The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires

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            Every artist aspires to develop a personal voice, and every good artist eventually does so.  But few arrive at a style so personal and so reflective of a unique vision that, while nonetheless achieving great international popularity, it is strictly sui generis.  The music of Astor Piazzolla is just that.  Single handedly he created a musical genre and style that began with the traditional elements of the Argentine tango, but was infused with so much of advanced twentieth century “classical” techniques, that the result almost obscures its popular roots.  Jazz, Stravinsky, Bartók, dissonance, counterpoint, ubiquitous chromaticism, and varied orchestration—they all are incorporated into Piazzolla’s musical take on the tango.  His achievement might be compared to a hypothetical situation wherein Stravinsky decided to base all of his compositions—with all of his modernist, challenging elements—on a transformed Viennese waltz.  Just one genre subjected to almost every new cutting edge technique.  That would be personal, indeed!  Yet, Piazzolla with his more than one thousand compositions has achieved something like that.   Ravel did something like that in his La valse, but that was just once.  While many aficionados of traditional tango music—especially in Piazzolla’s native country, Argentina—are less than thrilled with his approach, he has garnered an enthusiastic following around the world with audiences and a variety of professional musicians.

            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.  And although he and his music are inextricably bound to the sound of the bandoneón (the indigenous Argentine accordion, rather like a concertina), it was, indeed in New York City that his father brought home from a pawnshop, little Astor’s first bandoneón.  All the while Piazzolla studied classical music, simultaneously composing his first tangos.  A meeting with the tango immortal, Carlos Gardel (of Por una Cabeza fame), cemented his life-long dedication to the genre. 

            He moved back to Argentina in 1936, and there ensued a long and remarkable career as composer of tangos and performer in myriad musical groups—all the while pursuing a side interest in classical musical composition.  Moving well ahead in his career, 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—teacher of such luminaries as Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and Elliott Carter.  Savvy woman that she was, she disabused Piazzolla of dreams of becoming another Bartók, and insisted that he must acknowledge his brilliance in the tango, and 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.  The result was his unique style, what is often called nuevo tango.

            In the following years he became a legend in his native country, composing hundreds of pieces, continuing to play in and lead many different tango orchestras, and building a worldwide reputation.  Typically, his works were performed by a small tango group, generally, but not always, consisting of bandoneón, violin, electric guitar, double bass, and piano.  Inevitably, his compositions were also transcribed for a large variety of instrumentations.  He toured the world, almost Zelig-like, appearing on television, in concerts, recording with a variety of artists—a true universal musician.  He composed chamber music, orchestral music, and made music with everyone from Gerry Mulligan to Mstislav Rostropovich.

            The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires has as its origin a single composition in one movement, Buenos Aries Summer, written in 1965 for a play.  Piazzolla subsequently wrote Autumn in 1969, and the other two in 1970.  They were scored for the instruments in his traditional tango quintet, and were not envisioned as a suite—just four separate compositions.  In the early 1990s someone else put the four together and arranged them for woodwind quintet, three violoncellos, and bass.  Then in the late 1990s the Russian violin virtuoso, Gidon Kremer, commissioned composer, Leonid Desyatnikov, to completely redo the piece, changing it into a work for virtuoso solo violin, accompanied by string orchestra.  Among the substantial changes to the work, were added allusions to the immortal Four Seasons of the eighteenth-century composer, Antonio Vivaldi. Desyatnikov is somewhat of a wag, as one will see.

            The result is a remarkable composition that is a panoply of string effects right out of the string quartets of Bela Bartók, harmonies and snatches of melody from traditional tangos of the 1930s, exaggerated, jagged syncopations that almost parody the old tango, and a kaleidoscope of harsh dissonances juxtaposed with sudden consonant passages.  The added solo violin part is a tour de force virtuosic swagger, replete with dramatic solo cadenza-like sections.   Throughout, one is kept constantly off guard by unexpected changes in dynamics and tempos.   While each movement is named after a season, and there are a variety of moods within each, there’s not a lot of specific pictorial reference to the actual seasons, as in Vivaldi’s famous work.  The allusions to Vivaldi are not that frequent, but occasionally, the arranger, Desyatnikov, will surprise one with a quote, most notably in the “summer” movement, but in the “spring,” as well (at the end).   From time to time, a very Baroque fugue will take the stage, and then an equally novel blues inflected melody.  Vivaldi-style pizzicati contrast with Bartókian “scratches” on the strings.  In many ways, this work is all over the stylistic and historical map, but the genius of Piazzolla and Desyatnikov somehow make it all hang together in remarkably entertaining and clever composition.  It has few imitators.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©William E. Runyan