Estancia: Four Dance Episodes, op. 8

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          Ginastera was the most important Argentinean composer of the twentieth century—as important to that country as, say, Bartók, was to Hungary (incidentally, his name is pronounced after Catalan pronunciation style—JEE-nah-STEH-rah).  He was a prolific composer, working in most all genres, stylistically focusing early on in his career on native Argentinean folk elements.  During this time he employed traditional folk scales, sonorities that reference the sound of the guitar, and especially the gaucho dance, the malambo. He won a Guggenheim award in 1942, and came to this country for two years right after WW II, visiting schools, hearing performances of his works, and studying with Aaron Copland, who became one of the major influences upon his musical style.   By the end of the 1940s he had moved away from direct utilization of these native elements and toward a more nuanced and subtle abstraction of them.   At the end of the 1950s he changed yet again, and his compositions thence reflect an embrace of the most modern and advanced of twentieth-century musical stylistic elements.

          If you watch old movies at all, or have a good memory, you realize that whether in the music of Copland or on the jukebox, America went through a Latin-American music craze before World War II.  In that vein, in 1941 the American Ballet Caravan commissioned Ginastera to write the music for a ballet.  He complied, George Balanchine—one of the founders of the company—choreographed it, and the four-movement suite from the ballet had its première in Buenos Aires 1943.  The story is based upon one of Argentina’s national literary favorites, Martín Fierro, a very long poem about—what else?—gauchos.  Written in the 1870s by José Hernández, among other issues, the poem protests the blandishments of European culture and celebrates the manly, simple life of the gaucho.  Ginastera’s music for the ballet, since it is a relatively early work, is clearly based upon strong elements of Argentine folk music.  The story is familiar and simple; it depicts a day on the Estancia (ranch), and boy meets girl and wins same with impressive agricultural talents.

          The first movement, “Los trabajadores agricolas,” depicts the “workers on the land,” not as rustic as you might imagine; the workers are obviously practically frenetic in their labors.  A lyrical break is found in the second movement, “Danza del trigo,” which celebrates the noble virtues of wheat.  The cattlemen stylishly dance their way into the third movement—“Los Peones de Hacienda.”  The final movement is the notorious one: “Malambo.”  The malambo in West Side Story seems like a minuet compared to Ginastera’s.  In the latter, the gauchos compete in a fury to exhibit their virility and endurance; by the time this whirlwind is over, the gauchos must be exhausted, and so must be the orchestra.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan