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Heitor Villa-Lobos (March 5, 1887 – November 17, 1959)


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Probably the most important Brazilian composer, he revolutionised the Brazilian musical scene. His creative ingenuity is beyond question. A genius.

He was born on March 5th 1887 in Rio de Janeiro. His initial musical training was with his librarian father who organised musical evenings in their home. Probably because of those evenings he learned to play a number of instruments at least adequately at a young age, notably the cello, guitar, clarinet and piano. Upon his father’s death, Villa-Lobos played in theatres to support his family. This brought him into contact with street musicians whose influence was to remain throughout his life.

The music into which Villa-Lobos was born was heavily tied to European convention as was musical education. Standard harmony and counterpoint didn’t appeal to him thus he was largely self-taught as a composer.  He was also born into a time of political upheaval. The old imperial order was overturned, slavery had recently been abolished and the drive became progress and order.

Villa-Lobos fitted with the new although his brand of modernism and impressionism was not received well in Brazil.  He travelled around Brazil including at least some of the Amazonian interior collecting music and folklore. We know he visited Manaus in the early 1900s. It was the pianist Rubenstein who persuaded the Brazilian government to fund his freedom to compose; suggesting he should go to Paris.

Paris of the 20s was artistically volatile – late impressionism, the avant garde, neo-classicism. Composers of the time often turned to musical strains from faraway places so the scene was set to receive someone as exotic as Villa-Lobos. His declaration was “I don’t bring you folklore. I am the folklore!” His music had found its audience.

He was a flamboyant story-teller. He talked of his exhausting travels in the Amazon, staying with tribes to collect their music. He encountered cannibals, he told, and saved himself and a female from the cooking pot with his cello playing. So impressed was the tribal chief he gave Villa-Lobos the woman whom he later married! All such stories were absorbed with glee. Later in life he laughed when reminded of his stories. No doubt he did collect some music from the Amazon but much was also gleaned from phonograph cylinder recordings in Rio.

His musical output was huge, covering everything from solo (much for guitar) through chamber music to choral to large orchestral works, some with multiple choruses. He had a lifetime fondness for Bach and fell under the influence of Debussy in some of his earlier work.

His various styles persist throughout his work. There’s a story behind this (perhaps for another time). Basically he would start something then leave it unfinished, only to return to it years later, able to finish it in the same developmental style.

His most well-known works are the 9 Bachianas Brasileiras, one movement showing a clear Bachian influence, the others in Brazilian styles.  The most famous of these is the 5th for 8 cellos and soprano.

He wrote 14 Chôros ranging from solo (no. 1 for guitar) to huge orchestral works. (Scores of the last 2 are lost.) A chôro is based on popular or nationalist Brazilian styles and dances and his choros are probably his most inventive.  

He wrote 17 String Quartets; 12 Symphonies (though he actually wrote 11. His 5th, if it was ever written has been lost), concertos for many different instruments and a mass of chamber works and songs; and two film scores, O Descubrimento do Brasil and A Floresta do Amazonas (The Discovery of Brazil and Forest of the Amazon).

He became so well-known during the 1940s/1950s that he was inundated with commissions. No surprise then that some of his work is pot-boiling and lack-lustre. But most of his work displays his genius at both composition and orchestration.

If nothing else his music is difficult to perform with its complex rhythms and polyphonic lines. Recordings therefore vary. As a conductor he did himself no favours. His renderings are so often clumsy and ill-balanced – with exception of his film scores. His recording of Forest of the Amazon is the best without doubt.

Youtube provides many good (and bad) renderings. As for CDs, avoid those by the BIS label that allowed recording engineers too much interference, zooming sections in and out according to what they thought you should hear rather than what Villa-Lobos scored. Agreed some of his scores truly tax recording and production: e.g. his 10th symphony with its big orchestra, 5 choruses and soloists and only Carl St Clair with the Stuttgart Orchestra (on the CPO label) seem to bring it off. Also avoid renderings by Villa-Lobos himself other than those mentioned.

Here are a few STRONG recommendations!

Of his BACHIANAS BRASILEIRAS, No. 5 is the best known, 8 cellos and a soprano. The Dança is the liveliest movement:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFkrojIA1wk

But if you think you’d like the Bachian Aria

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYV01ovTksI

SOLO GUITAR:

Chôro no. 1

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAg8VHuXNKU

Prelude no. 2 (at least played at a decent tempo by this guitarist!)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZ6Cd-WZgNU

CHAMBER:

Quinteto em forme do Chôros (difficult to find a good, balanced one but these females make a good go, if a tad on the fast side. My fave is the New York Wind Quintet). A note, the original is for flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet and bassoon but these days it’s mostly played in an arrangement substituting horn for C Anglais. A recording of the original is available on Hyperion.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1xP1tZtoMM

Quarteto for flute, alto sax, harp, celeste and with a chorus, a sugary, early piece (also known as Quarteto Symbolico), nonetheless easy to listen to. 3 movements.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAIs46KAqgU

ORCHESTRAL

Uirapuru (An early ballet about a magic bird 1917) Go for this Stokowski recording as it omits a long repeat that turns the work boring. It might be needed as a ballet but works better without as a concert piece. It uses the unusual violinphone close to the closing bars.  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FIS4SLowmk

Forest of the Amazon (cond Karabchevsky).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3-YjjvuucE

Please add to these recommendations if you’d like. Mine are a launch. I’ve avoided the Guitar Concerto – just my view but it’s lack-lustre and the ending doesn’t seem to make much sense at all. History says that though Segovia commissioned it he refused to play it unless Villa-Lobos wrote a cadenza which he duly did… One sometimes wished he hadn’t!

If you’ve got this far, thank you for reading. We’re so immersed in European classical and romantic traditions, mainly the “big 3”, that one might think it’s the only music in the world. At least we can see there is a world beyond in which good music can happen: the Americas, Scandinavia, Australasia and the Far East and…everywhere.  

 

 

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