On September 11th, 2021, the traditional Last Night of the (BBC) Proms took place at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Away from the usual and rather bizarre jingoism, this performance was memorable for the “revolutionary” introduction of an accordion on stage.
Latvian virtuosa Ksenija Sidorova was the first accordion soloist ever to be invited to play on such an occasion. Her interpretation of Astor Piazzolla’s 1974 composition “Libertango” brought a packed house to its feet.
This enthusiasm was a reversal of the way tango mania had first been received. Having hit Europe and America in 1913/4, just before the outbreak of the First World War, its introduction from Argentina sparked intense controversy.
Soul of Tango
In 1829, Charles Wheatstone patented a free-reed instrument that was hexagonal in shape. He called his invention a concertina. Working in parallel but unaware of Wheatstone’s patent, Chemnitz-based instrument maker Carl Friedrich Uhlig made further improvements to the instrument between 1835 and 1840. These were not to the satisfaction of instrument dealer Heinrich Band who, from his workshop in Krefeld, re-arranged the keys in 1846 and called it a bandoneon (or button accordion). He died young and never patented his creation.
In 1854 Carl Friedrich Zimmermann began industrial production of these instruments in the ski resort of Carlsfeld in the Ore Mountains, Saxony. The bandoneon was originally intended as an instrument for sacred music to be used in small churches or as a mobile organ to accompany open air religious services. When Zimmermann moved to America in 1864, the business was continued by his foreman Ernst-Louis Arnold. The Arnold dynasty produced an instrument with wide appeal that eventually would reach South America.
German immigrants brought the bandoneon to Argentina around 1870, where the instrument was adopted into the nascent genre of tango in Buenos Aires at the end of the nineteenth century. By 1910 bandoneons were being produced expressly for South American markets, with 25,000 shipped to Argentina alone in 1930.
With the mass arrival of German immigrants in the 1870s, the religious association was soon forgotten as the bandoneon hit the streets of Buenos Aires and other major cities. It became the voice and soul of tango.
Dance of the Streets
Argentinian people of European descent belong to communities that trace their origins back to various migrations. There are the descendants of Iberian colonists from the time that Spanish conquistador Juan Diaz de Solis explored the Rio de la Plata in 1516. During the later decades of the nineteenth century Argentinian authorities encouraged immigration. Major contributors included Italy and Spain, but significant numbers of immigrants arrived from France, Italy, Germany, and Britain.
Tango is the manifestation of this immigrant culture. It is impossible to reconstruct its history, because there are no written sources. Its roots are multiple. The Argentine tango developed between 1860 and 1890 in Buenos Aires. It emerged out of the cosmopolitan culture of the city’s dockside slums where locals and immigrants frequented cafés to escape the daily pressures of life and loneliness.
During the 1890s the city had twice as many males as females. Tango was danced by pairs of men. Its steps were aggressive; the music was permeated with longing and despair; the bandoneon produced the emotional, nostalgic, and erotic sound of tango. Buenos Aires society considered tango a “reptile from the brothels,” an indecent entertainment associated with violence and illicit sex. Tango clubs were raided by police officers. But its progress was unstoppable.
The first tangos lacked lyrics and musicians improvised them on the spot. Words were hard-hitting, often obscene. Tango was a song of the streets. It was later transported places like the Café Tarana (known as Café Hansen) and other upmarket resorts. It was only then that women started to participate in the activity.
Tango arrived in Paris in 1911. The city was inundated with Argentinians who introduced young and wealthy Parisians to a dance that, at best, was a timid imitation of the real tango of the bars and brothels of Buenos Aires or Montevideo. By 1913, tango mania had swept over Europe.
One of the musicians responsible for the rage was Casimiro Ain. He had left Buenos Aires with three other musicians on board the steamship Sierra Ventana in 1913 and sailed to France. They made their way to Paris, entered the first Montmartre cabaret club they came across, and were invited to perform.
They were lucky. The club was La Princesse (which would later become the famous El Garròn); it was run by fellow Argentinian Manuel Pizzarro and his brothers.
Young Parisians went mad with enthusiasm; music critics were red with outrage. The issue of the Mercure de France of 16 February 1914 called the tango “la danse des filles publiques.” The Argentinian ambassador in Paris, Enrique Rodriguez Laretta, feared that the reputation of his country was put in peril. In an angry outburst he warned the French that in Buenos Aires “tango is found only in whorehouses and filthy taverns. It is never danced in the respectable lounges, nor between civilized men and women for tango is crude to the ear of any Argentinian worthy of his nation.”
The dazzling success of tango in the French capital, and from there on in London and Berlin, was of concern to conservative minded politicians and clergymen. Voices were raised to condemn this provocative dance. There were calls for it to be banned altogether. King Ludwig of Bavaria forbade his officers in uniform to dance the tango, while the Duchess of Norfolk pronounced it to be contrary to English character and manners.
War against Indecency
The history of modern dance is a confrontational one. The waltz, polka, or tango reflected the intensity of urban life, the acceleration of pace, and the sexualization of society. The Christian Church has been a persistent critic of song and dance. Early penance books more often than not contain admonishments against such forms of entertainment.
Associating dance with promiscuity, the clergy expressed a mixture of fear and resentment. Dance cannot be enjoyed without ‘evil communications.’ Music’s demoniacal power had caught many women by means of its disturbing sensual power. The nineteenth century novel presents a procession of women who are seduced into adultery under the spell of music (Wagner’s in particular). Cultural critics paid tribute to Plato who had banished music from his commonwealth. Shoes were made for walking, not dancing.
On December 26th 1913 the New York Times reported that attempts by Catholic pulpit orators to suppress dancing-mania in Italy had been a failure. In January 1914 the Vatican opened up a new front by launching a crusade against tango and other “barbarian” dances.
That same month Cardinal Basillo Pompili, Vicar-General of Rome and the Pope’s representative, issued a pastoral letter denouncing the tango. He urged the clergy to raise its voice in defending the ‘sanctity of Christian usages’ against the ‘immorality of the new paganism.’ Parents were warned to protect their children from corruption. Cardinal Aristide Cavallari, Patriarch of Venice, immediately reinforced the message by publishing an episcopal letter in which he attacked the tango’s moral turpitude.
The Vatican had set the tone, France followed suit. Cardinal Léon Adolphe Amette, Archbishop of Paris, issued an admonition in which he condemned dancing the tango as a sin which must be confessed and punished. Alarm bells were ringing in New York as well.
Whirling New York
In the run up to war in Europe, many Argentinians left Paris and a number of them moved to New York, including Casimiro Ain. He stayed for three years before returning to Buenos Aires in 1916. These newcomers brought the tango with them. On January 1st, 1914 the New York Times produced a headline reading “All New York Now Madly Whirling in the Tango.”
Late in 1913 Cardinal John Murphy Farley, Archbishop of New York, learned that tango would be danced at a charity ball of the Roman Catholic Institute for the Blind. He demanded that the organizers bar the tango or cancel the occasion. It was the start of his crusade against contemporary dance – and not just the tango. Farley also aimed verbal bullets against the Turkey Trot and the Bunny Hug. The cardinal was familiar with the modern dance repertoire.
For him too, January 1914 was a crucial month. As a consequence of his intervention several scheduled dances organized by Catholic societies in the city were cancelled. His intention was to go nationwide with a campaign for individual morality and public decency.
Farley had political allies. Democrat William Jay Gaynor, 94th Mayor of New York City, campaigned to end “objectionable” dancing in shady premises. His justification was that some of the tango events had become ‘lascivious orgies.’ All public dance halls therefore needed to be supervised, licensed, and their hours regulated.
Church leaders and politicians had their moral instincts in a twist. They were distracted by the perceived depravity of a younger generation, ignoring far more dangerous political developments. Six months after the crusade against the tango had started, World War One broke out. Europe was about to suffer levels of barbarity and moral depravity the continent had never witnessed before.
Return of the Tango
Tango re-appeared after the end of war. Not Paris, but New York became the center of innovation. Part two of tango’s history is an extraordinary tale of the creative potential of migration.
Born on March 11th, 1921, in the Argentinian beach town of Mar del Plata, bandoneon player and composer Astor Piazzolla was the grandson of Italian immigrants. In 1925, his parents moved to a tenement building at 313 East Ninth Street. Greenwich Village. He took up the bandoneon at age eight, supposedly after his father bought one for $19 in a New York pawn shop.
The original German-made bandoneon had sixty notes spread over thirty buttons as its keyboard, but by the beginning of the twentieth century it rapidly changed to suit tango music. As a result, a sophisticated 142-note version with seventy-one buttons had become standard in Argentina and Uruguay. The instrument was difficult to master as the buttons were illogically organized on both ends of the instrument, each button creating a different pitch by opening and closing the bellows.
Greenwich Village first exposed young Astor to the vitality of jazz and at the same time he acquired the skills to play Bach on his bandoneon. In 1934 Carlos Gardel was in New York making a movie. He was a prominent figure in the history of the tango. Born to Berthe Gardès out of wedlock, she had left her native Toulouse in 1893 escaping the social stigma of an unmarried mother. Carlos grew up in the Abasto area of Buenos Aires where he became known as “El Morocho del Abasto.” Together with his lyricist Alfredo Le Pera, he wrote many classic tangos. His baritone voice and dramatic phrasing made an enormous impact on his fans. With more than 800 records to his name, Gardel made tango Argentina’s national treasure.
Having heard Piazzolla play, Gardel invited the talented youngster to tour with him. His father rejected the offer. Just as well. Gardel died on tour when his plane crashed while landing in Medellín, Columbia. Millions of his fans went into mourning.
In 1936, the family returned to Mar del Plata. Piazzolla worked in some minor orchestras before settling in Buenos Aires. In 1939 he got a job in the orchestra of Anibal Troillo, a master of traditional tango. Uncertain about his future, he proceeded to study with composer Alberto Ginastera, pondering if his destiny lay in classical music. Having won a music award in Buenos Aires in August 1953, the French government awarded him a grant to study in Paris with the legendary Nadia Boulanger.
At his audition, Piazzolla performed a number of classical compositions for her. When he played one of his own tangos, Boulanger insisted that his unique talent lay in this genre. Before leaving Paris, he heard the octet of jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan which prompted the idea to form his own group. On return, he transformed the traditional Argentine tango into a fusion of tango, classical music, and jazz. The seeds of Tango Nuevo were planted in New York City and nursed in Buenos Aires and Paris. Today, his style dominates the tango repertoire.
Illustrations, from above: Ksenija Sidorova at the Last Night of the Proms, September 11th, 2021; ‘The Cult of the Argentine Tango’ (Illustrated London News, November 8th, 1913); steps from the tango as presented in The Tatler; the bandoneon; The Tango by French Art-Deco illustrator Charles Martin, c. 1920; and Astor Piazzolla, the creator of the Tango Nuevo.