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Heitor Villa-Lobos and his Bachianas Brasileiras


Heitor Villa-Lobos (March 5, 1887 – November 17, 1959) was a Brazilian composer, described as “the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music” who wrote numerous orchestral, chamber, instrumental and vocal works that were influenced by both Brazilian folk music and by stylistic elements from the European classical tradition, as exemplified by his Bachianas Brasileiras (Brazilian Bachian-pieces).  He was born on March 5, 1887, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His father, Raul, was a civil servant, an educated man of Spanish extraction, a librarian, an amateur astronomer, and a musician, who taught him to play cello, viola, and guitar. In Villa-Lobos’s early childhood, Brazil underwent a period of social revolution and modernization, abolishing slavery in 1888 and overthrowing the Empire of Brazil in 1889. The changes in Brazil were reflected in its musical life.  Previously European music had been the dominant influence, and the courses at the Conservatório de Música were grounded in traditional counterpoint and harmony. Villa-Lobos underwent very little of this formal training. After a few abortive harmony lessons, he learned music by illicit observation from the top of the stairs of the regular musical evenings at his house arranged by his father.  When his father died suddenly in 1899 he earned a living for his family by playing in cinema and theatre orchestras in Rio. His earliest pieces originated in guitar improvisations, for example Panqueca (Pancake) of 1900.

Around 1905 Villa-Lobos started explorations of Brazil’s “dark interior”, absorbing the native Brazilian musical culture.   After this period, he gave up any idea of conventional training and instead absorbed the musical influences of Brazil’s indigenous cultures, themselves based on Portuguese and African, as well as American Indian elements. His earliest compositions were the result of improvisations on the guitar from this period.  Villa-Lobos played with many local Brazilian street-music bands; he was also influenced by the cinema and Ernesto Nazareth’s improvised tangos and polkas.  For a time Villa-Lobos became a cellist in a Rio opera company, and his early compositions include attempts at Grand Opera. Encouraged by Arthur Napoleão, a pianist and music publisher, he decided to compose seriously.   In 1912, Villa-Lobos married the pianist Lucília Guimarães, ended his travels, and began his career as a serious musician. His music began to be published in 1913. mainly in Rio de Janeiro’s Salão Nobre do Jornal do Comércio.  When he returned to Rio de Janeiro he briefly attempted to receive a more formalized education, but his personality and musical practice proved ill-matched with the academic establishment and, although he made important connections with the faculty, he soon left classes. He spent the next ten years composing and playing freelance cello in cafes and cinemas to earn a living. He eventually gained national recognition and a fair sum of government funding with the premiere of his Third Symphony, “A guerra,” the first part of a symphonic trilogy commissioned by the Brazilian government to commemorate World War I.

Villa-Lobos introduced some of his compositions in a series of occasional chamber concerts and later also orchestral concerts from 1915 to 1921. The music presented at these concerts shows Villa-Lobos’s coming to terms with the conflicting elements in his experience, and overcoming a crisis of identity, as to whether European or Brazilian music would dominate his style. This was decided by 1916, the year in which he composed the symphonic poems Amazonas and Uirapurú, although Amazonas was not performed until 1929, and Uirapurú was first performed in 1935. These works drew from native Brazilian legends and the use of “primitive” folk material.  Yet, European influences still did inspire Villa-Lobos. In 1917 Sergei Diaghilev made an impact on tour in Brazil with his Ballets Russes. That year Villa-Lobos also met the French composer Darius Milhaud, who was in Rio as secretary to Paul Claudel at the French Legation. Milhaud brought the music of Debussy, Satie, and possibly Stravinsky.  In return Villa-Lobos introduced Milhaud to Brazilian street music. In 1918, he also met the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who became a lifelong friend and champion; this meeting prompted Villa-Lobos to write more piano music, such as Simples coletânea of 1919.

In about 1918 Villa-Lobos abandoned the use of opus numbers for his compositions as a constraint to his pioneering spirit. With the piano suite Carnaval das crianças (Children’s carnival) of 1919–20, Villa-Lobos liberated his style altogether from European Romanticism.   The suite, in eight movements with the finale written for piano duet, depicts eight characters or scenes from Rio’s Lent Carnival.  In February 1922, a festival of modern art took place in São Paulo and Villa-Lobos contributed performances of his own works. The press was unsympathetic, and the audience was not appreciative.  The festival ended with Villa-Lobos’s Quarteto simbólico, composed as an impression of Brazilian urban life.  In July 1922, Rubinstein gave the first performance of Villa-Lobos’s piano suite A Prole do Bebê (The Baby’s Family), composed in 1918. The piece has been called “the first enduring work of Brazilian modernism”.  Rubinstein suggested that Villa-Lobos tour abroad, and in 1923 he set out for Paris.  Just before he left he completed his Nonet (for ten players and chorus) which was first performed after his arrival in the French capital. He stayed in Paris in 1923–24 and 1927–30, and there he met such luminaries as Edgard Varèse, Pablo Picasso, Leopold Stokowski and Aaron Copland. Parisian concerts of his music made a strong impression.

In the 1920s, Villa-Lobos also met the Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia, who commissioned a guitar study.  The composer responded by writing a set of twelve such pieces, each based on a tiny detail or figure played by Brazilian itinerant street musicians (chorões), transformed into a étude that is not merely didactic. The music of chorões also provided the initial inspiration for his Chôros, a series of compositions written between 1924–29.   In 1930, Villa-Lobos, who was in Brazil to conduct, arranged concerts around São Paulo, and composed patriotic and educational music. In 1932, he became director of the Superintendência de Educação Musical e Artística (SEMA), and his duties included arranging concerts including the Brazilian premieres of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor as well as Brazilian compositions. His position at SEMA led him to compose mainly patriotic and propagandist works. His series of Bachianas Brasileiras were a notable exception.  Also, during his period at SEMA, Villa-Lobos composed five string quartets, nos. 5 to 9, which explored avenues opened by his public music that dominated his output.  And he wrote more music for Segovia, the Cinq préludes, which also demonstrate a further formalization of his composition style.

Villa-Lobos’s music for the film O Descobrimento do Brasil (The Discovery of Brazil) of 1936, which included versions of earlier compositions, was arranged into orchestral suites, and includes a depiction of the first mass in Brazil in a setting for double choir.  After 1937, during the Estado Novo period when Vargas seized power by decree, Villa-Lobos continued producing patriotic works directly accessible to mass audiences. Villa-Lobos’s writings of the Vargas era include propaganda for Brazilian nationhood (“brasilidade”), and teaching and theoretical works. His Guia Prático ran to 11 volumes, Solfejos (two volumes, 1942 and 1946) contained vocal exercises, and Canto Orfeônico (1940 and 1950) contained patriotic songs for schools and for civic occasions.  Villa-Lobos published A Música Nacionalista no Govêrno Getúlio Vargas around 1941, in which he characterized the nation as a sacred entity whose symbols (including its flag, motto and national anthem) were inviolable. Villa-Lobos was the chair of a committee whose task was to define a definitive version of the Brazilian national anthem, and he established a conservatory for choral singing in 1942.  For the 1943 celebrations he also composed the ballet Dança da terra, which the authorities deemed unsuitable until it was revised. The 1943 celebrations did include Villa-Lobos’s hymn Invocação em defesa da pátria shortly after Brazil’s declaring war on Germany and its allies.

With fellow composer Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez, Villa-Lobos cofounded the Brazilian Academy of Music in 1945.  Vargas fell from power in 1945. Villa-Lobos was able, after the end of the war, to travel abroad again; he returned to Paris, and also made regular visits to the United States as well as travelling to Great Britain, and Israel. He received a huge number of commissions, and fulfilled many of them despite failing health. He composed concertos for piano, cello (the second one in 1953), classical guitar (in 1951 for Segovia, who refused to play it until the composer provided a cadenza in 1956), harp (for Nicanor Zabaleta in 1953) and harmonica (for John Sebastian, Sr. in 1955–6). Other commissions included his Symphony No. 11 (for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1955), and the opera Yerma (1955–56) based on the play by Federico García Lorca.  In 1957, he wrote a 17th String Quartet, whose austerity of technique and emotional intensity “provide a eulogy to his craft”.  His Benedita Sabedoria, a sequence of a capella chorales written in 1958, is a similarly simple setting of Latin biblical texts. These works lack the pictorialism of his more public music.

Villa-Lobos’s final major work was the music for the film Green Mansions starring Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins, commissioned by MGM in 1958.  It earned Villa-Lobos $25,000, and he conducted the soundtrack recording himself.  From the score, Villa-Lobos compiled a work for soprano soloist, male chorus, and orchestra, which he titled Forest of the Amazon (Floresta do Amazonas) and recorded it in 1959 in stereo with Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão, an unidentified male chorus, and the Symphony of the Air for United Artists Records.  He spent the last ten years of his life traveling and conducting, primarily in New York and Paris.  On November 17, 1959, he died in Rio de Janeiro.  His state funeral was the final major civic event in that city before the capital transferred to Brasília.  His body is buried in the Cemitério São João Batista in Rio de Janeiro.  During his life, he composed ceaselessly–about 2,000 works are credited to him in all.  Except for the lost works, the Nonetto, the two concerted works for violin and orchestra, Suite for Piano and Orchestra, a number of the symphonic poems, most of his choral music and all of the operas, his music is well represented on the world’s recital and concert stages and on CD.

The following works by Heitor Villa-Lobos are contained in my collection:

Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2 for Orchestra (1931).

Bachiana Brasileira No. 5.

Danca Frenetica.

Down in a Tropical Forest Overture.

Momo precoce, fantasy for Piano and Orchestra on Children’s Carnival.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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