Piazzolla: Bridging the Classical/Popular Divide

Composers of serious classical music generally find support in forms of patronage. Their opportunities consist of entering competitions, winning government grants, receiving commissions from foundations, wealthy individuals or other sponsorship sources. Composers of popular music on the other hand generally work with market forces. They derive income from the selling of recordings and through broadcast licenses. When a song plays on the radio, a couple nickels and dimes eventually end up in the pocket of the composer who wrote it. Bands perform concert tours, but the overriding purpose is to drive the sale of recordings. With popular music, in order to sell, it must have mass appeal.

Somewhere along in the 20th C a notion crept in that classical music had to be serious, heavy, intellectual stuff. It was not to be construed as popular. This was asserted even though the classical tradition had always been music of mass appeal. Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Handel all wrote to please and thrill their audiences. But in the 20th C, composers who did so were labelled "sell-outs." Copland was a "sell out." Bernstein was a "sell-out." "Real" composers were iconoclasts, maintained their intellectual integrity and did not cater to popular tastes. Or so I was told. To which audiences generally responded - 'Write what you want - but don't expect me to listen to it!"

I consider it a minor miracle that despite all this noise Astor Piazzolla managed to bridge the divide. His experience was not the academic sort. His schooling was real-world. It consisted of playing and directing tango bands, observing what worked or didn't work with audiences, creating his own arrangements of tango standards, and on the side studying and imitating the works of Stravinsky, Bartok and Ravel under the guidance of Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. It was very much an up-from-the-trenches preparation for what he would do in life.

The end result was music in the classical tradition that has popular appeal. It is music that was in demand when it was written and remains so today. The remarkable thing about it is that it continues to generate income for Piazzolla heirs through the market model of popular music. Many a highly decorated composer today receives a commission, produces a work of limited appeal, experiences only a few performances of said work and then is ignored. And are these out best thinkers? Are these the ones leading us down the path of enlightenment? Piazzolla's music is loved the world over and is hopefully forging a new path for classical music in the 21st C.

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