Of the more than 20 different tango dance orchestras from the Golden Age, there are four of them that stand out — often referred to as “The Big Four.”
- Juan D’Arienzo
- Carlos Di Sarli
- Anibal Troilo
- Osvaldo Pugliese
So, why these four, and what does that mean when it comes to dancing?
Each of these orchestras has a distinctive style and sound; none of them much alike. The pulsing music of D’Arienzo lives in sharp contrast to the melodic character and sound of Di Sarli. Troilo’s orchestra was one of refined and elaborate arrangements, and Pugliese transforms and pushes both the sound and the form.
Each orchestra made evolutionary contributions to Tango music and in some cases, revolutionary.
Juan D’Arienzo – “Dos por cuatro”
Though Juan D’Arienzo and his orchestra made more than 60 recordings in 1928-29, we rarely dance to his music from that period. Those tracks were the older style Tango music (Guardia Vieja – old guard) and sounded nothing like what we think of as the real “D’Arienzo.”
So, after a nearly 6-year break, he reformed his orchestra and burst back onto the tango scene. In 1935 Tango already had an established tradition of music and dancing, but after a generation or more it was becoming a little long in the tooth, at least that’s apparently what many of the younger dancers felt. Tango before 1935 was the music of their parents’ generation, and its slow (some might describe, plodding) rhythms and tempos were just not holding the attention of the next tango-dancing generation.
D’Arienzo made significant changes to both the rhythm and tempo of the music and, while still grounded firmly within the context of the Tango form, it was in many ways transformed and new. The “walking” tempo of tango – about 60 beats per minute (BPM) – was quickened a bit with many of D’Arienzo’s recordings falling more in the 63-68 BPM range.
But it was the “Dos por cuatro” rhythm of D’Arienzo’s “new” music that set it apart. Instead of the music feeling like it had just two strong beats per measure, there were now four beats.
Here is an example of a song from the Guardia Vieja (old guard) period. Notice the two strong beats per measure.
Flora by Carlos Di Sarli
And here is D’Arienzo’s first recording in 1935 (with pianist Lidio Fasoli). Now there are twice as many pulses per measure – 4 pulses where there had been 2.
Hotel Victoria by Juan D’Arienzo
D’Arienzo & Biagi: Kindred Spirits
Soon after re-forming his orchestra, and still in 1935, D’Arienzo found his kindred “Dos por cuatro” spirit-partner, the pianist Rodolfo Biagi. Here is Biagi’s first recording with D’Arienzo on the last day of December in 1935. Again, listen for the 4 strong pulses per measure.
Nuevo de julio by D’Arienzo with Biagi on piano
We don’t necessarily step on all 4 pulses of the “Dos por cuatro.” Sometimes we are still stepping on the Old Guard 2 pulses per measure, but this new music suggests new opportunities to do much more, and the result is more energy and activity. All of this turned out to be a revolution/evolution in Tango music that likely saved the entire dance form. People flocked back to the dance halls and new generations of dancers were born.
Carlos Di Sarli – Melody and Rhythm
Di Sarli also had an orchestra in the late 1920’s and recorded some of the sweetest music heard in milongas from this period. Recordings such as “Chau pinela” and “Flora” (both from 1930) are still frequently played in milongas and at festivals.
But it is in Di Sarli’s later recordings that his style really flourished. Above all else his orchestra was about melody and lyricism, especially using the violins to highlight this. Though his first recordings after reforming his orchestra in 1939 showed the clear influence of D’Arienzo’s “Dos por cuatro,” Di Sarli’s penchant for melody created a style that beautifully synthesized both melodic and rhythmic elements. This is what makes his music so wonderful for both rhythmic and lyrical dancers. There is always something for everyone.
Di Sarli’s musical career spanned the entirety of the Golden Age of Tango, and his style evolved throughout those years.
- Music from 1928-1930 is solidly Guardia Vieja period. (1925-1935).
Chau pinela – 1930
- Songs from 1939 and 1943 reflect the “Dos por cuatro” influence of D’Arienzo.
Shusheta – 1940
- songs from the mid 1940’s until 1948 show his mastery of the Lyric/Rhythmic style.
Tu! … el cielo y tu – 1944 with singer, Alberto Podesta
- Finally there is his mature music in the 1950’s.
Milonguero viejo – 1955
All of this music is wonderful for dancing. In fact, one could DJ an entire Milonga playing only Di Sarli’s music and still give the dancers tremendous variety. That’s not something that can be said of any other orchestra.
Anibal Troilo – Elevation of the Singer
Compared to D’Arienzo and Di Sarli whose recordings span many years, in milongas today one will generally only hear Anibal Troilo’s recordings from a period of about 6 years – 1938 (and only 2 tracks from that year) until about 1945. But it was the refinement and evolution of the orchestra’s sound, the quality of the arrangements, the virtuosity of the playing, and use of singers that make Troilo’s orchestra stand out.
Sosiego en la noche – 1943 with singer, Francisco Fiorentino
One important aspect that compels Troilo’s inclusion among the Big Four is his elevation of the singer. In prior years, singers often sang only a small section of a tango song’s lyrics. Often this was a just a single refrain (estribillo). Dancers didn’t want to hear lyrics. They were there to dance to the music – or so it was thought.
While Carlos Gardel was perhaps the greatest singer of Tango songs – singing all the verses of a song – Gardel’s presentation of this music was not intended for dancing. In most orchestras prior to Troilo the singer was an estribillista – a refrain singer – and might only sing for 30 seconds during a 3 minute tango.
Troilo, however, made the singer the Cantor de orquesta, a true member of the orchestra. Though still not singing a tango’s entire lyric, Troilo’s singers present more of the story of the song. A Tango now was not just music to be danced to, but a more integrated presentation of music and story.
Osvaldo Pugliese – The Passionate Evolution Revolution
Born in 1905, Pugliese was drawn to Tango at an early age. He wrote his famous song “Recuerdo” when his was just 19. And while he played in a number of orchestras including Pedro Laurenz and Miguel Caló, he did not form his own orchestra until 1938 and did not make his first recording until 1943 at the age of 38. But this “late bloomer” is the last of the Big Four because of the passion he infused into Tango. With his refinement of the sound of the orchestra and the incredible arrangements; Pugliese arguably brought Tango to its zenith.
“Recuerdo” was first recorded by Julio De Caro’s orchestra in 1926, and it was De Caro’s unique approach to tango that significantly shaped the musical mind of Pugliese. It was De Caro’s legacy that Pugliese set about to amplify and refine. But Pugliese did much more.
Even though D’Arienzo was having great success in the early 1940’s with his rhythmic “Dos por cuatro” music, Pugliese charted a path that harkened back to De Caro and the tremendous development of the orchestra’s individual instruments. It was also a path that was paving the way forward to the concert tangos of Piazzolla and others.
This is dramatic music that revolutionized Tango’s musical form while still grounded in the walking tempos of the dance. It is uninhibited music that often seems undanceable, yet it presents ample opportunity for expression giving the dancers considerable room for freedom and creativity.
Bien Milonga – 1951
It is not clear how Tango might have developed after Pugliese, if there was anywhere left to go; It had been a generation since D’Arienzo had burst onto the scene and re-invented Tango – 20 years. But in the 1950’s a new generation of young people with new ideas about dancing and music was coming along, and so, together with Rock-n-Roll and the various political realities of the day, it seems that the next chapter for Tango was not on the dance floor but in the concert hall.
But these were the BIG FOUR
Juan D’Arienzo – the King of the Beat
Carlos Di Sarli – the Master of Melody
Anibal Troilo – the Champion of the Singer
Osvaldo Pugliese – Tango brought to its Zenith