Tango Masterpieces: La Cumparsita and El Choclo. (English Lyrics)
Two unforgettable compositions, their music and their lyrics. Tango Series Part 2.
This article is the second installment of my planned series on the Tango. The first part referred to my introduction to Tango as a small child, and some other personal experiences, together with a short history of the extraordinary way this fascinating aspect of Latin culture came into existence. It also included some details about musical structures and instrumentation. (See Part 1)
Now I want to explore specific tunes more deeply, with comments on the lyrics and their significance, by means of very free translations from the Spanish versions which I will develop as I go along. Most of them are rather tragic, and some of them are real masterpieces!
The general structure of the Tango music
Each “measure” in a Tango is either a 4/4 beat, or a 2/4 beat. .Very simply, this means that some can be slower, and others faster. Usually the 2/4 signals a Milonga, or quick Tango.
As in Part 1, I have added a diagram of the basic “beats”, as the repetitive ”beat, beat, beat, beat” of this musical genre is one of its main characteristics, and one of the ways in which listeners generally recognize Tango.
Now we need some technical details, which I will write as simply as possible.
Piano keyboard, tones and half-tones
As we look at a piano keyboard, we can see white and black notes. All the black notes are placed between two white ones. Now if you use the section of the keyboard where there are three consecutive black notes, you could press on the first white note and start climbing up by playing all the notes one after another, that is: wh. – bl. – wh.- bl. – wh.- bl. – wh.
This is known as a chromatic scale, and its characteristic sound is due to the fact that you have been using a scale of half-tones. A half tone is formed by two consecutive notes that do not allow you to play another one in between, i.e., there is no space to squeeze in an intermediate note.
On the other hand, a tone (formed by two half tones) results when two consecutive notes are played, but they do show a note in between the pair. For instance, in the same location on the keyboard as before, if you start with the first white note of this series, and then play the next white note, you will see a black note between the two.
The sounds are different too. Playing a series of tones, sounds resonant, full, possibly even bright, and appears to climb up the scale with ease. On the other hand, playing a series of half-tones, attracts the attention of the listener because the tune sounds “catchy”, and there seems to be some effort made to get right up the scale, the climb is more laborious.
A three note chord
Chords, arpeggios and Intervals
The next concept we need, is the chord and the corresponding arpeggio. Basic chords are formed by simultaneously pressing three (or more) notes together. Using white notes exclusively, we could form a fundamental chord by pressing three notes in such a way as to leave a white note in between each one we use.
Using the Do-Re-Mi nomenclature, a scale would be as follows:
Do – Re – Mi – Fa – Sol – La – Ti – Do.
Now a simple chord could be played by pressing Do, Mi and Sol all at the same time. And the arpeggio is derived from there: it uses the same three notes, but played one after the other instead of forming a chord. An arpeggio is basically a partial scale, using only some of the notes.
I have included a photo of a hand playing another chord formed by three notes. This one is further up the keyboard.
We have almost finished the technical part; all we need now is the idea of an interval, which is simply a situation where the tune jumps from one note to another, leaving several other notes in between, like a larger gap in the scale of consecutive notes.
The major and minor keys
And the last idea: the piano can produce sad or melancholy sounding tunes, which is referred to as “playing in the minor key”. On the other hand, it can produce bright cheery tunes, which is called “playing in the major key”.
Whew! I didn’t know it could be so complicated to explain some elements of piano playing theory.
Back to the Tango
The melodies are usually formed by a combination of notes that show a predominance of partial chromatic scales, which include various insistent repetitions of one or more specific notes within the chosen scale. These chromatic sections climb up and down the key board, usually shifting up a half tone and repeating the same pattern as previously played. Then, just as it is getting a bit monotonous, the tune takes a surprising leap, using a relatively large interval, and lands several notes higher up or lower down as the case may be. There are usually lots of basic arpeggios thrown in as well, combining and integrating with all the rest to support the tune.
Another feature is the “key”. Most tunes start in a minor key, basically sad, as the Tango is usually a lament. About halfway through, often for the chorus between verses, it frequently shifts into a major key. Finally, to finish, it will go back to the minor key in which it started.
These are the features I hope to portray in each of the two chosen Tangos
1.- La Cumparsita
This is not only a famous tango, perhaps the most famous, it also has a complex history as to its origins.
The original composer was a 17-year old student, Gerardo Matos Rodriguez, who created it as a march for a carnival band, around 1915. Cumparsita actually means “the little parade”. He later showed the score to a famous tango figure, Roberto Firpo, who recognized its merits and wanted the rights to adapt and arrange the original tune. Matos Rodriguez sold him the score for a very small sum, and the La Cumparsita started on its road to fame.
The first recording appears to be dated in 1917, and after an initial success, its popularity began to decline. Around 1924, the tune was revised and new lyrics were added to it, to create a version that has been claimed by Pascual Contursi. The lyrics start off with the phrase “si supieras” (If you only knew), and under this new name, it became a famous hit, so much so that Carlos Gardel added it to his repertoire.
The tune itself is not in the traditional style of the Golden Age tango. While it does use repeating sections of a chromatic series of notes, each chromatic section is short, generally formed by only three or four notes. You need to listen very carefully to catch them, or watch the hands of a piano player to see them flash by. The leaping intervals are certainly there, also some measures that use repeating notes as they come down the scale. Be that as it may, the resulting tune undoubtedly deserves to be classifies as a world wide success!
As to the lyrics, there are two sets, as stated above. Under the name of “Si supieras…”, the verses relate a sad story of a man whose woman left him. This is the version that was recorded by Carlos Gardel in 1924, thereby contributing another element to its success, due to his already growing international fame.
The other set of verses goes under the original name, “La Cumparsita”, and is considered obligatory as a result of the many court cases over owner’s rights. The heirs to the estate of the original composer (Matos Rodriguez), want this to be the only valid title to the tune, and the verses need to tell a story that is coherent with this title. The first verse starts with something like: “The procession of endless miseries files past…”, and speaks about a man who is dying of sorrow.
Personally, I find this last version of the lyrics to be excessively tragic, especially taking into account the brilliance of the melody. Therefore, I will say that the complete set of verses can be found in innumerable pages on the web, and leave it at that.
I much prefer the lyrics of “Si supieras..” and the fact that Carlos Gardel, a showman par excellence, chose to use them in his recording, makes it definite for me, as his musical taste was always impeccable and he was very careful about the quality of his performances.
Audio for "Si supieras.."
Todotango.com.ar is a specialized web page that compiles all and everything about the Tango. By special permission from the Director, I am using some wonderful information provided there.
The only requirement is to attribute the material to Todotango.com.ar.
The version of called "Si supieras..", including the Spanish lyrics and the audio version sung by Carlos Gardel, can be found on that page. I strongly recommend listening to it.
My free translation of the lyrics of "Si supieras"
- I want to tell you that in my heart, I still keep that affection I had for you. / Maybe if you knew I've never forgotten you, you would return to your past and remember me.
- My friends no longer come to visit me, nobody offers consolation for my suffering. / Since the day you left me my heart is full of anguish. Tell me, woman, what have you done to my poor heart?
- I always remember you and still feel the pure love I had for you. / You are everywhere, a part of my life, and I search for those eyes that gave me so much happiness; I look everywhere for them, but can no longer find them!
- At the dwelling place you abandoned, the sun no longer shines through the window like it did when you were here. / The dog that was our companion, who refused to eat after you left, and who has watched over my loneliness, left me as well a few days ago! /
Audio and Spanish lyrics for El Choclo
Again from Todotango.com.ar, we can find a superb rendition of El Choclo, sung by Tita Merello and accompanied by the orchestra of Franciso Canaro.
The Spanish lyrics are also included with the audio version.
For Tango lovers, this is a wonderful treat!
2.- El Choclo
The writer of the music and the first set of lyrics, was Angel Villoldo. The tune made its debut around 1903, before the classic period and already shows some of the characteristics of a classic tango.
The music has always remained the same, but there are at least three versions of the lyrics. (1) The initial words provided by Villoldo. (2) A version created in 1930 by Juan Carlos Marambio Catán: (3) In 1946, the last and most famous version was written by Enrique Santos Discepolo.
The Discepolo version is the one that turned this tango into a banner for all the tango music art. The words are not about a tragic, lost love, but about the tango itself, described as a living being. This version includes various words from the “lunfardo”, the specific argot used by the lower classes in Buenos Aires.
Although the music was composed before the Golden Age of Tango, it constitutes a prelude of what was to come. There are various measures which show an insistent repetition of individual notes within the chosen scale that accentuate the fabulous rhythm. However, the use of pure chromatic scales is barely present; the combinations of white and black notes are there, but the scales include small leaps in the notes of what would have been the original chromatic form. In this way, the scales become more harmonious. There is also quite a lot of use of the arpeggio forms, as the tune climbs up and down the keyboard. Another characteristic is that it starts out in a minor key, but finally ends up in a brilliant major key, as if to accentuate the fact that the Tango is soaring free in the skies above. This blends in perfectly with the more modern lyrics, which proclaim the birth of this musical form, the Tango.
Free translation of the lyrics for "El Choclo"
A very free version of the classic lyrics of the Enrique Santos Discepolo version follows, that includes the use of a dictionary for Lunfardo, .which is basically a dialect based on the Spanish.language.
- This tango, both mocking and boastful, gave wings to the ambitions of my suburb, / With this tango, the Tango was born with a shout that rose from the sordid tenements and reached for the sky. / A strange love spell in the form of a melody, that opened paths illuminated by the light of hope, a combining of rage, pain, faith, absence, crying through the rhythm, both innocent and pure. /
- The miracle of your prodigious melody gave birth to young maidens and to women. / With the moon shining on the puddles, a sensual rhythm in the hips, and a savage desire as an expression of love./ When I remember you, dear Tango, I feel the trembling of the dance-hall floor, I hear the throbbing of my past. / I no longer have my mother by me, but I feel her coming on tiptoe to kiss me, when the sound of the bandoneón gives birth to your song. /
- The dandies crossed the sea under your flag, and mixed Paris and Puente Alsina in their “Pernod”. / You were a companion to the libertine and his woman, / and a crony of the pimp and the maiden. / Because of you, informers, police, jailbirds and poverty, / found a voice that was born to follow your destiny. / A meeting of skirts, kerosene, slashes and knives that burned in the tenements and also in my heart. /
At the end of this Second Part of my series on the Tango, I would like to think that my readers have enjoyed this presentation as much as I did in the writing of it.
In my journey through significant aspects of this beautiful musical art, I have not only written about the musical scores, the history of two masterpieces of this genre, and reviewed their lyrics; I have also spent some inspiring hours listening yet again to various interpretations of my favorite tangos.
Let me suggest that you explore some of the material on YouTube, there are some fantastic original videos available there of live performances. All the interpretations of Carlos Gardel, as well as many other classics, have been declared to be of the public domain by the Argentinian authorities.
For Part 3, soon to be published, I am planning to include some more famous Tangos. I hope to share this material with other interested persons.