Ricardo García Blaya

El tango de la muerte - Shooting around the bush with “El tango de la muerte”

n the history of our city music there are many examples of tangos with the same title but with different music. “El tango de la muerte” (The Tango of Death) is one of them.

With this macabre title two tangos were made, a movie and a sainete (one-act farce).

It turns out evident that the first of those tangos —which had no lyrics—, was unknown by the connoisseurs of the genre until recently. I’m talking about the Horacio Mackintosh’s composition. We only have some sheet music copies written by the latter musician but we don’t know anything about him. And I guess this because of the confusion caused by some writers that mention him. The second one has music and lyrics by Alberto Novión and was recorded by Carlos Gardel (Odeon disc, 18059, matrix 991/1). Also Roberto Firpo committed it to record as an instrumental (Odeon disc, 6112, matrix 956). Both in 1922.

The truth is that in 1917 José Agustín Ferreyra, that renowned pioneer of our nacional cinema, wrote and directed a film with the title at issue (premiered on April 9), possibly inspired in the Mackintosh’s piece. The only recording of the latter was made in 1917, by the Orquesta Típica Severino, fronted by José Arturo Severino (Victor disc, 69722-B).

It could have happened the other way around: the musician was inspired by the moviemaker. Our friend and researcher Enrique Binda gave us the date of copyright of the sheet music: Nº 16.569, 5 July 1917.

The confusion we discovered appears in an article signed by Ricardo Ostuni, José Agustín Ferreyra: los tangos de un pionero del cine argentino, in the Tango Reporter magazine (Nº 121, June 2006), of Los Angeles, United States, directed by our friend Carlos Groppa.

There he writes verbatim: «Ferreyra was not a professional lyricist; he occasionally wrote lyrics for different tangos included as leit motiv in his movies. We have only five of those lyrics but he must have written several more throughout his life. Each one of those we know corresponds to a movie and had its little story. However —and paradoxically— in his opening film, El tango de la muerte, he did not use the lyric (sung by Gardel) of the Horacio Mackintosh’s tango written by Alberto Novión but words of undoubtedly marginal origin, so that each character would indicate his ancestry».

Ostuni commits two mistakes, it is not the first movie shot by Ferreyra but the fifth, and Novión had no relationship with the Mackintosh’s piece. In fact, Novión’s number has music and lyrics that belong to him. This mortuary tango was released in 1922, as part of the sainete with the same name that also belongs to him.

In the exquisite book Historia del Sainete Nacional, by Blas Raúl Gallo (Editorial Quetzal, 1958), the writer narrates us the theatrical play by Alberto Novión, a playwright born in Bayona, France and based in Montevideo, Uruguay, since an early age.

Talking about the latter, he says: «He dig all the genres, including the revue, and alternated the scenes between the poor classes and the underworld, town and country, the indigent people and the middle class, to which he belonged as we can infer by many aspects of his culture and spiritual features».

Furthermore he emphasizes that he was a playwright of many plays, some of them of a good quality and others, simply mediocre. Among the latter he places El tango de la muerte which he regards as a sub-sainete. It is remembered only by a circumstantial event: the actress Eva Franco sang the tango “Loca” composed by Manuel Jovés with words by Antonio Viergol. The farce was premiered on August 5, 1922 by the Arata-Simari-Franco company. The faces of the three actors are on the cover of the published sheet music.

Very different is Mackintosh’s profile which belongs to the time of the beautiful cardboard sheet music copies that were published approximately until 1920. On it we can see a drawing which shows an elegantly dressed couple when the man is about to stab the lady’s chest with a knife.

We also find the abovementioned confusion in the discography information of the excellent book Gardel. La biografía, by Julián and Osvaldo Barsky (Editorial Taurus, 1st. edition, December 2004).

And, furthermore, in the very comprehensive collection Todo Gardel which includes 50 discs released by Altaya in 2001, that in the listener’s guide (fascicle 43, page 32) says: «The music of “El tango de la muerte” was written by the composer Horacio Mackintons. The only information about him that we found is that his name appears in the recording of this number by the Roberto Firpo Orchestra and it is an instrumental».

In both, the music of “El tango de la muerte” recorded by Carlos Gardel is wrongly attributed to Horacio Mackintosh (with the last name misspelt), and Altaya adds one more mistake when he mentions Firpo’s recording.

In conclusion, there are two different tangos: the older by Horacio Mackintosh, instrumental, Publisher by Breyer Hermanos (in 1917) and another, the one with music and lyrics by Alberto Novión, published by E. S. Castiglioni y Cía. (in 1922).
As a tragic corollary, there is one more twist. We have to mention “Plegaria”, a tango by Eduardo Bianco dedicated to the king Alfonso XIII of Spain. It had the sinister feature that in the concentration camps the prisoners were forced to sing it —in World War II—, on their way to the gallows and, because of that it was known as: El tango de la muerte.