Work: Four, for Tango
About This Work
Not merely a South American dance piece transcribed for string quartet, Astor Piazzolla's Four for Tango is a full-fledged, idiomatic composition for the most traditional chamber music medium. By the time Piazzolla composed this string quartet work
he had overcome the critical battles that resulted from his pursuing the path Boulanger advised, that of the tango. Except for a period of time in the United States when he tried to establish a jazz-tango format, he worked in what he came to call tango nuevo. Since tango is considered the music of the Argentine soul, many of its aficionados and traditional practitioners attacked Piazzolla on many fronts. This composition has elements that sum up most of what they objected to: Extreme dissonance and chromaticism in complex chords, rhythmic inventiveness within the basic tango beat, contrapuntal textures, some classical avant-garde techniques, and the use of ensembles other than the traditional tango band.
This quartet abounds with strange instrumental effects, including long, slow glissandi and the rapid, short, high glissando invented by film score composer Bernard Herrmann in the famous shower scene in the movie Psycho. Clicks of the wooden side of the bow on the strings and rapping the bodies of the instruments with the knuckles are also among the sound effects present here. It actually takes a good two minutes of this six-and-a-half-minute work before a graceful tango melody appears. When it does, it is predictably melancholy and has to assert itself against often violent accompaniment. But the main musical ideas of Four are a short string melody heard at the beginning, answered by rapid repeated notes, hammered out at the heavy end of the bow, sometimes with such force that they are more screeches than pitches. But all this has a strongly communicative emotional effect. It somehow bespeaks tough determination and grit rather than despair. There is anger in the work, but somehow it is channeled into positive energy. The very ending of the work has a twist: it is the radical elements of Four that make up the brief coda. There is that hammered repeated note figure, becoming more and more forced as the cello pounds out the basic beat on the body of the instrument. Then the work ends with some final Psycho shrieks on the violin.
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