The Origins of Libertango

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Perhaps one of the most innovative tangeuros was Argentine composer, bandoneon player and arranger Astor Piazzolla. He became a revolutionary in the tango world when he incorporated jazz elements and classical music into his music. This new style was termed nuevo tango (new tango).

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One of his greatest hits is ‘Libertango,’ composed in 1974. Just a year before that, Piazzolla suffered a heart attack and shortly after, he moved to Italy. ‘Libertango’ came about after Piazzolla’s European agent pressured him to compose “airplay-friendly” pieces. While in Milan, Piazzolla recorded and published ‘Libertango.’ Europeans gladly accepted the tango and it ultimately symbolized his break from classical tango. The title is a portmanteau of the words “libertad” (Spanish for liberty) and “tango,” a symbol of his break from classical tango.

Even before ‘Libertango,’ Piazzolla was fond of blurring the lines between tango and other forms of music. In the 1950s, while in Paris, Piazzolla abandoned his bandoneon, believe classical music was his destiny. It was Nadia Boulanger, the most renowned educator in music at the time, who set Piazzolla back on the right track. He played his tango ‘Triunfal’ for her and Boulanger advised him that the “true Piazzolla” is in his tango and to never leave it behind.

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In 1955, Piazzolla returned to Buenos Aires to start a band comprised of two bandoneons, two violins, double bass, cello, piano, and an electric guitar. Producing works which broke away from the original mold of orquesta tipica resulted in plenty of negative criticism from the most traditional of tangueros. The band would eventually break up and Piazzolla tried the jazz-tango experiment in the United States, where it was ill-met.

In 1971, Piazzolla formed Conjunto 9, an electronic and rock-and-jazz style nonet. ‘Libertango’ was created in the middle of the Conjunto 9 years. The group would disband by 1978 and ‘Libertango’ was one of the pieces that survived Piazzolla’s return to his earlier sound.

‘Libertango’ begins with a fast, lively piano solo with bass. Piazzolla and his bandoneon carry the rest of the piece, growing faster three quarters of the way through. The piece is considered to be one of Piazzolla’s pure concert tangos for its compact and dynamic composition.

While originally an instrumental piece, the Argentinian poet Horacio Ferrer added lyrics in 1990 with freedom as the theme. Piazzolla and Ferrer began extensively collaborating in 1968. Together, they composed the operita ‘Maria de Buenos Aires,’ thus creating another new style, the tango song.

The legacy of ‘Libertango’ lives on in global popular culture, even long after Piazzolla’s passing in 1992. American cellist YoYo Ma played ‘Libertango’ on his 1997 album, Soul of the Tango: The Music of Astor Piazzolla and in 2002, the Australian-British string quartet featured the song on their album Shine. Although, arguably one of the most popular reiterations of the tango is Jamaican singer Grace Jones’ 1981 song ‘I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango).’ The tango, played in contrast to a reggae arrangement, also features lyrics by Jones about the dark side of Parisian nightlife.