Ricardo García Blaya

La cumparsita

t is undoubtedly the tango most widely spread, the one that every person recognizes notwithstanding its version, the one used as icon to represent the genre, the one most recorded in Argentina and in the rest of the world.

What mystery is hidden in its bars that they succeeded in becoming the choice of so many and so different people?

For the researcher Juan Carlos Legido in his book La orilla oriental del tango, it is «... a real phenomenon, that maybe we do not need many words to explain it because it comes from the crowds´ hearts, that felt touched by the simple and clear texture of its melody.»

If we take into consideration Astor Piazzolla´s opinion, the mystery is not cleared out, even more, it gives rise to an argument, because even in the land of Matos Rodríguez he dared to say that “La cumparsita” was the worst of all tangos, «...the most awfully poor in the world...»

The maestro Francisco Canaro in his book Mis bodas de oro con el tango emphasizes: «... “La cumparsita”...has the peculiar virtue that its musical structure wonderfully lends itself to be embellished by orchestrations of higher level, everything fits well with “La cumparsita”: counter melodies for violins, variations for bandoneons and other important instruments, besides other attractive musical effects that arrangers and leaders ably take advantage of for showcasing their own outfit. Each leader of a tango orchestra has his own arrangement, his personal rendition of the celebrated tango. And, proudly, he is convinced that his authorized rendition of “La cumparsita” is the best in existence.»

Horacio Ferrer, in his work El Libro del Tango states: «“La cumparsita” has been subject to every kind of embellishments, many times originated in “ad lib” interpretations: counter lines, passages in counterpoint and variations of the most different invention. Some of these additions have been, let us say, consecrated; such is the case, for example, of the variation for bandoneons composed by Luis Moresco around 1930.»

La cumparsita” was initially a little march, composed by the young student of architecture, Gerardo Hernán Matos Rodríguez on an uncertain date, that we can place between the late 1915 and the early 1916, for the carnival marching band organized by the Federation of Students of Uruguay, precisely for the on-coming celebrations.

There are contradictions of opinions as for the date and, as we shall further see, also about what orchestra was the first one to record it.

For Legido and for Matos Rodríguez´s grandniece, Rosario Infantozzi Durán, the dates are in 1917 and the first recording was by the Alonso-Minotto orchestra.

With some differences the Uruguayan researcher Boris Puga, recognizes that the Firpo orchestra played in 1916 in Montevideo, but it is doubtful that Firpo´s recording belongs to that year, because there is a difference in the correlativity of matrix numbers with another series of recordings of the period.

Héctor Lucci states that the first two recordings were made in 1916. Roberto Firpo´s, surely the first one, according to the record number, Odeon 483. The second, Juan Maglio´s, for the ERA label, whose records were pressed in Porto Alegre (Brazil), since 1915 because of World War I, since it is the fifth recording in a series of twenty-six numbers started in 1916.

In the chapter about Alberto Alonso —one of the leaders of the team Alonso-Minotto—, (Ochenta notas de tango, Ediciones de la Plaza, 1998), the Uruguayan historian Horacio Loriente says that: «Alberto Alonso, in his book “La cumparsita, historia del famoso tango y de su autor” (Mosca Hnos. S.A., Montevideo, 1967), places the date of the trip in May 1917, while the Victor company announces the repertory only in December 1917.»

Furthermore Lucci told me and Bruno Cespi confirmed it, that not a long time ago another rendition of “La cumparsita”, which everybody knew nothing about, appeared. It is the one recorded by the Cobián-Fresedo-Roccatagliatta trio, for the Telephon label, the same label in which the trio recorded “Buenos Aires tenebroso”, but on another record, in the late 1917 or early 1918.

Héctor López and Enrique Binda published an article in the Cuadernos de difusión del tango No. 16, under the direction of Salvador Arancio, in which they agree with Lucci by saying that the carnival celebrations at issue, for which the piece was written, were those of 1916; that around the end of that year Firpo´s recording appeared and, soon later, possibly the early 1917, Maglio´s and, only in the late 1917, Alonso-Minotto´s.

It is not at issue that the Roberto Firpo orchestra had been the first that played “La cumparsita” in public. The dispute is about the year.

The historian Héctor Ernié (in La historia de La Cumparsita, revista Tango #23) is, in my opinion, the one who really brings light to this subject. He found out, in fact, that the first sheet music of “La cumparsita” was published in Montevideo by Arista y Lena, in 1916 and the following year by Breyer Hermanos in Buenos Aires.

Today, it seems, that there are no more arguments about this, and everybody or most people, place the events and the first recording in 1916, according to what Jorge Palacio —Faruk— told me.

In April that year, the young Matos Rodríguez, through a friend, introduced his music to the leader and pianist Roberto Firpo who, at that time, led his orchestra at the Café La Giralda, tango center in the city of Montevideo (capital of Uruguay).

The original written music was very elementary, so he turned to the pianist Carlos Warren for help, in order to present a more polished version.

The maestro agreed to play it but he, previously, arranged a new version. According to Firpo himself, “La cumparsita” only had its first section as a harmonic feature, and he borrowed an excerpt from his tango “La gaucha Manuela” and inserted it to the little march for the trio —third part—, also adding a portion of the opera “Miserere” by Giuseppe Verdi. So “La cumparsita” would have then music by Matos Rodríguez, Firpo and Verdi.

Legido tells us that Firpo suggested him appearing as collaborator in the composition of the tango, but the young student, still a minor, strongly opposed to that.

The circumstance of being a minor is not an unimportant detail, because some months later, thanks to that circumstance, even though the publishers Breyer Hermanos had bought the rights of the work from the young composer, he succeeded in recovering them.

In 1924, “La cumparsita” was something forgotten, but something happened which caused its revival. Without the permission of its composer, Pascual Contursi and Enrique Pedro Maroni added lyrics and a new name to it: “Si supieras”. This made Matos Rodríguez be furious, giving rise to a lawsuit that finally was settled in the year 1948.

This new sung version was premiered by the actor Juan Ferrari in a one-act farce, on June 6, 1924 and later, Gardel recorded it that same year in Buenos Aires and four years later in Barcelona.

In 1926 the composer wrote another lyric and forced the publisher to make an official release. This version was taken by the tenor Tito Schipa, who recorded it in 1930. Many years later, Ángel Vargas, with the Ángel D'Agostino orchestra, did the same on November 2, 1945.

But the truth is that the lyric written by the team Contursi-Maroni, even though it reminds us of the mood in “Mi noche triste (Lita)”, is much better than the other and, at last, was the one which easily endured the passing of time.

Canaro comments that soon after that “La cumparsita” was premiered, he played it with his orchestra, but its boom was ephemeral, he tells us: «But what is funny is that time later it was back in the repertories, was reprised; fashionable orchestras played it again, new recordings were released on discs, Gardel began to sing it as one of his preferred numbers, and female and male singers went on spreading it. And so a new era for the inspired tango started, that in crescendo was reasserting its popularity and its success and it reached a wide acclaim and astonishingly prevailed over the other tangos of its time, becoming an unprecedented boom that still today is in vogue, in such a way that it is included in the chart-book of all the tango orchestras. It is as well in vogue in Paris and in the most important centers of Europe and America.»

So, for example: the six Juan D'Arienzo renditions, between 1928 and 1971, are different, but the one recorded on December 10, 1963 stands out, because it is the one with most drive and most polished; Piazzolla, in spite of having scorned it, he recorded it four times, the first, a non-commercial rendition with his orchestra in 1946. In 1951 he committed to disc another arrangement for orchestra of La Cumparsita for TK records.

In 1957 his string orchestra recorded a different arrangement of La Cumparsita for Music Hall. And finally in 1967 he recorded another version with a big orchestra for Polydor.

Alberto Mancione made, in my point of view, a remarkable recording —on June 13, 1952—, which was awarded in Tokyo as the best rendition of that tango. This happened thanks to the broadcasting of his recordings by means of an unauthorized record published in Japan, while Mancione was unaware of it.

La cumparsita” arrived at the movies as well. In 1947 a film directed by Antonio Monplet was premiered, under the title of the popular tango, starring Hugo del Carril. Furthermore, it was the title given in Spain to the Enrique Carreras´s film Canción de arrabal of 1961.

Finally, this work so special, due to its impressive widespread recognition that cannot be compared in number of renditions with the rest of tangos, is, in my opinion, strictly instrumental, apparently simple but it contains a beautiful entrancing melody, that has the peculiar condition of recreating itself permanently, in a kind of symbiosis, according to the musical personality of its eventual interpreter.