“Tangos” by Juan José Castro: Neoclassical tangos with a touch of Stravinsky

Juan José Castro’s “Tangos” for piano are effective and fun pieces at the early advanced level. The set comprises five miniatures: an introduction and four tangos totaling about 12 minutes. Not many people know of the music and style of this composer. These tangos sound definitely different than, say, Piazzolla’s tangos. Castro’s pieces were composed in the 1941 — earlier than most of Piazzolla’s works– but are definitely more modern, dissonant and bolder than Piazzolla’s. They reflect Castro’s interest in composing a national music that went beyond the picturesque and tonal nationalism of earlier composers.

castro.jpgJuan José Castro belonged to a family of musicians. Two of his younger brothers — José María and Washington Castro– also became composers of fame in Argentina. Juan José was born in Avellaneda in 1895, one of the working-class suburbs of Buenos Aires that spawn the urban tango genre at the end of the 19th century. Undoubtedly Castro was in touch with this popular genre; he composed some light tangos in the early 1910s, when he was in his late teens. Among these were the charming “Qué titéo!” which was published, and a couple of other tangos that were recorded by a well-known popular band of the time. This first-hand knowledge of the genre is evident in his more sophisticated 1941 “Tangos” – they possess that unmistakable freshness and authenticity of the original genre.

Castro went on to classical music studies in Buenos Aires. He became a very good pianist and violinist, and was particularly interested in conducting. He went to France between 1920 and 1925, and studied at the Schola Cantorum. While in Paris he must have witnessed the revolutionary changes in music of the time, with the music of “Les six” and the first neoclassical Stravinsky. At his return to Argentina he connected with other Argentine composers of his generation interested in modern techniques. Together with his brother José María, and like-minded composers Juan Carlos Paz and Gilardo Gilardi among others he founded the Grupo Renovación (Renovation Group) in 1929, whose goal was the exploration of modern techniques and the dissemination of new works by its members through concerts and publications. Luis Gianneo, another important composer, joined the group a little later.

Castro’s “Tangos” are small vignettes that depict typical urban characters of Buenos Aires.
“Evocación” is a nostalgic introduction that quotes two passages from La Cumparsita, a widely known popular tango composed in the 1910s by the Uruguayan Matos Rodriguez (Click here: Evocacion (excerpt) to listen to an excerpt of my live performance).

“Evocacion”
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“Llorón,” the whiner, portrays a character that complains loudly and bluntly about his love tribulations. This piece includes fast melodic ornamentation typical of the tango genre. (Click here: Lloron (excerpt) to listen to my live performance).

“Lloron”
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“Compadrón,” partly based on an octatonic scale, portrays a self-assured, dangerous gangster who is not afraid of fighting with his knife. “Milonguero,” written in two-voice counterpoint, is the archetypal elegant yet tacky tango dancer who frequents the tango gatherings or milongas. “Nostálgico” is a somber and nostalgic tanguero who evokes the “good old times.”

“Tangos” is published by Southern-Peer International, and is available at a discounted price here:

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Tangos
(Piano Solo). By Juan Jose Castro (1895-1968). For Piano Solo. Peermusic Classical. Softcover. 20 pages. Peermusic #61400-501. Published by Peermusic (HL.228401).
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