Four tangos by classical composers

Tango dancers

Tango dancers

The tango, in a sense, is to 20th-century music what the waltz was in the 19th century. It originated from the lower social classes of Argentina. Polite society found it scandalous (as respectable people had scorned the waltz in Bohemia, Austria, and Bavaria a century earlier).

But like the waltz it became insanely popular in Paris and eventually embraced at home. Paris has long served as the launching pad for dances that, whatever their origin, become internationally popular.

Just as classical composers of the 19th century embraced the waltz, so those of the 20th century (and at least one who jumped the centennial gun) embraced the tango. Here are four examples from three composers: Albéniz, Stravinsky, and Babbitt.

Tango from España by Isaac Albéniz

Isaac Albéniz’ musical talent became evident by the time he was four years old, and his father saw a chance to cash in. The boy’s misbehavior cost him a chance at being accepted at the Paris Conservatory at age 7. He enrolled at the Madrid Conservatory two years later in 1869, but balked at discipline required.

He stowed away on a ship to South America and spent a few years traveling around and giving concerts from Argentina to the U.S. His time in Argentina introduced him to the still disreputable tango. He returned to Spain in 1873 and remembered the tango. A tango comprises the second movement of his 1890 piano suite España.

I wonder if the tango sounded as genteel as the performance on this video when Albéniz performed it himself?

Two tangos by Igor Stravinsky

Thanks to World War I, neither Stravinsky nor anyone else had the opportunity to mount performances of new, large-scale works such as Rite of Spring, which requires a huge orchestra and, as a ballet, a complete ballet company.

Stuck in Geneva, Stravinsky wrote a much more portable drama, L’histoire du soldat, which requires only seven instrumentalists and three narrators. He also filled it with evocations of the popular music of the time. One movement, called “Three Dances,” comprises Tango, Waltz, and Ragtime

All three of the dances owed their international popularity to acceptance in Paris. Stravinsky had never even heard ragtime, but he had sheet music and tried to recreate what he noticed.

In all three cases, his music bears the same resemblance to the ballroom as all those classical period minuets in multi-movement works. They’re not intended to get the audience up on the dance floor.

As for the tango, Stravinsky wrote another, for piano solo, in 1940. By that time, Europe was again at war, and he had fled to Los Angeles. As more than 20 years earlier, he needed money; none of his copyrights were recognized in the US. Tango was the first piece he composed in America.

Stravinsky never in his life felt bound by tradition or convention. Tangos normally use syncopation on the last beat of a 4/4 measure. Stravinsky gave up his signature mixed meters for Tango, but syncopates the second beat instead.

It turned out to be a very successful piece, so successful that he collaborated in three different arrangements of it: with Samuel Dushkin for violin and piano in 1940, with Felix Guenther for full orchestra in 1941, and for a very quirky chamber orchestra in 1953. Dozens of other arrangements exist as well.

It Takes Twelve to Tango by Milton Babbitt

Beginning in 1983, pianist and former professional dancer began a project to commission new tangos for piano from 126 different composers. These composers included such avant garde luminaries as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Milton Babbitt, who composed his contribution in 1984.

Like Stravinsky, Babbitt set aside his normal rhythmic practices to accommodate something like a tango rhythm. As the “Twelve” in the title indicates, though, the piece is thoroughly serial. Babbitt was not content with a series of 12 pitches. He also created a series of rhythmic values.

Using the conventional division of a quarter note into four sixteenths, there are 8 (not 12) possible combinations of rhythms where the first of the four sixteenths is always sounded along with one or more of the others.

Requiring a note on the first of every set of sixteenths gives the piece a sense of regular meter. Two of the possible combinations are syncopated, which enables Babbitt to suggest a traditional tango rhythmic structure.

The ultimate working out of the rhythmic and pitch series in It Takes Twelve to Tango,  like all of Babbitt’s music, requires a rigorous mathematical process that probably most of my readers don’t care about. Those who do can read “Duplicated Subdivisions in Babbitt’s It Takes Twelve to Tango” by Zachary Bernstein in Music Theory Online. 

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