Of all Latin American composers, the most widely performed today in classical circles is surely Astor Piazzolla, who has achieved something resembling pop status within the past two decades. Born in Argentina, he grew up in New York City, where his family moved in 1925; there he learned to play the bandoneón, a concertina accordion whose timbre instantly evokes the Argentine tango. (In deference to his Italian family heritage and American upbringing, he preferred that the double “l” in his surname be sounded as the English “l,” rather than with the Spanish or Argentine pronunciation as a “y” or “zh.”)
Returning to his native country at the age of 16, he established himself as a working musician and performed with many popular ensembles before forming his own tango orchestra, the Orquesta del 46, in 1946, the year he wrote his first tango. In 1950 he disbanded his ensemble, the better to dedicate his time to composing, and as early as 1953 he produced his first works for symphonic forces. The following year he received a grant from the French Government to travel to Paris; there he studied with Nadia Boulanger, who urged him to develop his language as a composer on a foundation of distinctly Argentine sound. He recalled:
Up to then I had composed symphonies, chamber music, string quartets; but when Nadia Boulanger analyzed my music, she said she could find nowhere any Piazzolla. She could find Ravel and Stravinsky, also Béla Bartók and Hindemith — but never Piazzolla. … Nadia made me play a tango to her and then she said, “You idiot! That is the real Piazzolla!” So I threw away all the other music and, in 1954, started working on my New Tango.
By 1956 he began presenting these new, hybrid tangos in concert. On his return to Argentina he formed another ensemble, the Octeto de Buenos Aires, the first of several chamber groups that would serve as a sort of laboratory for his continuing experiments in developing tango as a genre of contemporary music. The tango he inherited was an overtly sexy dance born in the back alleys and brothels of Buenos Aires. Piazzolla injected a sense of modernity into the genre, so transforming it that his music, and that of his colleagues and followers, defines “the new tango” in contradistinction to the classic dance form, which is referred to as tango de la guardia vieja (tango of the old guard). While the classic tango remains recognizable as the root of his music his pieces also reflect aspects of jazz and of classical developments that trace their ancestry to Stravinsky.
Piazzolla’s works met resistance from tango traditionalists, many of whom dismissed them outright; indeed, he viewed his compositions as essentially works of classical chamber music. It is in that spirit that they suddenly began to be embraced in the mid-1990s by a number of distinguished classical musicians.
Although most of Piazzolla’s angel-related compositions were used in or written for Rodríguez Muñoz’s play El tango del Ángel, the idea of angels was consistent with the composer’s general outlook. So was the concept of the devil; in the 1960s he also composed a suite of devil-inspired pieces. Born and raised a Catholic, he told a reporter in 1976:
“I believe in a God: we ourselves are both the Devil and the God. And, well, I am Christian: when I’m afraid, I pray … but I’m only afraid when I travel by plane.”
He embraced superstitions. His friend the tango lyricist Horacio Ferrer said Piazzolla was “very sensitive to those esoteric things, unlucky stars, things that bring bad luck, destiny, the fates; he lived a prisoner of all that.” After being told by a spiritualist that he was being protected by the air-spirit Sylphe and the water-spirit Ondine, he composed Tangata in their honor.
For Alberto Rodriguez Muñoz’s 1962 stage play Tango del Angel, in which an angel heals the spirits of the residents of a shabby Buenos Aires neighborhood, Piazzolla added two new pieces to an earlier tango that gave the play its name. This music reappeared in at least two different concert forms, but one of the unifying elements is the piece Milonga del ángel. A milonga is a sort of proto-tango, lighter and gentler than the more familiar form. This milonga is openly sentimental and begins with a lounge music feel with strummed bass chords; a simple, keening violin line; and a few tinkles from the piano. The bandoneón creeps in almost unnoticed, but takes control of the piece with a sad, nostalgic melody (at this point, one could easily imagine the piece being played in a jazz club). Just as the treatment of the melody becomes more complex and emotional, a secondary section arrives to allow some air around the music. It initially seems like a transition, but opens into a highly romantic and sensual violin solo. The bandoneón reclaims its place, offering its own variation on this melody, which is actually closely tied to the main theme, and musing on it with the violin and electric bass. A more intense passage leads to the coda, which strips the music down to a series of chords, much as the piece began. (James Reel of Allmusic.com)
One of the formal classical styles Piazzolla used to particularly dramatic effect, is the Fugue. The word “Fugue” means “to chase” and that is almost literally the implication of the way in which the entries of the main fugue theme “chase” one another. With Piazzolla’s trademark rhythmic drive – bordering on obsessive compulsive – his fugues are particularly exciting. In a 1989 interview Piazzolla told Gonzalo Saaverda (transl. David Taylor):
But my main style is to have studied. If I had not, I would not be doing what I do, what I’ve done. Because everybody thinks that to do a ‘modern tango’ is to make noise, is to make strange thoughts, and no, that’s not true! You have to go a little deeper, and you can see that what I do is very elaborate. If I do a fugue in the manner of Bach, it will always be “tanguificated”.