After seeing the likes of Carlos Gardel, Juan D´Areienzo and Aníbal Troilo, naysayers and soothsayers declared that the Golden Age of Argentine Tango had passed and the genre´s end was near. Sad lyrics and elegiac tones seemed incongruous with the optimism of changing times, and the popularity of the slow, duple rhythm waned.
Around the same time that Juan D. Perón fell from power in a coup d’état, tango was presented with an age-old choice: whither or evolve.
Thus, throughout the fifties and sixties, a few lyricists, musicians and composers began to favour new, experimental sounds and themes over more orthodox styles.
One such man was Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla, an Argentine composer and bandoneón player who created musical scores by fusing an array of elements together in unprecedented, staccato beats that transformed traditional tango forever.
Piazzolla was born in the Argentine seaside town of Mar de Plata in 1921 to Vicente Piazzolla and Asunta Manetti, immigrants from the Italian region of Puglia. He moved to New York with his family at a young age, and it was on the streets of Manhattan that he first came into contact with the syncopated rhythms of jazz and the classical music of Bach that would eventually inform his unique approach to music.
The musician received his first bandoneón when he was six-years old. His father, a tango aficionado, decided that he wanted his only son to learn how to play and bought the instrument for US$19 at a New York pawnshop.
Wrapped in a box, Piazzolla was convinced that he had finally received the pair of roller skates he had asked for so many times. But in place of the skates, he found an awkward contraption that he was loath to cherish.
Over time though, the boy grew to love the instrument and initiated contact with musical greats who would come to shape his youthful talents. At nine, Piazzolla took lessons from pianist Andrés D´Aquila. Two years later, the prodigy débuted his first composition and then met Carlos Gardel, an Argentine tango icon who was on tour in the US.
After going back to Argentina in 1936, the 15-year old began to formally establish his presence in the world of tango by joining the orchestra of Aníbal Troilo as a bandoneonista.
He then continued his training with Alberto Ginastera and Raúl Spivak and in 1954, he set off on a journey to Paris to commence conservatory study with Nadia Boulanger, who would become the most influential figure in the virtuoso´s life.
Under Boulanger´s guidance, Piazzolla decided to pursue tango as a musician and classical music as a composer. He wrote the grand symphonic tango, “Tres minutos con la realidad,” and recorded 16 more tango oeuvres with the Orchestra of the Paris Opera that integrated the sounds of the piano and bandoneón.
Meanwhile, the musician managed to attract the ire of critics in Buenos Aires who resented his revolution. Piazzolla was boycotted by many musical outlets in his native country and forced to travel to New York, a bastion of artistic culture where he was able to write “Adiós Nonino” in tribute to his father who had recently passed away. The song was eventually considered one of his greatest works.
In 1965, however, the praise of his admirers overwhelmed the disdain of his critics. The musician collaborated with Jorge Luis Borges and produced the disc ¨El Tango¨ by putting music to the poems of the author.
Building upon his success, he began to blur new boundaries by fusing jazz and tango with the formation of the New Tango Quintet. The ensemble, which included a bandoneón, piano, violin, electric guitar and bass, would eventually give one of their greatest performances at the Philarmonic Hall of New York and serve as a precursor to Piazzolla´s recording of ¨Summit¨ with the renowned saxophonist, Gerry Mulligan in 1979.
Astor Piazzolla died on 4th July 1992 in Buenos Aires.
Revered by intellectuals for making tango more academic and loathed by old-performers for sullying time-honoured forms of composition, his diverse influence remains indisputable. While tango may not live on in its purist form, it continues to be synthesized with most musical genres and played throughout the world.
And in response to the newest slew of doomsayers, who say that rock and punk are poised to send tango back to the brink of extinction, Piazzolla would probably say that both genres should become a part of its revitalisation.
Dates: 11th March, 1921 – 4th July, 1992
Most Well-Known Song: Adiós Nonino
Famous for: Changing the rhythm, timbre and harmony of contemporary tango
In his own words: ¨Music is more than a woman. You can divorce a woman, but you cannot divorce music. Once you get married to music, it´s an eternal love that lasts forever, and you go to the tomb with her.¨
Best to listen to: On a walk through the streets of Buenos Aires