VILLA-LOBOS. His letters translated and edited by Lisa M Peppercorn.   Published by Toccata Press ISBN 0 907689 28 0 £19.50


Villa-Lobos is best known as the composer of nine works known as Bachianas Brasileiras (1930-1944) of which the second is the famous and deservedly popular Little Train of the Caipira and the fifth, scored for soprano and five cellos, has been performed and recorded by many leading singers. He also wrote fourteen works entitled Choros (1920-1928) which clearly were superseded by the Bachianas Brasileiras. He composed twelve symphonies (1916-1957), five piano concertos (1945-1954), two concertos for cello and one each for guitar, harp and harmonica. There are seventeen string quartets (1915-1957) and very much more.

In many ways he moved in parallel with Darius Milhaud who wrote twelve symphonies, five piano concertos and eighteen string quartets ... although it could be said to be seventeen as numbers fourteen and fifteen are often played together as an octet. Milhaud was the French attaché in Rio de Janeiro during 1917-1919 when Villa-Lobos lived there.

Both composers had an addiction to composing and, as a consequence, each produced a plethora of works and, as a result, many of them are not of the top quality.

Villa-Lobos' letters are usually brief and somewhat awkward and not just when he is writing in his native Portuguese. Even letters to friends are not very personal. The letters tell of his anxiety to be recognised as a composer and his constant financial troubles. He was so busy with composing and with concerts that his friends had to make appointments to see him. His travelling meant long periods away from his wife which may have been the main reason for their eventual separation. The letters tell of his need to make money and of a failed venture in selling Gaveau pianos. He was a worrier, a heavy smoker and many health problems ensued. He was always asking questions and was an insecure man.

What comes through in these letters is that a composer's lot is not a glamorous one but rather it is hard work and frustration as well as a catalogue of disappointments and broken promises. It also shows that some music-lovers, so-called, who project sincerity and dependability are not genuine and only want to 'be about' in the event of sudden fame and some personal gain.

What emerges is that Villa-Lobos was a warm and generous personality which he would not have been if he had had the privileges and characteristics of say an Elgar or a Britten. It is an extraordinary thing that humble circumstances often make composers far more likeable and this quality is shown in their music.

There are no staggeringly famous events in Villa-Lobos' life and his letters reflect this. The index, for example, does not list famous names in plenty. And there are things not said that the reader has to discern for himself such as Villa-Lobos being the first notable voice in the serious music of Brazil.

He is probably not a great composer but I would rather have his music for my desert island discs than that of the other composers I have mentioned here. His Choros No 10 is a marvellous depiction of the Amazon and what splendid choral writing it is. The nationalism in his music is never pompous but controlled and all the better for it.

Somehow I believe Villa-Lobos and his music has profound depths and is worthy of close study.


David Wright.


David Wright.

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