Astor Piazzolla is widely regarded as the greatest exponent of the traditional Argentinian musical genre, the tango, steering it away from its origins as an accompaniment to dance into the concert hall - although his experiments and innovations were not without controversy in Argentina itself.
Born in Mar de Plata, Argentina, in 1921, Piazzolla spent much of his childhood in New York, his family finally returning to Argentina in 1936. He began to learn the bandoneon at the age of 8, whilst also studying briefly with the Hungarian pianist Bela Wilda, disciple of Rachmaninov, from whom Piazzolla later said that he learned a love of Bach. Here lies perhaps the source of an internal struggle that affected him for a number of years: whether to concentrate as a performer of the traditional tango, or whether to advance musically as a serious composer. In 1938 he moved to Buenos Aires and started to play with a number of tango orchestras, finally, in 1939, joining one of the greatest tango orchestras of that time, the Anibal Troilo Orchestra. Then in 1941 he began studying composition with the great Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, later commencing piano studies with Raúl Spivak.
Piazzolla formed his own tango orchestra, the Orquesta Típica, in 1946, which gave him his first opportunity to experiment. At the same time his first ‘classical’ works were being performed and he was also starting to be commissioned to write film scores. Believing that his future lay in serious composition, in 1949 he disbanded the orchestra, dropped the bandoneon and decided to focus on his musical studies.
In 1954 Piazzolla won first prize at the Fabien Sevitzky competition with his ‘three symphonic pieces’ Buenos Aires – a work using two bandoneons within the symphony orchestra. One of the prizes was a scholarship from the French government to study in Paris with the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger. At first, Piazzolla tried to hide his tanguero past and bandoneon work from Boulanger, believing that his destiny lay in classical music. This situation was quickly remedied when he opened his heart to Boulanger and played his tango “Triunfal” for her. She gave him the historic recommendation: “Astor, your classical pieces are well written, but the true Piazzolla is here: never leave it behind.”
When Piazzolla returned to Argentina in 1955 he formed a group, the Octeto Buenos Aires. Comprised of two bandoneons, two violins, double bass, cello, piano, and an electric guitar, he produced innovative works and interpretations which broke away from classic tango and the mould of an “orquesta tipica” and created chamber music instead - music without a singer or any dancers.
Between 1958 and 1960 Piazzolla worked in the US, where he experimented with jazz-tango. Upon his return to Argentina, he created the first of many famous quintets, comprising bandoneon, violin, bass, piano, and electric guitar. This was Piazzolla’s most beloved formation; the one most conducive to expressing his ideas.
In 1970 Piazzolla form his band Conjunto 9. The band gave many performances in Italy, also making numerous recordings for RAI, and in 1973 Piazzolla settled there. Over the next first years he made many of his best known recordings, including the famous Libertango. During these years he also formed the Conjunto Electronico: an octet made up of bandoneon, electric piano and/or acoustic piano, organ, guitar and electric bass, drums, synthesizer and violin, which was later substituted for flute or saxophone. Later, in 1975 Jose A. Trelles was incorporated as a singer. This group had nothing to do with the previous ones, and many considered the group’s music to be closer to jazz-rock than anything else. But according to Piazzolla, “that was my music, it had more to do with tango than with rock.”
The 1980s were the best years for Piazzolla, at least as regards his popularity. He intensified his concerts all over the world: Europe, South America, Japan, and the United States. He gave numerous performances with his own bands, and also as a symphonic solo performer and as a chamber musician. In 1982 he wrote Le Grand Tango for cello and piano, dedicated to Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich and premiered by him in 1990 in New Orleans. In June of 1983 a concert of his music was given at at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. For this occasion he regrouped the Conjunto 9 and played the solo part in his Concerto for Bandoneon and Orchestra.
In 1988, a few months after recording what would be his final record with the quintet (La Camorra), he underwent a quadruple bypass. Shortly thereafter, early in 1989, he formed what would be his last group: the New Tango Sextet, with which he toured throughout the US, Germany, England, and Holland. Towards the end of 1989 he dissolved his group, concentrating on performing as a soloist with chamber groups and orchestras. However on August 4, 1990, while in Paris, Piazzolla suffered a stroke. He finally died in Buenos Aires on July 4, 1992.
Piazzolla’s oeuvre, comprising more than 1000 works, continues to influence some of the greatest musicians in the world. The violinist Gidon Kremer, the cellist Yo-Yo-Ma, the Kronos Quartet, the pianists Emanuel Ax and Arthur Moreira Lima, the guitarist Al Di Meola, the Assad brothers, and numerous chamber music and symphonic orchestras have all performed and recorded arrangements of his music. His output included symphonic and chamber works, the ‘operita’ Maria de Buenos Aires, written in collaboration with the poet Horacio Ferrer, and the oratorio El Pueblo Joven (also written with Ferrer). But he will be remembered above for his contribution to the evolution and international fame of the tango.