Stravinsky’s influence can be heard in the ballet score Panambí (1934-36) which Ginastera began writing while still at music college. While movements such as the poundingly brutal ‘Danza de los guerreros’ and ‘Inquietud del tribu’ cribbed unashamedly from The Rite, Panambí proved an assured and powerful early work, full of distinctive touches. Its choice of subject matter – a legend of the native Argentinian Guaraní Indians – also signalled the preoccupation with indigenous traditions which ran through much of Ginastera’s subsequent music.
The ballet Estancia (‘Ranch’) is set on the vast, grassland plains of central Argentina and was commissioned by the impresario Lincoln Kirstein who, on tour with his American Ballet Caravan, had been alerted to the young Ginastera’s prodigious talent by the belated Buenos Aires 1940 premiere of Panambí. Ginastera’s choice of a pampas setting, and his focus on the tough, nomadic life of the cattle-herding gauchos (cowboys), was a result of his direct experience of that harsh but beautiful environment. While writing it, Ginastera had his first, momentous meeting with US composer Aaron Copland, and there is some definite stylistic cross-pollination with Copland’s Billy the Kid.
3. Popol Vuh
Ginastera’s quest to portray the primal origins of South American existence continued to the end of his life. In the symphonic poem Popol Vuh: The Creation of the Mayan World, incomplete at his death in 1983, Ginastera represented Mayan myths of mankind’s creation and development, in a convulsive orchestral maelstrom that harbours some of the most savage sounds in classical music since Stravinsky.
4. Cantata para América Mágica
Pre-Columbian primitivism pervades Cantata para América Mágica (1960), a work that deploys, in addition to a soprano soloist, 15 percussionists playing over 50 different instruments. The effect stunned audiences at the Cantata’s premiere in Washington, DC. One critic hailed the music as ‘stylistically unique’, creating ‘an almost frightening feeling that one was being transported to a new and enchanting world of fantastic sound’.
5. String Quartet No. 1
String Quartet No. 1 was written in 1948. The driving rhythms of the gaucho’s ‘malambo’ dance propel the opening movement, and the open-string chord of his guitar sounds at the beginning of the ‘Calmo e poetico’ third. These native elements are fully subsumed within a taut, urgently expressive structure and a rebarbative language.
Ginastera’s masterpiece dates from 1967 – essentially atonal, its exotic scoring and bold harmonies created a stir on first performance and was hailed by one critic at its Washington, DC premiere in 1967 as ‘combining orchestral wizardry and forceful vocal writing’. It was banned in Buenos Aires for its ‘obsessive reference to sex, violence, and hallucination’. The plot revolves around the Duke of Bomarzo’s narration of his own eventful life, before dying from a poisoned elixir that had at first promised him immortality.