Montevideo: la plaza Indepencia, circa 1914. Off to the right, up la avenida 18 de Julio, the cafe "La Giralda."
The cafe 'La Giralda' in Montevideo, Uruguay, occupies a special place in Tango history. It was there in the year 1917 that a young Gerardo Matos Rodriguez gave (anonymously) the music score of a tango he had written to the orchestra of Roberto Firpo to play for the first time.
Gerardo was then an adolescent (17 years old) who was barely making it as a student in the faculty of Architecture in Montevideo. Was it modesty? shyness? fear of ridicule? who knows why he wanted to remain anonymous? Firpo only knew that the name of the young composer was Gerardo. It was only later that the full identity of the author was known. He was young, educated, well mannered and sensible. He was also a bit naive. He sold for 20 pesos his rights of authorship to the Breyer publishing house. After some moderate success the composition was forgotten.
Seven years later, in 1924, Gerardo was living in Paris and he met Francisco Canaro who had just arrived with his orchestra. That's when he found out that La Cumparsita was a major hit. The tango lyricists Enrique Maroni and Pascual Contursi had added words to the tango and renamed it 'Si Supieras'--If you knew. All of Buenos Aires was hearing, dancing, and demanding to buy the score for the tango that was seemingly everywhere in shows, recordings, and broadcasts. Shortly after, La Cumparsita arrived in Paris where, in the full grip of the roaring 20's, people danced charlestons, shimmys, one-steps, bostons, and when the crowd asked for a tango, they danced La Cumparsita.
From Paris La Cumparsita spread to the four corners of the world and has since and forever after become synonymous with Tango.
Gerardo Matos Rodriguez spent the next 20 years in and out of court trying to regain his rights as author of the most famous tango in the world. The first trial was between the composer and the Breyer and Ricordi publishing houses --Breyer had sold the piece to Ricordi. After a long battle, Ricordi agreed to pay royalties to the author. The second lawsuit was against Maroni and Contursi. They had added lyrics to the tune without permission. Gerardo won on the basis that he had surrendered his right to the music while being a minor. A legal loophole, but the law is the law.
In 1942, a third lawsuit was established to discontinue from sale the recording made by Carlos Gardel. This of course engendered a fourth lawsuit - this time by Maroni and Contursi's widows, for damages and seeking their rights as authors of the lyrics. The lawsuits finally came to an end thanks to the arbitrage of the legendary Tango composer and band leader Francisco Canaro who, as president of SADAIC (Argentine Society of Authors and Composers), was asked by the litigants to resolve the argument.
On September 10th, 1948, Canaro issued a legally binding document with 8 points ... the most significant of which were the first three which stated that henceforth, the heirs of both Contursi and Maroni would receive 20% of all royalties due through the execution rights. The second point said that royalties for recordings and movies would be divided according to SADAIC rules except when only the music was played in which case the 20% rule would apply. The third point states that any new printing of the sheet music would include both sets of lyrics and no others. The other points had to do with the trial costs, royalties received up to the start of the lawsuit, that SADAIC would be in charge of collecting royalties, a one time payment of 5,000 pesos to Jose Razzano (of Gardel-Razzano fame) for damages due to the lawsuit, and an stipulation that the 20% royalties would be divided in equal shares amongst the heirs of Contursi and Maroni. And with that, La Cumparsita made it out of the courthouse.
There are quite a few tangos that have different lyrics set to the same music. In some instances it was due to the ribald nature of the original lyrics that necessitated a change once the tango left the bordello. In the case of La Cumparsita, it was its popularity. "La cumparsa/de miserias sin fin/ desfila/en torno de aquel ser/enfermo/que pronto ha de morir/de pena/por eso es que en su lecho/solloza acongojado/recordando el pasado/que lo hace padecer" --the original lyrics written by Gerardo, have nothing to do with the "Si supieras/que aun dentro de mi alma/conservo aquel cari~no/que tuve para ti.../ Quien sabe si supieras/que nunca te he olvidado/volviendo a tu pasado/te acordaras de mi..." of Maroni and Contursi (you can hear the original lyrics in the El Bandoneon CD of Angel D'Agostino and Angel Vargas. Maroni's and Contursi's are everywhere else.) And there are French versions, American versions, and several other languages. Needless to say, to hear "Tantalizing/your mask is only/half disquising/I have no trouble recognizing/your features which I'm idolizing" --The Masked One, lyrics by Olga Paul-- is rather amusing if not down right hilarious.
Given that the author of La Cumparsita (at the time) was just an amateur pianist, the technical merits of the melody have always being questioned.
Gerardo had only composed the first two parts. Moreover, the first part lacks a clear beat. Firpo himself had to add a third part and the harmony to the first. Yet, the composition acquired such a monumental following that those who critize it do so at their own peril. Julio De Caro played it smart. He said of it, "[It's] a flag that transcended frontiers in the whole world, going forth thru its golden door to erect itself as one of the symbols of our music-dance."
Astor Piazzolla was much more candid, "Its the most frighteningly poor thing in this world (speaking of the D-C-A-F rhythm.) Nevertheless, if you add a bass note to enrich it and pour on top of it the melody, you can create a counterpoint that raises the conventional melody. It is like an ugly person that dresses nicely, it improves his looks. That's how La Cumparsita is improved. With good clothes."
One last thing to note is that the most celebrated tango in history was first recorded as a "B" side. One of the most popular orchestras from 1917 was the Alonso-Minotto orchestra which was signed up by the Victor recording house to produce a series of records. Now, the deal called for pairs of tangos, one for each side of the record. As it turns out, they were missing one, so someone suggested La Cumparsita as a "filler." And so, Alberto Alonso at the piano, Minotto Di Cicco, bandoneon, Juan Trocoli and Juan Jose Castellano, violins, recorded themselves into history. Of course, like everything else about tango, there is disagreement on this. There are other sources that contend that Roberto Firpo was the one who first recorded it. Indeed, in the CD "La Cumparsita, veinte veces inmortal" credit is given to Firpo as being the first. In any case Minotto and Firpo seem to have collaborated in the arrangement that eventually was recorded.
Translation of the Lyrics
First, a couple of definitions about the title.
Cumparsa: Lunfardo word that denotes a group of people that attends the carnival festivals dressed in a similar fashion (usually, but not exclusively, wearing masks.)
The term seems to be a corruption of the italian 'comparsa'.
La Cumparsita: The little cumparsa.
La cumparsa de miserias sin fin desfila en torno de aquel ser enfermo que pronto ha de morir de pena.
Por eso es que en su lecho solloza acongojado recordando el pasado que lo hace padecer.
The masked parade of endless miseries promenades around that sick being that soon will die of sorrow.
That's why in its bed cries mournfully remembering the past that makes it suffer.
Note: In the Angel D'Agostino-Angel Vargas (El Bandoneon, EBCD 44) version, the last word "padecer" has been changed to "estremecer" which translates into "that makes it shake [probably from fear]".
LA CUMPARSITA lyrics by Enrique Maroni and Pascual Contursi
Si supieras, que aun dentro de mi alma, conservo aquel cariño que tuve para ti... Quien sabe si supieras que nunca te he olvidado, volviendo a tu pasado te acordaras de mi...
Los amigos ya no vienen ni siquiera a visitarme, nadie quiere consolarme en mi afliccion... Desde el dia que te fuiste siento angustias en mi pecho, deci, percanta, que has hecho de mi pobre corazon?
Sin embargo, yo siempre te recuerdo con el cariño santo que tuve para ti. Y estas en todas partes pedazo de mi vida, y aquellos ojos que fueron mi alegria los busco por todas partes y no los puedo hallar.
Al cotorro abandonado ya ni el sol de la mañana asoma por la ventana como cuando estabas vos, y aquel perrito compañero que por tu ausencia no comia, al verme solo el otro dia tambien me dejo.
If you knew, that still within my soul,
I keep the love I had for you... Who knows, if you knew that I never forgot you, returning to your past, you would remember me...
The friends do not come not even to visit me, nobody wants to console me. in my affliction... Since the day you left I feel anguish in my chest,
tell me, woman, what have you done with my poor heart?
Nevertheless, I always remember you with the holy love that I had for you. And you are everywhere, piece of my life, and those eyes that were my happiness
I search for them everywhere and I can't find them.
To the abandoned bedroom now not even the morning sun shows thru the window the way as when you were there, and that little dog [our] partner that because of your absence would not eat
on seeing me alone the other day also left me.
Text by Ruddy Zelaya - a San Francisco Bay Area tanguero who loves everything about tango.