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Heitor Villa-Lobos (Composer, Arranger, Conductor)

Born: March 5, 1887 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Died: November 17, 1959. - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


The Brazilian compose, Heitor Villa-Lobos, learned music from his father, who was a widely-read, highly-cultured amateur of music and a librarian. By the turn of the century Villa-Lobos had turned himself into a professional musician. He earned his living as a cafe musician; his instrument was the cello.

n 1905 Heitor Villa-Lobos made the first of his trips to Brazil's north-eastern states, to collect folk music. Such trips would continue in the future, though Villa-Lobos spun a web of mystery around them; his own testimony of adventures with the cannibal tribes of the North-East is not always trustworthy. Afterwards, he studied at the National Institute of Music in Rio de Janeiro, though his compositional style never conformed to any academic norms. His music remained always personal and idiosyncratic. As Villa-Lobos himself said many years later: "My music is natural, like a waterfall." Also: "One foot in the academy and you are changed for the worst!"

After another ethno-musicological trip to the Amazonian interior in 1912, Heitor Villa-Lobos returned to Rio de Janeiro. There, on November 13, 1915, he turned the city on its ear with a concert of his new music. By 1923, he had attracted enough official favour to win a government grant to study in Paris. On his return in 1930, Villa-Lobos was made director of music education in Rio de Janeiro.

Thus began Heitor Villa-Lobos' glorious second career: pedagogue of music for his country. He designed a complete system of musical instruction for generations of Brazilians, based upon Brazil's rich musical culture, and rooted in a deep and always explicit patriotism. He composed choral music for huge choirs of school children, often adaptations of folk material. His legacy in the Brazil of today, even amongst new generations brought up with the samba-schools or MTV, is a strong feeling of pride and love, intertwined with similar feelings for their country. This is surprising, considering that this is a "classical" composer dead now for more than 35 years; a North American parallel would be hard to find.

In 1944, Heitor Villa-Lobos made a trip to the United States to conduct his works, to critical and even some popular acclaim. Important new works were commissioned by American orchestras, and he even wrote a movie score for Hollywood, for the interesting 1945 film The Green Mansions. The 1940's were a period of triumph on an international scale. As a composer and conductor of his own music, Villa Lobos was lionized from Los Angeles to New York to Paris. In spite of his world travels, his home was always in Rio de Janeiro. There he died, on November 17, 1959.


Heitor Villa-Lobos' His earliest pieces originated in guitar improvisations, for example Panqueca ("Pancake") of 1900. The concert series of 1915-1921 included first performances of pieces demonstrating originality and virtuosic technique. Some of these pieces are early examples of elements of importance throughout his œuvre. His attachment to the Iberian Peninsula is demonstrated in Canção Ibéria of 1914 and in orchestral transcriptions of some of Enrique Granados' piano Goyescas (1918, now lost). Other themes that were to recur in his later work include the anguish and despair of the piece Desesperança - Sonata Phantastica e Capricciosa No. 1 (1915), a violin sonata including "histrionic and violently contrasting emotions", the birds of L'oiseau blessé d'une flèche (1913), the mother-child relationship (not usually a happy one in Villa-Lobos's music) in Les mères of 1914, and the flowers of Suíte floral for piano of 1916-1918 which reappeared in Distribuição de flores for flute and guitar of 1937.

Reconciling European tradition and Brazilian influences was also an element that bore fruit more formally later. His earliest published work Pequena suíte for cello and piano of 1913 shows a love for the cello, but is not notably Brazilian, although it contains elements that were to resurface later. His three-movement String Quartet No. 1 (Suíte graciosa) of 1915 (expanded to six movements c1947) is influenced by European opera, while Três danças características (africanas e indígenas) of 1914-1916 for piano, later arranged for octet and subsequently orchestrated, is radically influenced by the tribal music of the Caripunas Indians of Mato Grosso. With his tone poems Amazonas (1916, first performed in Paris in 1929) and Uirapurú (1916, first performed 1935) he created works dominated by indigenous Brazilian influences. The works use Brazilian folk tales and characters, imitations of the sounds of the jungle and its fauna, imitations of the sound of the nose-flute by the violinophone, and not least imitations of the uirapurú itself.

His meeting with Artur Rubinstein in 1918 prompted Heitor Villa-Lobos to compose piano music such as Simples coletânea of 1919 - which was possibly influenced by Rubinstein's playing of Ravel and Scriabin on his South American tours - and Bailado infernal of 1920. The latter piece includes the tempi and expression markings "vertiginoso e frenético", "infernal" and "mais vivo ainda" ("faster still"). Carnaval des crianças of 1919-1920 saw Villa-Lobos's mature style emerge; unconstrained by the use of traditional formulae or any requirement for dramatic tension, the piece at times imitates a mouth organ, children's dances, a harlequinade, and ends with an impression of the carnival parade. This work was orchestrated in 1929 with new linking passages and a new title, Momoprecoce. Naïveté and innocence is also heard in the piano suites A Prole do Bebê ("The Baby's Family") of 1918-1921.

Around this time he also fused urban Brazilian influences and impressions, for example in his Quarteto simbólico of 1921. He included the urban street music of the chorões, who were groups containing flute, clarinet and cavaquinho (a Brazilian guitar), and often also including ophicleide, trombones or percussion. Villa-Lobos occasionally joined such bands. Early works showing this influence were incorporated into the Suíte popular brasileiro of 1908-1912 assembled by his publisher, and more mature works include the Sexteto místico (c1955, replacing a lost and probably unfinished one begun in 1917), and Canções típicas brasileiras of 1919. His guitar studies are also influenced by the music of the chorões.

All the elements mentioned so far are fused in Villa-Lobos's Nonet. Subtitled Impressão rápida do todo o Brasil ("A brief impression of the whole of Brazil"), the title of the work denotes it as ostensibly chamber music, but it is scored for flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, celesta, harp, piano, a large percussion battery requiring at least two players, and a mixed chorus.

In Paris, his musical vocabulary established, Heitor Villa-Lobos solved the problem of his works' form. It was perceived as an incongruity that his Brazilian impressionism should be expressed in the form of quartets and sonatas. He developed new forms to free his imagination from the constraints of conventional musical development such as that required in sonata form.

The multi-sectional poema form may be seen in the Suite for Voice and Violin, which is somewhat like a triptych, and the Poema da criança e sua mama for voice, flute, clarinet, and cello (1923). The extended Rudepoema for piano, written for Rubinstein, is a multi-layered work, often requiring notation on several staves, and is both experimental and demanding. Wright calls it "the most impressive result" of this formal development.The Ciranda, or Cirandinha is a stylised treatment of simple Brazilian folk melodies in a wide variety of moods. A ciranda is a child's singing game, but Villa-Lobos's treatment in the works he gave this title are sophisticated.

Another form was the Chôro. Villa-Lobos composed more than a dozen works with this title for various instruments, mostly in the years 1924-1929. He described them as "a new form of musical composition", a transformation of thBrazilian music and sounds "by the personality of the composer". After the revolution of 1930, Villa-Lobos became something of a demagogue. He composed more backward-looking music such as the Missa São Sebastião of 1937, and published teaching pieces and ideological writings.

Heitor Villa-Lobos also composed between 1930 and 1945 nine pieces he called Bachianas brasileiras ("Brazilian Bach pieces"). These take the forms and nationalism of the Chôros, and add the composer's love of Bach. Villa-Lobos's use of archaisms was not new (an early example is his Pequena suíte for cello and piano, of 1913). The pieces evolved over the period rather than being conceived as a whole, some of them being revised or added to. They contain some of his most popular music, such as No. 5 for soprano and 8 cellos (1938-1945), and No. 2 for orchestra of 1930 (the Tocata movement of which is O trenzinho do caipira, "The little train of the Caipira"). They also show the composer's love for the tonal qualities of the cello, both No. 1 and No. 8 being scored for no other instruments. In these works the often harsh dissonances of his earlier music are less evident: or, as Simon Wright puts it, they are "sweetened". The transformation of Chôros into Bachianas brasileiras is demonstrated clearly by the comparison of No. 6 for flute and bassoon with the earlier Chôros No. 2 for flute and clarinet. The dissonances of the later piece are more controlled, the forward direction of the music easier to discern. Bachianas brasileiras No. 9 takes the concept so far as to be an abstract Prelude and Fugue, a complete distillation of the composer's national influences. Villa-Lobos eventually recorded all nine of these works for EMI in Paris, mostly with the musicians of the Orchestre National de France; these were originally issued on LP's and later reissued on CD's. He also recorded the first section of Bachianas brasileiras No. 5 with Bidu Sayão and a group of cellists for Columbia.

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. He also wrote more music for Segovia, the Cinq préludes, which also demonstrate a further formalisation of his composition style.

After the fall of the Vargas government, Villa-Lobos returned full-time to composition, resuming a prolific rate of completing works. His concertos - particularly those for guitar, harp and harmonica— are examples of his earlier poema form. The harp concerto is a large work, and shows a new propensity to focus on a small detail, then to fade it and bring another detail to the foreground. This technique also occurs in his final opera, Yerma, which contains a series of scenes each of which establishes an atmosphere, similarly to the earlier Momoprecoce.

Villa-Lobos's final major work was the music for the film Green Mansions (though in the end, most of his score was replaced with music by Bronislaw Kaper), and its arrangement as Floresta do Amazonas for orchestra, and some short songs issued separately. 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.

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.

Source: Villa Lobos Website (Author: © 1997-8 Dean Frey); Wikipedia Website
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (June 2007)

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Short Biography | Piano Transcriptions: Works | Recordings | Other Arrangements/Transcriptions: Works | Recordings

Recordings of Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works




Heitor Villa-Lobos


Chorale from BWV 148

Links to other Sites

Villa Lobos Website
Villa-Lobos Museum - Welcome to the Museum
The Villa-Lobos Magazine
Bio of Heitor Villa-Lobos
Villa-Lobos [Portuguese]

Heitor Villa-Lobos (Wikipedia)
Heitor Villa-Lobos Biography (Naxos)
Heitor Villa-Lobos (Passagen)
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887 - 1959) (Karadar)



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