“Spring” from The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires

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            Ástor Piazzolla has created a musical genre and style that began with the traditional elements of the Argentine tango, but has infused it with much of advanced twentieth century “classical” techniques.  The result almost obscures its popular roots.  Jazz, Stravinsky, Bartók, dissonance, counterpoint, ubiquitous chromaticism, and varied orchestration—they all are incorporated into Piazolla’s musical take on the tango.   Piazzolla was born in Argentina, but moved with his parents in 1924 to New York City, living in Greenwich Village, immersing himself in the musical culture and atmosphere of the great city.  Jazz, classical music, the blues—all were his métier—all the while his family exposed him to traditional Argentine music at home, including the sound of the bandoneón (the indigenous Argentine accordion, rather like a concertina).   He moved back to Argentina in 1936, and there ensued a long and remarkable career as composer of tangos. But, by the early fifties he was immersed in the study of Stravinsky and Bartók, studying composition with Ginastera, listening to lots of jazz, and composing “classical” music.  In 1953 he won a major prize with a symphony that he had composed, and was off to Paris to study with the famed Nadia Boulanger.  There, she disabused Piazolla of dreams of becoming another Bartók, and insisted that he must acknowledge his brilliance in the tango, and to follow it for his success.  And so he did, but not without taking with him his deep engagement with the techniques of jazz, blues, and complicated contemporary art music. All of these elements fuse into his signature style:  “Nuevo Tango.”   You might flippantly call it Stravinsky and Bartók meet Carlos Gardel.

            Typically, his works are performed by a small tango group, generally, but not always, consisting of bandoneón, violin, electric guitar, double bass, and piano.  “Spring,” or “Primavera Porteña,” was composed in 1970 (two of the other “seasons” were written separately and earlier) for solo piano, and then for the small tango group, and like so many of his works, has been rescored for larger ensemble.  It is quite representative of his “new tango” style of jagged melodic motifs—often repeated motorically, walking bass lines with a tango thump just before beat four, harmonic chromaticism, and some traditional counterpoint.  There are three distinct sections—after Vivaldi’s, but there is none of the latter’s pictorialism.   Rather than anything specifically seasonal in this “primavera,” it, like the other three, is generally representative of the city of Buenos Aries.  Tango traditionalists were originally horrified by his style of tango, but he now is universally popular—at least with progressives.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan