Rincón de la Guitarra




Alberto Ginastera

1916 | 1983

Born to Argentine parents of Catalan and Italian descent, Ginastera showed an early inclination towards music, receiving his first formal training at the age of seven. Five years later he enrolled in the Williams Conservatory, graduating in 1935 with a gold medal in composition. The following year he entered the National Conservatory of Music, studying harmony with Athos Palma, counterpoint with José Gil and composition with José André. An auspicious opportunity came in 1937 when Juan José Castro conducted the first performance of an orchestral suite from his ballet Panambí at the Teatro Colón. This performance, which took place while Ginastera was still a student, revealed a work of rhythmic verve and orchestral brilliance, establishing his reputation as an Argentine composer of significance. A year later he completed his professional training at the National Conservatory, receiving the Professor's Diploma for his Psalm cl, submitted as a graduation piece. One year after the successful première of his complete ballet Panambí in 1940, Lincoln Kirstein, director of the American Ballet Caravan, commissioned a second choreographic work, Estancia (1941). Even though Kirstein's troupe disbanded in 1942, postponing the staged production of the ballet for the next ten years, Ginastera extracted an orchestral suite from its score which was received warmly on its 1943 performance. The fresh spontaneity of shorter pieces of the early 1940s, such as Malambo (1940), Cinco canciones populares argentinas (1943) and Obertura para el ‘Fausto’ criollo (1943), contributed to his growing stature as one of the most technically adept and musically eloquent composers associated with the nationalist movement. His teaching career began in 1941 when he joined the faculties of the National Conservatory and the San Martín National Military Academy. On 11 December of that year he married Mercedes de Toro, with whom he had two children. His circumstances in Argentina remained stable until 1945, when the Peronist regime forced his resignation from the National Military Academy for signing a petition in support of civil liberties. He took advantage of a Guggenheim grant (received in 1942 but postponed during the war) to travel to the USA with his family, where he remained from December 1945 until March 1947. There he visited Juilliard, Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Eastman music schools and heard performances of his works by the NBC Orchestra, Pan American Union and League of Composers. He benefited from the guidance of Copland, whom he had previously met in 1941, participating in his Tanglewood composition course, absorbing his stylistic influence and forging a close personal friendship. In 1948 he played a fundamental role in founding the Argentine section of the ISCM, and he organized and became director of the conservatory of music and theatre arts at the National University of La Plata. His String Quartet no.1 of that year figures as one of his most powerful musical statements, fusing abstract folk music segments with traditional constructive principles and contemporary techniques. In 1951 the ISCM selected this work for performance at its 25th festival in Frankfurt. This marked Ginastera's first trip to Europe, where he also participated in meetings of the International Music Council of UNESCO. Following this exposure he travelled frequently abroad, receiving performances on ISCM programmes in Oslo in 1953 (Piano Sonata no.1), Stockholm in 1956 (Pampeana no.3), Rome in 1959 (String Quartet no.2) and Madrid in 1965 (Cantata Bomarzo). In Argentina he faced further difficulties with the Perón government. In 1952 he was forced to resign his directorship at La Plata and did not regain his post until 1956, the year following Perón's defeat. Despite the professional difficulties of those years, his creative output flourished, and he produced three superbly crafted works, the Piano Sonata no.1 (1952), Variaciones concertantes (1953) and Pampeana no.3 (1954), that earned him great recognition. While outside commissions alleviated some of the financial strain, he still needed to compose film music to support himself. It should be noted, however, that this cinematic output (1942–58) both preceded and postdated the Perón years (1946–55), and there is considerable evidence to suggest that, under Copland's influence, he regarded film composition as a vital communicative media. In 1958 he earned a full professorship at La Plata, but resigned later that year when asked to organize and direct the faculty of musical arts and sciences at the Catholic University of Argentina. There he served as dean (1958–63), developing a progressive music programme that offered advanced degrees in composition, musicology, sacred music and education. In 1958 he composed the String Quartet no.2 in which he combined a masterful synthesis of previous styles and techniques with early incursions into serialism. At its première by the Juilliard String Quartet it was hailed as the culmination of the First Inter-American Music Festival. From this point forward his international reputation was assured. Brilliant first performances of his Piano Concerto no.1 and Cantata para América mágica at the Second Inter-American Music Festival consolidated his artistic stature. He now composed almost exclusively by commission. When the Latin American Centre for Advanced Musical Studies at the Instituto Torcuato di Tella was founded in 1962, Ginastera was asked to assume its leadership. The following year he resigned all other university posts to devote his full attention to this endeavour and to composing. Under his direction (1963–71), the di Tella music centre promoted avant-garde techniques, offering young Latin American composers two-year fellowships to study with a distinguished faculty that included Copland, Messiaen, Xenakis, Nono and Dallapiccola. His own music of the period also assumed experimental directions. His grand opera Don Rodrigo (1963–4) incorporated serialism, structural symmetry, microtones and extended vocal techniques. The New York City Opera selected this work to inaugurate its new performance venue at the New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center; its spectacular performance there on 22 February 1966 engendered an overwhelming critical response and established Ginastera's reputation as a major opera composer. The success of Don Rodrigo sparked a new commission for Bomarzo (1966–7) from the Opera Society of Washington. Its first performance met with ebullient praise, but its explicit eroticism provoked heated controversy. The municipality of Buenos Aires cancelled a production of the opera that was scheduled to take place later that year, and Ginastera responded by refusing to allow performances of his works until the ban was rescinded. A troubled period in his life ensued, with a difficult marital situation leading to a separation from his wife in 1969. Distraught and unable to work, he was overwhelmed by unfinished commissions, particularly for his third opera, Beatrix Cenci, whose first performance was scheduled to take place at the Kennedy Center to inaugurate its new opera house. A deep and enduring bond with the Argentine cellist Aurora Nátola rekindled his creativity in time to complete the work, which was well received despite its difficult genesis. In September 1971 he married Aurora, settling permanently with her in Switzerland and devoting his time entirely to composition. During his last 12 years he composed prodigiously, creating some of his most innovative works, including the monumental Turbae ad passionem gregorianam (1974), along with a significant body of cello music. He died with many commissions unfulfilled, though he did complete seven of the eight symphonic frescoes of his final Popol vuh (1975–83), bequeathing the work in a performable state. He was a member of the National Academy of Fine Arts of Argentina (1957), the Brazilian Academy of Music (1958), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1965) and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1968). He received honorary doctorates from Yale (1968) and Temple University (1975). He was awarded the grand prize of the Argentine National Endowment for the Arts in 1971 and the UNESCO International Music Council music prize in 1981. 2. Style and works. Traditional studies have divided Ginastera's output into three stylistic periods: firstly ‘objective nationalism’ (1934–47), in which he referred directly to Argentine folk materials with traditional tonal means, secondly ‘subjective nationalism’ (1947–57), in which he integrated sublimated symbols in forging an original Argentine style, and thirdly ‘neo- Expressionism’ (1958–83), in which he combined magic surrealism with dodecaphony and avant-garde procedures. Even though Ginastera formulated this periodization himself, he did so in the late 1960s, thus excluding a large body of later works from consideration. If we accept his schemata without revision, his third period would encompass almost 30 works composed over a period of 26 years. Moreover, careful examination of the repertory reveals that his late style is far from monolithic. Beginning with Puneña no.2 (1976), Ginastera applied complex post-serial techniques to recreate the spirit of the Americas as exemplified in its collective indigenous heritage. It is therefore reasonable to add a fourth period, ‘final synthesis’ (1976–83) to account for this unique blending of tradition and innovation. Although Ginastera's officially numbered catalogue begins with his ballet Panambí, he started composing in the early 1930s. His unrelenting sense of self-criticism, however, caused him to withhold or destroy many works. According to a recent inventory of the Paul Sacher Archives, where his original manuscripts are housed, 25 early surviving pieces remain unnumbered (Kuss and Handschin, 25–7). Of these, the Impresiones de la Puna for flute and string quartet (1934), has recently been reinstated and stands as a charming example of his youthful style. Despite its unabashed affiliation with Impressionism, it prefigures definitive features of his subsequent works including the identification of nationalism with a determined geographical region (in this case, the puna, or plateau of the Andes), the iconic representation of localized instrumental prototypes (most notably the indigenous kena, referentially invoked by the flute), and the unification of musical works through recurrent motivic cells (here, the threenote Andean formula that serves as an opening motto). The point of departure for understanding Ginastera's early style is the system of musical codes that Argentine composers formulated during the late 19th century to convey their national identity. Some of the most characteristic formulas associated with this system include melodies based on vernacular scales, rhythms rooted in stylizations of Argentine dances, textures imitative of idiomatic guitar writing, voicings in 3rds modelled on Iberian folk polyphony, and harmonies derived from bimodal relationships. Before Ginastera, many nationalist composers concentrated on cultivating intimate miniatures based on Argentine folk genres, and he continued in this tradition with his earliest repertory, which is dominated by solo piano pieces and songs. His Cinco canciones populares argentinas stylized the chacarera, triste, zamba, arrorró and gato genres. He openly modelled this song cycle on the post-Romantic vocal works of Carlos López Buchardo (1881–1948), to whom he dedicated the collection and whose Cinco canciones argentinas al estilo popular (1935) are suggested by its title. Yet even within these early works Ginastera exceeded traditional expectations in passages employing bold polytonal juxtapositions, non-functional parallel progressions and dissonant pandiatonic harmonies. From his earliest works he showed a remarkable ability to forge new symbols expressive of Argentine musical identity. In doing so he drew his inspiration from the gauchesco tradition that upheld the gaucho (horseman) as an idealized national emblem. He created a powerful image of this figure with a chord derived from the open tuning of the gaucho's guitar strings. The resulting sonority, E–A–d–g–b–e', evokes a sound image of the instrument, while embodying a second folk identity as a reordered form of the Argentine minor pentatonic scale, E–G–A–B–D. A second potent symbol that Ginastera constructed was the malambo, a competitive choreographic genre in which a gaucho affirmed his strength and virility by challenging his opponent with increasingly vigorous dance steps. Few memorable representations of the malambo existed in the art music literature prior to Ginastera's works, and the original Argentine folk models were distinguished more for their choreographic display than for their musical interest. What mattered most to him, however, was the abstract idea of the dance, and his original characterizations of it will remain among his enduring contributions. In representing the malambo, he associated its characteristic foot-tapping motion (known as zapateo) with six rapid quavers per measure, evoking an image of the gaucho's moving feet. Upon this pattern he superimposed codified dance rhythms of genres such as the gato and zamba, accelerating and intensifying this rhythmic complex with percussive Bartókian ostinatos. Two of his early orchestral works, Estancia and Obertura para el ‘Fausto’ criollo, relate to Argentine nationalism through their reference to gauchesco literary sources. The Estancia ballet incorporates sung and spoken passages from the Argentine epic poem Martín Fierro (1872). It evokes profoundly nationalist sentiments by combining these eloquent verses with ballet scenes that portray the changing times of day on an Argentine ranch. Abundant stylizations of gaucho music (including the guitar chord and malambo) enhance Ginastera's nationalist representation, whose effect is produced less by the integration of such elements than by their evocative power and cumulative effect. The Obertura para el ‘Fausto’ criollo is a humorous work based on the poem Fausto (1866), which tells of a gaucho's misadventures when he visits Buenos Aires and stumbles upon a performance of Gounod's Faust at the Teatro Colón. To portray this comic situation, Ginastera's music interweaves memorable passages from Gounod's opera with Argentine folk features; as in the original gauchesco poetry, his juxtaposition of urban and rural contradictions is witty, sophisticated and ingeniously arranged. During his second stylistic period, Ginastera elaborated abstract musical forms with complete technical mastery. In his String Quartet no.1 and Piano Sonata no.1 he evolved specific musical prototypes for each movement, the possibilities of which he explored throughout his career. A work generally opened with a bithematic sonata movement whose initial motivic cells generated melodic, harmonic and formal processes. He cast his second movements into mysterious scherzos that echoed sublimated malambo rhythms using evanescent pianissimo effects. He balanced the chromatic intensity of his expressive third movements with diatonic malambo finales which achieved an unprecedented vigour through their increasing use of irregular beat patterns and changing metres. Ginastera counterbalanced his concern for strict construction by enhancing the improvisatory freedom of his music. His Pampeana no.1 (1947) and Pampeana no.2 (1950) both bear the subtitle ‘rhapsody’ and feature extended solo cadenzas. All three Pampeanas and the Variaciones concertantes share an expressive melodic prototype that embellishes a central reiterated pitch and uses irregular declamatory rhythms (ex.1, cello). This musical idea exemplifies the very essence of his ‘subjective nationalism’. While the theme itself is wholly original, it embodies Ginastera's assimilation of improvised vernacular idioms, and, as such, represents his own rhapsodic utterance rooted in Argentine tradition. During this period he distilled Argentine folk music references down to their bare symbolic essence; at the same time, he accorded such symbolic structures an extended formal function. He endows the arpeggiated opening chord (ex.1, harp) with multiple structural roles. Delineating the guitar's open strings, it generates the harmonic milieu of the work, establishes E as the pitch centre and summarizes the other main key areas of the work as B, D, A and G, thus projecting its linear properties onto the long range tonal structure. The composers of the Second Viennese School provided important models for Ginastera's adaptation of dodecaphony during his third stylistic period. His Cantata para América mágica (1960), for soprano and 53 percussion instruments, reveals the influence of Webern. Its fourth movement is palindromic, repeating its materials in retrograde after arriving at a central 12-note cluster. It uses a symmetrical series reminiscent of Webern, with its second hexachord a transposed retrograde of the first. Tritones and minor 2nds dominate the row, with the latter most often transcribed as major 7ths or minor 9ths, resulting in a pointillist sonic effect. Ginastera's free use of the series, his preference for multiple 12-note rows and his predilection for opera, however, reveal his affinity with Berg. Schoenberg also influenced Ginastera's stylistic development, in his use of Klangfarbenmelodie in Milena (1971) and String Quartet no.3 (1973), and in his addition of a soprano to the latter ensemble, specifically recalling Schoenberg's String Quartet no.2. In general, Expressionism dominated his aesthetic outlook of the period, while he enhanced its intensity with microtones, clusters, indeterminacy, polymetre and unusual sound effects. His three operas portray a grim, pathological world, inhabited by violent, grotesque and tormented characters, and exemplified by the portrayal of incest, torture, execution and patricide in Beatrix Cenci. Ginastera's talent for matching his theatrical situation with a corresponding sonic equivalent, usually orchestral, produces an intensely dramatic effect. All three operas employ atonality, serialism, microtones, spatial effects and extended vocal techniques; they differ, however, in their progressive development of his musico-dramatic conception. The first opera, Don Rodrigo, has an architectonic design that has been widely discussed (Ginastera, 1964; Suárez Urtubey, 1965; Orrego-Salas, 1967; Kuss, 1980). It uses three balanced acts, organized symmetrically into exposition, crisis and dénouement; each act is further subdivided into three scenes retaining the same dramatic progression. In Bomarzo Ginastera refers to tripartite internal divisions, but creates an overriding sense of expansion through his use of ‘clusters’ (massive sound columns), ‘clouds’ (suspended sound mobiles) and ‘constellations’ (erupting sound cascades). In Beatrix Cenci he significantly departs from symmetrical structures and enhances musicodramatic unity through an enrichment of aleatory, colouristic and cinematic effects. After the success of his Turbae ad passionem gregorianam, a theatrical concert version of the Passion story, Ginastera conceived of a fourth opera, Barabbas, based on a biblical theme and relying on continuous music within each act. This project was left incomplete. Ginastera's fascination with the dramatic also inspired the large body of concertos he composed during the period, including one for harp (1956– 65), one for violin (1963), two for piano (1961, 1972) and two for cello (1968, rev. 1977; 1980–81). He highlighted the talents of the orchestral principals in the second movement of his Violin Concerto, entitled Adagio per 22 solisti, which he conceived ‘as an homage to the soloists of the New York Philharmonic’. Throughout his concertos he brought virtuosity to the foreground by creating innovative first-movement structures which begin with bravura cadenzas and conclude with brilliant studies or variations, each of which features a formidable technical challenge. He applied avantgarde techniques to the traditional conception of the concerto, collaborating closely with the performers upon whom the success of his works depended. Following his second marriage he created fresh, lyrical pieces in honour of Aurora as his new companion, collaborator and interpreter. He relaxed the austerity of previous dramatic works in favour of a new intimacy, in which he set exquisite love poetry, including that of García Lorca (String Quartet no.3, 1973) and Neruda (Serenata, 1973). Programmatic references involve plays on the word ‘aurora’ in Variazioni e Toccata sopra ‘Aurora lucis rutilat’ (1980) and other works. He entwined such amorous symbolism deeply into his cello compositions. The slow movement of his Sonata (1979) alludes to love motifs drawn from his operas and contains an expressive melodic setting of the word ‘amor’ from his String Quartet no.3 (ex.2). In his Cello Concerto no.2, created for Aurora on their tenth wedding anniversary, he adds romantic epigraphs to a reworking of his earlier Sonata, interweaving veiled references to the cello theme from the third movement of Brahms's Piano Concerto no.2 into the newly composed first movement. Ginastera's final compositions form a consummate synthesis of his creative trajectory. With the exception of his Guitar Sonata (1976, rev. 1981), which musically refers to the gaucho, he departed from specifically Argentine folk models and aligned himself with a pan-continental Americanism. As he explained in an interview (Tan, 1984, p.7): I am evolving … This change is taking the form of a … reversion … to the primitive America of the Mayas, the Aztecs, and the Incas. This influence in my music I feel as not folkloric, but … as a kind of metaphysical inspiration … what I have done is a reconstitution of the transcendental aspect of the ancient pre-Columbian world. He verged on an aesthetic breakthrough in works such as his Piano Sonata no.2 (1981), which prefigures a new fusion of indigenous and post-serial styles with its cellular ostinatos, percussive rhythms, chromatic clusters and irregular metres. His visionary Popol vuh, based on the Mayan creation story, embarked on a new integration of ‘primitive’ melody and kaleidoscopic sound colour. This final synthesis closed the circle he began with his earliest numbered work, Panambí, which likewise conjoined indigenous elements with what were then radical references to Stravinsky and serial technique. As a composer who delighted in symmetry, he personally came to embody his own aesthetic by returning at the end of his life to the wellsprings of his earliest inspiration.

Alberto Ginastera


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