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Composed: 1941
Length: c. 12 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, flute (= 2nd piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, castanets, cymbals, military drum, tam-tam, tenor drum, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 23, 1960, Maurice Levine conducting

Alberto Ginastera’s 1941 ballet was composed the same year the Argentinean composer met his North American contemporary Aaron Copland, who was touring South America. Estancia was commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein (who had earlier commissioned Copland’s Billy the Kid), but his Ballet Caravan folded before Estancia could be produced – thus the suite of dances we hear was actually performed before the full staged work. Plot, scenes, and texture of the piece are derived from the poem Martín Fierro, by José Hernández, written in the 1870s as a nationalist expression of the gaucho and a repudiation of the changes to the rural life brought about by political and military struggle. As important as the substance of the poem is the style. As noted by translators C.E. Ward and Kate Ward Kavanagh:

“Hernández’s poem aimed to speak to the country people in their own language about their own troubles. It tells the adventures and opinions of an archetypal gaucho suffering the hardships and injustice of the times: from a contented life working on a ranch, the unsuspecting hero is press-ganged into the ill-treated frontier militia; he deserts to find his home abandoned and his family lost, becomes an outlaw, and finally escapes across the frontier to try his luck living with the Indians. It is written in the words, images and proverbs of the gauchos – almost a sub-language of Spanish: humorous, contentious, and lyrical, in rhymed stanzas supposedly sung to the guitar, the gauchos’ traditional instrument.”

The plot of Ginastera’s ballet does not follow Fierro’s full poetic journey; rather, the composer incorporated lines that express the varied episodes in a gaucho’s life throughout a single day. The primary plot element concerns the romance between a city boy who falls in love with a country girl and overcomes her skepticism by proving his skills as a horseman and dancer. However, the deeper meaning is that of the day – an element that, for the composer, united human with landscape: “Whenever I have crossed the Pampa or have lived in it for a time, my spirit felt itself inundated by changing impressions, now joyful, now melancholy, some full of euphoria and others replete with a profound tranquility, produced by its limitless immensity and by the transformation that the countryside undergoes in the course of a day.”

The four dances we hear reveal the variety of sources, social functions, and musical styles that capture the spectrum of experience over a day. “Los trabajadores agricolas” (The Land Workers) is the first dance of this set; it depicts the laborers who come into town. You can hear the heaviness and downward sweep of their steps as they alternate triple and duple rhythms of the malambo. Brass gestures capture the strength of motion before giving way to spiky woodwinds. Next comes the quieter “Danza del trigo” (Wheat dance), in which solo flute and violin evoke the morning setting and a dance shaped by song. Modern listeners might well find the melodic shapes and timbres more cosmopolitan in nature. “Los peones de hacienda” (The Ranch Hands) entertain themselves and the townsfolk with playful woodwind footsteps, brass exclamations, and timpani flourishes. The “Danza final” (Final Dance) returns to the spirit and rhythm of the malambo. The highly syncopated patterns depict the sharp gestures involving hands and feet, building toward a frenetic conclusion.

Annotator Susan Key is an editor and musicologist who contributes frequently to Los Angeles Philharmonic program books.