The String Quartet and the Tango

If you book or hire a String Quartet for your wedding reception or birthday party, you might want to consider having them play some lively and exciting tangos for you. String quartets tend to be hired to play for civil wedding ceremonies and church wedding ceremonies, for the drinks reception, sometimes playing indoors and sometimes the string quartet playing in the gardens if the weather permits, and then very often with a string quartet playing background music during the wedding breakfast. But this isn't the only situation in which the string quartet might be booked for an event. String quartets also hired to play for corporate events or booked to play during wedding anniversary meal and military banquet.

Because of this diverse range of events that a string quartet has to cater for, they need to have a wide repertoire at their fingertips, and although the string quartet, when performing in a concert recital situation, usually plays from the string quartet repertoire the classical composers such as Beethoven, Brahms or Mozart, in the background music situations, and wedding situations, other types of music such as jazz, music and shows, and arrangements of pop covers for instrumental ensemble also played.

One of the really exciting musical forms can be performed well with the string quartet is the tango. In its original form, where it developed in South America, it was played by trio quartet or quintet, normally including a violin, which is a fundamental part of the string quartet, a double bass, which plays the same role as the cello string quartet, very often bandoneon (a kind of accordion), which fulfilled the part of the second violin and viola in the string quartet. Various other instruments may appear in some small tango ensembles, and just as the string quartet can extends to a full orchestra, so Tango bands can grow into a full orchestral unit.

The allure of tango — both the dance and its music — is an extraordinary and enduring phenomenon. It really come back into popularity for wedding music, and on our website we have many string quartets who played tangos, plus some guitar and violin duo's et cetera that to the same. Although not all tangos are Argentinian by any means, classic Argentinean tangos form the core of the music and are from the golden ages of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, together with some more recent examples of tango nuevo by Astor Piazzolla, whose often vicious and terrifying music was used in a number of major films.

Tango was born around the turn of the twentieth century in the bars and bordellos of the port of Buenos Aires. It was quickly taken up in fashion-hungry Paris and from there spread like wildfire throughout Europe and the Americas. Its music is volatile and restless, moving between aggressive staccato, surges of legato melody and passages of glittering virtuosity.

We often think of the dance in terms of choreographed displays, with all the glitz and polish of a stage show. But for most tango lovers this is essentially a social dance, enjoyed on what are often crowded dance floors. The dance itself is a form of stylised walk, so the music should not be played too fast: tango is traditionally notated in 2/4 but it is often better to think of it as 4/8, with four distinct beats in the bar. When tangos are played for wedding receptions, it is rare that there dance to, although this has happened on occasions. I've personally had the pleasure of playing for a tango dance group with my string quartet, and it certainly adds another wonderful dimension to the music when you can see skilled dances dancing to music your playing. The danger is that you spend so much time watching the dancing that you get lost in where you are with the music!

The music has become inextricably connected with the plaintive sound of the bandoneon (a kind of button accordion) but a typical tango ensemble will often include violins, piano, double bass and perhaps flute or guitar. The arrangements in this collection follow the same flexible format as other books in this series and can be performed as solos, duets or larger ensembles, accompanied by piano, violin or guitar. The piano part can be readily adapted for accordion to add an additional authentic flavour. Tango musicians will often share the melodic line between instruments to create scintillating contrasts of tone and colour. This is very much up to the skill of musicians of the improvising, but to do this you have to be a dedicated Tango musician, and string quartets will use arrangements specifically created for their ensemble. In recent years some excellent arrangements have been written and are readily available for the string quartet musicians. However, it has long way from reading the dots on playing the notes, to feeling the style of the music and putting the right emphasis and expression into it to make people want to get up and dance.


Here are a few of the tangos that one might find in a wedding string quartet repertoire:

La Cumparsita - Gerardo Matos Rodriguez (1897-1948)

La Cumparsita has become universally familiar as the archetypal tango melody. Like many classic tangos it is built on the simplest of harmonic structures: two bars of tonic (Gm) and dominant (D7) with the occasional subdominant (Cm) for variety. As players we can relish the contrast between spiky staccato quavers and seductively undulating chromaticism. The title La Cumparsita refers to a group of friends or comrades taking part in a carnival procession: the original sheet music shows them striding forth in spats and bowler hats.

La Payanca - Augusto Berto (1889-1953)

With its concise, repeated phrases La Payanca is one of the easiest and most approachable tangos in our collection. This arrangement follows the characteristic tango musicians' practice of sharing the melodic line between the instruments, the Violin Melody taking its turn in playing countermelodies and accompaniment figures.

Volver - Carlos Gardel (1890-1935)

Carlos Gardel is an iconic figure in the story of tango. Like so many inhabitants of Buenos Aires in the early 1900s he was an immigrant: his family was from France, travelling to Argentina in search of a better life. As a singer and composer Gardel became a superstar and his death in an aeroplane crash sealed his fate as a tango legend. Volver ('turning back') is a tango cancion or tango song — a form Gardel helped to create. More lyrical (and a little slower) than a danced tango, the music is imbued with passion and yearning.

Vuelvo al sur - Astor Piazzolla (1921-92)

As a composer and bandoneon player Piazzolla is one of the most celebrated names in tango. His ambition as a young man was to become a 'serious' composer in the European tradition of Stravinsky or Hindemith, but his teacher in Paris, Nadia Boulanger, recognised that his roots and his vocation lay with tango: 'This is your music. You can throw the rest away.' Piazzolla went on to spearhead the development of a new style of tango composition in the 1950s and 60s, tango nuevo. The intense and brooding Vuelvo al sur ('I return to the south' - words by Fernando Solanas) is one of Piazzolla's best-known tango songs.

El Cachorrito - Angel Villoldo (1861-1919)

Writing at the turn of the century, Villoldo was one of the pioneers of the genre. But already this music has the hallmarks of classic tango: a dramatic opening gesture, volatile switches between lyrical and staccato, all underpinned with the instantly-recognisable rhythm of the accompaniment. The title El Cachorrito might be translated as 'the little guy'.

La Punalada - Pintin Castellanos (1905-83)

La Punalada is in a faster form of tango rhythm known as a milonga. The title translates as 'the stab', perhaps a reference to the early days of tango in the low-life bars of Buenos Aires. Both the music and the dance retain something of this sense of latent aggression: indeed, one of the common tango dance steps is explicitly intended to suggest the flashing of a flick knife.

Catamarca - Eduardo Arolas (1892-1924)

Despite his short and tortured life - he died aged only 32 — Arolas is remembered as one of the pre-eminent tango composers of the golden age. The opening section of Catamarca has a quality of nervous intensity, its rhythmic complexities poised above the most restrained of bass lines. The second section and the trio have a broader melodic sweep and in this arrangement these themes are shared between Violin Melody and the accompaniment. The Catamarca of the title is a province in the north west of Argentina.

A la luz de los faroles - Rosendo Mendizabal (1868-1913)

Working at the turn of the century Mendizabal was, like Villoldo, one of the earliest tango composers. He inherited a fortune but quickly squandered it in a playboy lifestyle (several of his tangos are named after race horses). A la luz de los faroles ('by the light of the street-lamps') is a sweetly sentimental melody and suggests the music of Scott Joplin, who was his almost exact contemporary.

Chiquilin de Bachin - Astor Piazzolla

Piazzolla saw tango as a musical genre rather than as a dance form: he famously remarked that 'tango is for the ears rather than for the feet'. Indeed, this ravishing waltz melody (marked canto melancolico) should be played too slowly to be danced.

El Chamuyo - Francisco Canaro (1888-1964)

Canaro was a hugely successful band leader and violinist with a career that, according to his own published memoirs, spanned some 50 years. This beautifully characterised tango opens with a moody three-bar motif which recurs throughout the piece; this is immediately interrupted by a cheeky staccato theme. The title gives us a good idea how to play the piece: El Chamuyo translates as 'sweet talker', one skilled in the art of chatting up the opposite sex.

El dia que me quieras - Carlos Gardel

El dia que me quieras ('the day you love me') is another classic tango cancion by the master of the genre. This wonderful melody should be approached essentially as a song, with something of the freedom, nuances and spontaneity that Gardel brought to his own recorded performances.

El Choclo - Angel Villoldo

Another classic from 'the Father of Tango', El Choclo is one of the best-known pieces in the repertoire, second in familiarity only to La Cumparsita. There is some mystery surrounding the title: choclo means 'corn on the cob' and a head of maize forms part of the cover design for the original sheet music, published in 1905. But it seems that 'El Choclo' was also the nickname of a notorious local gangster, so called because of his blond hair.

If what you have read has inspired you, you can follow the links below to see the string quartets that perform in your county. Only some string quartets Tangos in their repertoire, so you will have to search for them by reading the ensemble's descriptions and sample repertoire lists. Enjoy!

String Quartets: Bedfordshire String Quartets: Hertfordshire String Quartets: Suffolk
String Quartets: Berkshire String Quartets: Huntingdonshire String Quartets: Surrey
String Quartets: Berwickshire String Quartets: Kent String Quartets: Sussex
String Quartets: Buckinghamshire String Quartets: Lancashire String Quartets: the East Midlands
String Quartets: Cambridgeshire String Quartets: Leicestershire String Quartets: the East of England
String Quartets: Central Scotland String Quartets: Lincolnshire String Quartets: the North East
String Quartets: Central Wales String Quartets: London String Quartets: the North West
String Quartets: Cheshire String Quartets: Mid Wales String Quartets: the Scottish Borders
String Quartets: Cornwall String Quartets: Norfolk String Quartets: the Scottish Highlands
String Quartets: County Durham String Quartets: North Wales String Quartets: the South East
String Quartets: Cumbria String Quartets: Northamptonshire String Quartets: the South West
String Quartets: Derbyshire String Quartets: Northumberland String Quartets: the West Midlands
String Quartets: Devon String Quartets: Nottinghamshire String Quartets: Wales
String Quartets: Dorset String Quartets: Oxfordshire String Quartets: Warwickshire
String Quartets: England String Quartets: Scotland String Quartets: Wiltshire
String Quartets: Essex String Quartets: Shropshire String Quartets: Worcestershire
String Quartets: Gloucestershire String Quartets: Somerset String Quartets: Yorkshire
String Quartets: Hampshire String Quartets: South Wales String Quartets: Yorkshire and the Humber
String Quartets: Herefordshire String Quartets: Staffordshire