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Mark Morris’s Guide to Twentieth Century Composers

Front Page





Like many other South American countries, Brazil had a flourishing musical life in the 19th century, centred on opera and producing one opera composer of international repute, Antoni Carlos Gomez (1836-1896). The next generation (notably Alberto Nepomuceno, 1864-1920) still looked to European and Romantic models for their music, and it was not until the ascendance of the most famous of all South American composers, Hector Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), that a Brazilian nationalism was heard, reflecting parallel movements in other South American countries.

The Brazilian folk tradition was rich, ranging from the samba, which entered popular cultures internationally during the 20th century, to the itinerant street-bands of varying instrumentation, the chôros, mixed with echoes of Portuguese popular dances and African influences (though virtually no indigenous South American Indian music). One popular Brazilian instrument, the marimba, also became internationally familiar through its use in jazz and popular music. The adoption of nationalistic themes, and the reflection of the Brazilian landscape and culture in serious music, was most notably proclaimed in the Week of Modern Art at Sao Paulo in 1922, with Villa-Lobos as one of the main organisers. Villa-Lobos also introduced his version of Brazilian primitivism to Parisian audiences in the 1920s, generating considerable excitement and interest. But with the revolution of October 1930 the climate for a consciously Brazilian aesthetic became more favourable. The movement was again led by Villa-Lobos, who organized huge public rallies to sing popular Brazilian choruses (concentraes civicas), and instigated both a system of music teaching in schools and concerts in which classics of the repertoire (from Palestrina onwards) that had not been heard in Brazil were introduced, alongside contemporary Brazilian compositions. A number of other composers followed Villa-Lobos' example, notably Francisco Mignone (1897-1986), the composer of two successful operas and a number of orchestral works with Brazilian themes, including the Suite brasileira (1933), Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez (also spelt Fernandos, 1897-1948) who founded the Conservatorio Brasileiro in 1936 in Rio to rival the National Institute of Music, and Camargo Guarnieri (born 1907), who was at one time heard quite widely in the United States; his output concentrates on large-scale orchestral forms (symphonies and concertos) but he is noted for his songs.

The subsequent reaction to nationalism centred around the group of composers called Musica Viva, led by Hans Joachim Koellreutter who was not born in his adopted country, but in Germany. Composers such as Cesar Guerra Peixe (born 1914) and Claudio Santoro (born 1919) introduced the 12-tone system into Brazil. Marlos Nombre (born 1939) is the leading composer of the following generation.

Nonetheless it remains surprising that such a large country as Brazil should in the 20th century have produced only one composer whose music is heard outside its boundaries with even the minimum of frequency. One does not find, either in quality or in quantity, the depth of compositional talent that Mexico (with a similar musical history) has shown, or the kind of figures that, leaving their native Argentina, have made a mark on European music. Perhaps some of the cause lies in the poor relative standards of music-making (with some obvious individual exceptions who have made their careers on the international circuit) - there is, for example, no parallel to Chávez's work with the National Orchestra of Mexico. Be that as it may, the almost complete absence of performances of the works of any Brazilian other than Villa-Lobos outside South America has limited the entries in this Guide to merely one, outstanding, Brazilian composer.





born 5th March 1887 at Rio de Janeiro

died 17th November 1959 at Rio de Janeiro


Villa-Lobos was one of the most prodigious composers of the 20th century, producing around 2000 compositions and arrangements. Inevitably his music is uneven, but not only did he establish a nationalist musical style in Brazil, but like his contemporary the Mexican Chávez, he introduced to a wider audience a new kind of sound, composed of an amalgam of popular South American influences (native Indian music and instruments, popular songs, the South American evolution of popular Spanish/Portuguese culture, and African elements) and modernistic European techniques.

He eschewed formal studies for travelling in Brazil, absorbing the indigenous music (1906-1913). Among his earlier works were the tone-poem Amazonas (1917), with unusual instrumental sonorities, and the marvellous ballet Uirapurú (1917) that tells the tale of the legendary bird of the title, the `king of love' who draws people into the forest and who has incarnations as an old man and as a beautiful youth. The legacy of the 19th century occasionally strays into the score, but the driving rhythms of the opening recall Stravinsky, the heady sensuousness Szymanowski, the Impressionistic textures Respighi, suggesting that Villa-Lobos had followed a parallel development, since Szymanowski's first violin concerto and Respighi's The Pines of Rome were written in the same year. What makes Uirapurú so individual and appealing is the vivid evocation of the Amazonian forest, with exotic bird-calls, Brazilian folk percussion instruments, the effective use of the piano in the orchestra, and a willingness to suspend conventional rhythmic progression at these moments. It makes an interesting comparison with a much later suite with a similar setting, the evocative Song of the Amazons for soprano and orchestra, drawn from the music to the film Green Mansions, where the textures are much leaner, almost neo-classical, and the rhythms more straightforward. The Nonetto (1922) included chorus and percussion with Brazilian instruments and indigenous influences in the rhythms and woodwind colours. The two piano sets A Prole do Bebê (The Baby's Family, 1918 and 1921) were inspired by the pianist Rubinstein (whom Villa-Lobos had met in Rio), the first set based on children's popular tunes in its eight pictures of dolls, while the second is about toy animals, with Brazilian rhythms and ostinati, and a characteristic alternation of white and black keys. The element of a sophisticated and nationalist primitivism is strikingly exemplified in the Suite for Voice and Violin (1923).

The primitivism of some of these works showed an affinity with Stravinsky, but he absorbed something of Impressionism from his friendship with Milhaud (in Rio during World War I), and then spent 1923-1930 mainly in Paris, where his music was enthusiastically greeted. He also encountered African music in Dakar. In this period his style matured, combining an unstable harmonic language (including bitonality and polytonality), Impressionistic touches, and the Brazilian influences of folk-like melodies with colourful and complex rhythms, indigenous syncopations, ostinati, polyrhythms, and percussive dissonances. His orchestration remained generally dense, and he delighted in unusual effects (percussive strings, the extremes of woodwind registers, elements of the harmonic structures in different instrumental blocks).

The centre of his huge output are two series of works. The sixteen Chôros (1920-1929, fourteen numbered plus an Introduction and the supplementary Chôros Bis) are a striking and original series, broad in scope. They are based on folk-music (without actual quotes) and on the chôro popular form, an improvisatory serenade with a solo instrument often taking the lead. The sources for the chôro form are as diverse as local folk-music, spirituals, hymns, and African rhythms. All these elements, a smattering of jazz, and his characteristics outlined above, are to be found in this series. It gradually expands in forces from a solo guitar (No.1, 1920) through wind chamber forces (No.2, 1921, No.3 with male chorus, 1925, No.4, 1926, No.7, 1924) to a full orchestra (No.6, 1926, No.8, 1925, with two pianos, No.9, 1929) with chorus (No.10 Rasga o Coracão, 1926) to a piano concerto (No.11), and a work for orchestra, band, and chorus with offstage fanfares (No.14, 1928, now lost along with No.13). There is a similar expansion in duration, from the two minutes of No.1 to over an hour in No.11. They are all beguiling, from the intimacy of the writing of No.5 (for piano, 1926) to the very French Impressionist flutes of the orchestral No.12 (1929), but the finest is No.10 (Rasga o Coracão, 1926). It opens with an Impressionistic evocation of the Brazilian landscape, with sonorous orchestral effects (including bird-calls), which is turned into a savage, primitive and powerful crescendo, the chorus singing onomatopoeic lines, before a broad melody contrasts with this aboriginal vision.

The nine highly attractive suites that form the Bachianas brasileiras (1930-1945) are Villa-Lobos' most popular works, intrinsically less interesting than the Chôros, but, with their simpler harmonic language, more immediate and general in their appeal. They are at the same time both a tribute to Bach (in their suite forms, and sometimes in orchestration and feel, especially in the slow movements), and a celebration of Brazilian folklore (in their melodies and colours). For Villa-Lobos thought the music of Bach a universal folklore for later composers, and perceived similarities between it and Brazilian popular music. To reinforce the connection, each movement has both a traditional European and a Brazilian title. The baroque influence is most overt in the polyphony of No.1 (1930) for eight cellos, and in the prelude and fugue of No.9 for string orchestra (1945). No.2 (1930) includes the famous Little train of the Caipira, which exemplifies the clarity of his graphic use of complex native rhythms. No.5 (1938-1945) for soprano and eight cellos shows his use of broad and lovely melodies in its cantilena, with a feeling of improvisation and irregular metres. No.3 (1938, a virtuoso piano concerto, Romantic in scale and tone) is the largest and stylistically the most remote of the series.

Of his other works of this period, his symphonies (including a war triptych) are rarely encountered, but the fantasy for piano and orchestra Mômoprecóce (1930 reworked from earlier material, its title meaning both 'precocious lad' and 'Young Momus, King of the Carnival') is particularly vivacious and rewarding. His music following 1945 became increasingly abstract in inspiration and tonal in feel, and includes a number of virtuoso concertos, notably the Guitar Concerto (1951), whose easy-going style does not merit the frequency with which it is performed. The Cello Concerto No.2 (1954) is equally pleasant, its opening invoking the rain-forest, its solo-writing often harking back to Bach, but equally unremarkable. If these large number of later works do not seem to have the interest or the colour of his earlier, more nationalistic music, there is still much that is fine among them, notably the ballet Emperor Jones (1955), the sonorous, whimsical and perky little Fantasie concertante (1953) for clarinet, bassoon and piano, some of the choral music, and the last quartets.

Of his seventeen string quartets (1915-1957), No.5 (1931, with children's tunes) and No.6 (1938) use popular Brazilian elements, while No.17 (1957) uses an uncharacteristically spartan language. Among his other chamber music, the stylistically related Trio (1921), Quartet (1928) and Quintet en forme de chôros (1928), all for wind instruments, are quirkily delightful. His piano music includes the sixteen Cirandas (1926), nationalistic, based on children's tunes, rhythmically unusual, and varied in their colours, and Rudepoema (1921-1926), complex and large in scale, dense in texture, varied in mood. His guitar music is often to be heard, especially the gentle Suite populaire brésiliene (1908-1912), the Twelve Études (1929), combining attractive music in the Spanish classical tradition with technical studies, and the Five Preludes (1939-1940 - a sixth is lost).

His many musical activities included the promotion of both Brazilian music and his own works on foreign tours, the organisation of music teaching in schools in Rio, and by training and example, in the rest of Brazil, and the foundation (1945) and directorship until his death of the Brazilian Academy of Music.

It is still extremely difficult to assess Villa-Lobos's overall achievement, for so much has still to be heard. Faced with this multiplicity, together with the unfamiliarity of idiom and style, many coming to his works for the first time have experienced difficulty in gaining a grip on his oeuvre. But perseverance is rewarded. Those who look for insight into the human soul will be disappointed, for (at least in his nationalistic music) that is not his intent. Rather it is a fusion of the European contemporary experience with the indigenous tradition to create a modern Brazilian reflection in serious music of the multiplicity of his native culture. Arriving at his music is like arriving in a new country: totally new colours and a bewildering multiplicity of new experiences. But, just as when one becomes familiar with a new country, the relationships of the new elements becomes clear, so with the music of Villa-Lobos, and in it are then found many delights.


works include: (selected from a huge output)

- 12 symphonies (No.1. Imprevisto, No.2 Ascenção, No.3 Guerra, No.4 Vitória, No.5 Paz, No.6 Montanhas do Brasil, No.7 America, No.10 Sumé pater patruim)

- 2 cello concertos (No.1 Grand Concerto), guitar concerto, harmonica concerto; harp concerto; 2 violin concertos; fantasy Mômoprecóce for piano and orch.

- 16 Chôros for various orchestral and chamber forces

- 9 Bachianas brasileiras for various forces- Amazonas, Caixinha de boas festas, Dawn in a tropical forest, Erosão Origem do rio Amazonas, Odisséia de uma raça and many other works for orch.

- 2 Fantasia sonatas for violin and piano; 4 violin sonatas 4 piano trios; wind trio; 17 string quartets; wind quartet; Quintet en forme de chôros for wind; quintet for flute violin, viola, cello and harp; Sesteto mistico; Corrupio for bassoon and string quartet and other chamber music

- Cirandas, Cirandinhas, Prole do Bebê, Rudepoema and other pieces for piano

- 12 Études, 5 Preludes and Suite populaire brésilienne for guitar

- song cycles Cansons Typiques Brésiliennes, Serestas and many other songs and song cycles

- Nonetto (Impresão rápida de todo o Brasil) for chorus and ensemble; series Bendita sabedoria for chorus and many other choral works

- 4 suites from film score Descobrimento do Brasil

- 6 ballets including Emperor Jones and Uirapurú

- completed operas Izath and Yerma


recommended works:

Bachianas brasileiras No.1 (1930) for eight cellos

Bachianas brasileiras No.2 (1930) for orchestra

Bachianas brasileiras No.3 (1938) for piano and orchestra

Bachianas brasileiras No.5 (1938-1945) for soprano and eight cellos

Bachianas brasileiras No.6 (1938) for flute and bassoon

Bachianas brasileiras No.9 (1945) for string orchestra

Chôros 3 (1925) for male chorus and seven wind instruments

Chôros 7 (1924) for chamber ensemble

Chôros 10 (Rasga o Coracão) (1926) for chorus and orchestra

Chôros 12 (1929) for orchestra

Mômoprecóce (1930) for piano and orchestra

A Prole do Bebê (Book 1) for piano (1918)

Quintette en forme de Chôros (1928 revised 1953)

Suite for Voice and Violin (1923)



V. Mariz Heitor Villa-Lobos: Life and Work of the Brazilian Composer, 3rd ed. (in Eng. trans.) 1970, 5th ed., 1977

A. Muricy Villa-Lobos, 1961

S.Wright Villa-Lobos, 1988





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