A kilo of symphonies

Guest post by Pez

In 1954 Astor Piazzolla was suffering a crisis of confidence and a crisis of identity when he encountered one of the most influential figures in modern classical music. The following is an account of their meeting, taken from multiple sources and lightly dramatised for clarity.

It would be fair to say that by 1954, the star of Nadia Boulanger was fading. At 30, she had been a prize-winning professor at the Paris Conservatoire. She had taught at the Yehudi Menuhin School, the Longy School, the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music in London. She was a Chevalier to the Légion d’honneur and in 1956 Prince Rainier of Monaco would ask her to arrange the music for his wedding to Grace Kelly.

She had influenced the way classical music was taught, played and appreciated across the world for 5 decades. The new stars of classical composition no longer sought her approval, but her opinion still held weight with every classical musician in the world and Astor Piazzolla was a classical musician.

Piazzolla was a member of the Conservatoire de Buenos Ayres and a protégé of the famous composer Alberto Evaristo Ginastera. Piazzolla had fled the world of Tango music, where he had made his name, stung by fickle influencers like Troilo and Borges who would sing his praises one week and curse his name the next. Piazzolla had toiled hard under the tutorage of Ginastera to compose music inspired by Stravinsky, Bartók, and Ravel. Finally, one of his compositions had won him the Fabian Sevitzky Award and with it a grant from the French government to study in Paris with the legendary Mme Boulanger.

Astor Piazzolla had come to the Boulanger residence at 36 rue Ballu as a composer of classical music worthy of Mademoiselle’s attention. His Bandonéon, the signature instrument of the Tango and for many years his primary instrument for composition was left in its case at the hotel, under the care of his wife Dedé.

Under his arm he had a “kilo of symphonies” the product of his time with Ginastera. As he pushed the electric bell, he wondered what defense the weighty bundle would provide against the formidable Boulanger. Though he was stoutly dressed against the cold of Northern Europe, he couldn’t help but feel somewhat exposed as he waited in the street for a response.

Mme Boulanger’s housekeeper took his coat and ushered him into a spacious study, well lit by sunlight pouring in through large bay windows. A woman sat adjacent to the grand piano wearing a full length dress that was clearly handmade to a very high quality, if in a somewhat old-fashioned style. Her hair was tied back tightly in a bun. Sunlight reflecting on her black-rimmed spectacles hid her eyes. There was a piano stool placed in front of the keyboard. It seemed to him to be a very long way from where he stood. He bowed slightly towards the figure “Mademoiselle Boulanger” he said as formally as his limited french allowed.

“Señor Piazzolla” she replied, “won’t you play for me?”

He had expected to perform a short recital, followed by some feedback from Mademoiselle, but whenever Piazzolla stopped playing, she gestured for him to continue. He played for her for four hours with no respite, only stopping because another student had arrived to begin their lesson. He had exhausted fully two thirds of his stack of manuscripts without a single comment from the enigmatic Mme Boulanger.

The next day was the same. When Dedé asked him how his lessons were going back at the hotel he mumbled something non-committal. Finally on the third day, Boulanger turned to him and gestured for him to stop playing.

“This” she gestured at the air as if the music still filled the room. “It’s very well written”.

“I hear Bach” she said. “here is Ravel, there Bartók. Or dear old Stravinsky, but I can’t find Piazzolla in this.” behind the spectacles her sharp-eyes focused on him intensely “Where is Piazzolla?”.

He turned back to the keyboard to play once more, but she gestured again to stop him, and then the questions began.

Her questioning started personal and got more personal as it went on, she quickly found out about Dedé and seemed to approve that she was an artist. She extracted the names of both of his children, leading to questions about his own childhood in New York and his experience learning music. She was an expert interrogator and seemed to immediately sense that Piazzolla was hiding something. Of New York she asked “how did you learn back then, with no piano?” and later “you say you are not a pianist? What instrument do you play then?”

Finally Piazzolla confessed. He told Mme Boulanger of the Bandoneon he had received for his 8th birthday and of the neighbour who had helped him to arrange Bach for its strange keys. Of the tiny neighbourhood Tango performances for the Argentine immigrants in New York, of his time in the Tango orchestras of Troilo and Fiorentino and finally of his escape to Ginastera and the composition that had won him the the Fabian Sevitzky Award, that had also caused an actual fist-fight in the audience over its inclusion of Bandoneons.

Mme Boulanger took a deep breath. She waved in the direction of the keyboard and closed her eyes. “Señor Piazzolla, please play me one of your Tangos” Astor was only part way through playing his “Triunfal” when Boulanger grabbed his hands with a sudden energy pulling him towards her.

“You idiot!” she laughed, her eyes shining “this, this is Piazzolla!” She released his hands and straightened her skirt, calm and businesslike once more. “Now, we just need to work on your technique…”

I very much enjoyed writing this piece.

I did want to draw a graphic for it also. but I never have time to do the things I want to do! There is a lovely old picture of Mme Boulanger. It was 20 years before she met Piazzolla, but it definitely captures her character.

All posts by Pez

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