» Archive for May, 2009

Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras

Sunday, May 24th, 2009 by Martin Hester

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras 1,2 5 and 9
Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française; Regente: Heitor Villa-Lobos.
EMI Classics B00000GCAG


This year marks the 50th since Villa-Lobos’ passing, and Rio de Janeiro will be full of his music, as befits a composer with icon status, and a national figure.
The composer
Heitor Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1887. The rich owners of coffee and sugar plantations had long resisted the abolition of slavery, but this was finally made official in 1888, while the Barão de Mauá’s brave attempts to start industrial ventures based on free enterprise had collapsed. The capital, Rio de Janeiro, was dominated by an elite of traditional families, who set the pace for matters of power, money, and the arts, this based on an admiration for European (and particularly French) culture. Villa-Lobos’ father Raul was the son of Spanish immigrants, definitely outside the elite, but befriended by an influential politician, he received a good education in Vassouras, and afterwards became a public servant in the Biblioteca Nacional. Raul engaged himself in studies in the most diverse fields, and particularly that of music; Heitor was the one who received all his father’s enthusiasm and training in music. When his father died in 1899, his family was left very poor (and his mother helped them survive by washing and ironing table napkins for the Confeitaria Colombo!)

It is hard to pin down details of Villa-Lobos further education – it appears he had only a primary education, and although he entered night school at the Instituto Nacional de Música in 1904 to study cello, the course was soon closed. As we commented in the GL of August 2005 on Pixinguinha, at that time Rio was full of groups playing “choro”, where the music of the elegant drawing rooms was transformed by the African roots of the musicians, becoming rhythmic, free-ranging, full of collective improvisation. The instruments were flute, bandolin, cavaquinho, and guitar – this then considered a vulgar instrument of the lower classes. It seems then, that Villa was a self-taught musician, playing cello in classical groups, and guitar in choro, earning money as he could. From an early age he was writing his own compositions.

Details of his life then become obscure, but it is know he lived in Paranaguá for a time, and went on a trip to the Northeast and Amazonas in 1912, as a working musician. In November 1912 he first went to the house of Lucília Guimarães, pianist and music teacher, and their affinity led to marriage in 1913. Lucília believed, as did Villa himself, in his predestination to be a great composer, and assisted him in every way – with her earnings, finishing up the scores which he poured out in a torrent, and helping to arrange concerts – no easy task for a musician with no financial means. If his first compositions showed the influence of Puccini, Wagner, and Saint-Saëns, from 1916 various pieces showed the influence of Debussy – particularly Prole de Bebê, for piano solo. In 1920 Villa’s compositions attracted the approval of Artur Rubinstein, on a concert tour to Brazil, and his praise for Villa’s creativity opened for him the doors for the support of Carioca society. If, on the one hand, there grew the realization that Brazil had a composer of great artistic merit, it also generated ferocious criticism, which did not accept the free form and dissonances of his music.

In 1923 the Câmara de Deputados voted a grant for Villa to make a long visit to Paris, where he discovered that his music, with its strong influence of Brazilian folk song and native rhythms, was considered exotic, and he the musical representative of his country. There too he heard Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, whose orchestration of Russian folk themes broke all the existing paradigms of harmony and rhythm, and set new standards for instrumental sound – and this influence went straight into Villa’s music.

Back in Brazil, he found that controversy about his music was still strong – but Rubinstein persuaded Carlos Guinle to fund a second stay in Paris for Villa-Lobos, this time with Lucília, and to contribute to the publishing of important works. During this stay (from 1927 to 1930), Villa could regard himself as the outstanding representative of Brazilian erudite music, although he overspent his budget time and time again.

Back in Brazil, already famous, Villa was asked to head up a project of the Getúlio Vargas government, which made the learning of music a compulsory part of education. This was done principally through singing, with the parts learnt by ear – “Canto Orfeônico”. Villa’s energy and interest carried musical education to far-flung parts of Brazil; his “Guia Prático” has recently been re-edited, and hopefully will serve the same role in musical education as in the past. At its peak, Villa would conduct “Concentrações Orfeônicas” which brought together thousands of school children, to sing in the open air (in football stadiums) the songs they had learnt.

By the 1940s, Villa-Lobos was really of international stature; he travelled frequently to the United States, and wrote commissioned works. His secretary Mindinha became his partner, although his wife Lucília never gave him a divorce.

He continued working without stopping, the towering figure of Brazilian modern classical music, until his death in 1959.

The music
Villa-Lobos wrote a tremendous amount of music – for choir, for orchestra, for widely diverse instrumental groupings – more than 1000 known works. I would describe it as having very original, lyrical melodies, surrounded by strongly rhythmic patterns, and full of dissonances. However, sometimes it seems meandering, going from one idea to another, without communicating a structure or constructing a message. Consider a moment some of Villa’s prose –

Ninguém é capaz de, num verdadeiro estado consciente, num perfeito equilíbrio dos seus julgamentos, se amoldar às idéias e às nações de outras personalidades, cuja força de vontade e orgulho se comparam, apesar de reconhecer que, para formação e realização de um todo, é necessário que existam forças, correntes, parcelas de pensamentos, que marcham, paralelamente, umas às outras.

Sounds impressive? – yes;  fine-words? – yes;  prolix? – yes;  did you get some meaning out of it…..?  Well, I didn’t – and that is how I react to much of his music.

However, among all Villa’s works, high consideration is given to the Choros (written in the 20s), the Bachianas (from the 30s), his music for the guitar (particularly the Preludes), while his other music has gems here and there, where there is a particularly happy joining of ideas, orchestration, and flow.

Here are the first three Preludes for guitar, which have become very well known:


The CD
The Bachianas pay tribute to Bach, but don’t have much similarity with Bach’s music, although some pieces are in fugue form. Others are orchestrated folk music. No. 5 is particularly noted for its soaring soprano aria:

while the first movement of No.1 is strongly dramatic, for a cello ensemble:

No.9 starts with a tranquil, jungle-sleeping Prelude, and then gets into a fugue with a long, strongly rhythmic theme. This is great if well played (but here, conducted by the composer, it is not too good):


Disliking his music or loving it (there are listeners in both camps), there is no disputing Villa-Lobos’ status as the most famous Brazilian composer of modern classical music, nor the way he reflected Brazil in his music and helped to create an identity for it, at the same time as he educated and influenced legions of followers.

So……..Good Listening!