Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla: parallel geniuses
No other composers have fascinated me as deeply as Igor Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla. The discovery of their music changed my life, literally. When I started to listen to their works, not only did I become obsessed with their art, but also with their personal lives. Reading their biographies added pleasure to the already magnificent experience of listening to their music.
The music of Stravinsky is so complex and sophisticated that I often find new treasures in his works. Michael Tilson Thomas, an enthusiast exponent of his music, says that it grows along with you, meaning that you get to discover even more of his geniality as time passes by. The music of Piazzolla reaches me very profoundly. Sometimes it’s even hard for me to listen to more than five pieces in a row: his dark and melancholic melodies end up by really affecting my mood.
After reading recently some biographies of these fascinating objects of study of mine, I became aware of several similarities in their lives. After digging deeper in their careers and personal situations, I was surprised by the discovery of many common threads that connect the lives of this couple of authentic twentieth century geniuses.
Igor Stravinsky didn’t receive formal musical education at a conservatory. Instead, he took lessons from a private tutor: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, an important Russian composer that belonged to the music collective The Five -focused in establishing an authentic school of Russian music in contraposition to the imposing tradition of the German symphonic empire. The influence of his teacher can be recognized on L’oiseau de feu, the work that propelled Stravinsky as one of the most important composers of the beginning of the last century. Piazzolla took his first composition lessons from Alberto Ginastera, an important Argentinian composer that taught him to grow, not only as a musician but also as an integral artist. Piazzolla’s other great master was Nadia Boulanger, a legendary music teacher based in Paris. She was the one responsible for encouraging him on focusing on tango, just because that’s “where the real Astor Piazzolla could be found”. Boulanger was a very close friend of Stravinsky and also one of his most vocal supporters.
Stravinsky was born in Russia, but he spent most of his life overseas. He lived in France, Switzerland, and finally in the USA. Piazzolla spent his childhood and some of his teenage years in New York, but he also lived in Italy, France and Uruguay. Both of these artists held a bittersweet liaison with their countries: Stravinsky criticized very harshly that his countrymen chose to be led by socialist governments and Piazzolla would often get mad at Argentina for the inconsistent response and misunderstanding towards his music. At many times of their lives, both of them felt as if they didn’t belong to any country at all. Nonetheless they often paid tribute to their natal countries in their careers and their lives. Wherever he lived at a particular time, Stravinsky liked to settle a Russian crib in the many houses he had. A devote religious, he always decorated his houses with many religious icons. At the beginning of this career, in what’s now being called his “Russian period”, he worked very hard to translate the folk music of Russia for the language of an orchestra. Piazzolla dedicated his entire life to the modernization of tango. He also dedicated many of its pieces to his beloved city of Buenos Aires. When Piazzolla suffered in Paris the stroke that would later cause his death, he immediately asked to be transported to Argentina, simply because he wanted to die and be buried there.
Proficiency in diverse genres
Stravinsky basically wrote in every musical form available: he made pieces for ballet, solo instruments, operas, oratorios, symphonies and songs. Piazzolla was also very prolific –his total of works has been usually considered 3,000 works. And he also wrote for small and large ensembles, focusing on instrumental pieces but also gaining popular acclaim for songs –Balada para un loco proved to be his most commercially successful record ever.
Both Stravinsky and Piazzolla were responsible for making significant breakthroughs with their music. On the one hand, Stravinsky called the attention to rhythm, at a time when the other musical revolution of its time, perpetrated by Schoenberg, put the emphasis on melody –or the lack of it. Le sacre du printemps contains some of the most challenging rhythmic structures and it’s one of the most important pieces of music of all times. Piazzolla thought of traditional tango as very boring. He acknowledged this genre contained a richness that needed to be revitalized. And so he did. Being influenced by Gershwin, Bartok and the 30’s jazz scene, he embarked on creating a “Nuevo tango”. Stravinsky and Piazzolla’s first undertakings were received with notable reticence. However, later in time both of their legacies were naturally acknowledged.
Stravinsky has often been praised as one of the best composers of the twentieth century in terms of his instrumentation. He was a true master at writing specific passages for certain instruments by taking consideration of its unique sonic qualities. He even dared to write for very rare sections of instruments, ending up by delivering authentic masterpieces –Apollo was written for strings only; Les noces was written for a group of singers, four pianos and percussion; and for Symphony of Psalms he discarded the use of violins. Many of the musicians that played with Piazzolla remark his ability to write astonishing solos for them. Through his collaborations with Gary Burton and Gerry Mulligan, he was even able to bring instruments like the vibraphone and the saxophone seamlessly into the context of tango.
Stravinsky and Piazzolla held inconsistent and polemic political inclinations. The Russian composer once hailed Benito Mussolini as “the savior of Europe”, and he even had lunch with him. Some biographers have also remarked some of his anti-Semitic statements, even though he maintained very good relationships with Jewish composers, writers and agents. Piazzolla had ambivalent opinions towards Juan Domingo Perón -he even wrote some sort of anthem for him that he later discarded. He also praised Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and lamented that Argentina didn’t have “a leader of his type”. But Piazzolla’s most known political misstep was represented by the lunch he had with Argentinian dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, the same one that persecuted his daughter Diana’s husband, provoking her forced exile to Mexico City. Diana has admitted she even thought she could never forgive her father for this incomprehensible choice.
Stravinsky and Piazzolla found lots of pleasure giving out controversial statements. Both of them, being aware that their work was revolutionary, had to be vocal about them and enjoyed themselves pronouncing their provoking opinions to the press. They were, as geniuses often are, very contradictory. Biographers always make the disclosure that their quotes must be read delicately and with a great amount of suspicion. According to them, you must take under consideration the time and the circumstances that surrounded their statements in order to really understand what they were referring to.
Writing music to dance
Igor Stravinsky gained notoriety thanks to the noteworthy pieces he was commissioned to compose by Les Ballets Russes, the legendary ballet troupe ran by Sergei Diaghilev: L’oiseau de feu, Petrouchka, Le sacre du printemps and Pulcinella. Later in his life, Stravinsky also wrote iconic works like Apollo, Agon, Orpheus, Violin concerto and Jeux de cartes, all of them staged by New York City Ballet with the choreography of the most important creative partner in his career: George Balanchine. Piazzolla also wrote pieces for ballet. Among them, the most remarkable proved to be 13 tangos dramáticos and Hombre de la esquina rosada, which included songs that Piazzolla wrote with lyrics by the extraordinary writer Jorge Luis Borges, both choreographed by Ana Itelman; and The rough and the cyclical night dancer -a suite Piazzolla wrote for the show Tango apasionado, premiered in Broadway. However, after the death of Piazzolla hundreds of ballets have been made using this music. This is nothing but a notable irony, considering that Piazzolla was seriously determined in distancing tango from the dance floor.
Love for animals
Igor and Astor loved animals. Both of them had many pets wherever they were living at the time. Piazzolla dedicated a piece to every pet he had. Stravinsky used to say that his favorite audience consisted of children and animals. He even wrote Circus polka, a piece of music for a ballet that was danced by a group of elephants with choreography by Balanchine, which was premiered at Madison Square Garden. Stravinsky also included many references to animals in some of the works he wrote for ballet, like L’oiseau de feu, Le chant of rossignol and Renard (fox in French).
Two great loves
Stravinsky and Piazzolla had two great loves in their lives. Stravinsky married to her cousin Katherina, but in parallel he also had a relationship with Vera Sudeykina. After Katya passed away, he decided to formalize his affaire with Vera and then married her. Piazzolla’s first love was Dedé Wolf, but after things got sour with many break-ups and subsequent reconciliations that led nowhere, he started seeing Amelita Baltar, who sang the title role in his “tango operita” María de Buenos Aires. However, this relationship lasted very shortly. Soon after, he met Laura Escalada, his other great object of affection with whom he spent the last days of his life. Piazzolla’s son, Daniel, has stated that his father was deeply influenced on his music by the company of his beloved women. This can be verified by the amount songs Piazzolla wrote while he was dating Amelita, a rare period in his career when compared to his preference of writing instrumental songs.
Asides from the fact that Stravinsky was one of the most important influences of Piazzolla, (he used to brag about his knowledge of the entire score of Le sacre du printemps), the names of Bartok, Ravel and Bach always come out among the influences both of this extraordinary artists shared. They were also very influenced by the jazz made in the USA: Stravinsky wrote Capriccio for piano and orchestra and Ebony concerto in an indirect tribute to the American jazz he loved to listen to. And Piazzolla notoriously formed his famous Quinteto following a proved model of jazz ensembles. Both of them were also very perceptive of the musical trends of their time. Stravinsky felt particularly fascinated by the futurism invented in Italy, while Piazzolla formed his Octeto Electrónico influenced by the sound created by the 60’s avant-garde. Piazzolla had also a very brief liaison with the magnificent rock being made in Argentina in the 70’s.
Many of the close relatives and collaborators of this exceptional pair of musicians have often described the tough personalities they embodied. Both Piazzolla and Stravinsky were very disciplined. Daniel Piazzolla remembers vividly the image of his father composing on his piano from seven in the morning until late at night. Stravinsky, wherever he lived, used to practice an inalterable ritual of writing music every morning and even through the evening if his project at that time required it. As the authentic geniuses they were, they possessed an extraordinary sense of rigor that many of the people who worked closely with them naturally didn’t share. When these colleagues didn’t work as devotedly as their masters, they were victims of serious reprimands. Even though they suffered these aggressive manifestations, they were all very vocal at the time in recognizing that working with these titans are among the best professional periods of their lives.