Argentine Tango History by Bill Matthiesen
I believe the tango will be remembered as one of our century's most important musical innovations -- perhaps on par with ragtime, jazz and rock-and-roll. It's also possible that the book you're holding may become one of the primary resources for future musical historians. If you're astonished by the first claim, please withhold judgement until you've played through the gorgeous, intriguing music in this volume. The second claim is based on the fact that this is the first extensive collection of original tango music ever published outside Argentina. It's amazing such wonderful music, born at the turn of this century, should remain unpublished outside its native land for almost 100 years. But perhaps lack of easy access to the music is one reason why the tango has remained so illusive, stereotyped, romantic and misunderstood.
The tango is above all else dance music. The dance and the music were born and evolved together in the final decades of the nineteenth century in the slums on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina. In its earliest years, from about 1880 to 1900, both the dance and the music were largely improvised. The phonograph was in its infancy in the 1890s, so few tangos were recorded or even committed to paper, and very little is known about most of the first musicians. But during this same period a new generation of musicians was born, who would soon take the tango beyond it's simple beginnings. These are the composers of the guardia vieja -- the old guard. From about 1900 to 1920 they experimented and developed the tango into one of this century's most interesting and beautiful musical forms. This collection is an introduction to their music.
The tango was originally an improvisational dance that combined rhythms and movements from several pre-existing music and dance traditions. These included the candombe -- an Argentine variant of African slave dances brought to the port of Buenos Aires. The Cuban habanera was another source -- itself a blend of French colonial contradances and African influences. Elements of the habanera and the European polka had been combined into a local Argentine dance called the milonga. The milonga itself was originally a type of improvisational song of the payadores or folksingers of the Argentine pampas and as a dance it became popular among the compadritos or street toughs of Buenos Aires in the 1870s. Some historians believe it was a group of these compadritos imitating the athletic and improvisational movements of black candombe dancers, incorporating these movements into milongas, which created the first tangos in the late 1870s.
However the dance began and whatever its roots, the tango soon became popular in the cafes, bars, streets and bordellos of Buenos Aires. During the same period the country was also radically transformed by the influx of millions of Italian and Spanish immigrants. Argentina grew from about two million to more than eight million people within a single generation. The new immigrants picked up the dance, smoothed it out, expanded it beyond its low-life settings, and made it more acceptable to a broader lower and middle-class audience. What has been called the Italianization of the tango also introduced new instruments to the music. The flutes, guitars, violins, harps and clarinets of the early tango were now joined by mandolins and bandoneons (accordions).
At the same time, the tango continued to blossom within the thriving legal and illegal bordellos. There, the men would sometimes have to dance several tangos with a woman as a prelude to further activities. Stories are told of men practicing their tango moves during the week in preparation for dancing competitions for the most desirable women. Similar to American ragtime and early jazz, much of the tango's evolution took place within these low-life environs. But though the tango was shunned by the upper classes of the Argentine oligarchy, their sons were often seen slumming in the dives and bordellos of the poorer barrios (districts) of the city, learning the new dance and listening to the music. Ironically, the popularity of the tango during the dance craze of 1912-15 in Europe and the United States became a significant influence in eventually making the tango more socially acceptable in the late teens and early 20s back in Argentina.
Many of the earliest musicians were African-Argentine, playing guitar, flute, harp, violin, clarinet, piano. But by the turn of the century the young guardia vieja musicians, sons of recently-arrived immigrants, began forming small groups, playing tangos as street musicians and performing in bars and pool halls. Many were street kids from the slums. Some received a limited amount of formal musical training, but many were self-taught -- sometimes only playing by ear, often literally playing their first gigs on street corners. Many were part-time musicians, supporting themselves in other trades. And some played more than one instrument.
Among this generation born in the 1870s, 80s and 90s, flute, guitar, violin, clarinet and piano continued to be popular tango instruments. But he german accordion, the bandoneon, also made its appearance in some of these early conjuntos or groups. In the bordellos and small cafes tangos might be played by a solo pianist, or perhaps a duo or trio. During these early years there was much experimentation and many different combinations of musicians and instruments. By the teens some groups had expanded into slightly larger orchestra tipicas. For example, Vicente Greco's 1911 recording group included 2 violins, 2 bandoneons, flute and piano (Greco made the term orchestra tipica popular with this group). Juan Maglio's quartet of the same era consisted of flute, violin, guitar and bandoneon. Francisco Canaro and Roberto Firpo substituted string bass for flute in their groups during the mid-teens.
It is our great fortune that piano ended up being the common-denominator instrument for this early music, since many of the composers were not pianists themselves -- but were flutists, bandoneon players, violinists, guitarists, clarinetists, etc. In some instances the composers did not actually read music themselves, and had to rely on the kindness of colleagues to actually notate their compositions. Yet piano scores became the common vehicle for capturing snapshots of this very expressive and improvisational genre. These piano parts were undoubtedly the basic charts for most of the early conjuntos, and you'll sometimes see parts for other instruments written in -- for example, lines for flute, violin, bandoneon or viola. By the late teens an incredible proliferation of musicians thrived in Buenos Aires, with hundreds of composers publishing literally thousands of tangos.
The popularity of piano scores was also driven by economics. The modern piano action was refined at the end of the 19th century, and piano sales reached an all-time high during this same 1890 to 1920 guardia vieja period. Early in the century publishers discovered that piano tangos would sell -- sometimes tens of thousands, occasionally hundreds of thousands of copies. Sheet music sales became so successful that a large and troublesome bootleg publishing industry developed in Argentina -- which eventually led composers to autograph each copy of their music to identify it as legitimate (sometimes using a rubber stamp, but often signing each one by hand). Publishers would affix special stamps or emboss seals on their music to differentiate it from pirated music. They also brought out inexpensive versions, to help undercut the low prices of their bootleg competitors. Still, much of this music was printed in small runs -- and virtually nothing is known about some composers, whose memories survive only through a few remaining copies of their music.
Around 1920 the vocal tango became much more prominent, initially propelled by the popularity of folk-singer Carlos Gardel. An entire genre of vocal tango music evolved, with lyrics which might be compared to our country-western music -- songs about lost love, lost money, lost innocence. During the same period the tango was becoming more widely accepted among the middle and even the upper classes, and the bands expanded to meet the tango's rising popularity. The trios, quartets and sextets of the mid-teens grew into the Argentine equivalent of our swing-era big bands, with tango orchestras of 20-30 pieces featuring bandoneon and string sections. This trend also affected the music itself, because as the groups became larger it was no longer possible for everyone to improvise. Instead, parts had to be written out and the musicians had be able to read and follow them. Improvising or playing by ear became limited to predetermined "breaks" which were specified in the charts. So music arranging took the place of musical improvisation, and spontaneity was traded for a bigger sound. Both the expansion of the tango orchestras and the rise of the vocal tango give the music a very different style after about 1920. I should point out that Argentines view the 20s through the 40s as their "golden age" of tango, despite the fact that it's a much less interesting period for piano music.
The early tango musicians played entirely by ear, improvising to try to follow the unpredictable movements of the dancers (and vice versa). This approach paralleled a tradition of improvisational singing which had long been practiced by the payadores or folksingers of the Argentine pampas. Because we're used to getting all of our music from electronic boxes, it's difficult for us to imagine how musicians could play directly to the dancers -- watching them and instantly changing their music in response to what they saw happening on the dance floor. But this is exactly what the early tango musicians did. Both the dance and music was improvised, and the interplay between the two was exciting for both dancers and musicians. It's difficult to overstate the importance of this difference to our contemporary experience of dance music -- where we see musicians "performing" on stage, their eyes glued to their music -- while the dancers are expected to adapt their steps and movement to music which is already predetermined. But in the early tango an unmistakable and powerful synergy developed between the musicians and the dancers, based on the ability of each to adapt to the improvisations of the other. As you play this music, remember that tango musicians would adapt the tempo and length of the piece to the mood of the dancers, and for this reason a definitive fine is often not indicated on the music itself. Most pieces would be played at least twice, though perhaps not with all the repeats.
During these early guardia vieja years -- when the conjuntos were small and the music was still fresh -- there is great variety between different composers and much sophistication in the piano arrangements. While many pieces follow some variant of an ABACA form, these sections may be composed of 8, 12, 14, 16, 20, 24 or even 13 or 23 bars! This variety reflects the roots of earlier folk traditions incorporated into this new genre.
Modern listeners may be shocked at how upbeat and positive this music is. But during these early years the tango had not yet become stereotyped into a strictly minor-key, morose, pessimistic, fatalistic expression of life's miseries. In contrast to the maudlin tone of the vocal tango of the 20s and 30s, guardia vieja tangos are extremely varied in their flavor. Some are perky, upbeat, and entirely major key. Others incorporate odd major-minor shifts within measures and sections -- perhaps fragments of folk themes of Argentina's native peoples or the echoes of a vanishing way of life on the pampas. Certainly there is also the despair of the impoverished immigrant, struggling to make a new beginning in strange surroundings. And there are also the minor-key moods that we associate with our stylized impressions of the tango. But these are often mixed in surprising ways with major-key sections. Guardia vieja piano tangos are not mono-dimensional. Overall, the music embodies great depth and complexity, and a tremendous range of emotional expression --- which makes it interesting to play and very appealing to listen to.
Many may be struck by parallels between this music and American ragtime -- particularly because both genres are based on African rhythms combined with European dance music. Some might even characterize the tango as "South American ragtime," though I think this would be an oversimplification because there are so many differences between the two. Certainly both are fascinating rhythmically. And both were born and nurtured within low-life environs. But despite the social stigma of their origins, both infectiously captured the imagination and loyalty of a greater audience, and eventually became acceptable to the broader social strata.
One clear difference between tangos and ragtime is that guardia vieja tango music is very carefully notated with expressive indications. Much misinterpretation of ragtime has been encouraged by the fact that the music often does not contain much more than the basic notes. This is not the case with the tango. Here the composers and transcribers were extremely literate. Fermatas are clearly indicated where appropriate, as are subtle volume changes, phrasing, sticcatto passages, etc. For guardia vieja tangos a good starting point is to play the pieces the way they are actually written -- rather than assuming that they're supposed to sound like our stereotyped image of the tango. If you take this approach, you'll discover many surprises and the real beauty of this wonderful music.
As to the notation itself, these early pieces do contain some notation mistakes. These are usually obvious when you encounter the same phrase correctly notated elsewhere in the piece. Another surprise to modern readers may be a convention that if an accidental occurs in either bass or treble clef, that accidental is assumed to also occur in the other clef in this same measure. Most of this music assumes this convention, but there are other pieces where the accidentals are independent within each clef. So you just have to listen to the music and play what makes the most sense.
For a musical genre so rich in expressive notations, it's striking that not a single piece of music has a metronome marking. This reflects the fact not only that this is dance music -- but also it's dance music designed to be played within a relatively broad range of tempos, to reflect both the mood of the moment and what's going on between the dancers on the floor. This dramatic expressive latitude is very striking compared to most other genres of music -- and it's one of the things that's really fun about guardia vieja tangos. You have a lot of freedom to create different moods with the music by playing it at a variety of tempos. This is very useful if you're playing for dancers -- particularly good Argentine-style dancers, who will themselves be improvising.
Dance groove is something which cannot be easily conveyed on the written page. But it will probably make most sense to play on the front of the beat -- rather than the back of the beat, as you might for contemporary jazz.
Along these lines, the rhythms of the earlier guardia vieja tangos are extremely varied -- from piece to piece, composer to composer, and even within the same piece. It is certainly not limited to the "slow, slow, quick-quick, slow" pattern of the American ragtime ballroom, where the dance was simplified into a ghost of it's original richness. The Argentine rhythms are also more complex and varied than the Brasilian tango, or Maxixe, of the same period -- which embodies a more consistent "quick-slow, quick-slow, slow" pattern. The complexity of the Argentine tango rhythms is an essential feature of the music, which creates much of its interest and beauty.
Yet this rhythmic complexity was another casualty of the vocalization of the tango. Particularly from a pianistic viewpoint, tango music in the 20s becomes greatly simplified and stylized. Where vocals were an occasional element of tangos before, by the 20s almost every tango has words -- and words were added to most of the earlier tunes which endured beyond the teens. These vocal tangos are predominantly two-part, instead of the earlier three or four-part music. The right-hand in piano parts is often just a single-note melody line, echoing the vocalist. The left-hand accompaniment loses most of its complexity, and often assumes a steady rhythm of four equal quarter-notes. What rhythm is left is instead incorporated into the right-hand melody line. This is not to say that the music isn't pretty -- it is still very lyrical and still rhythmic. But for better or worse, the tremendous variety and complexity of the earlier music is gone, and it's more stylized and much less interesting from a pianist's viewpoint.
A wide range of styles and approaches is presented in this collection, along with a good cross-section of composers. I do admit a bias for lyrical melodies and interesting piano arrangements. While there are many greatest hits of the period, I have not identified them as such, so you'll be able to approach the music with an open mind. At the same time, there are many wonderful composers and pieces which have not been included. Keep in mind that this is antique sheet music, sometimes printed in very small volumes. So the process of collecting and documenting this 75-100 year-old music is not easy. But if this volume is well received, future editions with more of this wonderful music will be forthcoming.
Finally, I'd like to thank several people who have been invaluable over the past 15 years in making this project possible. First, Tony Hagert, who gave me my first introduction to authentic early Argentine tangos. Also to Sr. Ruben Bogau of Buenos Aires, who has generously shared his antique music with me, spending many hours of music research for me. And to Jeremiah Ames for his enthusiasm and diligence as a translator and facilitator for my interactions with Argentines. My music teacher Alice Cummins taught me to play the piano, and her emphasis on expressive playing has been a great help to me in understanding and enjoying this wonderful music. Finally, my wife and musical companion Liz Stell has also been my editor and a constant wellspring of encouragement through the many years of difficult work which has led up to this publication.
33 Stormview Road
Lanesboro, MA 01237