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La Cumparsita

La Cumparsita
La Cumparsita poster ca. 1916

La Cumparsita - the most famous tango song

La Cumparsita (also known as La Cumpasita) is the most famous tango song, instantly recognizable worldwide, and as such requires a small place in our hearts. A rendition of it follows.

La Cumparsita as sung by Gardel

La Cumparsita as sung by Tito Schipa

La Cumparsita as interpreted by Juan D'Arienzo

La Cumparsita as interpreted by Francisco Canaro

Sheet Music

La Cumparsita
La Cumparsita score

The History of La Cumparsita

La Cumparsita was composed by Gerardo Hernan Matos Rodriguez - nickname 'Becho', born 1897, the son of Emilio Matos the proprietor of the night club 'Moulin Rouge', in Montevideo Uruguay. It is said that Rodriguez attended his father's club and became quite inclined to the music.

Rodriguez composed La Cumparsita around 1915/16 - he was only 17 years old! - for a carnival band. He was a student of architecture (and not a great one at that; he did not complete the course). After he wrote the score, Rodriguez either did not have the determination, or perhaps the means, to play it himself. At the same time, Rodriguez was going to a trendy cafe called Confitería La Giralda. It was here that he met one of the principle figures in tango, the very masterful Roberto Firpo, who was directing an orchestra: David 'Tito' Roccatagliata and Agesilao Ferrazano in violins, Juan Baptist Deambroggio 'Bachicha' in bandoneón and Alexander Michetti in flute.

Rodriguez took his score to Firpo. The pianist Domingo Alonso related on the incident later on, in a book that he wrote, saying that Firpo's expert eye was aware at first glance of what he was examining, and that he immediately secured the authorization to adapt it and to arrange it. Hence Rodriguez sold the score and copyright of a tango he had written - a masterpiece the public would adore for evermore - for the paltry sum of only 20 pesos! Money was exchanged quickly, the score was received, and the Breyer publishing house herein owned the piece. And so a legend was born....

Domingo wrote later that the the score was 'overwhelmed with defects' and 'Firpo had to fix... In its first part there was a melody for violin, but that inherent in the score was the possibility to surpass the work, playing it in a much more interesting way'.

Roberto Firpo referred to La Cumparsita at least three times in writing [excuse my Spanish translation]:
One night at The Giralda, a famous and classic cafe in Montevideo, a young boy - likeable but somewhat timid - approached me and asked if he could talk to me for a few minutes... He left a very modest score with me. It was La Cumparsita. I played it on the piano, and liked it. After some adjustments to the score I released it with extraordinary success, as much due to the fact that it was a great tango as the fact that its author was a boy of Montevideo. When I returned to Buenos Aires, I released it in the cafes, and Montevideo's success was repeated.
- The 'Singing', Sept 17 1947
In The Giralda somebody nicknamed Barquita gave me a score of a student to see if it could make tango. That score had only two verses and I added parts of well-known tangos 'Gaucha Manuela' and an inspiration of Verdi's 'Miserere of the Troubador'. And that score, turned by me into into tango, became 'La Cumparsita'.
- The 'Chronic', Dec 26 1966
In 1916 I was at Montevideo and in La Giralda Mr Barquita arrived... He came with 14 or 15 students and he said to me: 'We bring a score to you and we want you to fix it. It is necessary to make it a tango'. They gave a 2/4 score to me. Since I had composed La Gaucha Manuela in 1906 and Curda, I put the parts of those old tangos that had not been successful. I shared it that night with Tito Roccatagliata and Bachicha and it was divine. They ran it to Matos, and the reception was sensational.
- The 'Argentine Chronicles' 1969

Roberto Firpo not only released the tango in 1916, but he was also the first to record it. In studies of catalogues, it is noted that the first recording of La Cumparsita took place in the studio of Max Glücksmann in Buenos Aires in November 1916:
  • Violins: Agesilao Ferrazzano, Cayetano Puglisi
  • Bandoneón: Juan Bautista Deambrogio (Bachicha)
  • Piano and direction: Roberto Firpo
  • Flute: Alexander Michetti
It is worth noting that Alberto Alonso claimed that La Cumparsita was first recorded in 1917 by a quartet co-directed with Minotto Di Cicco (the Alonso-Minotto quartet). This is a plainly incorrect fact.

In its first incarnation, La Cumparsita was not successful and in fact was only recorded as a B-side song. However very soon after its release, Cumparsita enjoyed a reasonable period of success but its fame declined after a few years.

1924 June 6 was indeed a momentous point for La Cumparsita. On this day Leopoldo Simari's company had a play in the Apolo theater called 'A Program of a Night Club', an original by Paschal Contursi and Enrique P. Maroni. The process was that each play required a special tango (in fact as a result of this process some famous tangos came to light). For the play, Paschal Contursi wrote a scene called 'If you knew' - and as was the custom, decided to connect it to the music of a tango already composed (without authorization of the composer). For this scene was selected the already forgotten tango. The actor and singer was Juan Ferrari. Enrique Maroni and Pascual Contursi added words to it and renamed it to Si Supieras without Rodriguez' consent (see the lyrics below) - this is the 'standard' version that is played everywhere. The success was so great that even Carlos Gardel decided to record it immediately thereafter.

Francisco Canaro said:
In my first trip to Paris, in the first few days, I was with Gerald Matos Rodriguez... After a greeting and a hug our conversation turned to Buenos Aires, and the success of La Cumparsita - Matos Rodriguez had consigned this to history. I told him how it had resurged again and how it was the rage by all orchestras; that Paschal Contursi and Enrique P. Maroni had composed a very pretty scene and adapted to the score and that Carlitos sang it to Gardel with extraordinary success and it had been recorded...
This revised score became extremely successful not only in Buenos Aires, where it was played at almost every venue and re-recorded and broadcast, but also when Francisco Canaro took it to Paris, where it became the in-thing to dance to. It was only a matter of time, then, till it spread to the rest of the world.

Five points are noteworthy:
  • It was actually Contursi who changed the lyrics not Maroni; however the joint ownership resides with both, being joint authors of the play.
  • Catalogs shows that Carlos Gardel recorded his version of La Cumparsita on 10 Jan 1928.
  • Maroni admitted that the tango was not his.
  • The revised lyrics and the melody did not exactly align, such that the musical director had to adapt the music slightly.
  • It is not that Firpi was underhand; rather Rodriguez never imagined that his tango would be as successful as it was.

La Cumparsita
Gerardo Matos Rodriguez

La Cumparsita
The cafe - so beautiful!

The Greek (Argentinean?) tragedy

Rodriguez was not the first - and will certainly not be the last - artist who felt cheated beyond reckoning for the pittance that he received for his masterpiece. For two decades he attempted to regain the copyright to that score through the courts:
  • Trial 1: against the Breyer and Ricordi publishing houses. After a lengthy court case, Ricordi agreed to pay royalties to Rodriguez.
  • Trial 2: against Maroni and Contursi, who had added lyrics within permission. Rodriguez won on the basis that his rights were surrendered whilst being a minor.
  • Trial 3: against Carlos Gardel, to stop his recording of La Cumparsita from being sold.
  • Trial 4: by Maroni and Contursi's widow (Hilda Briano) against Rodriguez, both for damages and also to establish their rights as authors of the lyrics.
The final binding legal agreement came in 1948 from Francisco Canaro (tango composer and director - and as it happens - the president of the Argentine Society of Authors and Composers) who was asked for an adjudication by the litigants. He determined that:
  • The heirs of Contursi and Maroni, given the success of their revised lyrics, would receive 20% of all royalties.
  • The royalties for recordings and movies would be distributed according to rules set out by the Argentine Society of Authors and Composers, that is 80% to the successors of Rodriguez.
  • Any new printing of the sheet music would include the lyrics of Rodriguez and of Contursi and Maroni, and no other lyrics.

The Lyrics

There are many many variations of La Cumparsita (a source claims he has counted over 200!) though only two are considered quintessential: Rodriguez' original version and that of Maroni and Contursi with revised lyrics. It is worth noting that the original version by Rodriguez only had two verses; two other verses were added later by Peroni (and are not shown here to retain historical accuracy).

La Cumparsita - the ORIGINAL version - by Rodriguez:

La cumparsa
de miserias sin fin
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 little masquerade
of endless miseries
around that sickly being
that soon will have died
of shame.

That’s why
on his (death) bed
he sobs, grieving
remembering the past
that causes him this suffering.
La Cumparsita - the REVISED version - by Maroni and 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?

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 through 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.


The most important singers who interpreted La Cumparsita included Gardel, Magaldi and Charlo - all to the revised version.

Love it or hate it

When Piazzolla was in Troilo's orchestra, he thought that La Cumparsita was one of the the worst piece of music ever written! In fact he said:
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.

However Francisco Canaro said:
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 bandoneóns and other important instruments, besides other attractive musical effects that arrangers and leaders ably take advantage of for showcasing their own outfit. Each leader of a tango orchestra has his own arrangement, his personal rendition of the celebrated tango. And, proudly, he is convinced that his authorized rendition of La cumparsita is the best in existence.

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