Heitor Villa-Lobos

1887 1959

Heitor Villa-Lobos

Composer • Conductor • Cello • Piano • Guitar


Heitor Villa-Lobos was the most important figure in 20th century Brazilian art music. His impressively successful international career was of great importance for subsequent generations of Brazilian composers. He wrote over 2000 orchestral, chamber, solo instrumental and vocal works.

Villa-Lobos was born in 1887 in Rio de Janeiro to a middle class family. His father, an amateur musician, worked at the National Library and was known to be a disciplinarian with regard to his son’s musical education – something Villa-Lobos would later state as having affected him in a positive way overall. As a child, young Heitor learned to play clarinet, cello and guitar.  Guitar was not regarded to be in keeping with the mores of polite society and he was confined to learning it away from his family home. It was after his father’s death in 1899 that Villa-Lobos began to dedicate himself whole-heartedly to the guitar, immersing himself in the music of the streets. The choro - popularly called chorinho ('little lament'), the Brazilian instrumental popular music genre that originated in 19th century Rio – was of great fascination to him. In his late teens, he began to earn a living playing cello in the orchestra of the Teatro Recreio and at the Odeon cinema where he met many famous popular musicians such as Ernesto Nazareth, whose tangos and polkas influenced Villa-Lobos.

Villa-Lobos married the pianist Lucília Guimarães in 1913 and she gave the premieres of many of his piano pieces over the following two decades. Although they separated in 1936, they remained on good terms throughout their lives.

The first official concert fully dedicated to Villa-Lobos’ works was on 13 November 1915. The concert included his First Piano Trio op. 25 andSonata fantasia no. 2, op. 29. The critics'recation was hostile. Many members of the public forum were in fact fearful of the unknown, as Brazilian art music up to that point did not have firm roots in any field that mirrored Villa-Lobos' Modernist tendencies. Villa-Lobos gave numerous other such concerts between 1917 and 1919 and gradually made a name for himself as a strong anti-establishment cultural figure in contemporary music. Such approval led to him being invited to have his works performed at the São Paulo ‘Week of Modern Art’ in 1922, establishing him as a significant figure in Brazil’s cultural life.

The ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev toured with his Ballet Russes to Brazil in 1917, which had a great impact on the musical life there. Villa-Lobos also met French composerDarius Milhaud during his sojourn in Rio. Milhaud brought with him the music ofDebussy and Satie and in return, Villa-Lobos introduced Milhaud to the street music of Rio. The following year Villa-Lobos met the influential pianist Arthur Rubinstein who became a lifelong friend, prompting him to continue composing piano music.

In 1923, with a government stipend as well as funding from various wealthy benefactors, Villa-Lobos travelled to Europe for the first time. In Paris his music was met with astounding enthusiasm and he gained the approval of many key figures, among themRavel, de Falla, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. He also began having his compositions published, by Max Eschig. This European experience gave him a new sense of confidence in his wishes to innovate. He returned to Brazil in 1930 with a sense of artistic freedom gained from his time abroad.

In the 1930s, Villa-Lobos campaigned for better music education in Brazil and in 1942 the government founded the National Conservatory of Orpheonic Singing, with Villa-Lobos as its director. His work in educations further developed his reputation as a composer in Brazil. He also began conducting.

Villa-Lobos’ Chôros display the aesthetic of which Villa-Lobos became a master – an unconventional balance between the Brazilian vernacular and Modernism.Chôro no. 5 "Alma brasileira" for instance displays the serenade-like lyricism, whileChôro No. 8 depicts a carnival celebration in Rio, full of driving, dance-like rhythms. It isChôro no. 10 "Rasga o Coracao" that is considered the masterpiece, which conveys the phonetic syllabic sounds of the indigenous languages in combination with cross-rhythmic groupings. The sophisticated orchestration of the work was ground-breaking in its day.

Villa-Lobos wrote his Bachianas brasilieiras (Brazilian Bachian pieces) as a tribute toJohann Sebastian Bach “… [who I] consider a kind of universal folkloric source, rich and profound … [a source] linking all peoples.” The nine pieces were written using Baroque harmonic and contrapuntal features set freely to Brazilian music. What they also have in common with Baroque music is that they are grouped in suites of two, three or four dance movements. Most of them have two titles: one in the style of Bach (prelude, toccata, fugue) and the other in its Brazilian form (embolada, modinha, choro, desafio). The Aria-Cantilena from Bachianas brasileiras no. 5 is not only the most popular movement from the suites, but Villa-Lobos best known work.

In 1958, Villa-Lobos composed the soundtrack for the film Green Mansions, commissioned by MGM, starring Audrey Hepburn and directed by Hepburn’s husband Mel Ferrer. Villa-Lobos conducted the music himself. This earned Villa-Lobos $25,000 but nevertheless, MGM decided to use only a small portion of Villa-Lobos’ music for the final cut. Villa-Lobos made a suite from the film music, for soprano soloist, male chorus, and orchestra, entitledForest of the Amazon and recorded it in stereo in 1959 with United Artists Records. This was considered to be a remarkable quality recording at the time and was released on both LP and reel-to-reel tape.

Villa-Lobos died in 1959 in his birthplace of Rio de Janeiro. Villa-Lobos’ state funeral was the last ever such event in Rio as a capital city before the capital transferred to Brasília on 21 April 1960.