Piazzolla, Ástor

1921 - 1992

Libertango

Piazzolla composed Libertango in 1975, and Oblivion in 1982. Both works were first performed by Piazzolla’s own chamber ensemble. Combined duration 8:00.

The tango, Argentina’s national dance, had its origins in the bordellos and taverns of Buenos Aires. With roots in Cuban and African music, and Argentina’s homegrown milonga, it emerged in the early 20th century as a passionate couple’s dance—seduction set to dramatic and syncopated music. Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla was born into this tradition and would eventually transform it into music for the concert stage. His family moved to New York City when he was very young, and Piazzolla spent his childhood in the Bronx. While still a child in New York, he learned the bandonéon—a large button accordion that is the lead instrument of the Tango orquestra típica. While he was just 13 years old, the Tango superstar Carlos Gardel invited Piazzolla to join him on tour.  His father did not allow this, but when the family moved back to Argentina just a few years later, Piazzolla quickly gained a reputation playing in the best orquestras in the country, eventually forming his own group in 1946. At the same time, he was beginning to study with the composer Alberto Ginastera and writing his first classical compositions. Eventually, Piazzolla decided to pursue classical composition exclusively, and moved to Paris to study with the famed teacher Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger was apparently unimpressed with his modernist classical works, but was enthusiastic when he finally played one of his tangos. He credits her with inspiration to combine the two, and over the next four decades, he forged a distinctive style that came to be known as nuevo tango. His music nearly always began with the seductive rhythm of the dance, but incorporated elements of jazz, rock, and modernist art music.

The two pieces heard here are famous examples of that style. Libertango, perhaps the best-known and most often recorded of Piazzolla’s nuevo tango compositions, comes from 1974. After beginning with a driving rhythmic part that never eases until the final bar, Piazzolla adds layers of melody until coming to a driving conclusion. Oblivion was composed in 1982. The melancholy principal melody is heard above a simple bell-like background. There is a lush middle section before the main idea returns.

These works were originally performed by Piazzolla’s own group, which varied in instrumentation, but always included himself on lead, playing bandonéon. Like nearly all of his tangos, they exist in multiple versions, and both have been reinterpreted in many ways. The composer himself arranged several of his works for string ensemble, and one of his very last recordings was a work he wrote for himself on bandonéon and the famed Kronos Quartet. Libertango and Oblivion are heard here in arrangements for string quartet.