In 1957 Heitor Villa-Lobos was at the peak of his success. On the occasion of his seventieth birthday he was cited by Mayor Robert Wagner of New York City "for distinguished and exceptional service." Wagner called Villa-Lobos a "talented interpreter of music: inspired teacher who led the movement to make the folk music of Brazil an important social force in the lives of her youth... original composed of first rank who has contributed to diverse branches of his universal art." On March 4th, 1957, The New York Times honoured him with an editorial stating that he was "one of the truly distinguished men of music of our time ... a remarkable figure in any age."
Thirty years later, this composer of about 1,500 works was almost entirely unknown, except for his Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 and his guitar music. In 1987, the centenary of his birth, Brazil finally rerecognized one of her greatest sons, and placed his portrait on the 500 cruzado banknote. In New York, under the aegis of the Americas Society, the Villa-Lobos Music Society began operating in an effort to revitalize and preserve an interest in his music, much in the same spirit as the Bach Society of Leipzig had done for its composer during the nineteenth century.
Why bother with a revival of Villa-Lobos? After all, many composers who were popular during their lifetimes have also been shunted aside, and their music is heard no more, or very rarely. Villa-Lobos is different. What he accomplished benefited the progress of civilization, not only through the open-hearted sounds of his music, but sociologically as well. Villa-Lobos succeeded in combining the folk music of three races and many ethnic groups into a unified musical style. Villa-Lobos was, by his own declaration, "universal." In 1950 he included the following lyrics in his Samba-Clássico: "One is happy who lives in this holy land with no chosen race nor preferred creed."
Villa-Lobos had three humanitarian qualities: a love of folk and popular music, a love for children, and a sense of humour. He was uniquely skilled in adapting both folk and popular music. Rather than noting racial and ethnic differences, he noted human similarities. Hence, he was able to blend African, Amerindian, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, German and Polish music in his "one-world' style.
One of the clearest examples of this mixture is the massive Choros no. 10 for chorus and orchestra. After a strong attention-getting chord, a single clarinetist plays what sounds like an improvisation, creating the effect of a chorinho player (Carioca street musician). A short phrase follows, which becomes the germ of the entire composition. It is played and sung at different tempos and meters throughout. There are heavy African rhythms, Amerindian chanting, the sounds of insects and birds, as well as other jungle noises. Amid all of this, a single trumpeter, perhaps on a lonely street in Rio, plays a jazzlike improvisatory passage. As the work moves relentlessly toward its ending, rife with African rhythms and Amerindian chanting, a heartrending Portuguese song is heard, Rasga o Coraco, leading to a full-throated, crying-out, final minor chord. Choros no. 10 leaves the listener breathless. Its premiere in Paris in 1927 brought Villa-Lobos great success there, after which is was choreographed into a very successful ballet.
There are fifteen Choros extant, from no. 1, a simple tango for solo guitar, to the incredibly beautiful no. 11, a sixty-five-minutes, nonstop concerto for piano and orchestra.
Villa-Lobos's second humanitarian quality was his love for children and his desire to educate them about good music. To Villa-Lobos, good music often meant popular, folk and Johann Sebastian Bach. He composed two piano suites to be played by children, as well as the Brazilian Children's Carnival. Villa-Lobos's last opera, the Girl From the Clouds (1957) is a fairy tale for children young and old. The libretto, by Lucia Benedetti, is somewhere between Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz, but instead of a slipper being the deciding factor, it is a cloth made from the rays of the moon given to the girl by the moon herself. The style of the music moves comfortably from samba to mazurka to a haunting Portuguese melody in Act III sung by the girl as an invocation to the moon. Villa-Lobos's mentor, Arthur Rubinstein, premiered the composer's Baby Family, Vo. I in 1922, which created international interest in Villa-Lobos. This in turn caused the Brazilian government to send him to Paris the following year.
In 1930 Villa-Lobos returned from Paris to Brazil, only to find that the system of music education in Brazil was in total disarray. It bothered him as well that no one in the north of Brazil listened to Bach. Villa-Lobos considered Bach's music to be a "universal fountain of folklore." The disarray of the educational system led him to restructure it entirely, and the latter situation brought him to compose the series of suites entitled Bachianas Brasileiras.
Villa-Lobos received permission from the federal government to conduct a two-year survey of the problem in music education in the state of Sao Paulo, and how they might be solved. At the end of this time, he determined that through folk music, children could learn to sing on pitch and in harmony, and through rhythmically emphatic music such as marches, they could learn to sing together.
In 1932 he became director of Superintendency of Musical and Artistic Education (SEMA). Out of this developed the Canto Orfeonico (Orpheonic Song), two volumes of choral arrangements from which students could and did learn. He also published his Guia Prático (Practical Guide), a collection of 137 folk songs arranged or adapted by Villa-Lobos. Many of these songs are of mixed ethnic backgrounds. One song, A Maré Encheu (The Full Tide), is of Saxon, Hispanic, and African origins. In 1935 he assembled 30,000 students in a stadium in Rio de Janeiro and conducted them singing in four-part harmony.
Villa-Lobos's other educational project was to bring Bach to the north of Brazil. In the nine suites titled Bachianas Brasileiras (Brazilian Bach), he combined the Baroque influence of Bach with Brazilian folk music. Almost all the movements of the suites have two titles, one Baroque and one Brazilian. For example, the term Tocata [Portuguese spelling] is used for the final movements of the Bachianas Brasileiras no. 3 (for piano and orchestra) and the Bachianas Brasileiras no. 2 (for chamber orchestra). In the case of the former, the Brazilian title is Picapau (Woodpecker), for the repeated tones of the piano soloist sound very much like a woodpecker on a tree; however, it is equally characteristic of its Baroque title, Tocata, which means "touched," and in this case rapidly touching the keys. The other Tocata is his second most famous composition, O Trenzinho do Caipira (The Little Hillybilly Train). It is a picturesque train ride through the Brazilian countryside to the rhythm of a samba. Here the piano is part of the orchestra and the tones are different, but the effect is somewhat similar to the previously mentioned work in the Baroque sense. What is different is that we hear train whistles, cattle, the train slowing down and speeding up, brakes, and steam.
When Bachianas Brasileiras is mentioned, one should take note of the ária from no. 5 , as recorded by the great Brazilian soprano, Bidú Sayão. This one movement has proved to be Villa-Lobos's essential connection to posterity. Although it has been recorded by everyone from Joan Baez to James Galway, when Sayão sang it, it was otherworldly, a great spiritual experience.
The third humanitarian quality of Villa-Lobos was his extraordinary sense of humour, an ability to appreciate the absurdity of life, even in situations that involved him.
One of these situations occurred when Artur Rubinstein "discovered" him. In 1918 on a concert tour of Brazil, Rubinstein had heard about a Brazilian composer who had written a great deal of piano music. He sought out this composer, and finally found him in Rio de Janeiro playing cello in a third-rate movie house called the Odeon. At the end of the film, Rubinstein approached the orchestra pit and introduced himself, saying that he had heard about Villa-Lobos and wanted to see some of his piano music. Villa-Lobos replied that Rubinstein could not play his music because he was a virtuoso, and virtuosos couldn't possibly understand it. Rubinstein left. The following morning at eight o'clock, a group of street musicians, led by Villa-Lobos, burst into Rubinstein's hotel room. Villa-Lobos explained that although he and his friends were very tired from playing all night, they would show Rubinstein how to play his music. Needless to say, Villa-Lobos apologized for his behaviour the previous night. This was the beginning of their lifelong friendship.
Another anecdote comes from Villa-Lobos scholar David P. Appleby. Villa-Lobos enjoyed testing the credibility of reporters. Once during a press conference in New York City, Villa-Lobos told reporters that his music contained Indian melodies of great antiquity. He also added that the present Indians of Brazil no longer knew them. A reporter asked Villa-Lobos how he had obtained these melodies if they were no longer known. Villa-Lobos explained, without batting an eyelash, that he had obtained them from parrots. He explained that Brazilian parrots were the most intelligent in the world, and they had learned these melodies and passed them on from generation to generation; therefore, Villa-Lobos learned them from the parrots.
Villa-Lobos had a great distaste for formality, and often took the opportunity to poke fun at it. On one occasion, I was the object of his joke. One evening, feeling somewhat low, I telephoned him and asked if I could come over for a visit. The answer was yes. I explained that I hadn't shaved and did not appear particularly neat, so I asked if he had company. He said that no one was there. I went over, and upon arriving, he and his wife, Mindinha, bade me enter with big smiles on their faces and he said, "Alfredo, I want you to meet my friend Segovia."
As The New York Times stated, Villa-Lobos would be "a remarkable figure in any age." In our age he is seriously needed, as the peoples of the world get closer and closer. The immigrant nations of the Western Hemisphere have a "one-world" standard-bearer in Heitor Villa-Lobos. Through his "universal" composing style, his love and concern for young people, and his ability to recognize social absurdities, including his own, he brought people of all backgrounds together in harmony and peace.
© Alfred Heller, 1989. Originally published in Guitar Review (n78:1819, Summer 1989) and in Review: Latin American Literature and Arts. Reproduced by permission of the author.