Saturday 12 December 2009

The music they had in their heads

I have always felt, without being able to specify very well, that tango music has a lot in common with 19th century opera, which I like, but with the advantage that you can dance to it. It may be simplistic, but in the same way that Argentinian Spanish sounds, to me, like Spanish spoken by an Italian, tango sounds to me like Puccini for dancing.

It makes sense, because Puccini, Verdi, and so on would have been what all those Italian musicians grew up with and had as the furniture of their minds - the sort of music that would have been performed not just professionally but for fun, as indeed it was by my grandmother's Scottish family.

Here's a well-known Puccini piece. (Man about to be executed sings about the last time he slept with his girlfriend - "e lucevan le stelle").

That's a modern operatic tenor (José Carreras, 1978) with a full orchestra. Caruso, with 1910s recording technology and taste, sounds quite different singing the same song - and perhaps the weakness of the technology makes him sound much more like those Italian immigrant musicians would have sounded. If you have time, it's worthwhile to compare:

Mix that up in your head with some of that zarzuela Domingo has always been so fond of (Spanish operetta - "pretty woman in love"):

This next one is Caruso again, in 1914, with Ruffo, singing Verdi's version of Othello. The higher voice is Caruso (Othello), the lower voice is Ruffo (Iago), persuading Othello to an unjust vengeance. I put this in because it's Verdi and he has his particular zip which I keep hearing in tangos, still without being able to tell you what the zip is.

For those who like the sheer emotion in traditional tango, here's Domingo for a second time, singing Donizetti's "una furtiva lagrima" - the pictures are out of sync with the music. The story of this song is that the woman he loves let fall a tear, and he's just realised what it means - he has her love. He could die, and ask nothing more. Domingo is just the best at this stuff.

This is the kind of thing that the golden-age musicians must have had in their heads when they set out to create their music. They weren't imitating it at all - but this, it seems to me, was what gave them their concept of what music is all about and how you use it transmit emotion.

I do have a recording of Domingo singing tangos, which I bought to find out what it sounded like, and I don't think it works. It sounds wrong, in tango terms, from start to finish, and incidentally totally undanceable. But it is very interesting to see what happens when a great singer just treats a tango as a Spanish-language art song, and here he is singing El dia que mi quieras (Carlos Gardel) with Daniel Barenboim at the piano. Fast forward to 00:48 to skip the tedious intro, I did.

You wouldn't dance to it, but you see what he's doing.

Of course it goes without saying that all the music above would probably have been familiar to Gardel's audience, too. But it's not that widely known here. It's not difficult or inaccessible music, but it's not a routine part of the popular culture in the same way that it would have been when Gardel was playing El dia que mi quieras, or even as it was when my grandmother's relations were making their own entertainment in Australia with performances of Bizet's Au fond du temple saint.

I don't really like going out when it's so cold!


Mari said...

What a great post - I loved the musical journey that you laid out with those videos. I think I know what you mean by the "zip" present in some tangos and in Verdi - but I can't explain it either.

Anonymous said...

Tangocommuter said...

Good to hear all that background put together. It's said that the immigrants all brought their own nostalgias with them. Opera was hugely popular in Buenos Aires throughout the 19th century, and the present Teatro Colon was built in the early 20th century when Argentina was an economic giant. It's actually larger than the ROH in Covent Garden, very beautiful, and with a wonderful accoustic.

That 'zip' in Verdi is interesting. It's a sort of declamatory style. I suspect there's a connection with 'arrastre' in tango. I think the word itself comes from 'arrastrar', to drag. It's that kind of krrrramp sound... It's been a feature of tango since it was used by Julio de Caro, the origin of the Golden Age 'sound' - and that his father had been a music director at La Scala. De Caro made tango more lyrical, but he needed to keep a strong rhythm, and arrastre seems to have been his answer.

Incidentally, Caruso visited Buenos Aires, and is said to have met and sung with Gardel. Wish you could find a YouTube clip of that! & it's said that de Caro's father never forgave his sons for going off and re-inventing tango.

msHedgehog said...

The link given by an anonymous poster above is Domingo giving a masterclass on "una furtiva lagrima". I didn't post it because I've posted it before, and it would make the post too long. What I say about the song above is based on it. It's excellent - do watch.

msHedgehog said...

@Tangocommuter, it could be that. I perceive it as a melodic thing, a sort of crunchy feeling, but it could be the same thing. And Verdi often feels very rhythmical.

LimerickTango said...

I was once at a preview night for an opera where they also gave a potted introduction to tango. I can remember thinking how much they were talking about applied to tango. Unfortunately what it was they said is lost to the mists of time.

Opera is baroque art transferred to the stage. I once read a description of tango as equal parts romance, structure & baroque. The author obviously didn't know what he was on about as baroque contains the other two elements. It could be said that tango is the return of the baroque to its bodegan intent.

cindy said...

I did read somewhere (reputable), maybe two years ago, if only I could remember where! that the style of singing in tango is connected to the singing style of that period in italy -& I recall it said southern italy, specifically- when immigration to argentina was high...
I'm also an opera lover :)

msHedgehog said...

@cindy - sounds plausible. And it's easy to forget that Puccini's career overlapped with the start of the movies. It's just struck me that I might have included Ennio Morricone's theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as a coda.

AlleyBoy said...

Great post. Reminds of my very nostalgic late Sicilian father-in-law of Spanish/Austrian decent. (With relatives in Argentina I might add.) Used to sit for hours cranking out arias in 78rmp format on his Victorola, with tears in his eyes as he listened with the assistance of a bottle of red. I would get caught up with his mood on occasion and could not leave until the bottle was empty.