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World Music Legends

Astor Piazzolla

By Tom Pryor
Published October 9, 2005


Besides legendary singer Carlos Gardél, few artists are as intimately associated with Argentine tango as Astor Piazzolla. But where Gardel left his indelible stamp on classic tango during the music’s 1920s-’30s golden age (before his untimely death in a plane crash in 1935), Piazzolla did more than anyone to keep the tango alive and evolving as an artform in the later half of the twentieth century.

              Piazzolla was born on March 11, 1921 in Mar del Plata, Argentina, but moved with his family to New York soon after. As a child he was exposed to tango, opera, classical and even jazz by his Italian immigrant parents, who bought him his first bandoneon (the accordion-like instrument that would become his trademark) at the age of nine. A prodigy, Piazzolla was invited by Gardél himself to play in the film El Did Que Me Quieras.

              Piazzolla returned to Buenos Aires in 1938, at the ripe age of 17, and soon joined the band of tanguero Anibal Troilo, while studying music and composition with composer Alberto Ginastera and pianist Franciso Fiorentino. In 1947 he formed his first group, which lasted for two years. In 1953 he made a splash with “Buenos Aires,” an original composition that fused tango with classical elements, which was criticized by tango purists for being too “modernist.” Undeterred, Piazzolla traveled to Paris the following year, to study with renowned composer/educator Nadia Boulanger (whose other students included Stravinsky and Aaron Copland). Boulanger wasn’t crazy about Piazzolla’s classical compositions, but she was mad about tango and urged him to pursue his own synthesis of classical, jazz and tango.

              Following Boulanger’s advice, Piazzolla returned to Argentina the following year, and began working on this new style he called tango Nuevo,  which re-invented the tango as a concert hall form, meant to be sat down and listened to, as well as danced to.

             In 1960 he formed his second and most famous group, Quinteto Tango Nuevo, which enabled him to further explore his new sound. With them Piazzolla began introducing the vocabulary of 20th century classical music into the tango; playing with dissonances, chromatic harmonies, and introducing new rhythms and chord structures into the music’s repertoire. He made the homegrown music of Buenos Aires’ underworld—the da

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