Ahead of our American flavoured CLoSer on 19 September, we profile Argentine composer Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla, best known for inventing Tango Nuevo, a unique compositional style distinct from the traditional tango. Piazzolla was a legendary composer and bandoneonista, who died 20 years ago in 1992. Also known as El Tigre del Bandoneón (The tiger of the Bandoneón), he revived the tango genre in the 1970s by blending classical music with jazz.
He was born March 1921 in Mar del Plata, a small village on the coast just South of Buenos Aires in Argentina. He lived in New York City with his family from 1924 to 1937. When he was eight years old, his father bought him the gift of a bandoneón (the Argentine version of the concertina, related to the accordion).
“I got very happy because I thought it was the roller skates I had asked for so many times. It was a letdown because instead of a pair of skates, I found an artifact I had never seen before in my life. Dad sat down, set it on my legs, and told me, ‘Astor, this is the instrument of tango. I want you to learn it.’”
At first Piazzolla was not very impressed, but his neighbour Bela Wilda, a student of Rachmaninov, taught him how to play this peculiar instrument. Piazzolla was particularly inspired by the music of Bach.
Aged 17, Piazzolla moved to Buenos Aires where he joined a tango orchestra and began his career as a bandoneónist. He went on to study in Paris with the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, before returning to Argentina to perform, compose and direct numerous ensembles. Later in life he performed around the world in Greece, Amsterdam, London and New York.
Piazzolla’s life came to a sad end when he suffered a stroke in Paris in 1990, leaving him in a coma. He died in Buenos Aires just two years later, never regaining consciousness.