The tango was born in the late 1800s in Buenos Aires, where it was first danced in grimy bars and brothels. It began as a souped-up habanera, a slower dance made famous in 1875 (and familiar to almost everyone still) from Bizet’s hyper-sexed opera Carmen. But the tango became an even more successful transplant when it leapt across the Atlantic and caught on in Paris in the early 1900s. First picked up among sophisticated Parisian socialites, it quickly became a hugely popular dance craze, spreading rapidly to London, Berlin, and New York City.
It’s easy to see why: urban and urbane, the tango is unhurried but athletic, elegant but sensuous, a tug-of-war between precision and abandon, a choreographic stylization of seduction. The basic steps are simple, but can be elaborated to a high level of bravura and finesse. It appealed strongly to cosmopolitan Parisians already fascinated by the sensual, “primitive,” and voluptuous innovations of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe as well as the provocative syncopations of jazz also recently imported from the New World. Tango seduced avant-garde artists too, enacting the insolence, eroticism, transgression, and enthrallment central to such au courant movements as Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism.
The beguiling tunes and insinuating rhythms of tango music not only attracted dancers and dance bands; they also caught the attention of composers around the world who in the late 19th and early 20th century were zealously exploring their national heritage of folk music and now began delving into vernacular music from cities as well as from the countryside. Ragtime, jazz, and popular dances such as the Charleston, shimmy, and foxtrot were soon adopted by forward-looking composers and cast as recital and concert pieces. But the tango has proved far more popular and more durable than any other such modern-era dance craze.
Tango, then, though it began as music for a (somewhat disreputable) dance that quickly caught on among those with “advanced” tastes, was soon adapted to many different kinds of musical idioms and uses. Tangos can be music for the recital or concert hall. They can also be songs—in musicals, in movies, on stage—or popular hits to sing or hum along with. And they can take yet another form, too, as a hybrid that combines indigenous and classical traditions into a sort of (often extended and sometimes partly improvised) rhapsody—a form explored most famously by Argentinian Astor Piazzolla, who broke into widespread cultural awareness here in the U.S. late in his career after decades of renown in Europe. Some of Piazzolla’s tangos are danceable, but many are meant to be enjoyed as a kind of world music or even as fully-fledged art music to be listened to in a concert setting as one might a string quartet or a symphony.
The territory of tango is immense, and this brief sketch of its domain doesn’t aim to be comprehensive; much must be touched on only lightly. The intent is to give some idea of the variety and scope of tango as a musical, rather than dance, phenomenon, and to suggest some exemplary tangos well worth seeking out in four categories: Theatrical and Popular Song Tangos, Jazz Tangos, Piazzolla’s Nuevo Tango, and Art Music Tangos. (Album titles are included in descriptions of recommended tangos so readers should be easily able to find the recordings.) These four categories make no pretense to be mutually exclusive or exact. They’re merely an attempt to delineate an unruly and diverse realm, always with the proviso that tango’s pungent blend of stylized elegance and moody sensuality remains ever protean and unpredictable.
Theatrical and Popular Song Tangos
Theater composers quickly recognized the tango’s potential to dramatize the ecstasies and ironies of love. One of the earliest to do so was Kurt Weill, who (with Bertolt Brecht) wrote his “Tango Ballade” for 1928’s Threepenny Opera. Sung (on the 1954 New York cast Decca recording) as a duet for two disillusioned lovers—the parasitic male and his paramour who supports the both of them—it both celebrates and mocks the mixed motives that bind them together. Weill’s catchy-as-velcro music, which works perfectly also as an instrumental-only number with the saxophone “singing” the vocal lines (in The Threepenny Opera Suite played by Chicago Pro Music on Reference Records), instantly and vividly evokes Berlin in the hedonistic and cynical 1920s.
Almost as well known is Danish composer Jacob Gade’s 1925 sumptuous orchestral “Jalousie,” originally written to accompany the popular silent film Son of Zorro. It soon became a huge hit detached from the movie, appeared in various arrangements (several featuring a violin soloist), and was first recorded by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops (in their first-ever recording!) in 1935, making Gade wealthy (albeit a one-hit wonder)—and Fiedler famous. There are dozens of recordings: Tango Goes Symphony (Naxos) programs “Jalousie,” along with other classic tangos including Cole Porter’s “So in Love” and Piazzolla’s “Oblivion”; Tango Tango, by Viveza (on Vanguard Omega) offers a more passionate and authentic-sounding small-ensemble arrangement of Gade’s hit in another outstanding program of tango standards.
Some of the most memorable tangos by Americans showed up in the 1940s and 50s as pop songs and numbers from Broadway musicals. Two of the latter variety—both scenes of insidious temptation ultimately resisted, and both written by the team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross—are “Hernando’s Hideaway,” from 1954’s The Pajama Game, and “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” in 1955’s Damn Yankees, where the tango’s peremptory rhythms accompany an inspired-by-the-devil attempted seduction. Both were huge popular hits, recorded by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Della Reese, Gwen Verdon, and Fiedler with the Boston Pops, and eventually becoming part of the Great American Songbook. Another evergreen tango-as-love-song from a Broadway show that gained entry into that pantheon is Cole Porter’s “So in Love” (from 1948’s Kiss Me Kate). Stellar performances by Ella Fitzgerald (Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook) and by Julie Andrews lead the long list of recordings. Though it hasn’t so often migrated from the theatrical stage, Bernstein’s “I Am So Easily Assimilated” from Candide (1956) might be added, as it often appears on show-tune recitals.
From 1952 came two huge-hit tangos not originally from Broadway musicals. Al Hoffman and Dick Manning’s spunky “It Takes Two to Tango” was recorded by Pearl Bailey, Louis Armstrong, and many male-female duets, becoming so popular that the title entered the vernacular lexicon. (Louis Armstrong’s All-Time Greatest Hits on MCA includes “It Takes Two to Tango.”) Leroy Anderson’s “Blue Tango” was a smash in its original instrumental-only version, recorded by everyone from Mantovani to Liberace to Frederick Fennell (on Mercury Living Presence LP and CD reissue). Sentimental lyrics were later added by Mitchell Parrish and crooned by various singers on other recordings.
The tango craze continued. Other 50s popular American songs appended lyrics to borrowed melodies from traditional Argentinian tangos. “Kiss of Fire,” for instance (recorded by Louis Armstrong), is based on an early tango, “El choclo,” and “Strange Sensation” (sung by June Valli) on “La Cumparsita.” (One wonders how many listeners knew that “choclo” is Spanish for “corncob,” used in the song’s original lyrics with salacious intent.) Meanwhile popular dance orchestras began issuing tango programs on LP like Freddy Martin’s 1957 At the Coconut Grove, Pancho Rosquellas’ 1958 Tango Time, and Xavier Cugat’s tango disc on the popular Columbia Records House Party series.
There are by now a multitude of popular song and theatrical tangos (many if not most danceable), not to mention innumerable tango-style arrangements of everything from Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme to whole albums of tango-fied Beatles’ songs. Tangos also pop up often in movies, from early Valentino films like the 1921 silent blockbuster The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (which helped make both the actor and dance famous), to tangos danced by Fred Astaire in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio, to Billy Wilder’s 1950 Sunset Boulevard, to the almost subliminal tango that recurs in Bernard Herrmann’s noirish score for Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo, Bertolucci’s sexy females entwining in his 1970 The Conformist, and Carlos Gardel’s “Por una Cabeza” in the suave dance lesson of 1992’s Scent of a Woman. Cinematic tango scenes are usually sexually charged, but some are also sardonic, as when drunken Paul meets again with Jeanne in Last Tango in Paris. Others serve as backdrops for intrigue or espionage (Never Say Never Again, True Lies.)