Program Note - Alberto Ginastera's Variaciones concertantes

Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes will be featured on the Academy Chamber Orchestra concert conducted by Marin Alsop at the Granada Theatre today at both 2 pm and 7:30 pm. Get your tickets now for this concert, which also features Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.


This program note comes courtesy of the Music Academy’s partnership with the UC Santa Barbara Department of Music, a key part of Project Resonance, a unique program combining writing training with public engagement. Through this initiative, both Academy fellows and young scholars from UCSB are given the opportunity to work on program notes and other written materials for the Summer Festival.


A composer’s musical intentions are some of the thorniest issues for performers, scholars, and audiences to consider. We ask ourselves, what was the person who wrote this trying to communicate to us? To try to figure this out, we often must rely on a combination of hearsay, musical analysis, and historical context. During the twentieth century, however, many composers engaged in analysis and critique of their works, such as the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). Not only did Ginastera discuss his own music and compositional intentions, he even categorized his oeuvre into three general “periods” or “phases.” Such categories are not uncommon in music history—the music of Beethoven, for example, is often separated into early, middle, and late periods—but it is rare to find a composer who does this with their own music. Ginastera divided his works into “objective nationalist” (1934-1948), “subjective nationalist” (1948-1958), and “neo-expressionist” (1958-1983) periods. These descriptions can be helpful in determining Ginastera’s motivations and intentions in composing his music, but they also reveal shifts in the composer’s relationship with and feelings toward his home country—he coined these phrases later in his life, after emigrating to Switzerland. Realizing this leads to a tension between two Ginasteras—the man when he composed his earlier works, and the man when he looked back on them.

Alberto Ginastera circa 1960

Variaciones concertantes (1953) neatly falls into the middle of Ginastera’s three style periods, the “subjective nationalist.” What exactly makes a piece of music “subjectively nationalistic”? We can really only understand this term in contrast to his earlier “objective nationalist” phase. For many, Ginastera musically represents Argentina the same way that Antonin Dvořák represents Czechia. This came to be largely because Ginastera’s early works incorporated Argentinian folk elements, specifically the gauchesco tradition. Gauchos occupied a position in Argentinian popular culture like cowboys in the United States. They were characterized as mestizo horsemen skilled in livestock farming and were associated with several popular dances, like the malambo, and guitar-playing. Ginastera’s earliest works were often directly inspired by these elements, and he presented his works as adaptations of gaucho traditions with a modernist flair. This was “objective nationalism.” After composing in this style for a time, however, Ginastera found himself pursuing new goals in composition. He turned inwards, and no longer focused on directly adapting Argentine folk elements.

Variaciones concertantes is not meant to directly call forth images of a gaucho’s life taming livestock, performing in rodeos, or playing the guitar, but it still pays homage to these ideas. During his early “objective nationalist” period, Ginastera developed several musical “calling cards” or “signatures,” things we hear that tie the music to him. One of these calling cards is a six-note chord, E-A-D-G-B-E, which are the pitches played on the open strings of a guitar. Variaciones concertantes begins with the harp playing these pitches, which give way to the main theme. The effect is that the piece appears to spring forth from that initial chord. “The work has a subjective Argentinean character,” according to Ginastera “Instead of employing folklore material, an Argentinean atmosphere is obtained by the use of original melodies and rhythms.” Ginastera’s intention in this piece was not to focus attention on its specific Argentine qualities, but rather highlight each instrument in the chamber ensemble; each variation on the initial theme prominently features a different instrument as the principal soloist, which is meant to focus our attention on how the ensemble works together as a whole.

The quote above comes from Ginastera’s program note for the premiere of this piece in 1953, and without context appears to direct our attention to the performing ensemble and away from the specific Argentinian folkloric elements. This may seem perfectly reasonable to our own sensibilities, but there was a political and moral reason for Ginastera to turn attention away from any specific Argentine character of the work. In 1952, Ginastera lost his faculty position at Conservatorio de Música y Arte Escénico in La Plata, Argentina’s premier music conservatory, which he had established and directed since 1948. This came about because he opposed naming the conservatory after Eva Perón, the wife of Argentinian President Juan Perón. Ginastera found himself at odds with Perón’s populist administration on more than one occasion. When he composed Variaciones concertantes, he was in significant financial peril. Eventually, he was reinstated at the conservatory, three years after a military coup ended Perón’s presidency, but resigned that same year to begin a new school. Ginastera was no more fond of the new government than he was of Perón’s, seeing Argentina’s political tendencies as a pendulum swinging violently between repression and corruption. In addition, as Ginastera gained international recognition, he came to resent his position as the musical representative of Argentina. His later “neo-expressionist” music focused on serialism and microtonal composition, and he generally avoided using the “calling cards” of his nationalist music. Upon moving to Geneva in 1971, he preferred using the Catalan pronunciation of his name ([dʒinasˈteɾa], or Jeenastera) rather than Spanish ([xinasˈteɾa], or Heenastera), furthering himself away from his Argentine identity.

We can see, then, that his retroactive labeling of his own music periods was not simply stylistic categorization, but a deeply self-critical act. We are lucky that Ginastera deemed Variaciones concertantes worthy of performance, as he destroyed many of his early works during similar bouts of self-critique. All this brings us back to the question posed at the beginning of this note: what was Ginastera communicating to us in this piece? He was a complex man, and his compositional motivations changed drastically throughout his career, suggesting multiple ways to interpret this work. On the one hand, this piece is clearly rooted in Ginastera’s Argentine identity, but on the other hand, the composer himself came to resent this identity. What does it mean for the performers to capture his compositional intentions? For that matter, what does it mean for us, the audience, to hear these intentions play out?

– Marc Lombardino
PhD Candidate, Musicology, UC Santa Barbara


About the Annotator

Marc Lombardino is a PhD candidate in Musicology at UC Santa Barbara, whose research focuses on the relationship between music, dancing, and etiquette in France in the late seventeenth century. He is also a collaborative pianist and piano teacher working in the Los Angeles and Orange County areas. As a pianist, he accompanies ballet classes at Lauridsen Ballet Centre in Torrance, California State University Long Beach, and the Orange County School of the Arts among other locations.