Aconcagua: Concerto for Bandoneon, String Orchestra, and Percussion
Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992)
Astor Piazzolla was born in Argentina in 1921, but his family moved to New York City in 1924; his father, perhaps because of homesickness, bought young Astor a bandoneon, an instrument which he mastered by age nine. The bandoneon is a type of button accordion, and was invented by Heinrich Band in the 19th century as an affordable alternative to the organ for churches that could not afford such a large instrument. Sailors brought it to Argentina where it soon found a home in the local music scene, especially in the tango of the early 20th century.
Piazzolla matured into a serious composer and expert touring musician. By age twenty he was associated with two of the giants of tango, Carlos Gardel (who tragically died in a plane crash, not long after Piazzolla’s parents refused to let their teenager tour with Gardel’s orchestra) and Anibal Troilio. Piazzolla left Troilio’s orchestra in 1944 to embark on his own career as a tango musician with his innovative ensemble Orquestra del 46.
With the help of Arthur Rubinstein, Piazzolla started composition lessons with the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera; a grant from the French government allowed him to move to Paris in 1954, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger. Though prolific in his tango compositions and arrangements, Piazzolla strove to write “serious” concert music. Boulanger, on hearing his early essays, said, “You sound like Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky Hindemith, but you don’t sound like Piazzolla.” At her urging he played one of his tangos on the piano, prompting her response: “Throw the rest away!”
Following his lessons with Boulanger, Piazzolla was in a compositional frenzy, writing a tango a day for years, touring with his Orquestra, and elevating the bandoneon as an accepted chamber instrument. Piazzolla’s tango, later called “nuevo tango” because of its integration of disparate musical elements like baroque fugue, jazz, and avant garde chromaticism, was derided by many but eventually found a home in the concert hall and in movie scores. He found wider acceptance outside of Argentina until the 1980s, when he was hailed as the “savior of tango.” By that point many classical performers, such as the Kronos Quartet, had promoted his music.
The Concerto for Bandoneon, String Orchestra, and Percussion, “Aconcagua,” was commissioned by the Banco de la Provincia de Buenos Aires in 1979, a public commission which was a sign of his growing acceptance and popularity in his native country. It was well-received upon its premier in December 1979, with Piazzolla performing the bandoneon solo throughout the world in the years after its debut. He recorded it several times, and referred to his 1987 recording as one of the outstanding recordings of his entire career.
The modern title, “Aconcagua,” was appended after Piazzolla’s death by his publisher, Aldo Pagani, a practice familiar from the popular titles of Haydn’s symphonies and Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Aconcagua is the highest peak of the Andes—and of the Western hemisphere, as perhaps this concerto is the peak of Piazzolla’s compositional output. Piazzolla’s score calls for a small ensemble—33 strings, piano, harp, timbales, and auxiliary percussion, plus the soloist. The absence of winds lends an intimacy to the music, frequently fluttering between soloist and orchestra.
- Harrison Russin, Duke University, Music Department