Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887 – 1959)

Heitor Villa-Lobos is widely considered to be the most important Brazilian classical composer and the best-known composer of South America.

He was born in Rio de Janeiro into a wealthy, musical family. As a child, he learned to play the guitar, cello, and clarinet. He had little formal training in composition, preferring to listen and absorb the native music of his country. He was especially influenced by the music played by street musicians and wrote a number of chamber and orchestral works called Chôros that incorporated this folk music. After his father’s death, he supported himself by playing in theater and opera orchestras.  He was encouraged by a friend and music publisher to pursue composing. His first major success was the tone poem Uirapurú, named after the tropical bird of the rain forest.

During World War I, French composer Darius Milhaud was doing diplomatic work in Brazil. He met Villa-Lobos and introduced him to the works of Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. In turn, Villa-Lobos exposed Milhaud to native Brazilian music (resulting in Milhaud’s Saudades de Brasil for piano). Villa-Lobos also became good friends with Arthur Rubinstein, who premiered his piano suite, A Próle do Bébé, and Andrés Segóvia, who commissioned a series of 12 Etudes for guitar. Villa-Lobos also made several trips to Paris, where he met many leading musicians and artists, such as Edgard Varèse, Aaron Copland, Leopold Stokowski, Pablo Picasso, and the pioneering French saxophonist Marcel Mule, for whom Villa-Lobos wrote his Fantasia for soprano saxophone and orchestra.

In 1930, Villa-Lobos accepted a position as director of the Brazil’s National Department of Musical and Artistic Education. He was also established as a conductor and gave the Brazilian premieres of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. The exposure to Bach and the Neoclassical influence of Stravinsky resulted in his most famous music, a series of nine pieces for varying forces called Bachianas Brasileiras, which combine Baroque techniques of counterpoint with Brazilian harmonies and folk melodies. The best known of these is No. 5 for soprano and cello ensemble.

Villa-Lobos wrote hundreds of pieces of orchestral, vocal, choral, instrumental, and chamber works, including 17 string quartets, as well as numerous concertos, including 5 for piano. His influence on Brazilian music through his compositions, recordings, and educational posts remains large. He was given a state funeral and buried in Rio de Janeiro. His last major work was his score for the film Green Mansions, starring Audrey Hepburn.

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Viewing:

Green Mansions

Suggested Reading:

David Appleby. Heitor Villa-Lobos: A Life (1887-1959).

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