Alberto Ginastera – Biography

Alberto Ginastera was the leading Argentinian composer of the twentieth century, as important in giving the Argentinian folk heritage a voice in art music as Bartók was in Hungary. Ginastera was born in Buenos Aires on April 11, 1916 (his father being Catalan, he preferred to pronounce his surname with a soft ‘g’). He studied musical privately as a child, later enrolling at the National Conservatoire of Music in his home city. His first compositions date from his early youth; he was 22 when his Piezas infantiles for piano won first prize in a competition. The works which followed (e.g. the ballet Estancia) initially developed the nationalist tendencies announced in the Piezas infantiles. In 1946–47, Ginastera spent a year in the United States on a Guggenheim fellowship, joining the teaching staff of the National Conservatory upon his return home. He was later the Dean of the Faculty of Musical Arts and Sciences at the Catholic University. His first opera, Don Rodrigo, was premiered to immediate acclaim in 1966 and was soon followed by two others, Bomarzo (1967) and Beatrix Cenci (1971). Bomarzoattracted attention through what Nicolas Slonimsky called ‘its unrestrained spectacle of sexual violence’ though, as Slonimsky further points out, it also ‘reveals extraordinary innovations in serial techniques, with thematic employment not only of different chromatic sounds but also of serial progressions of different intervals’. (A fourth opera, Barrabas, was unfinished at the time of his death.) In 1969, finding himself out of sympathy with the prevailing political climate in Argentina (indeed, he was twice ejected from his academic posts because of his protests against the repressive regime), Ginastera left the country, settling in Geneva with his second wife, the cellist Aurora Natola. In the early 1950s, the nationalist element in his music gradually lost its dominance, and more explicitly modernist characteristics began to make their presence felt in what Ginastera called his ‘neo-expressionistic period’. He actively adopted the twelve-tone technique and his works also incorporated microtones and polytonality. By the time of his death, on June 25, 1983, his modernism had softened, and he began to look again at the tonality and folk-music inflexions of his early output.

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Concerto for Harp and Orchestra (1965) by Alberto Ginastera

Alberto Ginastera began to study music at a young age, and was accepted into a conservatory in Argentina when he was twelve. He received a Guggenheim Foundation Award to study music in the United States, and spent two years at the end of World War II at Tanglewood, where his principal teacher was Aaron Copland. Upon his return to Argentina, he worked tirelessly in support of music education and the advancement of the fine arts. Among his composition students from those years was Astor Piazzolla.

While many composers shun references to stylistic periods in their work (allowing musicologists that honor, for better or worse), Ginastera embraced and discussed his stylistic conversions. He called his early work “objective nationalism,” and his most famous large composition, the ballet Estancia, is in this style. His describes his works from the early 1950s as “subjective nationalism,” and the Variaciones Concertantes, performed earlier this year by the ICO, is an outstanding example of this style. Ginastera stopped using such obvious references to Argentine folk music during the final compositional period, which he called “neoexpressionism.” This evening’s work, the Concerto for Harp and Orchestra, is an early example of this third period. He employs many of the vibrant rhythms and indigenous percussion instruments of Argentine music in combination with the newer compositional techniques that he had begun to utilize to a greater degree than in his earlier works.

Ginastera worked on the piece intermittently between 1956 and 1958, but it was not formally premiered until February 16, 1965, when Eugene Ormandy conducted it with the Philadelphia Orchestra featuring the legendary harpist Nicanor Zabaleta as the soloist. The three movements are in the traditional concerto format, with the exception of the placement of a significant cadenza as the link between the final two movements. The work is about 24 minutes in length, and it is scored for pairs of flutes (with one doubling piccolo), oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets. There is a large percussion battery and a full string section.