Updated: Jul 16, 2021
Do you love it or hate it? Does your heart sink a little when your beloved version isn’t played at the end of the milonga, or are you intrigued and curious when you hear one of the ‘other’ 2700+ recordings?
The tango world has much to say about this most well-known and cherished of tango songs, La Cumparsita. Traditionally played at the end of a milonga, it is universally known and almost every tango Orquestra has La Cumparsita in their repertoire, or perhaps a couple of versions. Even Piazzolla who famously hated La Cumparsita, recorded it at least three times!
This controversial tune was composed by a young Uruguayan architecture student Gerardo Matos Rodriguez in 1915/16. Initially a marching song, the story is that Matos Rodriguez approached Roberto Firpo to arrange it into a tango. Firpo put a little of two of his tango tunes into the score, a little of Verdi’s “Miserere” and… La Cumparsita was born. Differing of opinion surrounds the first recording of La Cumparsita, but many say Firpo was the first to record it in 1916.
After its early success La Cumparsita was somewhat forgotten, until 1924 when Pacual Contursi and Enrique Maroni added lyrics and recorded it under the title “Si supieras” (If you knew). Infuriated by this, Matos Rodriguez wrote his own lyrics, recorded by Angel d’Agostino with Angel Vargas in 1945. Such was the popularity and passion surrounding this song that Matos Rodriguez spent 20 years in various court battles over royalties, finally succeeding in ensuring that “La Cumparsita” was re-established as the title of the song. Nevertheless, the most well-known versions use Contusi’s lyrics. Finally, in 1948, Canaro devised a binding royalty agreement in which 20% went to the estates of Contursi and Maroni and 80% to the estate of Matos Rodriguez. In addition, Canaro ensured that future sheet music of La Cumparsita shows the lyrics of both Contursi and Rodriguez.
But what makes this tune so beloved by Orquestas and dancers alike? Perhaps for musicians, it is as Canaro wrote in his book Mis bodas de oro con el tango: “La Cumparsita ...has the peculiar virtue that its musical structure wonderfully lends itself to be embellished by orchestrations of higher level, everything fits well with La Cumparsita: counter melodies for violins, variations for bandoneons and other important instruments, besides other attractive musical effects that arrangers and leaders ably take advantage of for showcasing their own outfit”. Do dancers feel the same? Does La Cumparsita and its very many variations give the dancers the space to explore and play with variations in movement, or do you find yourself wanting to move in a specific way every time no matter the version? Do you leave the milonga in a state of euphoria when you and your partner hear, interpret and express the same elements in this famous song? Magic!
With over 2700 recordings, which is your favourite La Cumparsita? Anibal Troilo’s beautiful 1943 recording or d’Arienzo’s 1951 or 1963 version? Modern orquestas are recording their own versions too. As a tribute to this anthem of tango, our last tanda at C’est Bon Milonga 0108 will be comprised of three La Cumparsita, each quite different. Which will be your favourite?
La Cumparsita Trivia: La Cumparsita was named by law the cultural and popular anthem of Uruguay in 1997. Thus, a storm of protests and official claims erupted at the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics when the Argentine team marched into the opening ceremony to La Cumparsita.