Timeline: Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992)
Austria has the Viennese waltz; Kiev has the hopak; Spain the flamenco and Argentina the tango. This rhythmic dance came from Buenos Aires and Montevideo in the late 19th century. In the hands of 20th century composer Astor Piazzolla the tango evolved into an expressive, experimental musical form.
Astor Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina. He was the only child of Italian immigrants. When he was four the family moved to New York City. Astor’s parents worked long hours and he often spent a great deal of time alone. His father bought him a bandoneon at a pawn shop to keep him busy. The bandoneon is a type of concertina, an accordion-like instrument that has always been associated with tango music. The soundtrack of Piazzolla’s childhood was recordings of tango, jazz and J.S. Bach. Astor took to the bandoneon like a fish to water and soon became a virtuoso.
Piazzolla wrote his first tango at the age of 11. He started taking lessons with pianist Bela Wilda who encouraged him to play Bach on the bandoneon. His skills on the instrument caught the attention of famous tango orchestra leader Carlos Gardel who offered the barely teenage Astor a place on his tour. Piazzolla’s father forbid this, which might have actually saved his life. Gardel’s entire orchestra died in a plane crash on that very tour.
In 1936 the family returned to Argentina and Astor began to play professionally for various tango orchestras. At 17, he moved to Buenos Aires on his own and worked as a performer and arranger. He spent his money on lessons with Alberto Ginastera who taught Piazzolla orchestration and introduced him to the music of Stravinsky, Bartok and Ravel.
In 1946, Astor Piazzolla started his own orchestra and began experimenting more with his music. He almost abandoned the genre of tango all together searching for his own voice. His work Buenos Aires Symphony in Three Movements was awarded a grant that allowed Piazzolla to travel to Paris and study with Nadia Boulanger. She encouraged Piazzolla to not abandon the music of his youth and culture. Returning to Argentina, Piazzolla introduced what he called “Nuevo tango”; a chamber music-like variation on the genre that incorporated jazz-like improvisation. Argentina was slow to accept these innovations, but Piazzolla’s music became quite popular in Europe and North America.
Over the next few decades, Piazzolla formed new ensembles, toured the world and pushed the definition of tango as far as he could. He wrote music for remarkable combinations of instruments; for dance halls, concert halls and films. The pace of his career began to take a toll on his health. In 1973, he suffered a major heart attack which didn’t even slow him down.
Even after quadruple by-pass surgery in 1988, he still continued to tour. Two years later, while on the road in Paris, Piazzolla suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that put him into a coma. He was transported back to Argentina, where he lived another two years. He died in 1992 having never regained consciousness. The international airport in Mar del Plata and the Buenos Aires music conservatory both bare his name.
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