Pianist, composer and leader.
(May 10, 1884 - June 14, 1969)
ither as leader, interpreter or composer, Roberto Firpo is one of the first evolutionists tango had.
On those early days of the típicas, he definitively established the piano in the tango orchestra.
As player, he possessed a quite polished style as can be verified with the exquisite solos he recorded- and he began the use of the foot pedal, which offers a better resonance. As composer, he introduced into tango the romantic air, which until then was alien to that genre created for the dancers'feet.
«The happiest day of my life costed me two hundred pesos», don Roberto assured when referring to the purchase of his first piano.
For that, he had to work hard since he was a child, after quitting the fifth grade to help his father at the grocery store in the city of Las Flores of the province of Buenos Aires, where he was born on May 10, 1884. A few years later, already a teen-ager, with some scarce pesos in his pocket and with his first long pants, he arrived in Buenos Aires in search of horizons more promissory than those the countryside could offer, and he worked as grocery store assistant, bricklayer, milkman, laborer at a shoe factory and at the Vasena foundry. In short, an infinity of jobs that allowed him, with great effort, to collect the sum needed for the instrument so longed for.
He was around 19, and began to have lessons with one of the greats of the period, Alfredo Bevilacqua, composer of "Venus", "Independencia", "Apolo" and other classics. Four years later, in 1907, he revealed himself as an inspired composer with "La Chola", "El compinche" and "La gaucha Manuela". But, besides, he debuted professionally as member of a trio with Francisco Postiglione on violin and Juan Carlos Bazán on clarinet, to play no less than at Hansen's, for three pesos per night and the permission to ask for tips.
It was at another Palermo local, "El Velódromo", where one of the members of the trio, Bazán, began to blow a clarinet call, with the purpose of attracting passing-by customers heading to "lo de Hansen". The result was that the latter remained nearly empty, while "El Velódromo" was crowded by people. To solve the drawback, the entrepreneur of the former hired them again, but this time for the sum of two pesos for each member! Finally, that Bazán´s call became the beginning of his tango La chiflada.
In 1913, he formed his first orchestra, and from that year his early hits are: "Argañaraz", "Sentimiento criollo", "De pura cepa" and "Marejada".
The following year, "Alma de bohemio" appeared, a tango where the romantic air becomes completely perceptible and it stands, no doubt, as his most celebrated work.
Other tangos of his are "El compinche", "El ahorcado", "Fuegos artificiales" (with Eduardo Arolas), "Didí", "El bisturí", "El amanecer" (the first example of descriptive music in the genre), "El gallito", "El rápido", "Vea Vea", "El apronte", "Montevideo", "La carcajada" and many others. He was a passionate digger of waltzes as well, he produced a lot of them, in general with a great repercussion on that time: "Pálida sombra", "Horizonte azul", "Noche calurosa", "Ondas sonoras", "Noches de frío" and others.
In 1916 he had the privilege of premiering, in Montevideo, the one which would become the tango of all tangos, "La cumparsita", by Gerardo Hernán Matos Rodríguez, which by then was only a two-section number. Firpo, in the Guardia Vieja´s fashion, composed for it the third section. Later he would regret for not having jointly signed it: La cumparsita´s rights produced millions of pesos.
As for this fundamental tango, Firpo himself recalled: «In 1916 I was playing at the café La Giralda in Montevideo, when one day a man accompanied by about fifteen young men arrived all of them students- to tell me that they had brought a little march and they wanted me to arrange it because they thought inside it there was a tango. They wanted it ready for that evening, because a boy called Matos Rodríguez needed it. In the sheet music in two-four the first section appeared a little and of the second section there was nothing. I got a piano and remembered two tangos of mine composed in 1906 which had not achieved any success: "La gaucha Manuela" and "Curda completa". I put a little of each one. In the evening I played it with Bachicha Deambroggio and Tito Roccatagliatta. It was an apotheosis. Matos Rodríguez was speedily carried in the air. But the tango was forgotten, its great success began when it was added lyrics by Enrique Maroni and Pascual Contursi».
More than once, he had to share the stage with the Gardel-Razzano duo, besides enduring their endless jokes. On one occasion, when Firpo interpreted the pasodoble "¡Qué salga el toro!", when one of the members of the orchestra shouted the title in the middle of the interpretation, Carlitos using his index fingres as if they were horns- rushed at the musicians who fell on the floor. In spite of such terrible jokes, Firpo and Gardel-Razzano recorded together, only once, in 1917, the tango was "El moro", on whose label the name of the singers was strangely not mentioned, but it was of course- as authors. A Firpo´s revenge? No, what in reality happened is that no vocalization of any kind was intended. What happened then? The story says that Gardel and Razzano broke into the recording studio and the joke, in this case, consisted in singing the lyrics of the estilo surprising maestro Firpo. The discographic company released the disc with no correction on the disc label.
Armenonville, El tambito, Palais de Glace, Bar Iglesias, LAbbaye, Teatro Buenos Aires, Teatro Nacional, Salón San Martín the famous Rodríguez Peña-, Colonia Italiana, are only some of the many venues where Firpo played with his outfits, firstly, and with his orchestra, later. All them meant fame and money for him. And even more money due to the recordings he was offered as a consequence of his success.
In 1930, he surprisingly abandoned tango for a time. He himself explained the reasons to Héctor and Luis Bates: «With the money I got for the recordings I felt myself as a cattleman. All I had I invested on livestock. Only in a year I managed to earn a million pesos(...) Afterwards that sadly well-known floods in the Paraná river which ravaged my livestock; I wanted to recover from such a loss and tried my luck in the stock market. There I lost all that was left for me. I had to retake my previous job, I put together my orchestra and started all over again.»
He also returned to composition, with a very eloquent title: "Honda tristeza" (Deep sadness).
Firpo's career was very long and in no few occasions he went back to the small line-up, like his long lasting quartets and diverse settings in the first of them, of 1933, Juan Cambareri already played, El Mago del Bandoneón (the wizard of the bandoneon)- or his excellent Quinteto de Antes.
Firpo was one of the greatest tango musicians, with a great musical knowledge even though he stuck to the most traditional school of the genre.
His discographic work is huge and surely there may be numbers unrecorded. During the acoustic stage of recording he cut more than 1650 recordings and at the end of his career, around 1959, he totalized a figure near 3000 recordings.
On June 14, 1969, being a living glory of tango since a long time before, life played the final chord for him.