Pre-Decarean Orchestra Innovators
o question the degree of significance customarily assigned to a popular character —who besides has undeniable merits of his own—, can be regarded almost as a sacrilege, especially when certain premises has roots in the history of tango. Such would be the case of Julio De Caro because what is usually thought about him does not fit the historic sequence that can be verified by means of recordings since the early 1910s onwards.
I am referring to the mistaken belief that he introduced the first piano and bandoneon solos, that he brought to life the beauty of the violin counter melodies or that he organized his orchestra in such a way that would make possible an alternated featuring of its members. In other words, he would have created with his orchestra what is commonly known as “arrangement”. But that would lead to think that before the arrival of his aggregation tango was played in unison, without nuances, with a crushing monotony. We shall see that it was not so. Because one thing is to have gathered, blended and polished the preexistent features of style (which in fact happened) and another much different thing is having generated them.
Furthermore, people attribute to him a road with no return between the “traditional” and the “evolutionist” trends. But, strictly speaking, such division of waters had been taking place since ten years before. And as stating something implies at the same time to deny other things, it is not historically fair to ignore those who made really new aesthetical changes before the appearance of this orchestra. To come to these conclusions is enough to turn to the recordings of that time. Of course, you must have those recordings available and, what is probably more important, you must know how to date them. A basic condition to establish a chronological aesthetic development.
Having complied with such requirements and taking the Cuarteto Pacho’s style, which was in vogue by 1914, as a point of departure, it turns out from the compositional and interpretive standpoint that the first great innovator was Roberto Firpo. In fact, during the period encompassed between 1913 and 1916 not only did he amazed audiences with advanced compositions but also he definitively introduced the piano in its leading role. But he also contributed another innovation: he included a second violin in his orchestra. Then it opened the path for the “counter melodies” between them. No other tango orchestra had done these things until then.
We have made reference to compositions that were unusual for their period. We can mention the tangos “El gallito”, “Marejada”, “Didí”, “Toda la vida”, “Sentimiento criollo” or “Indiecita”, recorded as from 1913. Maybe they are not as well-known as “El amanecer” or “Alma de bohemio” which were very often recorded in later decades. We shall mainly agree that “Alma de bohemio” is quite special, and can be labeled as “modern”, resisting comparisons with outputs of almost any year. All right, both were composed and recorded in 1914! And if we have said they stood out among much later tangos, it turns out clear that there is a great difference when comparing them with others written also in 1914 and recorded, that same year, by the above mentioned archetypal quartet led by Juan Maglio “Pacho”.
This primacy disappears towards 1916-17, when a series of events began to take place, fortunately committed to disc. That year another great innovator, Eduardo Arolas, joined the Victor company. He added a violoncello to his orchestra and it meant a novelty. He was important at that time, especially as composer. If we have said that “Alma de bohemio” seemed to be modern, what shall we say about “La guitarrita” or “Comme il faut” recorded in 1917?. But Arolas, due to his behavior, because he withdrew from the scene soon later, became a breakthrough of the aesthetic evolution without leaving disciples and creating a style of interpretation that disappeared with him. Strictly speaking, so personal were his compositions and performances that a stream of similar inspiration would have never been born; he was and he is, simply inimitable. Arolas is Arolas.
But, Heavens, he was innovative indeed!. Going back to comparisons, even the most inspired tangos composed by Julio De Caro are equivalent to the ones written by other progressive composers of that period. They are the best of that epoch but identifiable as typical of that time. But Arolas’s tangos, on the other hand, had no similarity to any trend in vogue. And today it would be difficult to pigeonhole them within one. Had it had a continuity, his style would have been another historical “hinge” to be taken into account.
Also in the fruitful 1917 another character, who despite his young age was highly regarded by his peers, joined the Victor label. Due to his inspiration and leadership a series of aesthetical changes would take place, opening the gates for the innovative interests of Juan Carlos Cobián and Julio De Caro himself. I’m talking of Osvaldo Fresedo. When he was a 20-year-old boy he was summoned by a veteran musician, who had been a protagonist before 1910, to join his orchestra. Then a bandoneon team was born, a duet within an orchestra with the orchestra leader Vicente Loduca.
Even though there was a previous attempt by Vicente Greco to include two bandoneons in his orchestra, according to the circumstances, it seems that it was only a temporary reinforcement for a gig in a theater during the carnival balls of 1914. Historically it was not important because Greco neither left recordings with that setting nor was adopted for recording sessions by other orchestras until Loduca’s case.
But Fresedo also turned out the protagonist of a tremendous innovation: in those recordings is evidenced the use of the bandoneon playing "staccato", giving to it a complementary rhythmical role. This event will mean another before and after, and we have already several ones. The Victor company, in later releases highlighted the novelty, taking advantage of his name growing in fame, and added on the disc label under the text Orquesta Típica Loduca, the explanation “by two bandoneons Loduca-Fresedo”. But it was not his only contribution. His capabilities as player made that the Victor chose him, along with the pianist Enrique Delfino and the violinist Tito Roccatagliata, to form the basis of the Orquesta Típica Select in 1920. They were sent to the United States to cut a series of recordings with polished arrangements and their fine interpretations to compete with the flood of Firpo’s records launched by Odeon.
It is noteworthy the way he blends the rest of the orchestra with his bandoneon. We can say that he fulfils such role in like manner or better than Delfino with his piano. His presence can be regarded as irreplaceable, as for the sound of the Select, to whose line-up a second violin and a violoncello were added. Three strings, piano and bandoneon turned out an excellent combination. As an additional gift, product of this adventure, two of the very few bandoneon solos he recorded allows us to fully appreciate his capabilities. Pay attention that De Caro was not part of this distinguished summons.
We had to wait until 1922 to get new recorded evidences by Fresedo, again in the Victor record company. We find him now with his own orchestra, surrounded by excellent musicians and with his unmistakable style, rich in expressive overtones, alternating passages of solos, “pianissimos” and “tutti” in a complete conjunction.
It is usually thought that Cobián’s conception as leader in 1923 is an antecedent of Julio De Caro’s orchestral vision. Of course, it was an excellent orchestra. It couldn’t have been less due to the high level of the musicians that were its members. But what was Cobián doing in 1922? He was Fresedo’s pianist. And Julio De Caro? He played lead violin in the orchestra led by Minotto di Cicco. As such he cut a handful of records also for Victor. It was a polished group but miles away from the aesthetic subtleties peculiar to Fresedo. By listening to the recordings we can understand it.
Where was Julio in 1923? As second violin in the shows —and third in recordings for Victor— of the orchestra led by Cobián, according to what he wrote in his memoirs. We cannot think that such displacement was caused because the pianist did not accept innovative proposals or that Cobián was not musically able to value the De Caro’s virtues. Whatever the reasons, the bandleader taken as an antecedent, preferred other violinists for his orchestra such as Agesilao Ferrazzano and the Bolognini brothers.
And in 1924? At last De Caro is fronting his own aggregation. But let us remember that he was the third violin of someone who as well was pianist of the orchestra leader Fresedo. Then, between them, who was the teacher and who were the alumni? The chronology and the importance of the discography shows that the order was Fresedo -> Cobián -> De Caro, before 1922, in 1923 and in 1924 respectively. Cobián had to join Fresedo and, in time, De Caro had to join Cobián to be able to achieve afterwards their own fame.
Julio De Caro himself acknowledges this relationship of hierarchies or, at least, of “who” and “when”. In the early 1924 Fresedo recorded a tango composed by De Caro which clears out who the violinist admired by then. Its title is suggestive: simply, “Fresedo”.
In sum, it is attributed the introduction of instrumental “solos” to De Caro but they appear in recordings of Fresedo in 1922. Furthermore the violin counter melodies in his orchestra are highly praised but we know they were introduced by Firpo ten years before. And concerning the piano work, undoubtedly the task carried out by his brother Francisco is outstanding but Firpo was the also one who imposed it in 1913 and the so-called “harmonized accompaniment” was previously played by Cobián’s hands during his tenure in the Fresedo Orchestra in 1922. And to a certain extent by Delfino in 1920 with the Select.
We have checked then that the truth is in the documents, in this case, the recordings, which unchanged continue assigning virtues and priorities. And undoubtedly I like Julio De Caro, his compositions and his orchestra. But just as it is fair to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, also to Firpo and Fresedo what is theirs.
Basic discography recommended
“Paraná” (Manuel Aróztegui) O. T. Pacho, Columbia TX 788 1914.