Monday, March 05, 2007


120th Anniversary of the birth of Heitor Villa-Lobos

The great classics in music are almost exclusively associated with European culture. This holds true for the traditional pillars of classical music such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, etc. as well as the less heralded innovators of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries such as Debussy, Schonberg, Berg and Webern. Even in the cases where this generalization does not hold, such as those of recognized classical composers from the United States and Latin America, the European influence is still pervasive.

When questioned in the mid-twentieth century by a fellow musician on the existence or not of an indigenous music of universal significance in the Americas, renowned American composer Aaron Copland was hardpressed for an answer.(1) He indicated three important preconditions that must exist for this to occur:
"First, the composer must be part of a nation that has a profile of its own--that is the most important; second, the composer must have in his background some sense of musical culture and, if possible, a basis in folk or popular art; and third, a superstructure of organized musical activities must exist--that is, to some extent, at least--at the services of the native composer."(2)

It is notable that in his search for "...qualities of the specifically Western imagination...", Copland names Heitor Villa-Lobos as one of only two composers who in his opinion possess "...a certain richness and floridity of invention that has no exact counterpart in Europe."(3) The uniqueness of Villa-Lobos' music is widely recognized by classical music authorities throughout the world.

I would add that Brasilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos is possibly one of the few members of that elite corps of classical composers to incorporate African (or what would probably be called today “Third World” or "World") music into his creations. Although still influenced by the European tradition, Villa-Lobos nevertheless based his art on the rich diversity of his native multi-ethnic country which includes Amerindians, several European nationalities, African descendents and various mixtures. Therein resides his originality.

Villa-Lobos approached his art in much the same manner as an academic researcher would approach the subject to be investigated. Furthermore he was an educator as well as a composer. My personal interest in his music is hard to explain, but nevertheless it led me to learn part of one of his more difficult pieces for the piano and to track down and acquire the sheetmusic for some of his lesser known but fascinating and underrated collections for piano that could only be acquired in Brasil. [More on that at the end of this brief exposition]

A prolific composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos is often credited with producing more than a thousand compositions. The extent of his output - including arrangements and compositions - varies according to the source, since a significant portion of it was reportedly lost. One source places his output at more than 3,000 works, while possibly over two thousand of these may have been lost.
"From 1899, the date of his first composition, Villa-Lobos composed in his words 'by biological necessity' until very shortly before his death in 1959. Even on social occasions such as lucheon engagements, parties and meetings with friends, Villa-Lobos frequently had manuscript paper and continued writing while simultaneously engaged in animated conversation."(5)

Heitor Villa-Lobos was born on March 5, 1887 in the Laranjeiras (or Orange Grove) section of Río de Janeiro. His birth occured close to an historical turning point in the development of Brasil as a nation. The first two years of his childhood years saw the overthrow of the monarchy or "Second Empire" under Emperor Dom Pedro II. This was the direct consequence of the abolition of slavery, a necessary precondition for Brasil to truly become a modern nation. (Historical Aside: Dom Pedro II had a most interesting relation with the United States).

It was the daughter of Dom Pedro, Princess Isabel, who on May 13, 1888 signed the so-called Golden Law which abolished slavery without compensation for owners. Following the overthrow of the emperor by the army, an American styled Federation was proclaimed on November 15, 1889. It may therefore be said that the birth of Heitor Villa-Lobos coincided with the birth of Brasil as a modern nation.

Although little is known of Villa-Lobos' childhood, his parents were linked with the world of music but in different ways. His mother, Noemi Umbelina Monteiro, was daughter of a Brasilian composer named Santos Monteiro.(6) Although she would have preferred a different career for young Heitor, his father Raul - who was an intellectual and employee of the National Library of Río de Janeiro - is credited with having introduced the boy to music. Born in 1862 of Spanish parents, Raul Villa-Lobos was an amateur musician, and writer of around thirty books including mathematics compendiums. He was a founder of the first symphonic club of the city (the Symphonic Concerts Society of Rio de Janeiro) and often invited musicians over to the home for small chamber music concerts.(7) He exerted a considerable, albeit shortlived ( Raul Villa-Lobos died in 1899, thus forcing his wife Noemi to seek outside work in order to support the family.), influence over Villa-Lobos, having taught him the rudiments of the cello, which would become the composer's chief instrument.

According to Heitor Villa-Lobos own testimony, he was five years of age when he began learning the cello with his father. At six, his father would take him to practice sessions and small "concerts" in order to initiate him into group playing. At seven years, he learned the clarinet and by 9 years of age he was playing duets with his father on the cello as well as on clarinet.(8) He also achieved mastery of the guitar.

Concert life was quite strong in the cities of Río de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. During the second half of the nineteenth century, several concert organizations emerged in both cities, while in Río de Janeiro, visiting European singers performed at the Teatro Fluminense.
"In Río de Janeiro, the first to appear was the Sociedade Filarmonica (founded in 1834), followed by the Clube Mozart (1867), the Clube Beethoven (1882) and the Sociedade de Concertos Clássicos (1883). ... Sao Paulo was no less active. There was the Clube Haydn (1883) and the Clube Mendelssohn came into being."(9)

Heitor mixed early on with composers and poets from the world of popular Brasilian music and, following his father's early and untimely death, was obliged to play the cello in cafes, bars and cinemas to supplement his mother's meager income. During this time, his aunt Maria Carolina - who was a pianist - introduced him to Bach through works such as those contained in the Well Tempered Clavier.(10) This constituted one of the most important stages of Villa-Lobos' early musical education.

During his adolescense, Villa-Lobos had a strong desire to travel throughout Brasil. However, he was known to adorn his travel experiences to make them more interesting. He related to people a series of fantastic voyages he supposedly undertook throughout Brasil around the period from 1905 to 1911, many of which have been called into question by authors. According to author Lisa Peppercorn, he spoke to her of:
"...his voyages up and down the tributaries of the great Amazon River, including the Río Negro, Río Tocantins, Río Araguaia, Río das Mortes, Río Tabajós and Sao Francisco accompanied by just one friend and in a small home-made boat. It seems most unlikely that even a courageous young man, such as Villa-Lobos undoubtedly was, undertook all these adventurous trips in those days.”(11)

It is certain that his initial excursion to Northern Brasil took him to the states of Espirito Santo, Bahia and Pernambuco, where he reportedly stayed at the cities of Salvador and Recife.(12) It is on these trips, according to some sources, that the young Villa-Lobos reportedly derived his inspiration and material for his compositions after experiencing the rich folklore and tradition of unfamiliar regions of his native Brasil. According to Villa-Lobos Bio-Bibliographer David Appleby, following sporadic attendance as a student at the National Institute of Music, Heitor Villa-Lobos decided that the:
"...formal classes at the institute were far less interesting than the folk and popular music he had heard during his travels, [therefore] he resumed his journeys. The most fascinating music he heard was in northeastern Brazil where types of folk music almost totally unknown in the capital captivated his attention. Much of the music heard during these trips provided a basis for later musical works."(13)

Author Lisa Peppercorn apparently takes issue with versions such as this. In her book The World of Villa-Lobos in Pictures and Documents, she states it is a mis-conception to believe that:
"...Villa-Lobos - in order to give his music a Brazilian flavour - roamed through virgin forests in the Amazon region, mingled with natives, collected folk materials in the interior of Brazil, and used it all in his music. He did not collect one single melody and therefore no such tunes are used in his compositions."(14)

She insists that the composer went about giving his music a Brazilian flavor in a very intellectual manner, as would a researcher in any field. He consulted archives, documents, records and chronicles that were abundant and easily available at the time for anyone interested.

In a 1944 interview with New York Times Music Critic Olin Downes, Villa-Lobos' declarations seem to lend credence to Peppercorn's view. In answer to the question regarding if he used Brazilian folk tunes as such in his music, he replied:
"I compose in the folk style, I use thematic idioms in my own way, and subject to my own development. An artist must do this. He must select and transmit the material given him by his people. To make a potpourri of folk melody, and think that in this way music has been created is hopeless. But it is only nature and humanity that can lead an artist to the truth. ... I study the history, the country, the speech, the customs, the background of the people. I have always done this, and it is from these sources, spiritual as well as practical, that I have drawn my art."(15)

Among the many sources Villa-Lobos consulted were French translations of Brasilian legends, some of which were published in 1930 by Gustavo Dodt Barroso. He also consulted a seminal book by German Hans Staden which reportedly contained rich early documentary material. An account of a visit in 1557 to Brasil by French Calvinist pastor Jean de Lery entitled Histoire d'un voyage faict en la terre du Brésil autrement dite Amérique was also studied by Villa-Lobos. A subsequent edition of de Lery's work, which presented five melodies of the Tupinambá Indians, provided material for Villa-Lobos' 1926 composition "Tres Poemas Indígenas" (Three Native Poems).

This is not to say that Villa-Lobos did not travel and come into contact will the rich human diversity which makes up Brasil. According to one source, he even made it as far as the Caribbean, visiting the island of Barbados in 1910.(16) Although there is some disagreement about his travels, he was known to have travelled to the city of Manaus in the Amazon, and Bahía in the Northeast - giving concerts in both places - as well as Curitiba in the South. His travels allowed him to become acquainted with different regions of Brasil, including the inhabitants, their customs and habits. However, authors coincide in that it was Bahía that captivated the young composer with its "candomble" and other Brasilian dances. It bears mentioning that this region has a strong African influence and was witness to an uprising of Muslim slaves in 1835.

A turning point in the life of Heitor Villa-Lobos occured in the year 1913 when he married pianist and teacher Lucilia Guimaraes (pdf) in Río de Janeiro after returning from his travels. The marriage brought about a fruitful musical collaboration, as Lucilia became an interpreter of the composer's music. She also encourgaged him to study the European classics and to write music for the piano. He assimilated some of the Russian symphonic literature as well as that of the French Impressionists.

In subsequent years, he gave performances of his work in and around Río de Janeiro, garnering reviews from critics along the way. The critics gave him mixed though generally favorable reviews during this period and although he managed to gain exposure in Río de Janiero, he was little known outside the area. This began to change once he befriended Arthur Rubenstein after initially meeting him in 1918 (coincidentally, they were both born he same year). Rubenstein was impressed by the composer and used his influence in later years to obtain sponsorship for one of Villa-Lobos' trips to Paris. Villa-Lobos dedicated the incredibly difficult piano piece Rudepoeme to Rubenstein as well as Choros No. 11 for piano and orchestra.

An important opportunity for Villa-Lobos to gain exposure arose in Sao Paulo during a cultural event designated as the Week of Modern Art. From 11 to 18 February of 1922, artists and intellectuals converged on the city's municipal theatre for an opportunity to present their works. Although much controversy surrounds the purpose of the 'week', it is considered by many the beginning of Brasilian modernism.(17) The event, which was held on the centenary celebration of Brasil's independence, was the product of influential intellectual Mario Raúl Morais Andrade and significantly shaped the upcoming generation of artists and intellectuals. Heitor Villa-Lobos participation fit in well with the overall theme of 'the week'.

In her doctoral dissertation on the composer, Rebecca Rust organizes Villa-Lobos' works into three periods: the early years, which extend from 1908 to 1920; the middle years, spanning from 1920 to 1944; and the later years from 1945 to his death in 1959.(18) She emphasizes that in the early and later periods, Villa-Lobos demonstrated an acceptance of more traditional forms as well as what the composer termed a "universal" or international style. It is in the middle years, however, that he is guided by innovative impulses and strives to separate himself from formal established or traditional structures. As should be recalled, toward the beginning of the middle years marks his participation in the trend-setting Week of Modern Art.

Although Villa-Lobos allowed himself to be influenced by the French Impressionists throughout his lifetime, in the early period, it was particularly notable in his "Suite Floral" (1916-1918), which consists of three movements for piano. One of the movements, entitled "Idilio na Rede", reflects an enduring Brasilian or wider Caribbean or tropical custom of relaxing in a hammock. During this early period Villa-Lobos eschewed formal training in favor of the popular idiom. He wrote short songs, compositions for the guitar (an instrument often synonymous with popular music) and piano, chamber music works and others. He played an improvisatory type of music, known as choros, with popular musicians. While describing "Choros" as a generic term for a piece of music played by a small group of musicians in the open air - somewhat like a serenade - and with specific types of instruments, author Lisa Peppercorn also quotes Renato Almeida's definition of "Choros" from his Historia da Musica Brasileira:
"Choro was something that had come to Brazil from the other side of the Atlantic...from the African coast where the Kaffir tribes practiced a sort of vocal concert with dance, called xolo... . The Brazilian Negroes called their balls which they staged on St. John's Day or the other holidays on the big country estates where they were employed xolos which through some confusion with a Portuguese paronym turned into xoro. When this xoro moved into urban regions, it became choro."(Renato Almeida: Historia da Musica Brasileira, 2nd edition, Río de Janeiro, 1942)(19)

While Villa-Lobos gave many of his works the title of "Choros", this did not imply any specific type of popular dance form or composition. According to Peppercorn: "For Villa-Lobos, Choros was simply a name he gave to assorted series of compositions each of which could just as well be called symphony, trio, duo, etc."(20)

There appears to be a general consensus around the composer's middle period (1920-1944) as that in which he produced his most creative, innovative and certainly most enduring work. During this period, his style matured and he ended up securing his place in Western classical music history. During this period he produced his series of "Choros" and the "Bachianas Brasileiras"; he made two trips to Paris (in 1923 and 1927) where he presented new compositions such as his "Nonetto" (described as "one of the most important chamber music works..."[21] written by the composer). On his second trip he presented his "Choros" series along with other recent works to an enthusiastic public. With his increasing popularity he received invitations to present concerts in various European cities. According to Roberta Rust, "The cumulative musical result of the middle period was a magnificent fusion of essentially Brazilian nationalism with the European avant-garde techniques of the 1920's."(22)

An important aspect of Villa-Lobos legacy that remains to be mentioned and is also associated with the "middle period" is his interest and contibution to musical education in Brasil. After returning from his second trip to Paris, his career underwent a significant transformation that coincided (or was possibly a consequence of) the coming to power of dictator Getúlio Vargas on November 3, 1930.

Villa-Lobos was troubled by the low level of music appreciation among the public and the poor state of musical instruction in the public schools of Brasil.(23) On the one hand, he devised a program to bring good music, including his own, to the towns in the state of Sao Paulo through a series musical tours. On occasion during a tour Villa-Lobos would provoke the ire of crowds by criticising the way people listened to music as well as their preference for the very popular sport of soccer, which he said "deviated human intelligence from the head to the feet".(24)

He also attempted to stimulate the public's interest and appreciation of music by conducting massive choirs or canto orfeônico concerts. His aim was also to win over the authorities in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to his idea of introducing mandatory choral intruction in the public schools. The government of Gertulio Vargas, which was intent on instilling patriotism in Brasilian youth, was persuaded by Villa-Lobos suggestion that this could be easier achieved through musical instruction.

The support of key authorities such as Anisio Spinola Teixeira (soon to become director of the Department of Education in Rio de Janeiro), combined with the nationalist tendencies of the new Vargas regime, resulted in the establishment of the Superintendency of Music and Artistic Education (SEMA in Portuguese) under the Department of Education in April of 1931. Villa-Lobos was named director of SEMA, and choral singing became mandatory in municipal schools. He managed to stage un-precedented massive public choral presentations of 30,000 and 40,000 voices a capella in Vasco da Gama stadium in Río de Janeiro. Regarding these, author David Appleby says:
"The public demonstrations in the 1930's by enormous choral groups were feats never before or since duplicated in Brazil or elsewhere. The sheer size of groups was unprecedented, and the organizational aspects were carefully planned and carried out with the help of musical assistants and the government... . ...A demonstration with thirty thousand participants and one thousand instrumentalists performing music with body gestures portraying the wind rushing through the trees in an Amazon forest, or the waves pounding a magnificent Brazilian beach was not an experience easily forgotten by any performer or listener."(25)

(Note: At least one of these massive choral presentations was captured on video and is available to view at the Villa-Lobos museum in Río de Janeiro. Don't miss it if you are ever there on visit!)

Although the composer's new activities did not appear to provide him with the best of circumstances to produce major works, he nevertheless did complete his famous Brasilian Cycle or "Ciclo Brasileiro" for piano as well as several of the aforementioned "Bachianas Brasileiras". (Note: For those interested muisicians, you will find this wonderful piano music here.)

According to Alfred Heller, President of the Villa-Lobos Music Society, Inc., the composer in 1930 was also concerned that no one in northern Brasil listened to music by Bach, whom he considered the "universal fountain of folklore."(26) Hence, another of his educational projects was to bring Bach to the Northern region through the elaboration of nine suites which reportedly combined Brazilian folk music with the Baroque influence of Bach. These nine suites were entitled the "Bachianas Brasileiras" and include some of his most famous work.

Why is an amateur “musician” (That's not true – more like a music lover with very little formal training) like myself interested in Heitor Villa-Lobos? I cannot answer that question beyond saying I just love his music. I surprised even myself by learning the entire Poema Singelo piece for solo piano. Villa-Lobos' mischievous humor is on display in the title, which translates roughly to a Simple Song. It is actually fiendishly difficult, so I only included my rendition of the first half, since I didn’t butcher that as badly as I did the second (much more difficult) half.

I have a particular fondness for Villa-Lobos' collection of sixteen piano pieces based on Brasilian folk-songs entitled Cirandas, which is Portuguese for circle dances. While the melodies are fairly simple, what Villa-Lobos does with them is nothing short of astounding. I was immediately captivated by them and avidly sought them out until I found them. The only editorial that had the copyright was Arthur Napoleao. The exclusive distributor was Fermata do Brasil, located on Av. Iripanga in Sao Paulo. (UPDATE: I have since discovered that the Cirandas are available outside of Brasil; they can be ordered at SheetMusicPlus)

The first opportunity I got to travel to Brasil, I made my way to the distributor with the intention of purchasing the collection. When I found the place, a fellow greeted me through a hole in the wall (literally!) and almost fell backwards when I asked him for the Cirandas Cycle. He noted my accent and asked how in the world did a foreigner ever hear of the works (much less of the location of the distributor). He spent the better part of the time I was there extolling the virtues of Villa-Lobos the composer and lamenting how Brasilians, in his view, no longer listened to nor sought out his works.

He expressed surprise that I had knowledge of the Cirandas Cycle, saying that the collection is hugely underappreciated, underrated and that people would come to realize that they constituted some of the composer's most innovative works for piano. In the hopes that I would make them better known outside of Brasil, he insisted on giving me the book free of charge. I couldn’t believe it since it had taken me several years to locate the book, only to discover that I couldn’t mail-order it. I was fortunate enough to make a trip to Brasil (one of several) as part of my job in the nineties. It was quite a find and I didn’t have the heart to tell the fellow that I wasn’t a professional musician (or a musician at all, for that matter).

The Cirandas are a wonderfully unique collection and constitute a prime example of Villa-Lobos’ use of folk material in his compositions. The piano style on some of them is quite un-orthodox (my mother was a pianist, so she was able attest to that for me). For those interested, Sonia Rubinsky does a beautiful rendition of the entire cycle on this CD. I have the lyrics for the original folk melodies in English and Portuguese and would love to make them public here if I was sure I wasn’t breaking some copyright law.

There is one piece from the Cirandas Cycle that I have managed to learn on the piano, but not well enough to venture putting it here. It is called A Procura de uma Agulha, which translates to Hunting for a Needle. It is not a metaphor for anything (although one might surmise that my search for the Cirandas Cycle sheet music was just that!). It is actually a simple and very poignant song about a peasant girl who is going door to door searching for a lost needle presumably so she can continue her craft in order to put food on the table. The lyrics roughly translate to:
Look at that girl!From how far away she comes!She is coming to our land.I have come here this way, this way,To hunt for a needle that here I lost.

(This article is cross-posted at the Daily Kos and at Progressive Historians)

1.Aaron Copland, Music and Imagination: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1951-52, New York: The New American Library, 1952: 85.
2.Ibid.: 86.
3.Ibid.: 99; The other composer is Charles Ives from Connecticut.
4.David P. Appleby, Heitor Villa-Lobos: A Bio-Bibliography, New York: Greenwood Press, 1988: preface.
6.Roberta Rust, "Piano Works of Heitor Villa-Lobos' Middle Period: A Study of Choros No. 5, Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 and Ciclo Brasileiro", Doctoral Dissertation: University of Miami, May, 1991: 8.
7.Maria Celia Machado, Heitor Villa-Lobos: Tradicao e Renovacao na Musica Brasileira, Rio de Janeiro: Livraria Francisco Alves Editora SA, 1987: 28.
8.Ibid.: 26.
9.Lisa M. Peppercorn, The World of Villa-Lobos: In Pictures and Documents, England: Scolar Press, 1996: 21.
10.Roberta Rust, May 1991: 9. (there is some disagreement over this, as Maria Celia Machado, 1987: 28, indicates it was his aunt Fifina instead).
11.Peppercorn, 1996: 47.
12.Roberta Rust, May 1991: 9.
13.Appleby, 1988: 5.
14.Peppercorn, 1996: 96.
15.Olin Downes, "Heitor Villa-Lobos: Visiting Brazilian Composer Discusses Sources of Nationalism in Art", The New York Times, December 17, 1944.
16.Roberta Rust, May 1991: 10.
17.Maria Celia Machado, 1987: 21.
18.Roberta Rust, "Piano Works of Heitor Villa-Lobos' Middle Period: A Study of Choros No. 5, Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4 and Ciclo Brasileiro", Doctoral Dissertation: University of Miami, May, 1991: 19.
19.Quoted in: Peppercorn, 1996: 318.
20.Peppercorn, 1996: 132.
21.Appleby, 1988: 5.
22.Roberta Rust, 1991: 25.
23.Maria Celia Machado, 1987: 38.
24.Maria Celia Machado, 1987: 37.
25.Appleby, 1988: 7.
26.Alfred Heller, "The 'One-World Style' of Heitor Villa-Lobos", Guitar Review No. 78, 1819, Summer, 1989.

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