born 1887 (March 5) in Rio de Janeiro left a rich and multifaceted work in all its aspects and genres, which deserves the attention of any musician interested in exploring the vast possibilities of creative performance of his songs, melodies, variations and musical forms.
Our work is intended to be an international tribute to the great figure of this emblematic Brazilian composer – to celebrate the 125th anniversary of his birth.
So we choose some of his most significant compositions, arranged for jazz trio and soprano, with four original pieces inspired by motives or musical cells remembering Villa-Lobos’ creative zeal in the exploration of national folklore and folk melodies, with texts in Portuguese, written especially for this project.
“Talking about Villa-Lobos is not easy”: so begins Ermelinda A. Paz her research on the relationship between the great musical icon in Brazil and the MPB - Brazilian popular music. The existing literature today, specialized or not, about life and work of Villa-Lobos is simply overwhelming. That's why we added here only a few notes, referring the curious interested in more details to Internet easily accessible sources (books, monographs, articles, recordings etc.), covering all aspects of his life and of his immense work.
The man and his work
“Music is so subtle as bread and water.” (HVL)
Led by his father, “a practical, technical and perfect musician” (HVL once said), he met as a little boy many illustrious figures of the time, musicians, writers, critics, anthropologists, and especially the “chorões”, excellent instrumentalists dedicated to cheering the “choro rounds” in middle-class festivals and in most upper-class social meetings of early XX century in Rio de Janeiro, at that time the capital of Brazil. “Choro” (“the true incarnation of the Brazilian soul”, so Villa-Lobos) enjoyed then more prestige than samba, considered by the most literate or pseudo-literate people humble folk music of low social category: for small Heitor (Tuhu, for the family) the ideal school instead, where he was getting food for his learning hunger and mastering of instruments and forms. First it was the cello and clarinet, later on came the guitar, and the piano at the end. “When I entered that circle – the ‘chorões’ - it was not for fun, but to get imbued of that climate”, so he declared to the woman who would later be his second wife D. Arminda (Mindinha).
“The choros of this time were intelligent improvisation. What you do now in jazz, we did it here in Rio at the beginning of the century.” (HVL)
As his father died, victim of yellow fever, HVL, with only 12 years, soon had to start contributing to the household economy, thereafter in charge of his mother. He played in bars, cabarets, festivals, vaudeville theaters and in the famous Odeon Cinema, where he met the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who in the 20s would be his great friend and valuable support in Paris.
The mixture of classical structures, already impregnated with elements of local culture, helped to develop in his creative mind the syncretic facet of what would be Villa’s explosive fusion of classical and popular or folk musical production.
For the undisputed mastery that characterized him from the beginning of his activities as an intrinsically Brazilian composer, and also nationalistic in the aesthetic and civic sense he gave to the word, Villa-Lobos, who did not trust schools (“one foot in the Academy and you immediately get worse”) and therefore refused to submit to academic training, having devoted himself to study scores and manuals of music theory, undertook several trips to the most remote regions of Brazil, the Amazon, the Northeast, looking in the traditions and customs of Indians and inland people, in the tropical exuberance of colors and sounds of nature, the authenticity he aspired to his works.
“My harmony treatise is the map of Brazil.”
Irritated by the prejudices prevailing in Brazilian society, especially in the large urban centers and much more in the artistic circles of the time, unwilling to recognize his work as a modern composer, firmly determined to renew the parameters of musical creation in the country, based for sure in the classical tradition, but aimed at incorporating the authentic folk elements present in the cultural events of Brazilian society, as already embodied by countless artists from colonial times and with greater emphasis by the best musicians of the nineteenth century as well as by his contemporaries, Villa-Lobos had no choice but to leave Brazil to go to Paris in the 20s, so to demonstrate there his artistic talent showing the sophisticated Parisian public and the “professional colleagues” his latest creations. He counted therefore on the financial support of admiring friends who respected him a lot for his volcanic temper and strong personality.
He came to Paris, not to learn from the great names representing modernity there, but to present his newest findings, inspired by the exuberance and cultural diversity of the Brazilian tropics. “You are those who are going to study with me,” he said upon arriving, aware of his value and ability.
The immediate success, artistic and social, of his presence in Paris, the warm applause of great artists and personalities from the European music world fully confirmed his aspirations to the international recognition as creative genius, being very important for him to continue to develop and enhance his feverish musical activity, giving rise to a number of high quality works… surprising, provocative, original.
All that gave him courage and strength to continue his prolific work as composer, leader, cultural entrepreneur and educator of the new Brazilian generations, getting to this purpose the total government support by Vargas, a fact that earned him harsh criticism and biased accusations by some people who considered him a mere opportunist serving an authoritarian regime.
Villa-Lobos composed with Bach in head and Brazil in his heart, on the one hand counterpoint and fugue, classical established structures, and on the other, in a symbiosis frankly brilliant, all the green-yellow range of dazzling tropical nature and the amazing cultural diversity of their popular, folk, native demonstrations, turned into motives, songs, dances, rhythms and melodies of local inspiration and indigenous or African origin, mixing them with elements of European tradition.
(© JRBustamante, 2012)