Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla (March 11, 1921 – July 4, 1992) was an Argentine tango composer, virtuoso bandoneon player, and music arranger whose work revolutionized the traditional tango into a new style termed nuevo tango, incorporating elements from jazz and classical music. Piazzolla was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina, on Mar. 11, 1921, the only child of Italian immigrant parents, Vicente “Nonino” Piazzolla and Asunta Manetti. His grandfather, a sailor and fisherman named Pantaleón Piazzolla, had immigrated to Mar del Plata from Trani, a seaport in the southeastern Italian region of Apulia, at the end of the 19th century. During his childhood, Astor faced several operations on his right leg due to polio.In 1925 and walked with a limp the rest of his life. Piazzolla moved with his family to Greenwich Village in New York City. His parents worked long hours and Piazzolla would listen at home to his father’s records of the tango orchestras of Carlos Gardel and Julio de Caro. Also he was exposed to jazz and classical music, including Bach, from an early age. He began to play the bandoneon, a kind of accordion, after his father spotted one in a New York pawn shop in 1929 for nineteen dollars when Astor was eight. Astor studied the bandoneon for one year with Andrés DÁquila.
After their return to New York City from a brief visit to Mar del Plata in 1930, the Piazzollas went to live in Little Italy in lower Manhattan. Piazzolla made his first record, Marionette Spagnol, a non commercial phonograph disk at the Radio Recording Studio in New York in 1931, and in 1932 composed his first tango La catinga. The following year he took music lessons with the Hungarian classical pianist Bela Wilda, a student of Rachmaninoff, who taught him to play Bach on his bandoneon. In 1934 he met Carlos Gardel, one of the most important figures in the history of tango, and played a cameo role as a young paper boy in his movie El día que me quieras. Gardel invited the young bandoneon player to join him on his current tour. Much to Piazzolla’s dismay, his father decided that he was not old enough to go along. This early disappointment of not being allowed to join the tour proved to be a blessing in disguise, as it was on this tour that Gardel and his entire orchestra perished in a plane crash in 1935.
In 1936, during the height of the Great Depression, Vicente Piazzolla decided it was about time to go back to Argentina. Astor returned with his family to Mar del Plata, where he began to play in a variety of tango orchestras and around this time discovered the music of Elvino Vardaro’s sextet on the radio. Vardaro’s novel interpretation of tango made a great impression on Piazzolla and years later he would become Piazzolla’s violinist in his Orquesta de Cuerdas and his First Quintet. Inspired by Vardaro’s style of tango, and still only 17 years old, Piazzolla moved to Buenos Aires in 1938 where, the following year, he realized a dream when he joined the orchestra of the bandoneonist Anibal Troilo, which would become one of the greatest tango orchestras of that time. Piazzolla was employed as a temporary replacement for Toto Rodríguez who was ill, but when Rodríguez returned to work Troilo decided to retain Piazzolla as a fourth bandoneonist. Apart from playing the bandoneon, Piazzolla also became Troilo’s arranger and would occasionally play the piano for him. By 1941 he was earning a good wage, enough to pay for music lessons with Alberto Ginastera, an eminent Argentine composer of classical music. It was the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, then living in Buenos Aires, who had advised him to study with Ginastera and delving into scores of Stravinsky, Bartók, Ravel, and others, Piazzolla rose early each morning to hear the Teatro Colón orchestra rehearse while continuing a gruelling performing schedule in the tango clubs at night.
During his five years of study with Ginastera, Piazzolla mastered orchestration, which he later considered to be one of his strong points. In 1943 he started piano lessons with the Argentine classical pianist Raúl Spivak, which would continue for the next five years, and wrote his first classical works, Preludio No. 1 for Violin and Piano and Suite for Strings and Harps. That same year he married Dedé Wolff, an artist, with whom he had two children, Diana and Daniel. As time went by Troilo began to fear that the advanced musical ideas of the young bandoneonist might undermine the style of his orchestra and make it less appealing to dancers of tango. Tensions mounted between the two bandoneonists until, in 1944, Piazzolla announced his intention to leave Troilo and join the orchestra of the tango singer and bandoneonist Francisco Fiorentino. Piazzolla would lead Fiorentino’s orchestra until 1946 and make many recordings with him, including his first two instrumental tangos, La chiflada and Color de rosa.
In 1946 Piazzolla formed his own Orquesta Típica, which although having a similar formation to other tango orchestras of the day, gave him his first opportunity to experiment with his own approach to the orchestration and musical content of tango. That same year he composed, El Desbande, which he considered to be his first formal tango, and then began to compose musical scores for films, starting with Con los mismos colores in 1949 and Bólidos de acero in 1950, both films directed by Carlos Torres Ríos. Having disbanded his orchestra in 1950, he almost abandoned tango altogether as he continued to study Bartok and Stravinsky, and orchestra conducting with Herman Scherchen. He spent a lot of time listening to jazz and searching for a musical style of his own beyond the realms of tango. He decided to drop the bandoneon and to dedicate himself to writing and to studying music. Between 1950 and 1954 he composed a series of works that began to develop his unique style: Para lucirse, Tanguango, Prepárense, Contrabajeando, Triunfal and Lo que vendrá.
At Ginastera’s urging, Piazzolla entered his classical composition Buenos Aires Symphony, in three movements, for the Fabian Sevitzky Award on August 16, 1953. The performance took place at the Law School in Buenos Aires with the symphony orchestra of Radio del Estado under the direction of Sevitzky himself. Piazzolla’s composition won a grant from the French government to study in Paris with the legendary French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger at the Fontainebleau conservatory. In 1954 he and his wife left their two children (Diana aged 11 and Daniel aged 10) behind with Piazzolla’s parents and travelled to Paris. At this stage in his life Piazzolla was tired of tango and at first tried to hide his tanguero past and his bandoneon compositions from Boulanger, thinking that his destiny lay in classical music. By way of introduction to his work, Piazzolla played her a number of his classically-inspired compositions but it was not until he finally played his tango Triunfal that she immediately congratulated him and encouraged him to pursue his career in tango, recognizing that this was where his true musical talent lay. This was to prove a historic encounter and a cross-road in Piazzolla’s career.
During his time with Boulanger he studied classical composition including counterpoint which was to play a key role in his later tango compositions. Before leaving Paris he heard, and was deeply impressed by, the octet of the American jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, which was to give him the idea of forming his own octet on his return to Buenos Aires. At this time he composed and recorded a series of tangos with the String Orchestra of the Paris Opera and began to play the bandoneon while standing up, putting his right foot on a chair and the bellows of the instrument across his right thigh. Back in Argentina, Piazzolla formed his Orquesta de Cuerdas (String Orchestra), which performed with the singer Jorge Sobral, and his Octeto Buenos Aires in 1955. With two bandoneons (Piazzolla and Leopoldo Federico, his Octeto effectively broke the mould of the traditional orquesta típica and created a new sound akin to chamber music, without a singer and with jazz-like improvisations. This was to be a turning point in his career and a watershed in the history of tango.
In 1958 he disbanded both the Octeto and the String Orchestra and returned to New York City with his family where he struggled to make a living as a musician and arranger. Briefly forming his own group, the Jazz Tango Quintet with whom he made just two recordings, his attempts to blend jazz and tango were not successful. He received the news of the death of his father in October 1959 whilst performing with Juan Carlos Copes and María Nieves in Puerto Rico and on his return to New York City a few days later, he asked to be left alone in his apartment and in less than an hour wrote his famous tango, Adiós Nonino, in homage to his father. Copes and Nieves packed out Club Flamboyan in San Juan with “Companina Argentina Tangolandia”. Piazzolla was serving as the musical director. The tour continued in New York, Chicago and then Washington. The last show that the three of them did together was an appearance on CBS the only colour TV channel in the USA on the Arthur Murray Show in April 1960.
Back in Buenos Aires later that year he put together the first, and perhaps most famous, of his quintets, the first Quinteto. Of the many ensembles that Piazzolla set up during his career it was the quintet formation which best expressed his approach to tango. In 1963 he set up his Nuevo Octeto and the same year premiered his Tres Tangos Sinfónicos, under the direction of Paul Klecky, for which he was awarded the Hirsch Prize. In 1965 he released El Tango, an album for which he collaborated with the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges. The recording featured his Quinteto together with an orchestra, the singer Edmundo Rivero and Luis Medina Castro reciting texts. In 1967 Piazzolla signed a five-year contract with the poet Horacio Ferrer with whom he composed the operetta María de Buenos Aires, with lyrics by Ferrer. The work was premiered in May 1968 with the singer Amelita Baltar in the title role and introduced a new style of tango, Tango Canción (in English: Tango Song). The following year he wrote Balada para un loco with lyrics by Ferrer which was premiered at the First Iberoamerican Music Festival with Amelita Baltar and Piazzolla himself conducting the orchestra. Piazzolla was awarded second prize and the composition would prove to be his first popular success.
In 1970 Piazzolla returned to Paris where with Ferrer he wrote the oratorio El pueblo joven later premiered in Saarbrücken, Germany in 1971. On May 19, 1970, he gave a concert with his Quinteto at the Teatro Regina in Buenos Aires in which he premiered his composition Cuatro Estaciones Portenos. Back in Buenos Aires he founded his Conjunto 9 (aka Nonet), for which he composed some of his most sophisticated music. He now put aside his first Quinteto and made several recordings with his new ensemble in Italy. Within a year the Conjunto 9 was dissolved and in 1972 he participated in his first concert at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, sharing the bill with other Tango orchestras. After a period of great productivity as a composer, he suffered a heart attack in 1973 and that same year he moved to Italy where he began a series of recordings which would span a period of five years. The music publisher Aldo Pagani, a partner in Curci-Pagani Music, had offered Piazzolla a 15-year contract in Rome to record anything he could write. His famous album Libertango was recorded in Milan in May 1974 and later in September recorded the album Summit (Reunión Cumbre) with the saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and an Italian orchestra, including jazz musicians such as bassist Pino Presti and drummer Tullio De Piscopo, in Milan. The album includes the composition Aire de Buenos Aires by Mulligan.
In 1975 Piazzolla set up his Electronic Octet made up of bandoneon, electric piano and/or acoustic piano, organ, guitar, electric bass, drums, synthesizer and violin, which was later replaced by a flute or saxophone. Later that year Aníbal Troilo died and Piazzolla composed the Suite Troileana in his memory, a work in four parts, which he recorded with the Conjunto Electronico. At this time Piazzolla started a collaboration with the singer Jose A. Trelles with whom he made a number of recordings. In December 1976 he played at a concert at the Teatro Gran Rex in Buenos Aires, where he presented his work, “500 motivaciones”, written especially for the Conjunto Electronico, and in 1977 he played another memorable concert at the Olympia in Paris, with a new formation of the Conjunto Electronico. In 1978 he formed his second Quintet, with which he would tour the world for 11 years, and would make him world renowned. He also returned to writing chamber music and symphonic works.
In 1982 Piazzolla recorded the album Oblivion with an orchestra in Italy for the film Enrico IV, directed by Marco Bellocchio, and in May 1982 played in a concert at the Teatro Regina, Buenos Aires with the second Quinteto and the singer Roberto Goyeneche. That same year he wrote Le Grand Tango for cello and piano, dedicated to Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. In June 1983 he put on one of the best concerts of his life when he played a program of his music at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. For the occasion he regrouped the Conjunto 9 and played solo with the Buenos Aires Philharmonic, directed by Pedro Ignacio Calderón. The programme included his 3 movement Concierto para bandoneón y orquesta and his 3 movement Concierto de Nacar. In July 1984 Piazzolla appeared with his Quinteto at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the world’s largest jazz festival, and in September that same year they appeared with the Italian singer Milva at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris. His concert in October 1984 at the Teatro Nazionale in Milan was recorded and released as the album Suite Punte del Este.
In 1985 Piazzolla was named Illustrious Citizen of Buenos Aires and premiered his Concerto for Bandoneon and Guitar (aka Tribute to Liège and written in 1979), at the Fifth International Liège Guitar Festival in March, with the Liège Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leo Brouwer and Cacho Tirao on guitar. Piazzolla made his London debut with his second Quinteto at the Almeida Theatre in London at the end of June, With the film score for El exilio de Gardel he won the French critics Cesar Award in Paris for best film music in 1986. He appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Montreux, Switzerland, with vibraphonist Gary Burton in July 1986 and in September 1987 gave a concert in New York’s Central Park, in the city where he spent his childhood. In September 1987 he recorded his Concierto para bandoneón y orquesta and Tres tangos para bandoneón y orquesta with Lalo Schifrin conducting the St. Luke’s Orchestra, in the Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University.
In 1988 Piazzolla wrote music for the film Sur. In May that year he recorded his album La Camorra in New York, a suite of three pieces, the last time he would record with the second Quinteto. During a tour of Japan with Milva he played at a concert at the Nakano Sun Plaza Hall in Tokyo on 26 June 1988 and that same year underwent a quadruple by-pass operation. Early in 1989 he formed his Sexteto Nuevo Tango, his last ensemble, with two bandoneons, piano, electric guitar, bass and cello. Together they gave a concert at the Club Italiano in Buenos Aires in April, a recording of which was issued under the title of Tres minutos con la realidad. Later he appeared with them at the Teatro Opera in Buenos Aires in the presence of the newly elected Argentine President Carlos Menem in June. This would be Piazzolla’s last concert in Argentina.
Piazzolla followed with a concert of his Sexteto and Osvaldo Pugliese’s Orquesta in June 1989 at the Royal Carre Theatre in Amsterdam, a live recording at the BBC Bristol Studios in June 1989 between concerts in Berlin and Rome, and a concert at the Wembley Conference Centre in June 1989. In November 1989 he gave a concert in Lausanne, Switzerland, at the Moulin a Danses and later that month he recorded his composition Five Tango Sensations, with the Kronos Quartet in the US on an album of the same name. This would be his last studio recording and was his second composition for the Kronos Quartet. Towards the end of the year he dissolved his sexteto and continued playing solo with classical string quartets and symphonic orchestras. He joined Anahi Carfi’s Mantova String Quartet and toured Italy and Finland with them. His composition, Le grand tango, for cello and piano was premiered in New Orleans by the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and the pianist Igor Uriash in 1990 and in July he gave his last concert in Athens, Greece, with the Athens Orchestra of Colours, conducted by Manos Hatzidakis. Piazzolla suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in Paris on August 4, 1990, which left him in a coma, and died in Buenos Aires, just under two years later on July 4, 1992, without regaining consciousness.
My collection includes the following works by Astor Piazzolla:
Chiquilin de Bachin.
La Calle 92.
Milonga sin Palabras.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources