Heitor Villa-Lobos

1887 - 1959

Brazilian

Summary

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1887, Heitor Villa-Lobos was undoubtedly the dominant figure of Brazilian music in the twentieth century. Internationally, he was one of the most celebrated composers of his generation, counted among the likes of Leopold Stokowski, Serge Koussevitzky, Charles Munch, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Eugene Ormandy, Arthur Rubinstein, Pablo Casals, and Andrés Segovia.

During his lifetime, Villa-Lobos was best known for the works he wrote in the 1920s, such as the avant-garde Chôros and fiery tone poem Amazonas, and especially for the famous, neo-classical Bachianas Brasileiras series. However, after his death, it was his work for the guitar that gained prominence in the public eye, somewhat eclipsing the rest of an immensely rich oeuvre that encompassed all genres: opera, oratorio, ballet, symphonic and concertante works, choral, chamber, and solo works. Only in more recent years has his larger-scale music, including the lush ballet Uirapurú, returned to the concert hall and become the subject of systematic academic research and recording.

Biography

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1887, Heitor Villa-Lobos was undoubtedly the dominant figure of Brazilian music in the twentieth century. Internationally, he was one of the most celebrated composers of his generation, counted among the likes of Leopold Stokowski, Serge Koussevitzky, Charles Munch, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Eugene Ormandy, Arthur Rubinstein, Pablo Casals, and Andrés Segovia.

During his lifetime, Villa-Lobos was best known for the works he wrote in the 1920s, such as the avant-garde Chôros and fiery tone poem Amazonas, and especially for the famous, neo-classical Bachianas Brasileiras series. However, after his death, it was his work for the guitar that gained prominence in the public eye, somewhat eclipsing the rest of an immensely rich oeuvre that encompassed all genres: opera, oratorio, ballet, symphonic and concertante works, choral, chamber, and solo works. Only in more recent years has his larger-scale music returned to the concert hall and become the subject of systematic academic research and recording.

Villa-Lobos’ classical training was initiated at home by his father Raul Villa-Lobos, a writer and gifted amateur musician who introduced him to the cello and cultivated an atmosphere that encouraged in young Heitor a fascination for Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier. Though enrolled in the Rio Conservatoire for a short time only, he would nonetheless benefit from the encouragement and regular advice of its most progressive professors: distinguished composers Alberto Nepomuceno, Henrique Oswald, and Francisco Braga. In Braga’s  "Sociedade de Concertos Sinfônicos,” where he was active as a professional cellist between 1912 and 1918, Villa-Lobos would acquire familiarity with the symphonic repertoire and experience with orchestral resources, while also immersing himself in Vincent d´Indy´s Cours de Composition Musicale. The fact of his autodidacticism, similar to that of other illustrious contemporaries such as Arnold Schoenberg and Paul Hindemith, did not prevent Villa-Lobos from acquiring a solid, albeit very personal, technique.

The striking originality of his music resulted from a remarkably unusual combination of experiences that he accumulated during his youth. He was in close contact with the urban popular music of Rio de Janeiro, which, since the turn of the century, and to a degree only comparable to New Orleans, was going through an extraordinary moment of creativity. Rio was then a “melting-pot,” amalgamating influences from different regions of Brazil. Thus, parallel to his cello practice, the young Villa-Lobos would also become an accomplished guitar player and noted improviser in "choro" circles, befriending and closely observing the techniques of some of the best popular musicians of the day, including Irineu de Almeida, Sátiro Bilhar, João Pernambuco, Pixinguinha, and Ernesto Nazareth. Also, traveling as an itinerant musician across Brazil from 1905 to 1912, the nature, landscapes, and music of different regions would leave a lasting impression on his imagination. He would later say that his “first book had been the map of Brazil.” Though some of his own narratives are not to be wholly believed, his sojourns in the Northeast and the Amazonian regions are well-established in scholarly research, notably by Vicente Salles’ documentation of his musical activities in 1911 and 1912 between Belem and Manaus. A unique aspect, therefore, of Villa-Lobos’ formative years is the fact that his musical education was made simultaneously in the two spheres of classical and popular music, and his fluency in both differentiated him strongly from his European contemporaries.

Villa-Lobos’ first marriage in 1913 to the accomplished pianist Lucília Guimarães marked the beginning of his public career as a composer:  the first public concerts dedicated to his music would start in 1915, and by 1920, his image as a “plethoric” composer was already formed with the public and the Brazilian press. His catalog showed no less than one opera, two symphonies, four tone poems, a cello concerto,  and numerous chamber works, songs, and piano pieces. In 1917, he composed the brief symphonic poem that would, in 1934, become his lush and evocative ballet Uirapurú. The speed with which Villa-Lobos’ syntax evolved during this short period, from the Schola Cantorum chromaticism of his Piano Trio No. 1  to the complex polychords of the Piano Trio No. 3 and the song cycle Historietas, cannot be dissociated from his contacts in Rio; with Darius Milhaud, but especially with Arthur Rubinstein – by then already a champion of Szymanowski, Falla, and Stravinsky – and with the Brazilian singer Vera Janacópoulos, whose repertoire included Prokofiev and Stravinsky songs, notably the Pribaoutki, of which exists a hand copy by Villa-Lobos himself signed “Rio, 1920.” Both Rubinstein and Janacópoulos would later have a decisive role in the launching of Villa-Lobos’ international career.

In the early 1920s, the reputation of Villa-Lobos as the foremost Brazilian “modernist” composer was so well-established that the invitation for leading the musical presentations at the epoch-making “Semana de Arte Moderna,” held in São Paulo in 1922, appeared as an evident choice. His connection and subsequent collaboration with the circle of São Paulo “modernists,” notably the writers Mário de Andrade, Oswald de Andrade, and the painter Tarsila do Amaral, would mark a decisive turning point in his language in the direction of “primitivism” in the 1920s – in line with the aesthetic movements “Pau Brasil,” “Antropofagismo,” and of a broader nationalism during the “Retour à l´ordre” of the 1930s and 1940s.

Villa-Lobos spent two long periods in Paris, from 1923 to 1924 and 1927 to 1930, during which he developed a close association with composers Florent Schmitt and Edgard Varèse. His time in Paris also saw, to great success, world premières of “primitivist” works such as Noneto, Chôros No. 3 and No. 8, and Amazonas; works that placed him in the forefront of the Parisian avant-garde scene and influenced young French composers such as Olivier Messiaen.

In the interval spent in Rio from 1924 to 1927, Villa-Lobos plunged into the ethnographic materials collected in 1912 by Edgar Roquette-Pinto, notably the phonographic recordings of indigenous Pareci songs which would nurture not only some of the Chôros (notably No. 10), but much of his subsequent work.

The 1930s marked a complete shift; having been given, from 1932 onward, the responsibility of implementing a new system of music education in the public-school network, Villa-Lobos would virtually cease his compositional activity for four years, during which time he worked to create didactic materials for collective singing (“canto orfeônico”) suitable for choirs from elementary to professional. The result was the Coleção Escola, a collection of about 250 choral pieces and one of the highest achievements in the field of Gebraucshmusik.

A number of pieces written in the early 1930s for small ensembles, such as the Ciranda das Sete Notas, show a clear movement away from the experimentalism of the 1920s toward a predominance of diatonicism and a return to tonal functions. This is epitomized by the cycle of the nine Bachianas Brasileiras, finished in 1945. From 1936 onward, increased concern with rigorous contrapuntal textures would become apparent in works such as the a cappella Missa São Sebastião, the numerous duos written in the spirit of baroque inventions, and notably in his String Trio. Also, and with the close collaboration of his second wife Arminda Neves, he undertook the recycling of several earlier works such Mandu Carará as his first four symphonies, the String Quartet No. 4, and songs of the 1910s incorporated as movements of the Descobrimento do Brasil suites. His international career was given a strong push from the presentation of Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5  at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and from his highly successful American coast-to-coast tournée in 1944, which transformed him into a celebrity. The 1940s and 1950s would be extremely fecund, with his opera Yerma, the cantatas Mandu-Çarará and Floresta do Amazonas, and the completion of the cycles of 11 symphonies and 17 String Quartets.

Villa-Lobos died in Rio de Janeiro in 1959, having lived through the many transformations of a period spanning the last years of the Bragança monarchy to those of the "Bossa Nova" Kubitschek presidency, one year before the inauguration of the new capital Brasília, a triumph of that Brazilian "Modernismo" to whose consolidation and prestige he had contributed like no other.

- Manoel Correa do Lago 

 

 

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