by Christine Denniston
Roberto Firpo was born in the city of Las Flores, in the Province of Buenos Aires, on May 10th, 1884. His parents were shopkeepers, and by the time Roberto was 13 he had left school to work in the family shop.
Las Flores was a small town, and Roberto was soon travelling in search of broader horizons. At the age of 15 he was in the coastal holiday resort of Bahía Blanca, looking for casual work for the summer.
In Bahía Blanca he first heard the Tango played on a piano, and first started to learn to play himself. One of the local cafés had a pianist who played Tango in the evening to entertain the holiday makers visiting from Buenos Aires. Young Roberto Firpo managed to persuade the café owner to let him play the piano when the café was closed.
With the end of the summer season Firpo headed for Buenos Aires with a new sense of purpose. He worked as a shop assistant, a bricklayer, and as a milkman, in a shoe factory and in a foundry, saving as much money as he could. At home he made himself a mock-up of a piano keyboard out of empty bottles filled with water, so that he could learn the relationship between the notes.
Firpo would say, "The happiest day of my life cost me two hundred pesos." It was the day, at the age of 19, that he bought his first piano.
He immediately started taking lessons with one of the best-known composers of the period, Alfredo Bevilacqua, and within four years he had not only had his first successes as a composer, but he had also made his professional debut at one of the most famous clubs of the period, Hansen, as part of a trio with violin and clarinet. Admittedly they were playing for the right to pass the hat round, but it was a good start.
From there they moved to another club in the area called El Velódromo, where they were so successful that Hansen's business started to suffer, and they were hired back at the princely sum of two pesos each a night!
In 1913 Firpo formed his own orchestra for the first time, and by 1914 they were recording.
What was the sound of the Tango at that time? The first real recording star in Buenos Aires was Juan Maglio, known as Pacho, whose earliest recordings are from 1912. He was a bandoneonista, and it was his success that confirmed the bandoneón as the key instrument in Tango. He recorded with a quartet - violin, flute, guitar and, of course, himself on bandoneón. This was a very typical line up at the time.
Click here to hear a sample of Juan Maglio's quartet playing a Tango by Firpo's teacher, Alfredo Bevilacqua, Independéncia.
About the same time as Juan Maglio began to record, the first Orquesta Típica Criolla appeared - the orchestra of Vincente Greco. Greco was also a bandoneonista. He played with a sextet - two bandoneones, two violins, flute and guitar. In fact he had played live with a piano in place of the guitar, the pianist being one of the greatest Tango composers of all time, Augustin Bardi. But the piano was still thought of as a solo instrument, not one that was suitable to be part of a Tango group.
It was Firpo who first integrated the piano into the Orquesta Típica, providing both rhythm and harmonic bass lines. It is very interesting to listen to the changes that happened in the Tango at that time, and speculate on how much effect the introduction of the piano had.
It was Roberto Firpo who discovered, and may well have helped write, the most famous Tango of all time, La Cumparsita. It was brought to him in Montevideo by a group of students, who thought it would make a good Tango. Firpo himself claimed that it was barely half written and that he put in some bits from old Tangos of his own - and that he later kicked himself for not signing it as co-author! At the very least he arranged it.
Click here to hear a sample of Firpo's 1916 recording of La Cumparsita.
Comparing this to Juan Maglio's recording of a tango by Firpo's teacher, it becomes immediately obvious that there have been some radical changes. The rhythm is quite different. The heartbeat rhythm that is so characteristic of Spanish music has gone, and been replaced with something more regular and four square. The melody too is less trilly.
In his compositions Firpo introduced a more romantic, lyrical melodic style to the Tango. A fine example is his early hit Alma de Bohemio, written in 1914.
Click here to hear a sample of a 1920s recording of Alma de Bohemio.
His two innovations - including the piano in the sextet, and writing tangos with more lyrical tunes - were hugely influential in creating the modern Tango sound.
A major strand in Firpo's work was descriptive music. The first great example was El Amanacer, the dawn, which was supposedly inspired by a journey home on the tram from a performance, half asleep, surrounded by people half asleep on their way to work.
Click here to hear a sample of a 1920s recording of El Amanacer.
Other descriptive pieces used the violins to make the sound of fireworks going off, or used bells and whistles to make the noises of a train leaving a station. Another used the whole orchestra to make the sound of laughter:
Click here to hear a sample of a recording of La Carcajada.
Firpo was a hugely successful recording artist - successful enough at one point to prevent his record label Odeon from promoting any other Orquesta Típica - which is why Canaro's first recordings were with a trio. In 1930 he suddenly gave it all up and invested all his money in cattle. It's almost as though he felt the only proper way to be a rich Argentine was to be a cattle baron. In the first year he did well, but in the second year disastrous flooding destroyed most of his heard. He tried to make back the money he had lost by investing in the stock market, and managed to lose everything he had left.
He came back to the Tango, and for the next twenty-five years produced a long string of professional, high quality recordings. These recordings are really excellent, but perhaps a little of the old fire had gone. Roberto Firpo, who had for twenty years been at the cutting edge of Tango, and an important shaping influence on it, came to represent the old guard, the old fashioned way. The revolutions that brought about the Golden age of Tango, which began in 1935 and continued through the 1940s left him behind. The recording quality improved but the sound remained pretty much unchanged. But he continued to record successfully until 1959.
Roberto Firpo died on June 14th 1969, leaving a huge body of work and an indelible mark on the Tango.
Read more articles by Christine Denniston at history-of-tango.com