Alberto Ginastera: A Nationalistic Composer

(As submitted to Dr. Stephen Valdez – University of Georgia – Hugh Hodgson School of Music – December 4, 2012 – Music History II)

Ginastera, as one of the most prominent Latin American composers of the Twentieth-Century, composed works during his career with ever increasing use of the “avant-garde” aspects of atonality and serialism. These features, in common use by many composers throughout his lifetime, frequently disguised and perhaps even obfuscated the underlying thematic roots of his compositions. The purpose of this paper is to illustrate that even though Ginastera utilized and mastered the many new compositional techniques in vogue during his life, he was still at his core a nationalistic composer. In fact, it will be seen that throughout each of his musical style periods, spanning his entire career, Ginastera used nationalistic elements as primary motivic factors in many, if not most of his works.

In order to demonstrate the validity of our thesis, it seems logical that we examine each of Ginastera’s style periods in turn, looking for evidence of nationalism in each. There are certainly a number of ways in which this can be approached, but in the interest of succinctness, this author has chosen to simply select a single representative work from each period for examination and analysis, looking for evidence of nationalism in each selected composition. If such traits are found, it will lead to the conclusion, minimally at least for the representative compositions, that Ginastera was indeed artistically motivated by a strong sense of national identity with his native Argentina. Therefore, the remainder of this paper is structured according to Ginastera’s style periods, which the composer himself organized into three distinct periods: Objective Nationalism (1937-1947), Subjective Nationalism (1947-1957), and Neo-Expressionism (1958-1983). As we progress through the paper, each of these periods will be in turn described in more detail, along with a high level analysis of a representative work from each period.

During Ginastera’s first stylistic period, Objective Nationalism, his usage of nationalistic elements was quite simple and obvious. Without a doubt, his compositional purpose during this period was to clearly and overtly portray some thematic sense or idea relating to his native country, Argentina. To illustrate this, Ginastera’s three movement suite for piano entitled Danzas Argentinas has been chosen to represent the period in this paper. This work, one of Ginastera’s most popular and enduring compositions, was written in 1937, very early in his first period, and is credited as one of the compositions that brought Ginastera international prominence. When listening to the work, most listeners easily and quickly understand the obvious nationalistic elements stated throughout the entire piece. In their book, “Alberto Ginastera: A Guide to Research,” authors Schwartz-Kates and Aydinonat provide a succinct description of a few of these elements:

Ginastera associated his first period, “objective nationalism” (1937-1947), with the Argentine landscape (particularly the pampas, or plains region) and the native horseman (or gaucho), whom he constructed as an idealized symbol of the nation. During this initial stage of development, the composer appropriated Argentine elements directly and cast them within tonal forms.

One of the most common “Argentine elements” employed by Ginastera in his compositions was his frequent reference to the open strings of the guitar, from low to high – E, A, D, G, B, and E. According to author Gilbert Chase, the guitar was known as the “characteristic instrument of the gauchos and of the folk music of the pampas.” In Danzas Argentinas, Ginastera concludes the first piece in the suite, entitled Danza del viejo boyero, with a direct quote of this element, as illustrated below in the first two measures of Example 1.

In the second piece of the same suite, Ginastera again references the guitar chord, described here in detail by Chase:

Another early allusion to the symbolic chord, where only the interval A-E is used, occurs in the Danza de la Moza Donosa (Dance of the Graceful Girl) for piano (1937), with the apparent intention of suggesting the utmost pastoral simplicity and charm. Of particular interest is the fact that here an unexpected transition is made to the final chord consisting of F natural, F#, and C#, which foreshadows the alteration of the guitar chord that Ginastera was to make in the Pampeana No. 3 some seventeen years later. Is it a mere coincidence that in the special tunings used by Argentine rural guitarists, those with F# and C# occur frequently? At any rate, the similarity would seem to indicate Ginastera’s intuitive assimilation of folkloristic traits in his musical language.

The musical reference that Chase describes above occurs in the last two measures of Danza de la Moza Donosa, from Danzas Argentinas. But, it is also interesting to note that this entire movement, not just the last two measures, is based upon a guitar-like figuration contained within the accompaniment of the left hand. From the very first measure, a simple A-E-E-B-E arppegiation is written, followed by a minor variation in the second measure with A-E-E-C-E, obviously also guitar-like, played by a single fret modification to the B-string. It is incredibly beautiful in its simplicity.

In the final movement of the suite, titled Danza del gaucho matrero, Ginastera employs the Argentine rhythmic malambo element, which one author refers to as the “archetypal dance of the gauchos.” Here is Chase’s description of the malambo:

In the matter of dances, none is comparable to the malambo. It is the gaucho’s “tournament” when he feels the urge to display his skill as a dancer. Two men place themselves opposite each other. The guitars flood the rancho with their chords, one of the gauchos begins to dance; then he stops and his opponent continues; and so it goes on. Many times the justa (joust) lasts from six to seven hours … spectators are fascinated by the dancer’s feet, which go through complicated tapping, shuffling, stamping, doubling, and criss-crossing, at times barely seeming to touch the ground with the soles of their boots. The onlookers applaud, shout, and make bets on one dancer or the other, while even the women and children are swept along by the frenetic enthusiasm engendered by the vertiginous motion.

The suite’s third and final movement is marked Furiosamente ritmico e energico, and certainly does not disappoint. Written in 6-8 meter, the movement is a wild and furiously energetic dance, exactly like Chase’s description above, that easily invokes images of gauchos (horsemen) furiously and vigorously dancing the competitive malambo against and with each other, guitar chords loudly accompanying the competition. Performances of this obviously nationalistic composition are typically received with loud shouts of excited acclamation from the audience at its dramatic conclusion, featuring a full keyboard triple-sforzando glissando from upper to lower keyboard, preceding a tremendous and very final ffff chord punch to the lowest bass notes. Clearly, this music symbolizes the emotional intensity of Argentinian dances, designed by its composer to be thoroughly nationalistic.

(Below: My performance of Danzas Argentinas, from recital in Spring, 2010)


However, during Ginastera’s second period, his usage of nationalistic elements became more obscure. As mentioned earlier, Ginastera called this his period of Subjective Nationalism, in which he “integrated sublimated symbols in forging an original Argentine style.” Much of the music he composed during this period was created to provide the listener with the “idea” of Argentina, not necessarily a direct quotation of some obvious nationalistic element or theme. Ginastera’s Sonata No. 1, Op. 22, composed in 1952, is a good representation of the many compositions he wrote during this period, and will be utilized to search for evidence of the composer’s nationalistic motivations. According to the composer himself, this piece was “… written with polytonal and twelve tone procedures.” Also, an analysis of the entire piece reveals that in addition to its great lack of traditional tonality, it contains very few, if any, obvious quotations of nationalistic themes or ideas. Of course, this is to be expected, given that the sonata was composed according to subjective themes, in contrast to the objective principals of Ginastera’s first period.

When listening to and analyzing the first movement of this sonata, marked Allegro marcato, we receive the impression that exotic rhythms and harmonies are at work. However, it is difficult to determine what drives the music. This in turn creates difficulty in determining what drives our reactions to it. For assistance, we turn to Dr. Sergio De Los Cobos, who performed a thorough analysis of this work. In his 1991 dissertation, in regards to the first movement’s opening theme, he wrote, “… we find logically an abundant use of its parallel thirds, also frequently used in other works such as the Danzas Argentinas and probably linked to Argentine folk music.” In corroboration, Gilbert Chase tells us that Ginastera himself described this particular sonata, saying that:

… [he] does not employ any folkloric material, but instead introduces in the thematic texture rhythmic and melodic motives whose expressive tension has a pronounced Argentine accent.

In measure 52 of the first movement, Ginastera directs dolce e pastorale, introducing a theme that to some is symbolic of ancient Argentina. It appears this way to De Los Cobos, who shares that this theme evokes thoughts of a pastoral melody “reminiscent of Inca music.” However, to this author at least, the appearance of nationalistic ideas in the piece are somewhat less subtle. For instance, in the first movement, the entire movement itself evokes the idea of the malambo with its exciting and dynamic rhythmic drive, provided one is looking for such symbolism. The malambo in this movement is much more rhythmically complex, with frequent changes of meter, than that in Danzas Argentinas. Perhaps Ginastera was hoping to persuade his audience to consider the possibility of a more native, authentic, and originating idea of the malambo, dating back to a time when the original aboriginal inhabitants of the land began to experiment with the making of music.

In the second movement of the same sonata, De Los Cobos directs our attention to Ginastera’s quotation of the guitar chord, in measures 109 and 110 which, he states, “… evokes the vast open spaces of the pampas.” Later, this chord makes a double appearance at the very end of the movement, in measures 185-186 arpeggiated upwards by the left hand: E-A-D-G-B-E, as illustrated below in Example 2. These brief appearances of objective nationalism were likely utilized to orient the listener’s ears towards the subjective aspects of nationalism that appear throughout the remainder of the piece. Perhaps not. But in any case, Ginastera’s skill was such that upon the conclusion of a listening session, if one is initially oriented in the proper direction, one is left with a deeper understanding of the land, people, and history of Argentina, as surely intended by the composer. It seems clear that Ginastera was motivated in his composition by his need to communicate original and authentic ideas regarding Argentinian themes and symbolism.

(Below: Horacio Lavandera’s performance of Ginastera’s Sonata No. 1, Op. 22, in 2013)


In Ginastera’s third and final period, his period of Neo-Expressionism, his usage of atonality, serialism, and avant-garde techniques became even more pronounced, and nationalistic tendencies somewhat more difficult to find, although still present. Michele Tabor tells us that “During the last ten years of his life, Ginastera turned once again to nationalism as a source of inspiration for his compositions.” And also, she explains that “Ginastera was at ease with the techniques of the avant-garde, but at the same time, he felt no need to abandon the tradition for which he had so much respect.” The tradition she refers to, of course, is nationalism. Tabor elaborates further:

… the second and third piano Sonatas are inspired by and based on indigenous dances and songs from the northern region of Argentina … Perhaps these works are more like those of the second period of “subjective nationalism.” At the same time, however, these compositions contain the techniques of the avant-garde that Ginastera developed …

In that regard, an examination of a representative piece, one of the very last pieces he composed, his Sonata No. 2, Op. 53, composed in 1981, will prove helpful, as it contains many elements derived from his native Argentina. Deborah-Kates explains:

He verged on an aesthetic breakthrough in works such as his Piano Sonata No. 2 (1981), which prefigures a new fusion of indigenous and post-serial styles with its cellular ostinatos, percussive rhythms, chromatic clusters and irregular metres.

Ginastera himself attributed his homeland as motivation for the piece, as he stated in his preface to the sonata:

I was similarly inspired in writing the second sonata, which suggests the music of the northern part of my country, of Aymará and Kechua origin (non-European music) with its pentatonic scales, its sad melodies or its joyful rhythms, its khenas and Indian drums, as well as its melismatic microtonal ornaments.

The second piano sonata is in four movements, but it is not necessary to examine each movement to gain a clear impression of the nationalistic symbolism embedded within the piece. Instead, we will simply highlight a few features of the first movement. De Los Cobos’ dissertation, referenced earlier, also provides an excellent analysis of this work, and was utilized to more easily reveal these features. In general, the movement follow an overall ABA form. It opens with a dramatic and appropriate native drum roll effect, shown below in Example 3, following which it quickly begins development utilizing an initial statement of parallel and double thirds. The rhythm is complex, with numerous changes of meter, full of atonality and extreme levels of dissonance, everything performed at the forte dynamic level. The opening “A” theme, or mood if you will, easily suggests the idea of the native aboriginal struggle for survival. But in measure 63, the mood dramatically changes as the music decrescendos over three measures to pianissimo, leading to the “B” section of the movement. De Los Cobos explains:

The middle section of this movement (m. 63) is based on various dances and songs … they are accompanied with various instrumental suggestions such as come una cassa india (like an indian drum) (m. 65), or come kenas (like khenas – a wind instrument similar to a flute) (m. 71) … the melodic contour suggests music of a primitive accent … the last dance is inspired from the Palapala, a dance in ternary rhythm.

The theme based on the Palapala dance builds gradually in intensity, eventually reaching an incredibly strong fff, and several measures later, in measure 151, returns to the drum roll “A” material introduced at the beginning of the movement. Marked sempre fortissimo, the movement remains dramatic until its conclusion. As one listens to a performance of the sonata, it is rather easy to imagine the struggles of the aboriginal peoples of Argentina, as well as their rhythmic native dances at times of rest and relaxation. However, if unaware of Ginastera’s nationalistic motivation for the piece, it might be just as easy to be completely confused as to the purpose of the music, especially given the intense nature of the dissonance and unsettling rhythmic motives he uses.

There certainly remains a huge body of Ginastera’s work to examine for evidence of nationalism. And likely, there are many pieces he composed in which nationalism was never a motivating factor. But by examining these three significant pieces, one from each period, we have seen that love of country was for him a significant driving force. And regardless, whether he was at his core a nationalistic composer, or otherwise, his music has touched the lives of countless individuals throughout the world. Schwartz-Kates and Aydinonat put this well in their book, in a section titled Final Reflections:

One final feature of Ginastera’s music is its symbolic capacity to engage with multiple levels of human experience. This characteristic, more than any other, may account for the widespread acclaim that the composer’s music has achieved. Throughout his career, Ginastera demonstrated an innate capacity to respond to current aesthetic and cultural conditions by forging referential resources that expressed and transformed his age.

Of course, one can never truly know what motivated Ginastera’s compositional output. Was he motivated by love of country? Or, was he motivated by love of something else entirely? Likely, as it is for all of us, he was a complicated individual, motivated by a complex synthesis of many, many things. But whatever the motivation, it seems clear to this author at least, that Ginastera produced a large body of masterful work, through which the beauty of his homeland was proclaimed loudly.


Chase, Gilbert.  “Alberto Ginastera: Portrait of an Argentine Composer,” Tempo, New Series 44 (Summer, 1957), 11-17.

De Los Cobos, Sergio, “Alberto Ginastera’s three Piano Sonatas: A reflection of the composer and his country.” DMA thesis, Rice University, 1991.

Ginastera, Alberto E. Danzas Argentinas pour piano. Paris, France: Durand, [1939].

Ginastera, Alberto E. Sonata No. 1, Op. 22. Farmingdale, N.Y.: Boosey and Hawkes, 1954.

Ginastera, Alberto E. Sonata No. 2, Op. 53. Farmingdale, N.Y.: Boosey and Hawkes, 1995.

Schwartz-Kates. Deborah. “Ginastera, Alberto.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed October 7, 2012).

Schwartz-Kates, Deborah and Aydinonat, N. Emrah. Alberto Ginastera : A Guide to Research. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 2010.

Tabor, Michelle. “Alberto Ginastera’s Late Instrumental Style,” Latin American Music Review / Revista de Música Latinoamericana 15, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 1994), 1-31.