Astor Piazzolla

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Date of Composition: 1953
Duration: 15 minutes

Few composers have developed a style as individual and recognizable as Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992). Born in Argentina, but raised in New York City, Piazzolla was intrigued by the tango music he heard from an early age in his parents’ record collection. He eagerly learned to play the bandoneon—an accordion-like South American concertina—at just eight years of age. Three years later, he composed his first tango, and it was not long before he was playing with an assortment of tango orchestras. Thus it seems inevitable that Piazzolla returned to his land of birth at age seventeen to pursue a career performing in the best tango clubs in the world. While arranging music for his own groups, he began composition lessons with acclaimed Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera and experimented with mixing tango themes with traditional classical music. He was so successful that he earned a scholarship to study in France with world-renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who encouraged his tango-jazz-classical mix. Tango purists scoffed at his creations, but he was eventually credited with developing what is now known as tango nuevo, an innovative, fresh take on the traditional dance.

Sinfonietta was composed in 1953, just before Piazzolla took that fateful trip to France, and before he had solidified his personal style. Written in three movements, a tango influence is immediately evident in the opening “Dramatico,” which simulates the slow careful movement associated with the Argentinian dance over a repetitious bass line. “Sobrio” shifts moods, matching the sober title with a cinematic journey channeling several early twentieth-century European composers. The final “Jubiloso” juxtaposes sounds from the previous two, using tango rhythms to scaffold a dramatic musical conclusion.

© Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, 2023