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were superseded by the Bachianas Brasileiras.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
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
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
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.