Astor Piazzolla 1916-1983
Astor Piazzolla
Astor Piazzolla

Everyone knows that it takes two to tango, but no one can agree on the origin of the dance. Whether it ultimately derived from African drumming, Spanish Roma (Gypsy) music or native Indian sources is still in dispute. For 150 years, nearly every Spanish-speaking national culture has shaped and adapted its characteristic rhythm.

The arrabal, the squalid immigrant slums of the late 19th century outside Buenos Aires, bred its own version of the tango, a popular song, laced with bitter urban protest. By the 1930s the lyrics had developed a fatalistic take on love and life in general, and into this world the parents of Astor Piazzolla arrived from Italy. The music of the arrabal shaped Piazzolla’s entire career.

During the Depression, Piazzolla’s family moved to New York, where he studied piano and the bandoneón, a type of concertina with 38 notes, which had become the central instrument in the tango ensembles of his native Argentina. Returning to Buenos Aires in 1937, he studied with Argentinean Classical composer Alberto Ginastera.

After a stint in Paris in 1954-55, studying composition with no less an eminence than Nadia Boulanger – teacher at some point in their careers to nearly every well known mid-twentieth century composer – Piazzolla returned to Argentina to form his first Tango Octet and later his renowned Tango Quintet. The Quintet featured bandoneón, violin, piano, electric guitar and bass.

Influenced by his studies in Paris and by classical forms, Piazzolla set his compositions a cut above the traditional tangos. No longer dance music, they became concert music, although at first for the nightclub rather than the concert hall. And over the decades, his name has been inseparably associated with the tango. Nevertheless, the psychological intensity and sophistication of his music so infuriated the traditionalists that he was repeatedly physically assaulted and even threatened with a gun to his head during a radio broadcast.

Piazzolla has not only taken his influences from classical, folk and jazz music but has also been an inspiration to such jazz artists as Jerry Mulligan and Chick Corea. His tangos have been arranged for classical violinist Gidon Kremer and for the eclectic Kronos Quartet.

In Tangazo, composed in 1967, Piazzolla becomes the “Bach of Buenos Aires”, combining classical contrapuntal writing with the tango rhythm and jazz-like melodic spontaneity. The first five minutes of this thirteen-minute piece is a slow introduction that begins in the basses with a long meandering melody. Example 1 The cellos, violas and violins enter in order, each section spinning out its own contrapuntal line, the part of the bass melody serving as a ground bass of a Baroque passacaglia (Chaconne). Example 2 The rhythm is conservative with no hint of the dance nor traditional Latin syncopation; the weighty buildup makes the sudden burst of the energetic tango rhythm all that more effective. It begins with an oboe solo, a variation of the ground bass over an accompaniment of rasp, pizzicato strings alternating with brief shrieking violin glissandos – and the ground bass itself. Example 3 Additional solos for flute and bassoon follow, and the tempo slows into a sultry variation on the tango theme for French horn. Example 4 After a return to the lively oboe theme taken up by the whole orchestra, Piazzolla abandons the melody altogether Example 5 as the tango rhythm eventually fades to silence.

Apparently Piazzolla was not happy with the 1970 premiere in Washington D.C. by The Ensemble Musical de Buenos Aires. “… [they] gave a good account of it but somewhere it lost a pinch of salt and pepper. Those classical musicians are like that – they are from Buenos Aires, Argentineans, and yet it seems that the tango shames them.”
Joaquin Rodrigo 1901-1999
Joaquin Rodrigo
Joaquin Rodrigo
Concierto de Aranjuez

Like his fellow Spanish composers Enrique Granados and Manuel de Falla, Joaquín Rodrigo traveled to Paris to study composition and piano. Although he had lost his eyesight to a severe illness at age three, he became an accomplished pianist and a star composition student of Paul Dukas (composer of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). In the early 1930s Rodrigo had to return to Spain when the family’s wine business went bankrupt, but he succeeded in obtaining a scholarship and returning to Paris for further studies. During the Spanish Civil War he traveled extensively in Europe, especially through France and Germany, finally returning home in 1939 to settle in Madrid. The premiere in 1940 of his Concierto de Aranjuez catapulted him to world recognition. In 1947 the Manuel de Falla chair was created for him at Madrid University where he composed and taught for the rest of his long life.

Rodrigo’s style is far removed from the major currents of European musical development in the twentieth century. Rather, it reflects Spain’s classical and folk music, art and literature, frequently using old Spanish melodies as his themes. His harmonic language is so conservative that the eighteenth-century composer to the Spanish court, Domenico Scarlatti beats him hands down in the use of dissonance and adventurous harmonies. Rodrigo composed about 170 works, including eleven concertos, 60 songs and music for the ballet, theater and film.

The Concierto de Aranjuez has remained Rodrigo’s most popular work. While he maintained that there was no program implied, the title refers to a famous royal enclave on the road to Andalusia on the Tagus river near Madrid. According to the composer, the music “…seems to bring to life the essence of eighteenth-century court life, where aristocratic distinction blends with popular culture. …The Concerto is meant to sound like the hidden breeze that stirs the treetops in the parks; it should only be as strong as a butterfly and as delicate as a veronica [a pass with the cape at a bullfight].”

The guitar solo that opens the Concerto sets up a series of strummed chords that promise, but delay, the arrival of the principal theme. Example 1 Only a full minute later, after the orchestra has repeated the pattern, does the theme actually appear, played by the violins with the orchestra and soloist engaging in a musical dialogue. Example 2

The Adagio is truly the heart of the Concerto, capturing for the concert hall the brooding Flamenco strains in a late-night bar. Here a mournful, modal theme is introduced by that most quintessentially melancholy instrument, the English horn. Example 3 But it is the guitar that sinuously, even lovingly, embellishes the melody like an example of fine decorative Moorish calligraphy. Example 4 The melody has morphed into everything from elevator music to the award-winning jazz recording for trumpet and flugelhorn by Miles Davis.

The final movement comes like a splash of cold water on a smoldering sunburn. Again the guitar soloist begins the movement in accordance with the usual classical concerto structure. Example 5 The movement is a series of free variations based on a lively sixteenth-century folksong. The transformations of the theme become the topic of discussion between the soloist and various members of the orchestra, as well as a vehicle for some charming orchestral color. Just as it had the first word, the lone voice of the guitar has the last one.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Symphony No. 41 in C major. K. 551

Mozart composed his three last symphonies – or at least finished them – in the short span of 6 weeks in June-August 1788. In spite of the ceaseless flow of his musical output, he had composed no symphonies in the preceding two years, nor was he to write any in the following three, the last years of his life.

These three symphonies were not composed on commission but were probably written for a series of subscription concerts that Mozart planned for 1788-89 in Vienna and that apparently never materialized for lack of support. At this point in his career his star was already in decline despite the success of his two great operas in collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte, Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. He was desperately in need of money – in large part because he was constitutionally unable to curb his extravagant spending habit. However, the notion that Mozart never heard these symphonies performed is the creation of nineteenth-century romanticism; in fact, Mozart probably scheduled the C Major symphony for a concert in Frankfurt in October 1790.

The three symphonies reflect very different moods, the darkest being that of No. 40. It is almost as if the tragedy of this symphony saw its resolution only the in triumph of “The Jupiter,” No. 41. The nickname "Jupiter" is a late addition by a hand unknown and mercifully forgotten, inspired probably by the majestic-sounding first movement. Olympian it may sound to us, but according to Eric Blom, Mozart borrowed the little auxiliary theme in G Major in the first movement from his comic bass arietta "Un bacio di mano" (K. 541); the text that accompanies this theme runs, “Voi siete un po' tondo, Mio caro Pompeo,” (You are a little chubby, my dear Pompeo).

Unlike No. 40, this symphony breaks no new ground either in form or content; its greatness lies not with its novelty but with its classic elegance. Despite the fact that he composed 41 symphonies, it was not the vehicle Mozart chose as an outlet for his greatest creative inspirations; many of them were among his earliest compositions. Haydn, on the other hand, was constantly tweaking the form throughout his long life to make each symphony different in some way – often even quirky.

Although Haydn was partial to the slow introduction, Mozart used the device rarely in his later symphonies, of the final three, only in No. 39. Number 41 begins with its own kind of contrast in microcosm – in the first few measures – with abrupt shift in dynamics and texture. Example 1 The movement proceeds to lay out two additional themes, both of which contain within theme transformations of motivic elements from the opening figure. Example 2 & Example 3

The second movement, marked Andante cantabile, is unusual for a slow movement in that it is in sonata form rather than the customary ABA song form. Instead, it incorporates the form with its contrasting B section into the exposition. The opening contains one of those ravishing Mozartian themes that begins with almost banal simplicity but concludes with gentle melancholy. Example 4   Mozart ramps up the drama with a second theme in the minor, Example 5 finally resolving the crisis in a closing theme. But the development opens the topic all over again. Example 6

Never one to write foot-stomping Ländler as was Haydn, Mozart created one of his most lyric and flowing minuet and trio movements for this Symphony. The Minuet features a legato descending chromatic motive that Mozart uses throughout the section. Example 7 In the Trio, by contrast, the upper winds play a tongued, detached theme. Example 8 As in the beginning of the Symphony there is a continual alternation between legato and staccato textures.

Of particular interest in Finale to the Symphony No 41 is Mozart’s use of the four-note opening motive of the final movement, which he then develops into a fugue. Example 9 & Example 10 When Mozart first presents the theme, he does not treat it contrapuntally and, therefore, finishes it off as if he were going to proceed with a rondo or sonata form movement. Example 11 This theme contains within it a decorated descending scale motive Example 12 that Mozart later combines contrapuntally with his principal subject. Example 13

Mozart was partial to his little four-note fugue subject and had previously used it in two masses and his B-flat Symphony K. 319 (No. 33). Other composers, mostly notably Felix Mendelssohn, used the motive as well, either in imitation of or tribute to the composer who was valued more after his death than during his lifetime.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2015