Classical Music in Pop Culture: Libertango

by: Raine

I would like to share a piece that I love that was included in the 2008 K-drama, Beethoven Virus, starring Kim Myung-min, Lee Ji-ah and Jang Geun-suk. When the cellist, Jung Hee-yun (Song Ok-sook), began to play this stellar work, I was ecstatic to see a solo cellist on the small screen.

Like most of the pieces in the drama, this work is a staple of classical literature. The piece is fun, sensual and invigorating. I was also pleased to see that Song Ok-sook had learned the basics of the cello. Although she was not the cellist we actually heard, her fingers and bow were perfectly in time with the music – a detail that is often ignored by producers of films and dramas.

Which piece did she play? It is Astor Piazzola’s Libertango (1974).

Piazzolla (1921-1992) was a virtuoso bandoneónist. The bandoneón is an instrument that is best known for the unique sound it gives to the tango orchestra. It is like an accordion and has bellows to produce sound and instead of keys, it has buttons on either side.

Piazzolla was also the inventor of a new form of tango aptly, and ironically, named “nuevo tango”. This new form incorporated Western musical elements (primarily jazz) with the traditional Argentine tango. It angered some traditionalists as such things tend to do, but most musicians and listeners eagerly accepted the new style of composition.

The video below is one of the most epic performances of the 1974 Libertango by Yo Yo Ma, a Chinese American world class cellist. He performs with American guitarist Al Di Meola and Argentinian bandoneónist, Nester Marconi.

Take a listen with your body and heart and turn off your mind.

This version is a personal favorite. It’s performed by a tango band consisting of cello, bandoneón, piano, upright bass, guitar and violin. I smile the entire while time listening to this rendition. Not only does the tango make you feel sexy and make you want to dance, but it stirs the soul.

When listening to it, I imagine myself walking along a long road underneath a hot sun and watching people go about their daily lives. Then at night they gather around a table to break bread and drink wine. Maybe the tables get pushed aside and a man pulls out a guitar for some impromptu music. A woman and her man draw each other close and lose themselves in movement and in each other. The tango and its music allows people to express their passion for life.

Song Ok-sook’s character in Beethoven Virus plays Astor Piazzola’s Libertango with a full orchestra. The orchestra changes the flavor of the tango. Rather than the intimate sound of a 6-piece band that quietly turns the tango into a searing expression of human lust for life, the orchestra and solo cellist declare the carnal nature of the human condition. Despite the size of the orchestra, this performance seems to reach out and caress each individual of the audience rather than enveloping them as a whole.

As part of the drama, this performance serves as a huge emotional release for the cellist, Jung Hee-yun. She is a repressed housewife who has a husband and child who don’t respect her. Her husband is cheating on her and she is feeling stifled by the fact that she is unappreciated. Her family doesn’t support her desire to play cello. It doesn’t bring in money or do anything for them. They don’t understand how playing her instrument is food for her soul. In this scene, Hee-yun remembers her pain and channels it through her music. The Libertango takes this black spot in her life and transforms it into something beautiful.

Classical music is something that the masses in general do not actively listen to and often disparage. Unbeknownst to them, it is a part of their everyday lives. It plays while one is on hold with the credit card company or waiting in line at a store. It plays as an actor, model or sports star promotes a product in a commercial. It plays unobtrusively in the background of one’s favorite films and dramas. Oftentimes it is arranged in a modern style and yet, the essence of the composer’s music and heart shine through. The artist channels the composer’s music and intent, then gives it back to the listener. That is the beauty of music. It is universal. It speaks to everyone involved in each stage of the music making process. Each person may receive a different message, but that is the beauty of art. It simply speaks as we listen.

Related Posts

Classical Music in Pop Culture: Introduction, Immortals, Sumi Jo

10 responses to “Classical Music in Pop Culture: Libertango”

  1. Happy to see you talking about music once again. I missed that.
    I love tango, and this piece is so beautiful. The scene you described is pretty much what tango embodies.
    About BV, I love her character because she’s a woman trying to get back her real self. After years dedicated to her home and family, she finds back her love for the music and with it her identity. I remember how upset she got every time the member of the orchestra called her ajumma instead that by her name. The cello allow her to be again Jung Hee-yun, rather than a wife, a mother, or just an ajumma.
    Thank you for this wonderful post

  2. As my sister tells me, a lot of people don’t like classical music because they expect it to sound like film scores. They don’t appreciate the subtlety of classical music, and they haven’t learned to have the patience to wait around for the full development of a piece. If it’s over 8 minutes long and doesn’t get to the point right away, they don’t understand it.

    • And my sister is a non-musical person. As a violinist I try to talk her into liking everything I play, but she just doesn’t. It’s not what she’s used to.

    • Kaweigh- you totally made me giggle. But yes, that’s the point of this series. I am going to enlighten ppl…er, I’m going to try. It’s why I also included a film score. It has elements established by the greats!!!!!!! BBB!!!!!!!!

      Dude, even Bach had parallel 5ths and octaves…JUST SAYIN’

    • Melissa – Thanks for stopping by! That must’ve been so much to play in orchestra. I’ve actually just ordered the sheet music for cello and piano. I decided it was time to stop saying that I want it and actually shell out for it.

      I really love this piece. It’s got a little of that Prokofiev/Stravinsky vibe in the piano, that New Age (classical music, not film/modern) feel. Like early 20th. I remember when I first heard this. I just closed my eyes and listened. It was wonderful.

  3. I read this before commenting on the first one. Amazing job. Watching both the pieces you’ve linked I understand what you mean. The first one is more intimate, I agree. But I enjoyed the second one more. Watching it again reminded me of how MOVED I was the first time around. That performance was incredible, period. And I second what Bitter has said above. ‘You truly have a passion for music. Only people with such passion can convey that feeling to other people.’
    Oh, and you better start with shameless self-promotion Plan A. It would be a shame if more people didn’t get to read this.

    • thejawavillager – I shall put it into action today! I will hit up Viki with my Pasta recap…(s) and Soompi with the music. I’m going to really have to get a list of Classical stuff in pop. I have a few ideas for American things right now and one French thing and, of course, Nodame! I’m going to go for the live action right now because the anime was a LOT more prolific. Now to pick a scene. Or maybe I can do a mini series within a series about it. Who knows?

      Bitter – Everytime I say your name I say it like the German “Bitte”, on of the ONLY German words I know (save music terminology). I think it means Please, Thank you and something else. You made me blush with your comment. 😀 I’m glad to know the format worked. I’m open to suggestions because sometimes I get too ‘music-y’ with my writing and start talking in ‘music’ speak.

      Like this joke:

      What does F-A-C-E spell?

      F major 7.

      Tee hee. To me that’s hysterical….but…no one gets it. 😥 It’s the name of a chord we use and we ‘spell’ chords using letter names. Ok, explaining it doesn’t make it funny no more…

  4. Beautiful my Ranting Cello! The two pieces were brilliant. The scene you described for the first piece I could actually imagine. Plus, the mini-drama background you gave helped me understand the second piece better. Nice posts – they’re informational and I can see your musical heart in them. You truly have a passion for music. Only people with such passion can convey that feeling to other people.

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