Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Villa-Lobos and Music in Brazil

Today I would like to talk about Heitor Villa-Lobos, the 20th-century Brazilian composer known to be South America’s most famous. There is quite a lot that could be said about Villa-Lobos and his music but, due to the constraints of one blog post, I must limit myself to mentioning only a couple of his works.

At the time of Villa-Lobos’ birth, Brazil was embedded in European musical tradition and virtuosi from Europe and America received greater accolades than those natives from Brazil. Loving music from an early age, Villa-Lobos longed to modernize a Brazilian musical style. In the year 1900, the young composer set off to wander the inaccessible regions of Brazil for ten years, observing folk, geographical, and musical influences. Culturally diverse Brazil became his inspiration for composition rather than the rules and formulas taught at the conservatory.

One of Villa-Lobos’ earlier pieces is below. Amazonas was written in 1917 and shows his early unique style. In this work, the composer uses primitivism and folklore ideas he gained from his travels as inspiration. At the first performance of this work, the violinists actually tied handkerchiefs to the end of their bows in protest, refusing to create the sounds Villa-Lobos wrote into his music!

Spending time in Paris later in life, Villa-Lobos began to appreciate European traditions as well as Brazilian. In many works, we can see a fusion of these two traditions as he became a less abrasive nationalist composer. The Bachianas brasileiras (1930-45) is an excellent example of one of these later works. It consists of a cycle of nine suites written for various combinations of instruments and voices. In it, Villa-Lobos adapts Baroque compositional procedures to Brazilian music. You can listen in to the first of these suites below. Notice the unique instrumentation he uses: an orchestra of cellos!  

Join me next time as we travel to Finland and listen to the music of Sibelius!

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