Astor Piazzolla РVerano Porte̱o and other tangos

For the last four or five years, I’ve been doing presentations on music by Latin American classical composers in several venues in the US. The audience for these presentations has usually been teachers interested in teaching Latin American music in their private studios, or pianists who want to explore it. This blog is, in fact, a product of my presentations.

piazzolla.jpgI remember clearly the first time I presented this material in front of a group of eager teachers in southern Ohio. For one long hour, I talked about and played pieces by most of the luminaries of Latin American classical music: Ginastera, Villa-Lobos, Ponce, Chavez, Castro… At the end of my presentation, one of the teachers raised her hand and asked: “can you now play a ‘real’ tango, like some Piazzolla, please?” I was embarrassed to admit that I did not have any Piazzolla in my presentation at that point! In fact, including Piazzolla in my repertoire had not crossed my mind until then. You may ask why I had totally ignored a composer who invariably causes a deep impression in classically- and non-classically-trained listeners? A composer who is equally admired and played by tango and jazz musicians, and more recently, cross-over classical performers such as Barenboim, Gidon Kremer and Yo-Yo Ma? After some reflection I realized my omission had to do with my Argentine classical training. You see, Piazzolla, in the 1980s, was not highly regarded in Argentine classical music conservatories. He had two “shortcomings”: first, he was Argentine (conservatories there tended to over-value the three German “Bs” and Chopin, and to devalue most things written on this side of the Atlantic, with some notable exceptions); second, he was a tango musician, for God’s sake, a TANGO musician! Tango, as in “POPULAR MUSIC’s tango,” not worthy of the classical stage. Well, this lady made me realize that maybe I was wrong. I quickly started looking for some good Piazzolla to add to my presentations and my concerts. People loved it.

The main problem that faces classically trained pianists when tackling Piazzolla’s music is that the printed versions of the pieces are arrangements or transcriptions of works that existed first as “sound” for a very particular ensemble of instruments, flexible in their genesis just like jazz. If you hear Piazzolla’s recordings you’ll realize that, like jazz, the pieces owe much to the spurt of the moment, the musicians who play them, and the place where they are played. This means that some of the arrangements you can buy nowadays sound somewhat awkward and contrived. Some are too “thin” and unconvincing, while others are just plain impossible to play, since they include many layers of sound, for which you would need 3 or more hands. For some of these pieces you need to use common sense and intuition to make them work at the piano.

There are some great Piazzolla piano pieces at the intermediate and early advanced levels. Some of these pieces include:

  • The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas), especially the rhythmic and captivating “Verano Porteño,” or Summer of Buenos Aires, which works very well with some minimal tinkering (listen to my performance below)
  • The set Angel, which includes Milonga del Angel, a gorgeous slow milonga at the intermediate level that will enthrall students and audiences alike with its sophisticated harmonies and slow, hypnotic melodies
  • Retrato de Alfredo Gobbi, or Portrait of Alfredo Gobbi, a lesser known, fantasy-like tango with many mood changes and daring harmonies
  • Adios Nonino, a fast and exciting classic tango

There are MANY other sets that I encourage you to explore.

You can hear an excerpt of my live performance of “Verano Porteño” (Summer of Buenos Aires) here: veranoexcerpt.mp3. Also watch me play Milonga del Angel (apologies for the wrong notes!)

Verano Porteño (excerpt), published by Tonos.

Buy any of these tangos on by clicking at these links:

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Verano Porteno
Composed by Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). For piano. Tango. Published by Melos Ediciones Musicales (QM.MEL-1034).
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Composed by Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). For Piano. Tango. Collection. Published by Tonos Music (TO.20001).
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Retrato de Alfredo Gobbi
Composed by Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). For piano. Tango. Published by Melos Ediciones Musicales (QM.MEL-1388).
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Astor Piazzolla for Piano
Composed by Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). For Piano/Keyboard. Hal Leonard Piano Solo. Latin and Argentina. Difficulty: medium-difficult. Instrumental solo book. Introductory text. 64 pages. Published by Hal Leonard (HL.306709).
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Astor Piazzolla – El Viaje
(15 tangos and other pieces Piano). Composed by Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). For Piano. BH Piano. Softcover. 32 pages. Boosey & Hawkes #M060119620. Published by Boosey & Hawkes (HL.48019906).

Watch Piazzolla himself playing “Milonga del Angel” at this YouTube video:


“La comparsa” and “Malagueña” by Ernesto Lecuona

You are hanging around, sitting outside a Cuban cafe in Havana in the 1930s, sipping a cold mint tea sweetened with sugar cane juice, enjoying the lethargic hours of the tropical evening. Suddenly you hear a faint drum, beating a hypnotic pattern. It’s slowly getting closer to you. You know there will be consequences. This sensuous Afro-Cuban music is hard to ignore. It takes over your body.

As the music draws near, you realize it’s a Carnival procession, with drums, singing and masked, colorful dancers. It slowly engulfs you with its contagious rhythms, captures you in the midst of the buoyant crowd, and then, gradually goes away, until the only thing you can hear is the faint sound of the drum, droning away its syncopated pattern. You go back to enjoying your drink and the scented humid air.

This is exactly how Lecuona’s piano composition “La comparsa” feels to me. This 3-minute piece starts quietly in the left hand — an “imitation of a drum” reads the score. A haunting, distant melody enters in the right hand. Gradually things get heated, with octaves and more syncopations in both hands. The piece fades away back to the original left hand pattern and ends quietly.

La comparsa

The piece is one of Lecuona’s best known. Originally it contained lyrics, but there are many instrumental versions. It has been adapted and transcribed into many settings. Musicians as diverse as Eddie Palmieri, Chucho Valdez, Manuel Barrueco, Placido Domingo and Carlos Barbosa-Lima have recorded it.

Ernesto LecuonaThe Cuban composer, pianist and child prodigy Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963) was trained as a classical musician, but quickly became interested in Cuban and Spanish rhythms. He made a career in the semi-classical world of Zarzuelas (Spanish operetas), and was also a successful Hollywood movie composers — he was nominated for an Oscar for his “Always in My Heart” in 1942, which lost against “White Christmas” by Irvin Berlin.

Lecuona is best known for his “Malagueña” for piano (please check this link for the correct pronunciation of this word, which is mispronounced 99% of the time in the US!!!). “Malagueña” is a piece that unfailingly fascinates enthusiastic teenage piano students looking for exciting and flashy “Spanish” repertoire. Unfortunately for their teachers, “Malagueña” is a very difficult piece that not many young pianists can handle!

“Malagueña” definitely sounds Spanish and Andalusian – not Cuban at all. Regrettable, Lecuona’s other Cuban compositions are not as well known as this Spanish-style piece – they deserve to be played more often. He wrote many pieces within the technical reach of intermediate teenage pianists. “La comparsa” belongs to one such sets, Danzas Afro Cubanas, or Afro-Cuban Dances. Other exciting pieces in this set: Danza Lucumi and Danza de los Nanigos.

Buy it at

Danzas Afro-Cubanas Piano Solo. By Ernesto Lecuona. Piano. Size 9×12 inches. 24 pages. Published by Marks. (9248)
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I also recommended a collection that contains all his piano works (including Malagueña and La comparsa) in one volume of 192 pages.

Buy it a

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Ernesto Lecuona: Ernesto Lecuona Piano Music - sheet music at
Ernesto Lecuona: Ernesto Lecuona Piano Music Composed by Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963). Collection for solo piano. 192 pages. Published by Edward B. Marks Music. (HL.220002)
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Like the lyrics of “La comparsa” say: this music will “engage your whole body with its harmonious and sensuous rhythm, and will give you shivers with its magical sounds.”

Take a look at Thomas Tirino playing “La comparsa” (YouTube video)


“Odeon” by Ernesto Nazareth

nazareth3.jpgErnesto Nazareth was a Brazilian pianist and composer born in Rio de Janeiro in 1863. He died in 1934. Described as the “true incarnation of the Brazilian musical soul” by his compatriot Heitor Villa-Lobos, Nazareth composed and published more than 200 short piano compositions with strong popular flavor. Of these, 88 are tangos, many of which are still popular in Brazil and the rest of the world.

Nazareth was an impressive sight-reader and improviser. He was hired by a music store in Rio to play music for customers interested in buying sheet music. He was also hired as a pianist at the Odeon movie theater around 1924 to play in the waiting room.

The tango “Odeon” was probably written around that time. It is one of the best known tangos he composed. You can hear it not only in the original piano version, but also in guitar and other arrangements (you can find some of them in the iTunes store).

“Odeon” –and Nazareth’s music in general– can be a powerful motivator for intermediate piano students who have become “burned” by traditional repertoire. I remember a junior recital at the University of Minnesota during my student years that included a set of 3 or 4 tangos, performed by an Asian student. She liked this music so much that it truly was the best thing she performed that day!


Buy it here:

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Ernesto Nazareth: Brazilian Tangos and Dances - sheet music at
Ernesto Nazareth: Brazilian Tangos and Dances Composed by Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934), edited by David P. Appleby. Collection for solo piano. Series: Alfred Masterworks Editions. 40 pages. Published by Alfred Publishing. (AP.16775)
See more info…

I think Odeon’s beauty is the result of the happy combination of many elements: a perfect balance of “saudade” (nostalgic feeling) with upbeat rhythms, a long and expansive left hand melody in the refrain, “jazzy” harmonies in the right hand, and a slight touch of “Tico Tico” and Camen Miranda in the last episode (maybe?).

There are other tangos besides “Odeon” that an intermediate student can handle well. To name two of the most popular: “Remando” and “Brejeiro” (which sounds suspiciously similar to Milhaud’s Scaramouche, composed later).

A tip: don’t play these tangos too fast. Remember that this music also has a big deal of nostalgia (ask any Brazilian!). Just watch the video (in Portuguese) of composer Francisco Mignone. Mignone met Nazareth at the music store where the older composer played for customers. The young and enthusiastic Mignone jumped at the piano and played “Brejeiro” for the composer at a dashing tempo. Nazareth response: “that’s not how you should play it!” and played it for him slower, more clearly and more singingly. Nazareth then told him that performers often ruined his music by playing it too fast.

Mignone on Nazareth (video on YouTube):

“Odeon” is in the public domain. You can download a free copy at the International Music Score Library Project.

If you want to buy good anthologies of his Tangos, Alfred Publications has a good compilation of 10 or 15 pieces (Brazilian Tangos and Dances. Van Nuys: Alfred, 1997). Also check A Collection of his Finest Piano Works. San Francisco: GSP, [no date] on Amazon.

-Alejandro Cremaschi