Histoire du Tango
April 14, 2019: Anne Akiko Meyers, violin; Jason Vieaux, guitar
The tango, which originated in late nineteenth-century Buenos Aires in brothels and urban courtyards, gained ballroom status through its seductive powers, spreading to Paris and other European centers in the early twentieth century. Tangos traditionally featured not only couples dancing in tight embrace with almost violent leg motions, but also melodramatic poetry sung to the accompaniment of solo guitar; or a trio of flute, violin, and guitar (or bandoneon, a square, button-operated accordion); or larger ensembles of strings, bandoneon, and piano.
Piazzolla infused the tango with new life following the Second World War, though he was criticized by traditionalists for adding dissonance and extended rhythmic techniques. His style, called nuevo tango, bears certain similarities to bebop and bossa nova, while largely avoiding the improvisations of jazz. Piazzolla helped bring about the even more recent tango renaissance through his many performances and recordings with his own Quinteto Nuevo Tango, which frequently joined with jazz ensembles, chamber groups, and orchestras across the globe. Piazzolla’s tangos are often soulful, expressive pieces that retain a certain melancholy even in their most lively passages. Along the way, delightful little surprises occur, such as bits of counterpoint, glissandos, harmonics, hesitations, a suddenly sweet sonority, a jaunty rhythm, and bursts of improvisatory-sounding but carefully written out figuration.
Well aware of how much the tango had changed during his lifetime, Piazzolla composed Histoire du tango in 1985 to celebrate the dance in four different eras. He intended the four movements—Bordel 1900, Café 1930, Night Club 1960, and Concert d’aujourd’hui (Modern-day concert)—to be abstractions rather than music for dancing. The premiere by flutist Marc Grauwels and guitarist Guy Lukowski took place in March 1985 at the Fifth International Guitar Festival in Liège, where Piazzolla was also premiering his Concerto for Bandoneon, Guitar, and Strings. Histoire du tango has since been arranged for various instrumental combinations and has become one of Piazzolla’s most frequently performed works.
The exuberant Bordel 1900 reflects the tango’s earliest years. Wrote Piazzolla, “The tango originated in Buenos Aires in 1882. . . . This music is full of grace and liveliness. It paints a picture of the good-natured chatter of the French, Italian, and Spanish women who peopled those bordellos as they teased the policemen, thieves, sailors, and riffraff who came to see them. This is a high-spirited tango.” Piazzolla’s lively outer sections frame a middle section that shows his wealth of figuration and sequencing ideas while maintaining the breakneck pace.
The more sultry Café 1930 represents the period when, said Piazzolla, “people stopped dancing it as they did in 1900, preferring instead simply to listen to it. It became more musical, and more romantic. This tango has undergone total transformation: the movements are slower, with new and often melancholy harmonies.” A contemplative guitar introduction brings on one of Piazzolla’s most soulful melodies. Nevertheless, he can’t resist the tango’s typical inclusion of contrasting sections—in this case an active interruption and a sweet major-mode interlude before returning to the melancholy opening.
The rowdy Night Club 1960 incorporates the influence of the bossa nova craze that took the world by storm and helped catapult Piazzolla to fame. “This is a time of rapidly expanding international exchange,” he wrote, “and the tango evolves again as Brazil and Argentina come together in Buenos Aires. The bossa nova and the new tango are moving to the same beat. Audiences rush to the night clubs to listen earnestly to the new tango. This marks a revolution and a profound alteration in some of the original tango forms.” Piazzolla casts his lively rhythmic sections into high relief by contrasting them with poignant passages from his never-ending supply of expressive melodic ideas.
In the jaunty Concert d’aujourd’hui (Modern-day concert), Piazzolla shows how far the tango influence has spread, now invading the most sophisticated concert halls. “Certain concepts in tango music become intertwined with modern music,” he said.. “Bartók, Stravinsky, and other composers reminisce to the tune of tango music. This [is] today’s tango, and the tango of the future as well.” Piazzolla’s careful study of these composers’ music turns up in his textures, harmonies, and rhythmic devices. An impish virtuosic burst rounds off his captivating retrospective.
© Jane Vial Jaffe