A Musician of Touching Faith – Remembering Astor Piazzolla

One hundred years ago, on March 11, 1921, the greatest musician of Argentina in the second half of the last century was born: Astor Piazzolla.

In Argentina he was born in Mar del Plata to Italian parents (the father from Trani in Puglia, the mother from the Garfagnana in Tuscany) and died on July 4, 1992 in Buenos Aires. Having become famous as one of the greatest tango performers, indeed as an elaborator of the nuevo tango (new tango), he was actually a musician attentive to all types of music, leaving about 600 works of various kinds of great communicativeness, including the opera María de Buenos Aires (1967), the oratorio El pueblo joven (1973), the Concerto for bandoneon and orchestra (1979), the music for the film Henry IV by M. Bellocchio (1984).

The nuevo tango, in which our Argentine bandoneonist inserted unexpected harmonies, dissonances, improvisation, counterpoint, was initially not well received by traditional musicians and part of the traditional audience. During an interview in 1954 Piazzolla declared: “Yes, it is true, I am an enemy of tango, but of tango as they understand it […]. If everything has changed, Buenos Aires’ music must change too. Many of us want to change tango, but these gentleman attacking don’t understand it and never will. I’m going to go ahead in spite of them” (D. Piazzolla, Astor, Emecé Editores, Buenos Aires 1987, p. 159).

The popular dance in pairs, with a binary rhythm and moderate movement, often accelerated towards the end, that came to Europe from the suburbs of Buenos Aires in Argentina, thanks to Piazzolla, has obtained its own artistic dignity. Pope Saint Pius X (1835-1914) also dealt with it. The Pontiff, “scourge of the Modernists”, lifted the prohibitions requested by the ecclesiastical authorities of the “city of Lights”, who considered “the dance imported from abroad, known under the name of tango,” — according to the condemnation of Cardinal Léon Adolph Amette, Archbishop of Paris — “which by its nature is indecent and offensive to morals” (in Le Mercure Musical, February 1, 1914, p. 47). It is said that in January 1914, after attending a private performance of “Roman tango” (largely chaste, compared to the Argentine one) in the Vatican, he commented: “I understand very well that you like to dance; we are in carnival time and you are young. So dance and enjoy it. But why adopt these barbaric contortions of Negroes and Indians? Why not choose the pretty Venetian dance, so elegant and graceful, the furlana?” (Civitas Christiana nn. 10-13, August 1997-March 1998, Verona, p. 89).

This anecdote — we don’t know how well founded — unleashed the irony of Trilussa, actually Carlo Alberto Salustri (1871-1950), the famous poet of Rome, who on February 1, 1914, wrote in the mischievous sonnet Tango e Furlana: the Pope doesn’t want the Tango because, often, the partner pushes and rubs himself on the belly of the female dancer who, more or less, knows what to do all the same. Instead the Furlana is prettier: the woman dances, the man goes after her, and the only contact that is allowed is based on the back. But a ball from the past century with tight-fitting dresses is badly done: and the Pope hasn’t thought of this; how do you want them to move?  All that remains is for the Curia to allow, in a special way, that the ladies get up their dresses (Trilussa, Tutte le poesie, Mondadori, 1954, pag. 390).

Returning to the main topic, we will say that Astor Piazzolla, baptized and raised in the faith, in 1968 defined himself “a Catholic, but not too much.” However, it was during his relationship with the singer and television personality Laura Escalada, whom he met in 1976 and engaged in a second marriage in 1988, that our musician became a fervent traditional Catholic. In 1980 he declared: “I am Catholic. I believe in God and I pray to him in English. I also like getting inside a church. It’s like detoxifying myself. It’s like taking a bath of peace” (M. S. Azzi & S. Collier, Le grand tango: the life and music of Astor Piazzolla, Oxford University Press 2000, pp. 139-140).

During the last part of his life, Astor is seen as “a man of touching faith”, very pious, who makes an annual pilgrimage to the National Shrine in Luján, eastern Argentina, dedicated to the Mother of God, where the blessed image of Mary — dear to popes Urban VIII, Clement XI, Leo XIII, Pius XI, Pius XII and John Paul II — since 1630 maternally welcomed all those who come to implore her protection. The “Miraculous Medal,” coined after the apparitions — of 1830 in rue du Bac in Paris — of Our Lady to St. Catherine Labouré (1806-1876), among its devotees numbers Piazzolla. He often gave his friends medallions, stamps of the Virgin and small flasks of holy water, collected during his trips to Europe (cfr. M. S. Azzi & S. Collier, ibidem).

A piece that expresses the profound religiosity of the Argentine composer can be considered his Ave Maria. It was written for oboe and piano in 1984 with the title Tanti anni prima (Many years before) for the film Enrico IV, from Luigi Pirandello’s comedy of the same name, by Marco Bellocchio, in which it was the theme of Matilde, played by Claudia Cardinale who worked there with Marcello Mastroianni. Shortly before his death, with the recommendation to perform it at the right time, Piazzolla gave this Ave Maria to the Italian singer Milva (born in 1939), a friend of him since 1981, who proposed it to the world audience as part of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.

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