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How Astor Piazzolla Revolutionized the Tango

Paul Bergen/Getty Images
Astor Piazzolla performs live on stage at The North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, Holland on July 12, 1985

March 11th, 2021 marks the centennial of the birth of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, who took the tango of his youth to new places.  He infused it with elements of classical music and jazz, creating his own distinctive style. 

Born in Argentina in 1921 to Italian immigrants, Piazzolla grew up in Argentina and New York; by his late teens, he was playing the accordian-like instrument, the bandoneon, in tango orchestras. He'd also discovered Bach, classical music, and  jazz, and was composing. He even went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger.

"He went to become a serious composer," says Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya,  "and he was told, 'Do what you're doing, you are unique!

Piazzola experimented with different styles and instrumentation, writing often for quintets of bandoneon, violin, bass, piano and electric guitar.

His orchestral work, Tangazo, means 'grand tango.'  In 2018, Harth-Bedoya led The Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of the work.

Piazzolla wrote Tangazo in 1969, well into his long career as a composer.  Harth-Bedoya says its an unusual piece in the orchestral repertoire, "because Piazzolla composed it himself for the orchestra.  We normally hear arrangements of music by Piazzolla.

"This piece has the flavor of tango even from its inception, when it was in very poor neighborhoods, when it wasn't a refined dance, says Harth-Bedoya.  "So he pays tribute, basically from the origins of Tango, with this sadness and deep feeling melancholy to the outburst of rhythmical music." 

"So he did find himself  becoming a unique creative voice."

Piazzola, who composed over a thousand works, has been called 'the father of the modern tango.' 

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.