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About this Piece

Born Charles Gardès in 1890 in Toulouse, France, Carlos Gardel was taken by his unwed mother to Buenos Aires when he was two years old. He grew up to become an enormously popular icon of Latin American culture, a singer-songwriter and film star whose fame only grew with his tragic death in a plane crash in 1935. He revolutionized the tango-canción with numerous miniature masterpieces, including “Por una Cabeza,” written the year he died. (Gardel wrote the music; Alfredo Le Pera, his lyricist partner, died with him and other members of his entourage in the crash.)

Capturing the yearning essence of tango, “Por una Cabeza” has been covered by artists across many musical genres and seemed to have a monopoly on musical passion for Hollywood in the early 1990s, when it was featured in Scent of a Women, Schindler’s List, and True Lies. (The title, “by a head,” is a phrase from horse racing; the lyrics compare a racing gambler’s addiction to his love for women.)

British cellist and improvisatory musician James Barralet has arranged everything from Vivaldi to Verdi and Arabic folksongs to Pirates of the Caribbean for cello ensembles. His version of “Por una Cabeza” draws on elements of the original as well as various film incarnations, and adds some new bits, including a fugal finale.

— John Henken