Tango Titan: Remembering Composer and Bandoneon Master Astor Piazzolla at 100

Composer and bandoneon master Astor Piazzolla’s (1921-1992) transformed the tango by blending jazz and symphonic influences.

By Greg Cahill | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Today, composer and bandoneon master Astor Piazzolla’s pieces are often included in classical-music concerts, and this year, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, pandemic-era tributes are occurring worldwide.

“I was first introduced to Astor Piazzolla in 1987, backstage at a Kronos concert at Carnegie Hall,” says Kronos Quartet first violinist David Harrington. “We had an amazing conversation—he loved the concert we had just done. I can’t remember what we played, but it was music from a lot of different places and a lot of different styles. I said, ‘Could you imagine writing a piece for Kronos?’ And he said, ‘Yes!’ Three weeks later, we received in the mail his handwritten manuscript for Four for Tango. Even to this day, when we play that piece, I play from a copy of that manuscript—I cut out the first violin part from each line of the score and that’s what I play from!”

Several months later, Kronos reunited with Piazzolla—the Argentine composer and bandoneon master whose symphonic nuevo-tango innovations once led to his exile. Violinist Fernando Suarez Paz and several other members of the quintet that had recorded the landmark Tango: Zero Hour accompanied him. “They blew into the rehearsal room,” Harrington recalls. “The energy these guys had was just incredible. We played Four for Tango for them. It was one of these rare experiences you get to have in life when you feel like you are at the center, at the heart, of this music with these guys. Everything they said just made our group more alive, more vivid, and it made our interpretation stronger. 

“Then we went into the studio and recorded it.”

Kronos Quartet playing Four for Tango in 1990

The track was released on Kronos’ 1988 Winter Was Hard album. In the States and Europe, the recording rekindled a keen interest in this titan of the tango. The list of string luminaries that have performed or recorded his works since include Mstislav Rostropovich (Le Grand Tango), Gidon Kremer (the eight-CD set Hommage à Piazzolla: The Complete Astor Piazzolla Recordings), Yo-Yo Ma (Soul of the Tango), and Lara St. John (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires), to name a few.

About three years after their first meeting and shortly before the composer lapsed into a coma, Kronos and Piazzolla premiered his Five Tango Sensations at Lincoln Center. Two days later, Kronos and Piazzolla recorded the piece together at a New York studio. “It was the quickest Kronos has ever recorded anything,” Harrington says. “We didn’t do it in one take, but it was very close to one take. Piazzolla had a rare ability to pull music out of musicians. I can see him now playing his bandoneon. He’s leaning over a bit and there’s a furrow in his brow as he pulls the bandoneon wider and wider. He pulled the sound out of each member of Kronos. We’ve never had another recording session like that. Truly amazing. I’ll never forget it. It was almost like he was playing Kronos. His force was playing us!”

Music for the Ears

Born in Argentina to Italian immigrants, Piazzolla (1921–92) spent part of his youth in Little Italy in Manhattan, where he listened to his father’s collection of tango orchestra records and studied with the Hungarian classical pianist Bela Wilda (a student of Rachmaninoff). Inspired by the innovative tango of Argentine composer and violinist Elvino Vardaro and American jazz and concert music, and with the formation of his own Orquesta Típica, Piazzolla revolutionized the tango in the years after World War II. 


But his path wasn’t always clearly headed in the direction of nuevo tango—it took an important detour first. Piazzolla traveled to Paris in the early 1950s to study classical composition with legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. It was she who famously encouraged him to explore his true voice in tango. And so he did.

After hearing the American jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, Piazzolla composed and recorded a series of nuevo tangos with the String Orchestra of the Paris Opera. Increasingly, his music began to blend tango, jazz, and symphonic components.

“For me,” he once said, “tango was always for the ear rather than the feet.” 

Over the years, his nuevo tango—with its intense melancholy and harmonic and rhythmic innovations—enraged traditionalists but crossed over globally to a high-brow audience suddenly intrigued by this visceral music born in the bars and brothels of Buenos Aires. Actually, the roots of the tango—driven by passion and swirling, erotic rhythms—reach back to the music of African slaves and Black Cubans who brought their indigenous sound to Buenos Aires, where it mixed with the European polka and the mazurka to form the basis for this romantic dance music.

Piazzolla transformed the tango by blending jazz and symphonic influences to create complex instrumentals pulsating with danger and raw intensity. For his trouble, he was exiled from his native land—the Argentines frowned upon those who dared mess with this national institution, though the tango later got more than its share of rockification in the ’60s and ’70s. America’s love affair with the tango has coincided with Argentina’s own search for the true tango sound.

Aram Gharabekian conducts the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia on Piazzolla’s Libertango

While much of his work is marked by beautiful melodies, Piazzolla’s most ambitious compositions, including Tango: Zero Hour and Libertango, reflect the steely stiletto bravura of the streets of Buenos Aires. Indeed, intensity is a signature element in his recordings. Shortly after releasing his breakthrough Tango: Zero Hour in 1986, on the American Clave label, and recognizing that his quintet had accomplished something special, he declared the album to be “the greatest record I’ve made in my life. We gave our souls to it. This is the record I can give to my grandchildren and say, ‘This is what we did with our lives.’”


His pianist, Pablo Ziegler, agrees that Zero Hour was the quintet’s crowning achievement: “By the time we recorded Zero Hour we knew each other by smell, and something had taken shape well beyond the scores,” he wrote in the liner notes. “We all got along very well. We were very tight personally, we loved the music, and Astor loved the group. He loved his musicians. That’s what you hear. That and that stuff in the cracks of the music, the passion, the grime that came to the surface over years of playing together.”

To this, guitarist Horacio Malvicino added, “It was clear this was not just another record. This was the great American adventure, the conquering of America.”

A New Generation of Devotees

Since his death in 1992, following a cerebral hemorrhage and lengthy coma, Piazzolla’s music has attracted a new generation of devotees. “I was captivated by the sound of the bandoneon and the intensity and vulnerability with which Piazzolla played it,” says Japanese-Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo, whose Piazzolla tribute, featuring pianist Pablo Ziegler, is set for an August release on the BIS label. 

She first heard Piazzolla’s recordings at age 14 and was smitten. “For me, his genius as a performer lies in his breathtaking energy and unmatched sense of timing—the unyielding and disciplined strictness, versus an improv-like freedom, is something that I feel can be explored much more deeply in classical music. The music itself expressed these tremendous tensions between tender sensuality and fierce power, a dancelike lightness versus a seductive darkness—and an almost desperate melancholy. It was such a direct and profound emotional experience for me. 

“And I love the role of the violin in both traditional and nuevo tango music. It evokes the passionate and tender, against the masculine and percussive characteristics of other instruments. Of course, it was great fun to begin with violin and piano duo arrangements, but getting to play eventually with the great Pablo Ziegler and his Tango Quartet, who are direct musical descendants of Piazzolla, there was no turning back.” 


Gomyo isn’t the only classical violinist to fall under Piazzolla’s spell. Known for his critically acclaimed recordings of Bach and Mendelssohn, Russian-American concert violinist Philippe Quint also was bitten by the tango bug. His side project, the Quint Quintet, routinely performs Piazzolla’s works. “It was about a decade ago that I was first introduced to the music of Astor Piazzolla at a Chamber Series in New York City,” Quint recalls. “I immediately fell in love with it. It was the unique hybrid of sound that I’ve never encountered before that attracted me to his music in the first place. But it was also the instrumentation that stole my heart—it was the first time I had a chance to experience the sound of the bandoneon, a unique button squeeze-box instrument that maybe is the closest to the human voice. It screams, cries when it needs to—it can really strike the most vulnerable strings in your soul.”

Quint found that tango violin parts are full of surprises. “Although I felt an immediate affinity and connection toward the music and also felt comfortable with the style, I didn’t realize how different tango’s, and especially Piazzolla’s, language is from the traditional classical approach,” he says. “Some effects are subtle in nature, but others are difficult and challenging to learn. I was fortunate to work with many Argentine musicians to guide me through the process and help me navigate a number of aspects of Piazzolla’s original style. From sound effects to bow distribution to a very particular improvisation to the freedom within the bar lines that is anything but random.” 

Bandoneon player and composer Astor Piazzolla in 1976
Astor Piazzolla, 1976. Photo courtesy fundacionastorpiazzolla.org

Astor Piazzolla’s Lasting Legacy 

Harrington understands that allure. “When audiences and performers that hadn’t encountered Piazzolla before heard his music, they heard something new,” he says. “They heard an intensity that we’ve read about, but hadn’t experienced, when you grow up hearing about Beethoven and his intensity. You can listen to Bartók or the music of Thelonious Monk or John Coltrane or Jimi Hendrix, and read about their intensity in books. These are people that tap into the fact that music is the root, a central part of the human experience. Some musicians reach a place that is inexplicable, but when you hear it, you recognize it. When you encounter Piazzolla, you realize he is part of that same conversation.” 

Quint also regards Piazzolla as an iconoclastic artist on par with the greats. “Treat Piazzolla as you would treat Bach,” he says. “I encourage everyone to do research on Piazzolla’s personal and musical journey. These insights will immediately shed light on what his music is about. Take the necessary time to listen to as many performances of Piazzolla himself, his many CDs. Although considered to be one of the greatest figures in the tango community, Piazzolla’s achievements are beyond such simple categorization. After his cathartic meeting with Nadia Boulanger in the early 1950s, and in light of the works written after that fateful encounter, Piazzolla should be viewed as a great classical composer who introduced the world to a new genre that can only be referred to as ‘Piazzolla.’

“In Piazzolla’s own words, ‘My music will live forever.’ It was no surprise he felt that way. Piazzolla’s life journey was a constant struggle. In Argentina, he was harassed and even physically assaulted for changing traditional tango. Elsewhere, the hybrid of sound he created was not suited for shelving or categorization. But that did not stop Piazzolla. He knew he had something very special to offer to the world. Acceptance of his music and recognition came much later in his life. And as in many cases with trailblazers, mavericks, and revolutionaries who believed in their mission, Piazzolla’s music is only now coming back to take over the world as a substantial and inimitable style.