-rhythmic energy of the more popular tango-based compositions. This imbalance begins to be redressed in García Brunelli 2005, as the author turns the tide toward analytical studies of the art music works, which by then were being performed abroad by distinguished soloists and conductors. Kuntze-Krakau 2006 presents a concise assessment of Piazzolla’s legacy in both the popular and art music domains, in addition to exhuming the meeting of myths turned biographical tropes in the bandoneonist’s career, with Gardel, Nadia Boulanger, and Borges. As part of these reference works’ editorial policies, García Brunelli 2005 and Kuntze-Krakau 2006 include links to RILM Abstracts, VIAF, GND, and RILM Music Encyclopedias.

  • Arizaga, Rodolfo. “Piazzolla, Astor.” In Enciclopedia de la música argentina. By Rodolfo Arizaga, 245–246. Buenos Aires: Fondo Nacional de las Artes, 1971.

    Written when Piazzolla’s Nuevo Tango was in ferment and with another twenty years of production in his future, the Argentinian composer Rodolfo Arizaga (b. 1926–d. 1985) assesses Piazzolla accurately as a talented and intuitive musician anchored in the popular and savant domains, whose mastery of the canon enabled him to lodge tango within the art music tradition. Arizaga deplores the famous “Balada para un loco” (1969) as renouncing the vanguard, thereby misrepresenting the reception of this iconic Lied tanguístico.

  • Basso, Alberto. “Piazzolla, Astor.” In Dizionario enciclopedico universale della música e dei musicisti: Le Biografie. Vol. 5. Edited by Alberto Basso, 705. Torino, Italy: Unione Tipografico—Editrice Torinese (UTET), 1988.

    Written during the composer’s lifetime, a paragraph that mentions Piazzolla’s formative years, the 1955 Octeto Buenos Aires, the earlier Orquesta de Cuerdas, and the Quinteto he created in 1960. It highlights his collaboration with Milva (b. 1939–d. 2021), the Italian pop singer and consummate performer of Piazzolla’s works, with whom he recorded and toured extensively in the 1980s. Their recording, Milva and Astor Piazzolla—Live at the Bouffes du Nord, was released in 1984.

  • Eisen, Cliff. “Piazzolla, Astor.” In Grove Music Online. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    An excellent overview of Piazzolla’s compositional legacy, which, hindered by space limitations, taps into incidents mythologized in the literature, such as his acquaintance with Gardel in New York c. 1935, studies with Nadia Boulanger in 1954, and his short-lived collaboration with Borges. A condensed definition of New Tango and the tensions it exposed between traditionalists and the vanguard it represented is followed by successes and commissions by classical performers, including the Kronos Quartet (1987) and scores for Fernando Solanas’s films.

  • Foppa, Tito Livio. “Piazzolla, Astor.” In Diccionario teatral del Río de la Plata. By Tito Livio Foppa, 528. Buenos Aires: Argentores—Ediciones del Carro de Tespis, 1961.

    An invaluable profile of early compositional activity documenting Piazzolla’s trip to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger in 1954 and compositions such as Buenos Aires, three symphonic movements (Sevitzky prize, 1953); Sinfonieta (1954); Contemplación y danza for clarinet and string orchestra; Sonata for piano; Tango-Ballet; and Suite for oboe and string orchestra. In addition to five films and incidental music for plays, such as Proserpina y el extranjero by Omar del Carlo, Foppa mentions the composition of numerous tangos.

  • García Brunelli, Omar. “Piazzolla, Astor.” In Diccionario de la música española e hispanoamericana. Vol. 8. Edited by Emilio Casares Rodicio, with Victoria Eli Rodríguez and Benjamín Yépez Chamorro, 770–778. Madrid: Sociedad General de Autores y Editores/SGAE, 2001.

    A definitive chronological account of life and works relationships covering all compositions, including film scores, ensembles, instruments and musicians integrating each ensemble, recordings, tours, reception, journeys abroad, nearly complete list of works, and discography. The author weaves these complex intersections into a densely woven narrative that provides solid ground for further studies. The emphasis placed on the multiple factors that converged into tango’s momentous renewal downplays the significance of art music compositions, an issue redressed in García Brunelli 2022 (cited under Comprehensive Studies).

  • García Brunelli, Omar. “Piazzolla, Astor.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 2d ed. Vol. 13, Personenteil. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 530–532. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter Verlag; Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 2005.

    From the continuity of nearly sixty film scores written throughout his life, and framed between the Suite Op. 1 for strings and harp (1943) to Four for Tango for string quartet (1988), the author highlights the Concierto para bandoneón (1979) and Suite Punta del Este (1980) that elicited comparisons with Gershwin; compositions for his Octeto Buenos Aires representing the rupture with traditional tango; and landmarks such as “Adiós nonino” (1959), María de Buenos Aires (1968), and “Balada para un loco” (1969). Available from MGG Online by subscription.

  • Kuntze-Krakau, Christian. “Piazzolla, Astor.” In Komponisten der Gegenwart. Edited by Hanns-Werner Heister and Walter-Wolfgang Sparrer, Nachlieferung 31, 1–2. Munich: edition text + kritik, 2006.

    A synthetic overview of Piazzolla’s journey, from his first studies in New York, where he was exposed to jazz, Klezmer, and Bach, to his encounter with Gardel, his early experiences with tango back in Argentina, studies with Ginastera and Boulanger, and his sojourn in New York after he disbanded his Octeto Buenos Aires. It characterizes with concision the technical features of Nuevo Tango, which, developed in the 1960s, were later consolidated in Europe, where Piazzolla was steadily gaining prestige. Available online by subscription.

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