Carlos Guastavino

The voice of Carlos Guastavino, who has died aged 88, was, perhaps, the most quietly distinctive in 20th-century Argentinian music. Vigorously rejecting the stylistic radicalism of Alberto Ginastera and his younger compatriot Mauricio Kagel, he followed in the footsteps of 19th-century nationalists such as Julian Aguirre and Alberto Williams.

Yet Guastavino was a no less influential figure for the younger generation of composers - particularly in popular music - growing up in Argentina in the 1960s and 70s. Atonality and musique concrète he dismissed as "nastiness" and "falsification", believing that music should be based on melody and harmony.

"I love melody," he once said. "I love to sing. I refuse to compose music only intended to be discovered and understood by future generations." His distillation of local folk elements into an avowedly romantic-nationalist idiom was also markedly different in aesthetics from Ginastera's early works or the later, hugely successful, concert works of the cult tango king, Astor Piazzolla.

Guastavino was born in Santa Fé, in northern Argentina, the son of a painter and decorator. Originally marked out by his father for a career in science (his brother took up law), the boy's precocious talent for music, particularly the piano, eventually proved decisive. He studied the instrument locally with Esperanza Lothringer and Dominga Laffei, and later, in Buenos Aires, with German de Elizalde, while going to Athos Palma for composition.

During the late 1940s, he travelled to Britain on a British Council scholarship and broadcast several times for the BBC; Walter Goehr also premiered his orchestral Three Argentinian Romances at this time. In 1956, he toured Russia and China in programmes featuring his songs.

Guastavino wrote some 300 works, more than half of them the delightful songs, often winsome or tinged with sadness, on which his reputation rests. Latterly, those for unaccompanied chorus, particularly the Canciones Populares Argentinas, often embodying fugal or contrapuntal devices, have come to dominate performances of his vocal music.

Primarily a miniaturist, in his earlier years he essayed larger forms, including orchestral and ballet scores, the most popular being the Divertissement: Fue una vez (premiered at the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, in 1942) and the Suite: Argentina, later toured successfully in Europe.

Guastavino's output featured several works for guitar, including three sonatas, as well as a good deal of piano music (including many suites and five sonatinas), plus pieces for other instruments, such as the recorder. He was also an assiduous arranger of his own music, with pieces appearing in several guises, for one or two pianos, guitar or orchestra.

After a period spent exploring classical sonata form in the 1940s, Guastavino's music moved on to a more nationalist expression, as exemplified by his piano suite, 10 Cantilenas Argentinas (Argentine Songs, 1956-58), hailed by some critics as the high point of his piano output. Thereafter, his style underwent a radical simpli-fication, eschewing orthodox development, seeking to encapsulate the musical essence of each inspiration in a single short span. Larger pieces still occasionally appeared, such as the piano duet sonatina, Romance del Plata (1987), after which he retired from composition.

Guastavino received many awards during his lifetime, including several from his home city and Buenos Aires (especially for his songs), from the Justice Ministry, the Organisation of American States and the Inter-American Music Council. Dogged by illness and failing memory in his final years, he returned to Santa Fé, where he was looked after by his sister, who survives him.

Carlos Guastavino, composer, born April 5 1912; died October 28 2000

Year / Artwork Title Importance Medium
ca 1948 Tres Romances, for two pianos 4.00 stars CD
Americana Comments:

Martha Argerich - Piano
Mauricio Vallima - Piano