MALAMBO! (We’re Aliiiive)

Hello is anyone out there?

Sorry, we’ve been gone so long. We’re both in grad school and had to take breaks for a while to focus on less-fun writing.

But now…

And y’all, I don’t know any way to celebrate better than

DATE: 1941

Warning: I am going to use the word nationalist in this post. It is not …anything to do with our current orange menace…It’s about the movement in classical music where composers used the folk music of their own culture rather than feeling like they had to write something that sounded like the dominant trend of French/German/Italian classical music. It was very popular in the 20th century, and often associated with independence movements. Popular nationalist composers include Aaron Copland (U.S.A), Antonín Dvořák (Czech Republic), Charles Ives (U.S.A), Ralph Vaughan Williams (U.K), Edvard Grieg (Norway), Jean Sibelius (Finland), and Hector Villa-Lobos (Brazil) among others. And hey, those are all video links to their “nationalist” works if you want to go down a cool, folk-inspired, listening wormhole! Anyway, just needed to clarify that works we refer to as nationalist in classical music weren’t written point out how much other cultures suck, but rather to celebrate their own, usually under-represented, culture.

Now that that’s out of the way…

Alberto Ginastera (Hee-na-stair-a) was a 20th century, Argentinian composer born in 1916. He studied music at the conservatory in Buenos Aires and quickly gained popularity as a young composer, particularly for his two early ballet suites, Panambi and Estancia. While the country loved his music, Argentina was going through some stuff in the mid 20th century, and Ginastera was forced to leave in 1945.

Ginastera came to the United States and studied with Aaron Copland, which honestly makes so much sense because these guys had a lot of the same vibe going on. They’re both in our nationalist composers category, and Copland only began incorporating folk-music of the U.S. after being inspired by Carlos Chavez’s use of Latin American folksong. They were also both dedicated to the traditional forms of classical music so it was a great teaching partnership for this phase of their lives. In fact, the movement we’re studying today reminds me SO MUCH of the “Hoe-Down” from Copland’s Rodeo in both “plot” and musical content (remember kids, it’s RODEO not ro-day-o…only you can prevent elitism in classical music!) .

But when today’s featured piece came out, Ginastera was still just a virtuosic young guy in Argentina. We’re actually lucky to even HAVE Estancia since Ginastera later destroyed or withdrew most of his earlier works, calling them “immature” examples of his art.


I hate when composers do this.

STOP DESTROYING YOUR MUSIC. ALL COMPOSERS. STOP IT. JUST PUT IT IN A NICE TEMPERATURE-CONTROLLED BOX AND DON’T THINK ABOUT IT. If it turns out your music actually sucks, I’m sure your grandchildren will kindly throw it into the garbage for you after you die.

[cough] Sidebar over!

ANYWAY! Luckily, Estancia and some other works were already so firmly beloved and already essentially locked into the Argentinian musical canon, they survived the purge. Ginastera called the music from this period of his life “Objective Nationalism”, meaning that he often integrated Argentinian folk themes into western classical styles in a very literal translation, whereas later he got a lot more abstract with his folk references (Later Ginastera is weird and great).

In 1941 American Ballet Caravan toured South America, where their impresario Lincoln Kirstein heard Ginastera’s music for the first time. The company had just produced Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid, a “cowboy ballet” (see I told you they were on the same vibe-length) and were excited to continue down that path. They asked Ginastera to compose on a scenario on “Argentine country life” and Ginastera naturally turned to gauchos because obviously horse-dudes are awesome/attractive no matter what country you’re in.

Horse-boys are appealing across many cultures and time-traveling adventures

Lincoln Kirstein had a very cool idea for an evening of three one-act ballets composed by three South American composers (Francisco Mignone, Brazil and Domingo Santa Cruz of Chile being the other two composers) and was going to to have George FRICKIN Balanchine choreograph the ballet…But then the group disbanded later that year and the project fell apart (Don’t feel too sad all the ballet people were fine, and in 1953 Estancia did eventually premiere in its ballet form, although with another choreographer).

Ginastera didn’t let the loss keep him down though (and I deeply hope his contract made sure he still got paid…)! He whittled the ballet down to a suite (Danzas del Ballet Estancia, op.8) and premiered it at the Teaotro Coloacuten in Buenos Aires in 1943. People lost their minds because this piece is awesome, and it was an instant success. It incorporates a LOT of Argentinian folk music, melodies, rhythms and dance forms, but it’s translated directly into western classical form. Danzas del Ballet Estancia fit in well with the current trend toward Nationalism in music, so this piece gained international popularity quickly. The entire ballet score is rarely heard in it’s complete form (which is a bummer because apparently it’s all great?!) but this suite has become an absolute standard in the canon. I mean the canon is ridiculous, but it’s important to know that this is in it.

Today is all about the last movement of the suite, the Danza final, today but let’s quickly run down the “plot” of what comes before it, and oh what the heck, I’ll link you to youtube vidz of the movements if you care to go on a listening adventure! The complete ballet-version of the story is simple: Nice gaucho boy falls in love with cattle ranch owner’s daughter. She’s not into it, but then she sees how awesome he is at horse-games and dancing and she is like “dayuuuum” and then they’re in love! Standard horse-boy meets farm-girl love stuff. These four danzas are excerpted from that larger story.

I. Los trabajadores agricolas (Agricultural workers)

The sun rises as we begin our journey through a regular day in the life of a gaucho. Like the danza final, it also features a malambo, which is an Argentinian dance for men (originated in gaucho culture) to show off some really hardcore percussive footwork, sick boots and stern faces. This malambo is just a minor dance scuffle though, nothing compared to what awaits us later.

II. Danza del trigo (Wheat dance)

Honestly all I can find in my sources about what’s happening plot-wise is “a gentle interlude” so, I’m assuming is probably one of those beautiful ballet moments where the plot is not really going anywhere and we can just watch some lovely dancing. But it’s a lovely musical depiction of beautiful fields of shimmering wheat.

III. Los Peones de hacienda (The Cattlemen)

The Cattlemen are, at least according to this music, really aggressive. I feel like the syncopated bass line of this is basically a big dude in gaucho pants swaggering his hips around in musical form. Also some hardcore timpani happening in this movement.

Which of course leads us to our….


IV. Danza final (Malambo) (Final Dance….Malambo)

This movement depicts the Malambo/justa which is the “jousting dance” of gauchos. Now c’mon you know what that means…

Yup! A dudely dance-off. The way these jousting dance contests work is a last-man-standing-wins kind of deal, so the music is repetitive but increasingly rhythmically complex and FAST to try and knock out competitors. These contests typically went well into the night and even into the next morning, so the idea here is that this contest closes at dawn, giving us a complete day in the life of a gaucho, dawn to dawn.

The whole piece has a forward driven motion, emphasized by the 2 against 3 polyrhythm Ginastera plays with throughout the piece.

What does that mean…

Well basically the piece is in 6/8 time, so there are six beats per measure (don’t worry about the 8 for now).

So some parts of the orchestra are dividing up those 6 beats into 2 big divisions of 3 little beats, and others are dividing it up into 3 big divisions of 2 smaller beats. SEE, MUSIC IS HARD GUYS! WE HAVE TO DO WEIRD EAR MATH! IT’S NOT JUST SONGS AND GAMES**. This creates an off-centered feeling groove that is crazy satisfying once you settle into it. Link here to a video of a robotic computer graphic showing how the beats line up to create that effect.

You can hear that polyrhythm RIGHT at the beginning of this piece when the flute/piccolo loudly have a division of 2 big beats, the piano/oboe/strings are working with a strong division of 3 big beats. As an audience member this can make it a little hard to get into the groove, so I would encourage you to watch the conductor to help pick up the big beats, because this music is so fun if you can groove along and feel centered in the off-centeredness. If the musicians are all bobbing their heads, or doing AMAZING RHYTHMIC GROOVING like they do in that video, tap your foot in time for another lifehack to get into the groove of polyrhythmic music. Enjoy the ride, remember if you get off-beat that this music is supposed to be tricking dancers into messing up.

The melody is passed around to different parts of the orchestra and once you get to 2:24 in the above video you start hearing these dissonant rips in the horns, and those start to get passed around the orchestra as well. I can’t decide if those dissonances are gauchos wiping out or whoops from the crowd so listen for yourself and choose your own adventure/interpretation.

This one goes out to my music nerds out there: This piece features a blaring, dissonant, flat 2 that always makes me think of Respighi’s Pines of Rome and I wouldn’t even mention it except that it happens AT THE SAME TIMESTAMP in these videos which is just a strange enough coincidence for me to point out these awesome dissonant coincidences. Here’s the Respighi, and here’s that moment in the Ginastera. Probably means nothing, probably no connection at all except that flat-twos are generally ALARMING!

All that technical blather aside, this is a dance contest. I challenge you to groove the heck out during this piece, put on those gaucho pants, and stay up till dawn dancing with your friends.

Canon Fodder is partnering with Awesöme Orchestra to bring you content about their upcoming performances. Awesöme Orchestra Collective brings together Bay Area music lovers for orchestral adventures. They hold drop-in reading sessions that are open to all musicians and free for everybody in an informal setting. You can hear them perform “Danza final (Malambo)” from Danzas del ballet Estancia, Dvořák’s 9th symphony (The “New World Symphony”, whose melody gets floated around pop culture a lot and you may recognize as “Going Home,”) as well as premiering a brand new work by Aivi and Surasshu on Nov 10th, 2018 at 1pm at the Sports Basement, in Berkeley CA 

*A lot of it is though…that’s why it’s the best!

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