Monday, February 20, 2017


Piazzolla Octet with two violins, Buenos Aires, 1957
The tango music genre was developed in the 1890s near the border of Argentina and Uruguay in South America. Like many genres in North America, the tango first gained a foothold in dance halls and nightclubs frequented by the poor and working class. (The term “tango” itself is believed to be a local African slave term referring to drumming and dancing.) Thanks to its playfulness, provocativeness, and unique rhythm, it became a sensation in Europe and North America in the early 20th century.

This particular tango, Libertango, was composed by the legendary American composer, bandleader, and bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla. Born in Argentina in 1921 to Italian immigrants, Piazzolla split his childhood between two hotbeds for music, Mar del Plata, Argentina and New York City (in particular, Greenwich Village and Little Italy). While living in New York at age 8, Piazzolla started playing the bandoneon, a German concertina (button accordion) that had been brought to the Americas in the 1800s. Three years later, he composed his first tango, and he never looked back.

Over the next several decades, Piazzolla immersed himself in South American folkloric and musical traditions as well as in classical and jazz music. In 1955, he formed an Octeto (octet) called the Orquesta de Cuerdas (Orchestra of Strings), which featured two bandoneons, two violins, cello, bass, piano, and electric guitar. Based in Mar del Plata, the Octeto developed a modernized version of the tango that utilized elements of Western classical counterpoint and compositional development as well as jazz improvisation and harmony. This “modern tango” would ultimately become known as nuevo tango.

Piazzolla’s nuevo tango, which clearly defied traditional stylistic boundaries, did not initially go over well in Argentina, a site of considerable political unrest in the 1950s. In fact, the Orquesta de Cuerdas only lasted until 1958, at which point Piazzolla moved to New York City in hopes of finding a more receptive audience. However, his Orquesta’s music had a major impact on the development of the tango, and as early tango did in the first part of the 20th century, nuevo tango garnered many listeners and fans in Europe and North America. A few of Piazzolla’s later pieces, including Libertango (1974) and Le Grand Tango (1982), became massively popular and solidified Piazzolla’s place in the pantheon of tango purveyors. The latter piece was premiered by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the iconic classical musicians of the 20th century.
Astor Piazzolla and his ensemble

The version of Libertango in this book, arranged for two violins, draws upon traditional tango ensemble instrumentation but is quite uncharacteristic of tango violin performance. Bandoneon chords are adapted to the violin as moving double-stops, which function as counterpoint or accompaniment to the main melody. Sometimes, these double-stop chords are played by both violins an octave apart, creating a powerful wave of rhythm and harmony. At other times, the 2nd violin mimics the guitar by employing four-note strummed chords. Overall, this violin duet version of Libertango is designed to emulate the sound of Piazzolla’s Octeto.

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