By Inge Kjemtrup
The music of the great 20th-century Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera invariably invites comparisons with better-known European composers. His vitally energetic first opus, the orchestral suite Panambí (1934–37), is rightfully likened to The Rite of Spring, and for his use of his country’s folk music and folklore, he has been called “the Bartók of South America.” But these comparisons risk diminishing Ginastera’s innovative and original compositions, including many for strings, that deserve to be heard more widely.
Ginastera took “the characteristics of folk music and used them to create new colors and find new ways to make music,” says conductor Juanjo Mena, who has been recording Ginastera’s orchestral works with the BBC Philharmonic. Mena esteems Ginastera’s lifelong desire to evolve his style, from the folk-influenced “objective nationalism” period to the farthest reaches of the avant-garde in his “neo-expressionism” final period.
Ginastera is still being rediscovered today. His catalog is relatively modest, perhaps because he was such a perfectionist and he destroyed or disavowed several early works. His compositions for string players include the three string quartets, a violin concerto, many pieces for the cello, and the striking Pampeanas—No. 1 for violin (Op. 16) and No. 2 for cello (Op. 21). He also composed orchestral works (the exuberant Estancia, Op. 8, is often performed today), piano pieces, operas, songs, and film scores.
“When we started the quartet in 1982, our stated mission was to look into Latin American repertoire, because we ourselves didn’t know any of it,” says Saúl Bitrán, first violinist of Cuarteto Latinoamericano, which has recorded all three string quartets. Delving into Ginastera’s string quartets, Bitrán and his colleagues “immediately realized that they were forgotten, neglected masterpieces.”
Ginastera was born in Buenos Aires in 1916 to an Italian mother and a Catalan father. At age seven, he began taking music lessons and by 12, he was studying composition and piano at the National Conservatory of Music. Ginastera scholar Deborah Schwartz-Kates notes that he was not a prodigy, but he seems to have been diligent and determined. In 1934, he won a prize for his Piezas Infantiles for piano. A work from that same year, Impresiones de la Puna for flute and string quartet, shows his interest in folk music, here the Andean folklore and instruments.
In Bitrán’s view, Ginastera made brilliant use of Argentina’s limited folk music sources, as the Europeans had diluted or destroyed most indigenous music. “Ginastera had the great vision of gathering the few elements and creating a language that nowadays sounds Argentinian to us. In that sense I would put him closer to Copland than Bartók if at all.”
As it happens, Ginastera met Copland at the end of World War II when he was in the US on a Guggenheim Fellowship. In Juanjo Mena’s view, Ginastera’s study with Copland was formative, and gave him the “long lines, a view of the wide forest, of nature.” Schwartz-Kates describes the summer of 1946 that Ginastera spent at Tanglewood as having been “nothing short of transformational.” It proved to be a place where, Ginastera later wrote, “like many young composers, I discovered the secret path to my future musical life.”
Certain dances and rhythms reappear throughout Ginastera’s music. There’s the malambo, which is danced by individual gauchos, usually in a bit of male competition. Its striking 3 against 2 rhythm has a prominent place in works such as the orchestral Variaciones concertantes, Op. 23 (1953). “This is one of his best pieces in point of view of the activity, the energy at the same time, with the rhythms,” says Mena. Other dances are the chacarera, the zamba, and the gato. The tango, Argentina’s most famous export, does not figure in Ginastera’s music, although one of his students, Astor Piazzolla, would put the urban dance style at the heart of his music.
Ginastera also gloried in the lives of the gauchos—the cowboys of the Pampas region—and their instrument, the guitar. These elements are heard in his String Quartet No. 1, Op. 20 (1948). In this quartet, says Bitrán, Ginastera “preserves the rhythmic contours of popular music.” The guitar is evidenced in the use of open strings and pizzicato. “The alternation of 3 and 2, which is also very prevalent in the first and third movement, and the long plaintive melodies of the second movement are reminiscent to me of the firesides where the gauchos sit at night after they have been working the whole day and they strum with the guitar and sing these very slow and sad melodies.”
“Ginastera had the great vision of gathering the few elements and creating a language that nowadays sounds Argentinian to us. In that sense I would put him closer to Copland than Bartók if at all.”
—Saul Bitran, first violinist of the Cuarteto Latinoamericano
The guitar accompaniment sets up the violin solo in the “Calmo e poetico” movement. For Bitrán, this movement “really stops time and gives you time to explore the much deeper regions of the Argentinian soul than the other movements. To me, it’s always a very moving experience to play that first melody after my colleagues have established the guitar notes in the background.”
For newcomers to the quartets, Bitrán advises the Second String Quartet, Op. 26, as it mirrors Bartók’s Fifth Quartet in its colors and in its five-movement structure. Argentine influences have not vanished, though. “There are evident passages where folklore is there, but there is also exploratory writing, there are cadenzas, there is more freedom [than the First]; it’s more tight.” In the Third Quartet, Op. 40, it’s as if the composer is “helping the folk influences unravel, and the only thing left are the painful remains, broken shards of folk music,” says Bitrán.
How much study does one need to make of Argentine folk music to play Ginastera’s music? Mena and Bitrán agree that careful study is less important than understanding the character of the music. “You must be able to dance this music. You must feel the free rhythm and at the same time the vertical rhythm,” Mena says. “I cannot stop dancing when I am conducting his music, it’s so energetic!” Listening to folk music will clarify some of “the rhythmic subtleties” that notation alone can’t convey, says Bitrán.
The instrument that took center stage for Ginastera in the last decades of life was the cello, the instrument played by his second wife, Aurora Nátola. Mena says, “For the profundity of the sound of the cello seems to have more connection for him. I don’t know if it was his wife or his country, the dark sound, the profundity of the sound, the harmonics, or the resonance of the instrument that drew him to the cello more than the violin.” These qualities are heard not only in the aforementioned Pampeana No. 2 (accurately subtitled as “Rhapsody”), but also the Puneña No. 2, Op. 45, “Hommage à Paul Sacher,” the Cello Sonata Op. 49, and two cello concertos. The early song cycle Cinco canciones populares argentinas, Op. 10, was arranged by Pierre Fournier and others. Many of the cello works are extremely virtuosic.
As the 1960s began, Ginastera was seeking to expand his musical palette. His Violin Concerto, Op. 30, was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and was performed with Leonard Bernstein conducting and Ruggiero Ricci as soloist for the orchestra’s inaugural season at Lincoln Center in 1963. The concerto makes great technical demands of soloist and orchestra, and has not found a firm place in the repertory. One of the few recordings in the catalog is a live recording with Salvatore Accardo made in 1968. In 2016, the centenary of Ginastera’s birth, violinist Michael Barenboim, the son of Argentine pianist Daniel Barenboim, performed it several times.
Ginastera, who died in Geneva in 1983, was a reserved man, very unlike the larger-than-life character of his friend Heitor Villa-Lobos. Although he spent much of his life away from Argentina—sometimes for personal and other times for political reasons (he was uncooperative with the Perón regime of the 1940s, and furious with a later Argentine government that censured his opera Bomarzo in 1967)—his love for his homeland, its music, and character, can be heard even in his last works. “It’s music that comes from the earth,” says Bitrán.
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Strings magazine.