I first came across Piazzolla’s music in 2001, while working for the Little Orchestra Society of New York. The conductor, Dino Anagnost, had heard Gidon Kremer‘s version of Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas) for string orchestra and violin solo, and wanted to perform it. There was no published version of it, just the arranger’s manuscript. So, as the “music assistant” I got to sit at the Maestro’s computer for several weeks, creating the set of parts in Sibelius. What could have been endless tedium was instead a revelation: I got inside every note of the piece and came away with an intimate knowledge of Piazzolla’s musical language. He was romantic. He was lyrical. He would hover on astonishing dissonances, preserving them like the surface of smoothly rippling water. He had a gift for counterpoint far beyond what I was expecting of a tango master. This initial contact led me to study up on the man and his music. Finally, in 2005, I arranged two of his tangos, Milonga del Angel and La Muerte del Angel, into a two-movement concerto for flute and band. It premiered in 2006, with Leonardo Hiertz as the soloist. And now, in 2012, we get to do it again!
Some background: Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla is widely regarded as the most influential tango artist of the 20th century. His work borrows elements from tango, jazz, and classical music to form a new genre called nuevo tango. He was a virtuoso performer and a respected composer whose work is widely performed around the world. He was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina on March 11, 1921, to Italian immigrant parents. When he was 4 years old, they moved to Greenwich Village in New York City. He picked up the bandoneón, the accordion-like instrument that would dominate his musical career, at age 8. He heard a wealth of different kinds of music from an early age: his father brought Argentine tango records to New York; he heard jazz on the streets of the city; and by age 12, he was learning to play Bach on his bandoneón. He returned to Argentina at 16, and moved to Buenos Aires the following year to try his luck on the tango scene there. He found some success, but realized that his interests leaned more towards contemporary classical composers like Bartok and Stravinsky. To that end, he studied composition with Alberto Ginastera and nearly dropped all tango activities. Finally, in 1954 he left for Paris to study with the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. She encouraged him to embrace his tango heritage. He returned to Argentina inspired to elevate the tango to an artistic level. He wrote original compositions for traditional ensembles, as well as for his own groups which ranged in size from quintets to nonets. He toured the world with his music, and changed the tango forever.
Regarding the tangos in the arrangement, they both originated as incidental music for a play in 1962. They eventually became part of a five-part series of “Angel” tangos, completed in 1965. James Reel of allmusic.com neatly describes Milonga del Angel:
For Alberto Rodriguez Muñoz’s 1962 stage play Tango del Angel, in which an angel heals the spirits of the residents of a shabby Buenos Aires neighborhood, Piazzolla added two new pieces to an earlier tango that gave the play its name. This music reappeared in at least two different concert forms, but one of the unifying elements is the piece Milonga del ángel. A milonga is a sort of proto-tango, lighter and gentler than the more familiar form. This milonga is openly sentimental and begins with a lounge music feel with strummed bass chords; a simple, keening violin line; and a few tinkles from the piano. The bandoneón creeps in almost unnoticed, but takes control of the piece with a sad, nostalgic melody (at this point, one could easily imagine the piece being played in a jazz club). Just as the treatment of the melody becomes more complex and emotional, a secondary section arrives to allow some air around the music. It initially seems like a transition, but opens into a highly romantic and sensual violin solo. The bandoneón reclaims its place, offering its own variation on this melody, which is actually closely tied to the main theme, and musing on it with the violin and electric bass. A more intense passage leads to the coda, which strips the music down to a series of chords, much as the piece began.
Le Muerte del Angel comes from the same play. It is notable for its opening fugue and its brisk tempo.
Here is the master himself performing Milonga del Angel on the BBC:
He and his quintet (similar to the group above) do La Muerte del Angel. Wind players, watch the way he breathes with the bandoneón.
Now the copious links begin. Piazzolla remains very popular as a composer, so there is much written about him on the internet.
Find out more about Milonga del Angel at allmusic (quoted above), jazz.com, the Fugata Quintet, and Albert Combrink’s Blog. Also, go to this blog to see a video of a sword-swallowing routine done to this piece!