Astor Piazzolla, an Argentinian composer and performer, is the greatest exponent of tango music, and the one who transformed it from the traditional style of the dance hall to a new kind of music alongside, and working with, contemporary classical, jazz, and rock.
He was born on 11 March 1921 in Mar de Plata, and died in Buenos Aires on 4 July 1992.
Piazzolla got his first bandoneon in 1929, and after learning this instrument, made his first recording in November 1931, aged ten, in New York, where the family lived between 1925 and 1936. Two years later he moved to Buenos Aires to play with various tango orchestras, before joining one of the leading ones, the Anibal Troilo Orchestra, in 1939. He became the arranger of their music, though Troilo himself considered it too advanced, and toned it down.
He studied as a classical musician too, under the important Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. His first classical composition was Suite para Cuerdas y Arpas (suite for strings and harps) in 1943. From 1949 he studied Bartók and Stravinsky intently, looking for a voice. He had abandoned tango altogether, though his 1951 work, three symphonic pieces titled Buenos Aires, included the tango instrument the bandoneon, which caused a ruckus at its 1953 première. With this he won a scholarship to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Though she admired his classical works, she insisted that his real vocation was in tango, and he should return to that.
Between 1944 and 1946 he had led an orchestra accompanying the singer Francisco Fiorentino, then from then to 1949, when he temporarily abandoned tango, he had led his own orchestra. He also composed film scores from this time. On his return from Paris in 1955, he created the Octeto Buenos Aires, bringing the formal precision of a chamber music group to the tango style. This lasted until 1958. In Paris he had already experimented with composing such crossover works, to the annoyance of purists probably on both sides.
After a spell in the United States, where he was influenced by jazz and experimented with creating jazz-tango, Piazzolla formed a quintet, and this was his favourite of his groups. Among other groups he founded were Conjunto 9 in 1971, followed by the octet Conjunto Electronico. By now he is including the electric instruments of rock groups in his work.
In these years he has gradually become more famous outside Argentina, but it was only in the last decade or two of his life that he really achieved world fame. I now hear his music on the radio (on a classical station) all the time, but had never heard of him a few years ago. From the foundation of another quintet in 1978, and sextets, and quartets, and solo work, and symphonic work, and film music, he is recognized all over the world. Piazzolla has worked with the Kronos Quartet, and with soloists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax and Gidon Kremer.
This is only a summary of his life. His official website www.piazzolla.org is comprehensive, including a very full listening library, and of course discography, bibliography, and so on.