I have to confess: I've never listened much to Gardel. I used to avoid vocal tracks, and you don't dance to Gardel or hear him in milongas. The Argentine veneration of Don Carlos passed me by, and I had no idea why Gardel was so important to tango until recently when I connected a few events in 1917 because the information just came together. A friend in Buenos Aires read the post and sent me a link to a radio-on-demand station with a wonderful interview with singer and tango researcher José María (Pepe) Kokubu. & that's when I realised the real significance of 1917. (Thanks, Ali!)
First, I found out more about the song, Mi Noche Triste, Gardel's first great success in 1917. Pascual Contursi (1888 – 1932) was a poet, lyricist, playwrite and amateur singer. Around 1914 he started to write lyrics to pre-existing music, lyrics that introduced sorrow, melancholy, the failure of love, ambition, decadence and injustice. In some cases he even narrated a complete story in a few verses – and so he recreated tango as the sentimental song of Buenos Aires. (Todotango)
The tune of Mi Noche Triste had been published as a piano solo called Lita. Contursi took this melody and renamed it, adding words that define in intense verse the heartbreak for a lost love. I can't find an old version of Lita, but this is a typical tango from 1912 by Juan 'Pacho' Maglio, on YouTube. The rhythm, as of most the old music, is what we'd recognise as milonga. There are quite a few Maglio recordings, and they all sound much like this, jolly music (despite the title!), bandoneon, violin and guitar, I think. & a great photo too.
Pacual Contursi's son, José María Contursi, was asked what he knew about his father and Gardel. He replied: 'Some months after my father's death, I met Gardel at the tearoom Las Violetas on Rivadavia and Medrano, and he told me: "For some years I hadn't seen Pascual because he loved Montevideo, but one day he turned up here, borrowed my guitar and asked me to listen to a tango. I was struck; a tango? He said it belonged to an Uruguayan boy who passed it to him at the Royal. I liked it so much that I quickly learned it. I sang it for my friends who enjoyed it, but I didn't dare sing it in public, until one day, a bit afraid, I sang it at the Esmeralda (now the Teatro Maipo). It was a hit, and then I discovered that Pascual was the author..."' (Todotango)
So on April 9 1917 Gardel made his very first recording, Mi Noche Triste, for the Nacional-Odeon label. Thanks again to YouTube we can listen to it here. The rhythm is still milonga, but the singing is something else altogether. How few musical reputations have been made from something as simple as that first ascending minor chord? & what a fabulous voice! Gardel was either 27 or 30 at the time (depending on where he might have been born) and had worked backstage in theatre and opera most of his life, learning directly from opera singers and from listening. It's recognisably 'bel canto', with the singer assuming freedom with the rhythm, hanging onto notes and running notes together. Mi Noche Triste, a cross between the habanera and the European operatic tradition, with a perfect match between nostalgic lyrics and music, heralded a new era for tango. The lyrics, with a translation, are here. (The 'English version' is much better than the 'singing version'.)(Todotango)
José María Kokubu comments that Gardel's innovation in this recording was to take the words seriously, and to sing them in a 'bel canto' style. A song about heartbreak couldn't be sung as a cheerful ditty. By respecting the emotional content of Contursi's lyrics, Gardel gave birth, according to Kokubu, to the kind of tango we now recognise. As the music had to catch up with the new emotional intensity in the song, the habanera rhythm we call milonga began to settle into the more lyric sound we recognise as tango. & Kokubu comments further that the new sound suggested a new way of walking, of moving, as the rhythm and the emotional charge developed. Milonga might suggest regular movements, but music like this demands the attention of your whole body. So tango as we know it, both in music and in dance, began with Gardel and this recording – and with Contursi's genius for words and music.
Kokubu's book, Mozart y Gardel – La Musica de las Palabras suggests that Mozart was the first European composer to make an expressive whole of music and words, and he elaborates this convincingly in the interview, singing all his musical examples with a clear musical voice. His English is excellent. The interview is here.
Pascual Contursi wrote around 33 tango lyrics, including Cumparsita. He lived the life of the old tango, and is said to have died mad. Succeeding lyricists turned to more sentimental themes. His son, José María Contursi, was a prolific lyricist, known for the words to Milonga de Mis Amores, Gricel, Bajo de un cielo de estrellas and many others. He died in 1972. (Todotango)
And Las Violetas... Las Violetas, where Gardel and Contursi met, probably in 1916, is still there on the corner of Rivadavia and Medrano. It was opened on September 21st 1884 as a coffee house, with gilded chandeliers and Italian marble, and extraordinary French painted-glass windows. (There are photos on the website.) Not only is it an amazing place to visit, but the chocolate mousse there is world-class. With a pot of best Oolong tea. (Thanks again!)
Videos thanks to HAranguiz and el gardeliano.