Alberto Ginastera: A Life In Music October 01 2021
Alberto Evaristo Ginastera was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1916. Ginastera is called the greatest Argentinian composer of classical music.
He is universally hailed as one of the leading figures of Argentinian twentieth century art-music. Furthermore, alongside his Brazilian colleague, Heitor Villa-Lobos, he achieved a level of international fame and recognition which had until that point in time been almost unheard of for a Latin-American musician.
Ginastera was born in the heart of a Catalan and Italian family which led him to his own self-perception as a “Mediterranean man born in Buenos Aires”. His musical education began at an early age with piano lessons in 1923 when he was 7 years old. However, a few years would have to pass until he would officially commence his formal training.
On the right: Ginastera at age 3 with his father in Buenos Aires
Ginastera’s serious formal education in harmony and composition occurred within the walls of the Williams Conservatory starting in 1928 until 1935 when he graduated with honors.
Amongst his teachers it is worth mentioning some of the leading composers and musical figures of the day like Celestino Piaggio and José Gil who trained the young Ginastera to develop a strong foundation in harmony and counterpoint on top of as a pianist and composer.
Later in 1936, Ginastera was admitted into the National Conservatory where he studied under the renowned composers Athos Palma and José André. He graduated in 1938, once again, with honors.
However, perhaps his highest honor had come a year earlier while still a student when the world-famous Argentinian conductor Juan José Castro premiered the Suite from Ginastera's ballet Panambí in Buenos Aires’ and Latin America’s leading opera house, the Teatro Colón.
Autograph page from Ginastera's violin concerto
PROFESSIONAL CAREER: INITIAL SUCCESS
Ginastera’s career was marked by the highly unstable political climate which Argentina suffered, like most south American nations, during the twentieth century.
After his initial success with the premiere of his ballet Panambí, and graduating from the conservatory, Ginastera spent a few years entering composition competitions, winning many of them, including both national and municipal prizes.
Ultimately his career as a pedagogue and educator began in 1941 when he was named professor in the same conservatory in which he had been trained. In that same year he won a competition which earned him a chair position as a music professor in a military institution.
The following year, in 1942 Ginastera won the highly prestigious Guggenheim scholarship which enabled him to move to the US, however, the trip had to be postponed due to the second world war.
During the coming years Ginastera would form a family and continue working as a professor and composer, winning multiple prizes and composing some of his most renowned works. This time would also see him get several performances of his works in Argentina.
On the left: Maestro Ginastera and his wife, 1961.
In 1945 Ginastera had his first clash with Argentinian politics. Alongside other fourteen fellow professors in the Military institute where he taught, he was fired for signing a manifesto against the hindering of liberty and democracy which the military regime was instating.
In late 1945 after the end of the war he was able to relocate to the US to study with respected figures like composer Aaron Copland in the Tanglewood festival in Boston. Furthermore, during this trip he was able to visit some of America’s most prestigious universities and conservatories, an experience which would be crucial for his later brilliant career as a pedagogue.
RETURN TO ARGENTINA
By 1947 Ginastera and his family returned to their native Argentina where they would stay for the coming two decades. The significance of this period in Ginastera’s life is of very high importance because it is during this decades that he would essentially catapult the birth of modern music education in Argentina, setting the model for the whole of South America.
Back in his native land in 1948, Ginastera founded alongside other fellow Argentinian composers the “Liga de Compositores”, essentially, a society for the circulation of Argentinian composers’ works.
A patriot at heart, Ginastera is largely responsible for much of Argentina’s higher education in music. From the crafting of study programs to the founding of conservatories, faculties and music schools Ginastera’s name is omnipresent within the walls of Argentina’s musical education centers.
Amongst his most important projects we can mention the founding of the La Plata Conservatory and the music department in the Catholic University of Argentina, where he served as its first dean and which to this day is one of the country’s leading music departments.
Later he also founded a school for high musical studies within the renowned Di Tella institute which was crucial for the development of generations of young south American composers.
On the right: Ginastera in New York
Between 1952 and 1955 Ginastera suffered economic hardship due to the political regime which held office, this prompted him to develop a secondary source of income by composing music for films. One of the most successful efforts to come out of this time was the score for Facundo, el tigre de los llanos, a biographical film about Facundo Quiroga, an Argentinian caudillo.
One of Ginastera’s international academic career highlights came in 1955 when he was offered a post as a composition professor in the prestigious Indiana University. However, he declined the offer due to his nationalistic tendencies which prompted him to devout his best years’ work to his country which had just revolted against President Juan Domingo Perón.
The following decades and until the end of his life saw Ginastera become a figure of international renown with large commissions and prices coming his way every year. His works were performed by the world’s leading orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, and in the best theaters like Lincoln Center, and festivals which led to a considerable level of knowledge of his name amongst concertgoers. His opera Don Rodrigo was performed at the New York City Opera.
He was also a common jury member in international composition competitions and a member of several international music academies.
After a few decades of uninterrupted success leading different educational institutions and composing on commission, Ginastera had finally established himself as a leading figure of contemporary music and as the most important Argentinian musician of his day.
Alberto Ginastera and Leonard Bernstein, 1962
In 1968 he moved back to the US for a brief period of time in which he published the first cello concerto which alongside the second piano sonata were commissioned by Dartmouth college for a festival in his name.
In 1970 he moved to his final home in Geneva, Switzerland where he composed his final works including his final opera Beatrix Cenci, his second Cello concerto and the Popol Vuh, his final work which was unfinished by the time of his passing.
Ginastera passed away in 1983 at the age of 67. His body was laid to rest in the important Cimetière des Rois close to the grave of fellow Argentinian artist and perhaps its most renowned author of the twentieth century, Jorge Luis Borges.
STYLISTIC FEATURES AND MUSICAL LEGACY
Ginastera, like many other Latin-American composers, produced a music which merged the features of traditional European art-music with local folk elements from his native Argentina.
However, he was not a traditionalist in any sense of the word, quite the contrary, his musical style was dynamic and ever evolving according to the trends of the time and his particular interests.
On the left: Alberto Ginastera and violinist Ruggiero Ricci who premiered Ginastera's violin concerto
Another major accolade in Ginastera’s life, beyond his multiple Honoris causa doctorates and posts in cultural organisms, is his enormous legacy as an educator, leaving behind a massive number of students, both direct and indirect, which were affected by his influence.
Some of his most famous pupils include composers like young Astor Piazzolla, Alcides Lanza, Jorge Antunes, Waldo de los Ríos, Jacqueline Nova and several generations of lesser-known Argentinian musicians.
The progressive rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer brought Ginastera´s music some interest from outside the modern classical music circles, when they adapted the 4th movement of his first piano concerto.
Finally, Ginastera’s role in the founding of several institutions also led to the development of a musicological and ethnomusicological tradition in Argentinian musical education which were crucial for the mapping and understanding of a large percentage of the recovered musical practices of pre-colonial America and traditional folk music.
A master of multiple genres, Ginastera cultivated almost every single major traditional musical form including Opera, Ballet, symphonies, chamber music and choral works.
Ginastera’s works are normally divided into three broad stylistic phases or categories which span his entire life. These were named, by the composer himself, Objective Nationalism, Subjective Nationalism and Neo-Expressionism.
On the right: Maestro Ginastera in his library, dated in 1953
The first period spanned the years between 1934 and 1948. It was in then where Ginastera consolidated his own unique compositional voice and crafted some of his most accessible and universally recognized works. This Objective Nationalism phase saw the composer freely integrate Argentine folk themes, idioms and resources with modern European trends like neoclassicism. These periods vary in their use of traditional Argentine musical elements.
This era in the composer’s life saw the composition of miniature pieces like songs, song cycles and piano works. Worth mentioning are the 1943 song cycle Las horas de una estancia, based on poems by Argentinian poet Silvina Ocampo and the 1944 Doce preludios americanos a set of brief piano preludes evoking the music of different American nations and composers.
In these works, the figures of the Gaucho and Argentinian local color are still a common topic. However, some of his more personal features like a lyric melodic line, a strong rhythmic drive and a highly developed sense of timbre and harmonic color also become apparent all over these pieces.
When it comes to the song cycle, Ginastera’s setting of Spanish texts is almost unrivaled with perhaps the only exception being Enrique Granados’ and Manuel De Falla’s earlier attempts. This style would later represent an important antecedent for some of the great masters of Spanish art-song writing.
Regarding the preludes, this set is unquestionably a direct heir of Debussy’s sets (which in turn were inspired by Chopin’s), with each prelude capturing a single mood, essence and timbre with a focus on colored evocation.
On the left: Cellist Aurora Natola-Ginastera, wife of the composer
Major works composed during this period include both ballets Panambí Op.1 and Estancia Op.8 which masterfully depict Argentinian rural life as seen through the lens of the Gaucho poetic figure. Musically speaking, these works showcase a strong influence of European composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok and even Claude Debussy.
In these ballets Argentinian traditional dance rhythms such as the Malambo are employed in a direct fashion (as Bartok) with a dose of brutalism (as in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring), however, the modern idioms which Ginastera had learnt, transform the harmonic language in a manner closer to the way in which Debussy worked.
The second period covered the decade between 1948 and 1958. This Subjective Nationalism
phase gave birth to a new, more mature style in which Ginastera was able to transcend direct quotations and coloristic evocations of the Argentinian musical landscape. In their place, he synthesized the fundamental elements of the folk sound and seamlessly integrated them with his own voice. Furthermore, this era saw an increased number of pieces in traditional forms.
Several of Ginastera’s masterworks come from this period which saw him craft most of his orchestral pieces and chamber works. Furthermore, it also saw the progressive dilution of direct references and quotations of traditional folk idioms, paving the way for a more “European” style of composition which employed the latest techniques while still maintaining a generally lyrical vein.
Alberto Ginastera with Eugene Ormandy and harpist Nicanor Zabaleta during a rehearsal of his Harp Concerto in 1965
Perhaps the best representative work of the style is the Variaciones Concertantes and chamber orchestra from 1953. A set of variations for orchestra in which each successive variation treats a particular instrument or family as a soloist following the model set forth by Benjamin Britten on the Variations on a theme of Purcell. However, contrary to Britten’s work, these variations are an ode to virtuosity.
Another major work of this era is the piano sonata No.1 from 1952 which saw Ginastera further exploring the percussive nature of the piano as Bartok had done 40 years before but also including rhapsodic breakdowns into almost impressionistic lyrical recitativo passages evoking the Argentinian Pampa soundscape.
Ginastera: Pampeana No.2 Rhapsody for Cello and Piano performed by Santiago Cañón-Valencia (cello) and Naoko Sonoda (piano)
The composer’s final stylistic period took place between 1958 and 1983. Possibly his darkest and most transgressive phase, this Neo-Expressionist era came with the composer exploring larger forms like concertos, orchestral works and specially, the operatic genre.
Undoubtedly one of the central works of his final period, the 1967 opera Bomarzo Op.34 based on a libretto by Manuel Mujica Laínez best represents Ginastera’s final stage of musical and compositional development. In Bomarzo references to traditional folk idioms have dissolved completely. In their place, the latest techniques of twelve-tone music, microtonality and asynchrony rule the musical development of the opera.
Maestro Ginastera and Manuel Mujica (librettist of Bomarzo)
In a way, Ginastera’s late Neo-expressionist style looks back in time to the great expressionist operas of the early twentieth century like Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aaron and even Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. And once again showing the composer’s vision for novelty and development, employing techniques which had only been around for a few years at most.
Few modern South American composers have achieved a level of success and universal recognition as Alberto Ginastera. His compositions have been performed all over the globe and to this day he is still undoubtedly, alongside tango giant Astor Piazzolla, the single most successful art-musician to ever come out of the River Plate basin.
Maestro Ginastera at work in his piano next to his cat Kiut
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