¡viejo Discepolín!

Tango 500 Book
Tango 500: the book.

This is the first in an occasional series about tango songs that I believe have special qualities but are only infrequently heard. I love the music of Aníbal Troilo and one of his little-heard masterpieces, Discepolín, is my first choice for this series.

Homero Manzi

The music was composed by Troilo, with a wonderful lyric by his friend and regular collaborator, Homero Manzi. It was written as a tribute to the great tango composer and lyricist, Enrique Discépolo, who had turned 50 in March 1951. Tragedy makes the song particularly poignant, as Manzi was to die of cancer on 3 May 1951, just days before the first recording of the song and Discépolo died on 23 December in that same year from a stroke.

Enrique Discépolo wrote the music and/or the lyrics of lots of very familiar tango compositions. His works include Yira, yira, Confesión, Esta noche me emborracho, Sueño de juventud, Cafetín de Buenos Aires, Carrillón de la Merced, Cambalache, Secreto, Alma del bandoneón, Soy un arlequín, Canción desesperada, Condena, Tormenta, Mensaje and dozens of others.

Enrique Discépolo

The translation of the lyric for Discepolín into English (below) is a machine translation made by Google Translate, with just a few minor amendments. You can find others, online, but I’m regularly surprised at what a good job Google Translate does, even with poetry.

Recordings

There are three recordings by dance orchestras and they all date from 1951. The earliest was not Troilo’s own but was made by the orchestra of Enrique Francini & Armando Pontier together with a little-known singer, Héctor Montes. The recording was made on 11 May 1951 (for Victor) and it has the best sound of the three. Troilo’s own recording, with Raúl Berón on vocals, was made on 29 May 1951 (for TK), and while the recording must be considered definitive, the sound quality is terrible. Osvaldo Fresedo made the last recording, with Héctor Pacheco on 13 June 1951 (for Columbia), and the sound is decent. There is also a much later recording by Orquesta Típica Porteña and Roberto Goyeneche in 1976, but I’ll not consider it further, here.

For the following extracts, I have taken versions of each song from my own library and rendered them at the same pitch, processed them to reduce clicks & crackle and matched the gain levels as far as possible. Finally, because the sound of the TK recording is so poor and constricted, I have applied pseudo-stereo processing to it, which opens up the texture a little (which helps on headphones, in particular), and for consistency, have done the same for the others. To keep file sizes small (particularly as they are in ‘stereo’), I have rendered them as 128 kbps MP3 files.

The duration of the recordings varies considerably. The Francini-Pontier version lasts 2:58, Fresedo’s is 3:12 while Troilo’s is significantly longer at 3:39. This is partly a matter of the chosen pace, but mainly because of the form or structure of the arrangements.

In the early 1940s any Troilo vocal arrangement would have the orchestra play through the thematic material (verse & chorus, usually 8 bars + 8 bars) before the singer delivered the first verse (and chorus) of the lyric. The orchestra would return for 16 bars (meaning that the second verse of the lyric was never sung), and then the singer would be heard again, with the arrangement wrapping up soon after. By Discepolín, things were less rigidly fixed. Troilo wrote three 8-bar thematic sections: let’s call them A, B & C. The lyric has three verses (each set to 16 bars of music: sections A + B). Section C is only heard orchestrally, but all three verses of the lyric are sung in each of the arrangements. There are interesting variations in the structure of all three arrangements, as you will hear.

Introduction

The most straightforward arrangement is that by Francini-Pontier. It opens with a short 2-bar introduction and then the three sections A, B & C are played through by the orchestra:

The first two sections are an exchange between the strings and the piano, but I can’t claim to like the way either are arranged much. There’s a moment from 0:29 when the violins briefly adopt a Pugliese-like Yumba figure (and more of that, later) and the introduction ends with very short solos for bandoneón and then violin (presumably, Pontier & Francini playing). At 53s, that’s it: and the singer enters with the first verse.

Troilo’s introduction is straight away much darker in colour and more dramatic:

Section A opens with strings and bandoneóns playing together, creating the rich and complex timbre that is unmistakeably Troilo; it ends with a sweet-toned violin solo. The piano initially carries the melody for section B, supported by the strings, and the section ends with full orchestra and a rising figure for cello right at the end.

That’s not the end of the introduction, though, because he now repeats both sections A & B and adds the additional section C, although it is not heard, again:

Section A builds to a climax, which melts away into section B and a beautiful but short bandoneon solo (Troilo, himself?) The full orchestra begins section C, which ends with another violin solo which balances the earlier one. The whole introduction has the structure ABABC and lasts 1:29.

Fresedo adopts the same structure for his orchestral introduction, beginning with sections A & B:

The strings are in the foreground, throughout, with a prominent role for piano.

He repeats sections A & B with little change in orchestration, but we don’t get section C (so it is missing from the arrangement, altogether), but instead, a 4-bar linking passage leading to the first sung verse quoting from Discépolo’s own composition, Cambalache:

First verse

On the frozen marble, croissant crumbs

and an absurd woman who eats in a corner ...

Your muse is bleeding and she has breakfast ...

the dawn does not forgive nor does it have a heart.

In the end, who is guilty of the grotesque life

and of the soul stained with carmine blood?

It is better that we leave before dawn,

before we cry, old Discepolin! ...

After a lightweight introduction, Francini-Pontier surprises us with the rich and slightly plummy baritone voice of Héctor Montes:

Troilo and Berón give the verse more colour, beginning quietly and building to a climax before falling back with wonderful word-setting:

It is sometimes said that Raúl Berón was at his best during his years with Troilo, and certainly he brings a depth to this interpretation that was not always apparent in earlier years. I don’t always enjoy Berón’s rather nasal crooning, but he musters some power, here, even if the sotto voce opening sounds as though he is struggling, a bit, at the bottom of his vocal range.

Fresedo accompanies Pacheco mainly with the strings, and the arrangement has real depth and subtlety:

Pacheco’s vocal delivery is a surprise; he has a fairly light, tenor voice, and yet he is more comfortable with the opening phrase and builds just as powerful a climax as either of the others. Methinks he is underrated, and I have been enjoying many of his other recordings of this period with Fresedo, too.

Second Verse

I know of your long boredom

and I understand what it costs to be happy,

and with the sound of each tango I feel your presence

with your enormous talent, and your nose;

with your bitter and hidden tears,

with your pale clown mask,

and with that sad smile

that flourishes in verse and song.

Continuing with Fresedo and Pacheco:

There is some lovely word-painting, here, and the orchestral writing balances the singer with interesting rhythms and colour that points up the lyric in a most affecting way.

Final verse

People come to you with their pile of sorrows

and you caress them with almost a tremor ...

It hurts as your own, the scar of others:

he had no luck and she didn't find love.

The ronda has been packed by the sound of the orchestra

They embrace under the spotlight like sawdust dolls ...

Can’t you see they're dancing?

Can’t you see they're partying?

Come on, everything hurts, old Discepolín ...

For the final verse, Francini-Pontier’s arrangement is nearly but not quite up to the job of supporting the singer:

Montes delivers the verse, and the climax of the song, with conviction, but overall he doesn’t quite have the depth of interpretation to pull it off, and I’m left thinking that everything here adds up to slightly less than the sum of its parts. There’s a nice touch, though, right at the end, with a short orchestral coda, with fleeting references to two other Discépolo compositions, Soy un arlequín and Yira yira.

Fresedo builds a satisfying climax, but with string writing that nearly gets carried away:

Pacheco’s voice is well-suited to the shape of the melody, rising in pitch and then falling back. He delivers the last line of the lyric with almost no accompaniment, and then orchestra ends the arrangement with some very bluesy chord progressions.

Troilo delays the final verse by adding a short linking section quoting from Uno, a song with a Discépolo lyric (but, ironically, the music being quoted was by Mariano Mores):

Berón builds the tension throughout section A, but the climax comes in the final section supported by driving chords played with strong arrastre (that Pugliese-like Yumba effect, again). I wonder whether the arranger of the Francini-Pontier version heard Troilo’s interpretation, played live, before the recording and ‘borrowed’ the idea. The climax melts away, and the strings, dying away, support Berón’s voice first with tremolo and then pizzicato chords. The song ends simply, with a perfect cadence.

Conclusions

Montes’ singing is the relative strength of the Francini-Pontier version. He only recorded one other song (a vals, Una triste verdad) and then got married and quit. The style of the orchestra is not really to my taste and the singer is very forward in the sound balance. I can’t see me ever choosing to play it for dancing (to say nothing of the challenge of finding a home for it in a good tanda).

I’m torn between the other two versions: Troilo ought to be the clear winner: it is the composer’s own interpretation, with a brilliant arrangement – a big, dramatic sound. I have reservations about Berón’s crooning and perhaps wish that Troilo had recorded it with Edmundo Rivero, instead.

It’s easy to dismiss Fresedo in this period as a purveyor of lightweight lyrical repertoire, but there’s more to him than that. This arrangement is inventive and well-played. Yes, it has many of the Fresedo trademark sounds (vibraphone and string glissandi) that make you either smile or wince (at your choice). Pacheco has a light tenor voice and yet he carries the lyric with sensitivity and conviction. I like it a lot.

Still torn, I can’t name a favourite: Troilo is poorly served by the recording, but the arrangement and performance have real gravitas and the music-making is of the highest quality. Fresedo has a different feel, but no less valid. I must have them both.

Here are the complete songs, including some unwelcome pitch variations: