To its enthusiasts, the tango is more than a dance. In the words of dancer and anthropologist Carolyn Merritt, it is "loaded with mystique," "evokes loss and nostalgia," and "more than hobby, passion, or even obsession, [it] can become a way of life." It is also a musical language that has proven suitable to works on a large symphonic scale and even capable of carrying a religious message.
The defining figure of the symphonic tango was Astor Piazzolla (1921-92). After his debut as a virtuoso on the bandoneon (the Argentine accordeon) in New York and Buenos Aires, Piazzolla went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, the famous teacher of Aaron Copland and Elliott Carter. Armed with this European training, he became the primary exponent of what has often been referred to as the tango nuevo. Piazzolla used the idiom in several ambitious symphonic works such as the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, a creative response to Vivaldi's Four Seasons, a concerto for bandoneon and orchestra, or the tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires.
Another great tango legend, Horacio Salgán (1916-2016), was a pianist-composer widely admired for his virtuosity and the unique touch he brought to the genre. Conductors Daniel Barenboim (a native of Argentina) and Gustavo Dudamel led orchestrated versions of his tangos. Salgán himself performed in public until just a few years before his death at the age of 100 this past August.
Our suite of symphonic tangos consists of three works by Salgán and two by Piazzolla, including the world-famous Adios nonino, which Piazzolla wrote in memory of his father, and Fuga y Misterio, in which he accomplished the extraordinary feat of actually writing a tango fugue—interrupted by a "mystery"! In all five works, the spirit of the tango is combined with a melodic and harmonic sophistication that makes it utterly nuevo, and irresistible even when it has migrated from the dance floor into the concert hall.
Without a doubt, Federico Fellini's La Strada (1954) is one of the great cinematic masterpieces of all time. The drama of Zampanò and Gelsomina, and the unforgettable performances by Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina, are so powerful that one might not give enough credit to Nino Rota's score accompanying the film. Hearing a version of the soundtrack by itself may help us realize that we are dealing with a musical masterpiece in its own right.
During a distinguished career, Rota (1911-79) not only scored some 150 films - including most of the great Fellini works plus such other classics as Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet and Coppola's Godfather - but earned a reputation as a composer of concert music (symphonic, chamber, and choral works) as well. The lushly orchestrated score to La Strada is, in some ways, constructed as a symphony, with recurrent themes undergoing complex development, reflecting the action on the screen.
In 1966, Rota adapted his film score for a ballet, premiered at La Scala in Milan; it is from the ballet score, not the original movie soundtrack, that the present suite was drawn. Its eight movements follow the story from the moment the brutish circus performer Zampanò buys Gelsomina, a simple-minded young girl, from her impoverished mother for the paltry sum of 10,000 lire. Zampanò trains his slave to be his sidekick and to play the trumpet; they perform together at a fair and a village wedding before joining a company where they encounter a mysterious tightrope walker who plays a miniature violin, and is known as Il Matto ("The Fool"). An intense rivalry develops between the two men, and Zampanò kills the Fool, deeply distressing Gelsomina. The girl had grown attached to this stranger from whom she learned some important life lessons. Afraid that she might betray him, Zampanò abandons her on the road, only to collapse under the weight of his guilt and his loneliness at the end of the film.
The soundtrack's leitmotiv is a melody that Gelsomina plays on her trumpet and that acquires a symbolic significance as it is recalled at crucial junctures in the film. Out of this memorable theme, and several equally striking episodes, Rota created a true symphonic poem that narrates this tragedy of lost souls with compelling dramatic force.
Like Rota, Argentine-born Luis Bacalov (b. 1933) is known mainly for his work in cinema (Fellini's City of Women, Michael Radford’s Il postino) though, again like the composer of La Strada, he has done equally remarkable work outside the film studio. Bacalov's Misa Tango was premiered in 1997, with Plácido Domingo as the tenor soloist. It has enjoyed performances in many countries of the world since.
Bacalov wanted to create a spiritual work that would embrace all three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. To that end, he drastically abridged the liturgical text, retaining only a few words from each movement and avoiding any direct mention of Jesus Christ. (The words "Kyrie" and "Lamb of God" do, actually, reference Jesus, but they do so in a somewhat veiled manner.)
Bacalov set these textual excerpts in Spanish, and used the musical idiom of the tango in his composition, even including a virtuosic solo part for bandoneon. Religious expression—prayer to God, praise of God and affirmation of faith in God—manifests itself through the joyous accents of a city with a predominantly sunny climate. It is worth recalling that Buenos Aires passed a law in 1998, formally recognizing tango as "an integral part of [its] patrimony," and making a commitment to ensure that "the circulation of tango at the national and international level will be amplified." Clearly, tango is more than just a dance: it is something with which city fathers and mothers must concern themselves, something that can penetrate and influence many areas of life.
¡Señor, ten piedad de nosotros!
Lord, have mercy on us.
¡Gloria a Dios en las alturas y a los hombres en la tierra paz!
Te alabamos, te bendecimos,
Señor, Dios Rey celestial.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men.
We praise Thee, we bless Thee,
O Lord God, heavenly King.
Yo creo en un único Dios todo poderoso,
Creador del cielo y de la tierra.
I believe in one God Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth.
Santo, santo, santo, Señor Dios del universo.
Llenos están los Cielos y la tierra de tu gloria.
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.
V. AGNUS DEI
Cordero de Dios, que quitas los pecados del mundo,
¡Ah! Ten piedad de nosotros,
da nos la paz.
Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us.
Grant us peace.