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Timeline: Alberto Ginastera (1916-1923)

Alberto Ginastera
Argentinian composer, Alberto Ginastera has been called one of the most important South American composer of the 20th century.

Just as Bela Bartok gave a voice to the folk music of Hungary in the 20th century, Alberto Ginastera did the same for the music of Argentina. Many call Ginastera one of the most important South American composers of the past century.

Alberto Ginastera was born in Buenos Aires in 1916. He was an exceptionally musically talented child and started taking private piano lessons at the age of 7. By age 12, Ginastera was accepted into Williams Conservatory in Buenos Aires. As soon as he graduated, he became part of the faculty there. When he was 22 years old, Ginastera won first prize in a composition competition for his work Piezas infantiles.

In 1942, Alberto Ginastera received the Guggenheim award, but had to wait till after the Second World War to travel to the United States. In 1946 he studied with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood. Returning to Argentina, he immediately jumped back into teaching. Ginastera was a very influential professor, with pupils like Astor Piazzolla and Jacqueline Nova.

Ginastera wrote extensively about his own music and he delineated his pieces into three periods or styles. He called his earlier music “Objective Nationalism.” The Argentinian influences; folk-tunes, themes and rhythms are evident and treated in a very traditional fashion. Ginastera called his middle period “Subjective Nationalism.” These folk themes became more abstract. You can still hear the influences; there just isn’t the same direct quotation. Finally, Ginastera’s late work was called “Neo-Expressionism.” The music embraces more abstraction and dissonance till all the folk-like gestures are obscured. In this late period, Ginastera adopted many 20th century techniques, such as microtonality, serialism, polytonality and chance processes.

Alberto Ginastera wrote it all; operas, ballets, film music and orchestral, chamber and vocal pieces. His 1960 Cantata para America Magica told ancient, pre-Columbian legends and was written for soprano voice and 53 percussion instruments. Ginastera’s opera Don Rodrigo was a huge success in New York City in 1966. His follow up opera, Bomarzo, embraced even more dissonance and was a shocking depiction of violence. It was initially banned in Buenos Aires in 1967.

For most of his life, Alberto Ginastera was outspoken in his protest against the politics of Argentina. He was twice denied academic posts because of his controversial views. He decided to leave Argentina in 1969 and resettled in Geneva, Switzerland. Late in life, Ginastera’s music began to go back to his musical roots. He returned to tonality and the folk-music of Argentina.

Alberto Ginastera died in Geneva at the age of 67. His wife, cellist Aurora Natola, called Ginastera’s death “especially tragic because he so much wanted to compose more music.”

Find out more about Alberto Ginastera and follow the Timeline.

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James Stewart is VPR Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.