Brazil by Way of Bach

The music of Heitor Villa-Lobos

Heitor Villa-Lobos (The Listener's Club)
Heitor Villa-Lobos (The Listener's Club)


Sixty years ago this month, the composer Heitor Villa-Lobos entered a Paris studio to record three of the nine magical pieces he called Bachianas Brasilieras. Springtime saw Villa-Lobos’s annual return to France—he maintained a residence there, in addition to houses in the United States and his native Brazil—so the recording session must have had the air of a homecoming. He certainly knew well the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française, having recorded several of his works with the ensemble, meticulously conveying to those French musicians the many nuances of his colorful musical idiom.

Born in 1887 in Rio de Janeiro, Villa-Lobos learned to play the clarinet and cello from his father. He resisted formal training, did not need it to become the instrumental savant that he was. In addition to being a highly skilled guitarist, he was said to be proficient in every orchestral instrument but the oboe. As a teenage boy, he joined a band that played popular tunes on Rio’s street corners, and his appetite for the indigenous music of his country took him deep into the Brazilian interior, where he absorbed the folk traditions of its racially and culturally diverse people. His evangelism for Brazilian music would turn political later in his life, resulting in a fervent nationalistic streak, yet he was influenced by many a European composer, too, including the Frenchmen Paul Dukas and Vincent d’Indy. In Europe, Villa-Lobos met Edgard Varèse and Aaron Copland, and like so many artists who flocked to Paris in the 1920s, he breathed in the heady modernist atmosphere. He found many champions of his music among the great artists of the day, the pianist Arthur Rubinstein and the guitarist Andrés Segovia among them. And when Leopold Stokowski, visiting Rio in 1940, invited him to come to the United States, the composer’s fame spread internationally.

Villa-Lobos once said, “My music is natural, like a waterfall.” Thus it flowed out of him in astonishing torrents. To say that he was an uneven artist is hardly to disparage him. After all, how could a composer who wrote more than 2,000 pieces not have produced at least a few mediocrities? Villa-Lobos would defend his considerable output by invoking yet another metaphor from the natural world: “My work was preordained; there is such an abundance of it because it is the fruit of a vast, fiery, and generous earth.” He wasn’t beholden to trends, styles, or academic currents; his melodies and harmonies came first and foremost from a deep feeling for his country’s geography, its speech patterns and exquisite flora, the rhythms of its waterways. It was a music as diverse and vibrant as Brazil itself.

Although it would be facile to call this music fusion, his most famous works are indeed a synthesis of two worlds: American and European. A commission from Segovia in the 1920s led to a creative outburst, and the composition of a set of pieces called Chôros, each of the 12 inspired by some musical element that Villa-Lobos had heard on Brazilian streets. He also incorporated these sounds into the Bachianas Brasilieras, or, Brazilian Bachian pieces, composed between 1930 and 1945. Bach was the composer Villa-Lobos revered most of all, though often the only Bachian thing about these works are the quasi-Baroque structures. Their blood, pulse, and heartbeat are all unmistakably Brazilian. Villa-Lobos scored the pieces for different ensembles, large and small; therefore, each has its own distinct sensibility and range of sonorities. The most famous is arguably the fifth, written for soprano and eight cellos. (I remember visiting a gift shop at New York’s Lincoln Center, when I was on a youth-orchestra field trip in high school, and buying a cassette that included Anna Moffo’s interpretation of that piece—a mesmerizing performance that’s stayed with me all these years, even though that cassette tape is long gone.) Villa-Lobos recorded all of the Bachianas Brasilieras for EMI’s French subsidiary, joyous performances that brim with life, but it’s the fourth—one of the works that he recorded back in May of 1957—that has become my favorite.

I am particularly drawn to the colors, the flashes of light, and the lush romantic theme of the second movement, Villa-Lobos sounding very much here like a tropical Rachmaninoff. The third movement has an epic, cinematic feel, with a pronounced undercurrent of unease, and a spritely, mischievous dance concludes the work, full of ecstatic, driving rhythms. The first movement, however—the Prélude, or Introdução, as it’s simultaneously called—is, for me, the most evocative. What sorrowful music this is, with long arcing lines and a haunting melody—almost too much to bear at times, such is its intensity. As the lonely lament builds to two striking climaxes, the strings sound like an organ as they play an exquisite sequence of chords, with Villa-Lobos delaying the resolution of the cadence, first unleashing a startling dissonant chord.

There’s a photograph of Villa-Lobos on the CD box set that I have (called Villa-Lobos Par lui-même). He is placing one hand against his cheek, his eyes melancholy and brooding, a cigar held with such nonchalance between pursed lips. It’s a compelling portrait that fits the mood of the opening of the Bachianas Brasilieras No. 4. By all accounts, however, this image does not quite capture the man whose primary characteristic was exuberance. His outsize personality allowed for a variety of moods; he could be impish, outspoken, childish, and violently tempered, sometimes all at once. The guitar virtuoso Julian Bream once said that with his garish shirts and fondness for light music, Villa-Lobos didn’t quite play the part of a serious composer. He did read widely, but he was almost proud of his lack of intellectual refinement, a sensibility that dated back, I’m sure, to his youthful rejection of the classroom in favor of the street. No matter; the pages and pages of his music provide countless pleasures. He cast a long shadow not only upon Brazil, where his name is as revered in classical music circles as Jobim and Gilberto are in the world of popular music, but also upon a whole continent. At the time of Villa-Lobos’s death in 1959, no other South American composer was as well known as he. So he remains to this day.

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Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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