updated 19 January 2012

Alberto Evaristo Ginastera

Argentinian composer born 11 April 1916 in Buenos Aires; died 25 June 1983 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Alberto Evaristo Ginastera was born in Argentina in 1916 and grew up in Buenos Aires in a family of Italian and Catalan immigrants with no particular interest in music. He began taking piano lessons at the age of seven, and then attended the Conservatorio Alberto Williams, where he received a gold medal in composition in 1935. The first sketches of his Opus 1 date from the previous year, when he began work on the ballet Panambí, based on an indigenous legend, which premiered in 1937 at the Teatro Colón, conducted by Juan José Castro, a conductor and composer who would become Ginastera’s first mentor. In the meantime, Ginastera had enrolled in the National Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Athos Palma, José Gil, and José André, graduating with honors in 1938. His final composition for his studies was a work of sacred music, titled Salmo CL. At this time, he also wrote his first scores inspired by Argentinian folklore, notably Malambo op. 7 for piano, whose percussive 6/8 rhythm and polytonal harmonies would come to characterize his musical language.

His career reached a turning point in 1941 when Aaron Copland heard his work and fell in love with the promise of Argentinian music. At almost exactly the same time, Lincoln Kirstein, the director of George Balanchine’s American Ballet Caravan, commissioned Ginastera to write what would become his best-known composition, the ballet Estancia op. 8, inspired by rural life in the pampa. In 1941, Ginastera also married Mercedes de Toro, with whom he often collaborated, and with whom he had two children: Alex, born in 1942, and Georgina, born in 1944. In 1942, Ginastera received a Guggenheim fellowship to study in the United States, which was delayed until the end of the Second World War. During this time he composed several of the pieces that best exemplify his nationalist aesthetic, in which the folk and classical traditions are placed in dialogue with each other, while also featuring a marked evolution toward a more pan-American worldview.

By the time he returned from New York, Ginastera was recognized as one of Argentina’s foremost composers; his work was regularly performed abroad, principally in the United States, but also in Europe. In the years that followed, he wrote his first Piano Sonata (1952), as well as a number of music scores. During this time he was an active participant in his country’s institutional development. In 1947, he and Castro founded the Liga de Compositores, a local chapter of the International Society for Contemporary Music. In 1948, under Perón, he founded the Conservatory of Music and Scenic Arts at La Plata, in the province of Buenos Aires; he would be stripped of his functions in 1952, and then return to them in 1956, after Perón fell. In 1958, he founded the music program of the Universidad Católica Argentina, and in 1962 founded the Centro Latinoamericano de Altos Estudios Musicales (CLAEM) of the Instituto Di Tella, which during the 1960s became a key institution for young composers throughout Latin America.

In the early 1960s, Ginastera composed his folk-inspired masterpiece, Cantata para América Mágica op. 27, for soprano and percussion orchestra (1960), as well as the powerful Concerto for piano and orchestra op. 28 (1962), which, when the progressive rock group Emerson, Lake, & Palmer covered its fourth movement in 1973, would become his most widely recognized work. Ginastera then turned to composing operas, first Don Rodrigo, based on a libretto by Alejandro Casona, which premiered in Buenos Aires in 1964, and then Bomarzo, which premiered in 1967 in Washington, DC, with a libretto by the novelist Manuel Mujica Lainez inspired by the Bomarzo Gardens near Rome. A third opera, Beatrix Cenci, based on the writing of Stendhal and Artaud, which premiered in Washington, DC in 1971, is perhaps the most polished of his lyric works, although Bomarzo remains the best known, because of the outrage provoked when the dictator Juan Carlos Onganía banned it in 1967.

By the end of the 1960s, the CLAEM had closed and he had separated from Mercedes de Toro; soon after, he met the cellist Aurora Nátola - all factors influencing his move to Geneva at that time. Ginastera married Nátola in 1971, and composed several cello pieces for her including his second Concerto op. 50 (1981), the last in his rich catalog of concert pieces. His new life in Switzerland inspired such intimate pieces as Cantata Milena op. 37 (1971) for soprano and orchestra, based on Kafka’s letters, as well as a return to sacred music with Turbae ad Passionem Gregorianam op. 42 (1974). In 1980, he attended the premiere of Iubilum for orchestra (op. 51) at the Teatro Colón, a commission by the city of Buenos Aires as part of the celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of its founding. When Ginastero died in 1983, he left behind several drafts and works-in-progress, including one that reached back to his early work in the folk tradition, Popol Vuh op. 44 for orchestra.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2012

By Esteban Buch

Alberto Ginastera’s signature sound, marked by a highly percussive 6/8, dissonant harmonies, rapid tempi, and rich timbres, is identifiable from his earliest works, such as Danzas Argentinas, op. 2, and Malambo, op. 7, for piano, composed respectively in 1937 and 1940. Malambo is a men’s dance from the Pampas, observed by Carlos Vega, the father of Argentine ethnomusicology, in the 1920s but known by folklorists since the end of the nineteenth century. In Ginastera’s hands, it became a vigorous polytonal toccata pitting simple melodies against harmonic shocks. Ginastera also used a malambo motif to create a leitmotif in his ballet Estancia whose finale he once again entitled “Malambo.” This time, he used less dissonant harmony and orchestrated brilliantly for strong winds and percussion. In 1952, he applied serial techniques in the presto misterioso of his Piano Sonata to produce an atonal theme of comparable but less percussive rhythmic qualities. He would continue to use twelve-tone technique later in his String Quartet No. 2, which premiered in 1958. In his 1967 opera Bomarzo, he once again developed a vigorous 6/8 dance motif, but entitled it saltarello rather than malambo, to better befit the Italian Renaissance setting in which the hunchbacked protagonist navigates a prolonged nightmare, tormented by impotence and a fear of death. This type of obsessional rhythm also appears in the finale of the Piano Concerto No. 1. In 1973, the rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer would revisit the piece using synthesizers and drums, successfully introducing it to the pop culture industry that Ginastera had criticized since the heyday of the Beatles. In a certain way, this rhythmic motif echoes the tensions in Argentine and Latin American cultural identity during a good part of the twentieth century. Ginastera’s music is at the crossroads of two main ideologies that underscored the arts: nationalism and modernism. Following Heitor Villa-Lobos in Brazil and Carlos Chávez in Mexico, Ginastera synthesized these polarities often viewed as contradictory, and with a skillful technique that not even his staunchest opponents have challenged.

Within Argentina’s musical history, Ginastera’s career can be situated between those of two polar opposites: Juan Carlos Paz (1897-1972) and Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). The former was an avant-garde composer and local pioneer of twelve-tone serialism. Despite a tense relationship with Paz, Ginastera would begin to use serialism in the 1950s. The latter, who is known for revisiting and reviving the tango, was Ginastera’s student starting in 1941. The two shared an interest in popular music, but Ginastera maintained a resolutely classical style, preferring to draw on folkloric references from rural Argentina than popular urban music from Buenos Aires.

Ginastera’s institutional career in classical music began when he was a student at the conservatory founded by the father of Argentine musical nationalism, Alberto Williams (1862-1949), who was himself trained by Cesar Franck. And his career culminated in the 1960s when he was the director of the Centro Latinoamericano de Altos Estudios Musicales (CLAEM), where, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, young Latin American composers could meet Aaron Copland, Olivier Messiaen, Luigi Nono, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage, and other international figures of contemporary music.

In conversations with his biographer Pola Suárez Urtubey published in 1967, Ginastera shared insights concerning his career that would serve musicologists for long to come. First, Arthur Rubinstein’s interpretation of Béla Bartók’s Allegro barbaro was a revelation for him. Also decisive was the notion of “imaginary folklore” that the critic Serge Moreux had applied to Bartók. Second, he divided his musical output into three style periods: “objective nationalism” in his early career, “subjective nationalism” beginning with his Pampeana No. 1, op. 16, for violin and piano in 1947, and “neo-expressionism” from his Quartet No. 2 of 1958 forward.

Influenced by the dominant aesthetic of the interwar period, Ginastera was drawn to the earthy energy and additive climactic moments introduced by Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Illustrating Stravinsky’s influence, a series of primitive images appears in Ginastera’s works, from the “Warriors’ Dance” of Panambí, op. 1, to the “Song for the Warriors’ Departure” from the Cantata para América Mágica, and beyond. Ginastera gradually moved away from primitivism to shape a complex expressive universe enriched by other facets of contemporary music. Drawing on Argentine national soundscapes, Ginastera subjectively developed the spontaneous expression of the people into a tool to represent contemporary subjectivity itself. Paradoxically, he found its expression in a neurotic angst and death drive, as permeate Bomarzo. The disruptive energy was never truly tempered, even by his almost systematic reference to Christianity, spanning his career from Psalm 150 in 1938 and The Lamentations of Jeremiah, op. 14, in 1946, to Iubilum, op. 51, in 1980.

The shift from objective nationalism to subjective nationalism seems to cover, even mask, what is really a range of conventions to convey the symbolic sounds of the collective. Ginastera had a particular flair for knowing the international evolutions of nationalist images, which was no doubt one of the reasons for his success. The patriotic themes and rugged language of his first successes match with the mix of nationalism and modernism found also in Rodeo (1942) and other favorite themes his mentor Copland wrote around the same time. Estancia became canonic in Argentina, perhaps due to the safe distance it maintains in terms of the ethnographic paradigm when depicting the daily cycle of labor on the pampean ranches that had made the country’s traditional elite rich. Commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein for George Balanchine’s company (which would never perform the piece), composed in 1941, premiered in 1943 in its orchestral version in Buenos Aires, and premiered again in 1952 as a scenic work, this piece would over time acquire quasi-official status, revived as it was in 2010 for Argentina’s bicentenary celebrations.

Yet again in his Pampeanas series, Ginastera cultivated a national sound compatible with a Pan-American credo, as illustrated in 1944 with Doce Preludios Americanos for piano. This piece resonated as a manifesto, while, in the midst of World War II, Ginastera called upon an institutional network controlled by the United States. The titles of the twelve brief pieces combined allusions to folklore (“Danza Criolla,” “Vidala”), characteristic technical processes (“Sobre los acentos,” “En el primer modo menor pentatónico”), and emblematic composers from the continent (Roberto García Morillo, Juan José Castro, Copland, and Villa-Lobos). Sixteen years later, in 1960, a call for continental unity was again suggested in Cantata para América Mágica, a piece for soprano, two pianos, and a large percussion orchestra, with a text inspired by indigenous stories written by Ginastera’s first wife, Mercedes de Toro. The microtones and atonal vocal line, as well as the rich timbres and irrational rhythms from fifty-three percussion instruments (including many of indigenous origin), powerfully depict the “magical” element in the history of the Americas that Ginastera would oppose to the Christian culture of the conquistadores. Twenty years later, in 1980, he would explore the ideological opposition between these two expressive elements — a pentatonic “Quechua” theme and a theme inspired by Gregorian chant — to structure Iubilum, celebrating the 400th anniversary of the founding of Buenos Aires by the Spanish in 1580.

At the beginning of the 1960s, when leftist intellectuals were rediscovering the appeal of nationalism in the Cold War, Ginastera turned toward more “universal” themes, namely those from operas set in the Spanish Middle Ages or Italian Renaissance. “I see Bomarzo as a man of our times,” Ginastera said in 1967. A scandal had broken out around his second opera when, with support from the archbishop of Buenos Aires, General Juan Carlos Onganía banned its production, objecting to the outrageous “sex, violence, and hallucination” he imagined were contained therein. Ginastera tried to explain that it was actually a moral fable about the downward spiral of contemporary individualism, but the opera would not be performed in Buenos Aires at the Teatro Colón until 1972, after the fall of the dictator. This unfortunate episode, which the American ambassador of the time called “the Bomarzo affair,” did have some unexpected benefits for Ginastera. He would be remembered as an opponent to military dictatorships, although in reality he would not refuse any of the honors they bestowed, notably after the coup d’état in 1976.

In the years preceding his death in 1983, Ginastera lived in Geneva, Switzerland, with his second wife, Aurora Nátola. A peaceful unifying nature prevailed in his work of this period. He merged different techniques, including clusters woven into Letters from Kafka to Milena Jesenska and Gregorian chants in his Passion, which he deliberately wanted in Latin to counter the populist drifts of the Vatican II. With poems by Juan Ramón Jiménez, Rafael Alberti, and Federico García Lorca set to music, some particularly moving passages of the String Quartet No. 3, op. 40, with soprano (1973) prove that Ginastera knew how to loosen the stranglehold of his percussive rhythms and give in to the lyricism that, in an admittedly minor way, runs through his works. His pieces for cello, in particular, are imbued with a sensuality that was earlier perceptible in his Pampeana No. 2 composed in 1950 and explicit in the first movement of Concerto No. 2 composed in 1980, which is adorned with this quotation in French: “Aurore, je viens à toi avec ce chant né de la brume” (Oh Dawn, I come to you with this song born of the mist).

Over the years, Ginastera, despite not having a particularly revolutionary temperament, progressively incorporated into his musical language a palette of resources specific to avant-garde contemporary music. He used atonality, dodecaphony, serial processes, microtones, unconventional graphics, and aleatory techniques. These appeared alongside a core of formal and expressive resources from the classical repertoire and his post-Stravinskian training and, in his later works, indigenous sources that he was keen on reviving. Nevertheless, of the great novelties of his time, electronics and the musical theater of Mauricio Kagel remained foreign to his expressive universe. While electronic music was welcome at the CLAEM, notably with the composer Francisco Kröpfl, Ginastera denounced “anti-operas” and “Dadaist anarchy,” perhaps indirectly targeting his compatriot Kagel. He clearly privileged order and structure. His ideal for opera was a synthesis of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto and Wozzeck by Alban Berg, whose dramaturgical structures inspired Ginastera’s stage works. In this respect, he might be said to have defended a traditionalist approach to opera. However, unsuspected touches of modernity appear in his operas, as was the case with Beatrix Cenci staged in Geneva in 2000 by Francisco Negrín and Gisele Ben-Dor. In short, although avant-gardists have reproached Ginastera for his eclecticism, none can deny his extraordinary expressive power and his skillful technique in treating resources spanning from the entire history of Western classical music.

Translated from French by Jessica L. Hackett.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2012


  • Alberto Ginastera,catalogue [1986], introductions de Malena Kuss et Aurora Nátola-Ginastera, Boosey & Hawkes, 1999, http://www.boosey.com(lien vérifié en janvier 2012).
  • Esteban BUCH, The Bomarzo Affair. Opera, perversión y dictadura, Buenos Aires, Adriana Hidalgo, 2003 ; en français : L’affaire Bomarzo. Opéra, perversion et dictature, Paris, EHESS, coll. « Cas de figure », 2011.
  • Esteban BUCH, « L’avant-garde musicale à Buenos Aires : Paz contra Ginastera », Circuit. Musiques contemporaines 17/2, Plein sud : avant-gardes musicales en Amérique latine au XXe siècle (J. Goldman éd.), 2007, p. 11-32.
  • Aaron COPLAND, « The Composers of South America », Modern Music 19/2 (1942), p. 75-82.
  • Gilbert CHASE, « Ginastera, Alberto (Evaristo) », The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musiciens, Londres, vol. 7, 1980, p. 387-390.
  • Malena KUSS, « Ginastera, Alberto », Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Kassel, 2002, p. 974-982.
  • Malena KUSS, « Symbol und Phantasie in Ginasteras Bomarzo (1967) », Friedrich SPANGEMACHER (éd.), Alberto Ginastera, Bonn, Boosey & Hawkes, 1984, p. 88-102.
  • Malena KUSS, « Type, Derivation, and Use of Folk Idioms in Ginastera’s Don Rodrigo (1964) », Latin American Music Review 1/2, automne – hiver 1980, p. 176-196.
  • Malena KUSS, avec la collaboration de Lukas HANDSCHEIN (éd.), Alberto Ginastera. Musikmanuscripte, Inventare der Paul Sacher Stiftung, Bâle, Amadeus, 1990.
  • Antonieta SOTTILE, Alberto Ginastera. Le(s) style(s) d’un compositeur argentin, préface de Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2007.
  • Friedrich SPANGEMACHER (éd.), Alberto Ginastera, Bonn, Boosey & Hawkes, 1984.
  • Eduardo STORNI, Ginastera, Madrid, Espasa-Calpe, 1983.
  • Deborah SCHWARTZ-KATES, « Ginastera, Alberto (Evaristo) », The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Londres, vol. 9, 2001, p. 875-879.
  • Deborah SCHWARTZ-KATES, « Alberto Ginastera, Argentine Cultural Construction, and the Gauchesco Tradition », The Music Quarterly 86/2, été 2002, p. 248-281.
  • Deborah SCHWARTZ-KATES, « The Film Music of Alberto Ginastera: An Introduction to the Sources and Their Significance », Latin American Music Review 27/2, automne – hiver 2006, p. 171-195.
  • Deborah SCHWARTZ-KATES, Alberto Ginastera : A Research and Information Guide, Routledge, 2010.
  • Pola SUÁREZ URTUBEY, Alberto Ginastera, Buenos Aires, Ediciones Culturales Argentinas, 1967.
  • Pola SUÁREZ URTUBEY,Ginastera en cinco movimientos, Buenos Aires, Victor Lerú, 1972.
  • Michelle TABOR, « Alberto Ginastera’s Late Instrumental Style », Latin American Music Review / Revista de Música Latinoamericana 15/1, printemps – été 1994, p. 1-31.


  • Alberto GINASTERA, Popol Vuh op. 44 ; Cantata para América Mágica op. 27, Rayanne Dupius : soprano, Bugalo-Williams : duo de pianos, Ensemble S. Schlagzeugerensemble der Musikhochschule Köln, WDR SInfonieorchestrer Köln, direction : Stefan Asbury, 1 sacd Neos, 2010.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, Glosses on Themes of Pablo Casals op. 48 ; Variaciones Concertantes ; Glosses on Themes of Pablo Casals, London Symphony Orchestra, Israel Chamber Orchestra, direction : Gisele Ben-Dor, 1 cd Naxos, 2010.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, Estancia, suite de ballet pour orchestre op. 8a ; Suite de danzas criollas op. 15 (arr. S. Cohen pour orchestre) ; Panambí, suite de ballet pour orchestre op. 1a ; Ollantay op. 17 ; Popol Vuh op. 44, Gisèle Ben-Dor, London Symphony, Jerusalem Symphony, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, 1 cd Naxos, 2010.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, « Cello Concertos » : Concerto n° 1 op. 36 ; Concerto n° 2 op. 50, Aurora Nátola-Ginastera : violoncelle, Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León, direction : Max Bragado Darman, 1 cd Pierian, 2009.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, « Complete String Quartets », Quatuor à cordes n° 1 op. 20 ; Quatuor à cordes n° 2 op. 26 ; Quatuor à cordes n° 3 avec soprano op. 40, Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Claudia Montiel : soprano, 1 cd Brillant, 2009.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, « Complete String Quartets », Quatuor à cordes n° 1 op. 20 ; Quatuor à cordes n° 2 op. 26 ; Quatuor à cordes n° 3 avec soprano op. 40, Enso Quartet, Lucy Shelton : soprano, 1 cd Naxos, 2009.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, « Complete Music for Cello and Piano » : Pampeana n° 1 op. 21 ; Cinco canciones populares argentinas, op. 10 (arr. M. Kosower) ; Puneña n° 2, op. 45 « Hommage a Paul Sacher » ; Cello Sonata op. 49, Mark Kosower : violoncelle, Jee-Won Oh : piano, 1 cd Naxos, 2008.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, Concerto per corde op. 33, Musici de Montréal, direction : Yuli Turovsky, 1 cd Chandos, 2006.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, Ollantay op. 17 ; Pampeana n° 3 op. 24 ; Iubilum op. 51, Orchestre de Louisville, directions : Jorge Mester, Robert S. Whitney et Akira Endo, 1 cd First edition, 2003.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, « The Complete Music for Piano and Piano Chamber Ensemble » : Sonate n° 1, op. 22 ; Sonate n° 2, op. 53 ; Sonate n° 3, op. 55 ; Danzas argentinas op. 2 ; Tres Piezas op. 6 ; Malambo op. 7 ; Doce Preludios Americanos op. 12 ; Suite de Danzas Criollas op. 15 ; Rondó sobre temas infantiles argentinos op. 19 ; Pampeana n° 1 op. 16 ; Milonga de Dos canciones op. 3 ; Tres Danzas de « Estancia » op. 8 ; Toccata d’après Domenico Zipoli ; Quintette pour piano op. 29 ; Pampeana n° 2 op. 21 ; Sonate pour violoncelle et piano op. 49, Barbara Nissman : piano, Rubén González : violon, Aurora Nátola-Ginastera : violoncelle, 2 cds Pierian, 2001.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, Estancia ; Concerto pour harpe ; Glosses sobre temes de Pau Casals ; Panambí, Isabelle Moretti : harpe, Orchestre national de Lyon, direction : David Robertson, 1 cd Naïve, 2000.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, Danzas argentinas op. 2, dans « Récital Argerich - Live from the Concertgebouw 1978 & 1979 », Marta Argerich : piano, 1 cd EMI, 2000.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, Harp Concerto op. 25 ; Estancia, suite de ballet op. 8a ; Piano Concerto n° 1 op. 28, Nancy Allen : harpe, Oscar Tarrago : piano, Orchestre de la Ville de México, direction : Enrique Batiz, 1 cd Asv Living Era, 1998.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, Panambí op. 1 ; Estancia op. 8, London Symphony Orchestra, Luis Gaeta : baryton, direction : Gisèle Ben-Dor, 1 cd Conifer Classics, 1998.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, « The Complete Piano Music & Chamber Music vith piano, Vol. 3 » : Dos Canciones op. 3 ; Cinco canciones populares argentinas op. 10 ; Las horas de una estancia, op. 11 ; Pampeana n° 1, op. 16 ; Quintette pour piano et cordes, op. 29, Alberto Portugheis : piano, Bingham Quartet, Olivia Blackburn : soprano, 1 cd Asv Living Era, 1994.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, « The Complete Piano Music & Chamber Music vith piano, Vol. 1 » : Danzas Argentinas, op. 2 ; Pequeña danza (de Estancia, arrangement pour piano) ; Doce preludios americanos, op. 12 ; Sonate pour piano n° 1, op. 22 ; Pampeana n° 2, op. 21 ; Triste (de Cinco canciones populares argentinas, op. 10 n° 2) ; Sonate pour violoncelle et piano, op. 49, Alberto Portugheis : piano, Aurora Nátola-Ginastera : violoncelle, 1 cd  Asv Living Era, 1993.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, « The Complete Piano Music & Chamber Music vith piano, Vol. 2 » : Piezas infantiles ; Dos canciones, op. 3 (arrangement pour piano) ; Tres Piezas, op. 6 ;  Malambo, op. 7 ; Suite de danzas criollas, op. 15 ; Rondo sobre temas infantiles argentinos, op. 19 ; Sonata para piano n° 2, op. 53 ; Toccata, d’après Domenico Zipoli ; Sonata pour piano n° 3, op. 55, Alberto Portugheis : piano, 1 cd Asv Living Era, 1993.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, « Ginastera’s Sonata », Sonate pour guitare op. 47, Carlos Barbosa-Lima : guitare, 1 cd Concord Records, 1993.
  • Alberto GINASTERA, Toccata d’après le quatrième mouvement du Concerto pour piano n° 1 op. 28 dans « Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Brain Salad Surgery », 1 cd Rhino.