Heitor Villa-Lobos

A son of Rio de Janeiro, Heitor Villa-Lobos was perhaps the greatest known composer born south of the Equator, becoming an ambassador to the world on behalf of Brazilian culture. While his music contained many nationalistic traits and helped shape the lush sound of the Amazon, he was able to create a multi-cultural blend of music for an array of instruments with his Bachianas Brasileiras series. His exotic guitar pieces, in particular, have gone on to become part of the instrument’s standard repertoire.

At the time of Villa-Lobos’ birth in 1887, Brazil was going through political transition, transforming into a republic and abolishing slavery. His father, an amateur musician, hosted many a musical gathering at the family home and taught his son guitar, cello, and clarinet. While the budding musician did not respond well to formal training, he was motivated enough to learn through independent study. Following his father’s death, the young Villa-Lobos began performing in the early cinema houses of Rio de Janeiro, assimilating into Rio’s legendary night life. The city was alive with the sound of tangos, sambas, and chorões (a popular form of Brazilian street music involving improvisation). Strangely, Villa-Lobos would also periodically disappear into the jungle for long stretches of time. It was during these journeys into the “dark interior” where he was introduced to the native sounds of Brazilian music, a mixture of Portuguese, African, and Native American influences.

In 1912, Villa-Lobos married Lucília Guimarães, a pianist, and began to focus on composing in earnest. His first works were published a year later, but national acclaim would not be achieved until 1919’s Symphony No. 3, A Guerra (“The War”), the first part of his war themed trilogy. With fame, he traveled to Europe where he befriended pianist Arthur Rubenstein and guitarist Andreas Segovia. Shortly after settling in Paris, Villa-Lobos began composing a series of music that would be known as Chôros, inspired by the chorões learned on the streets of Rio. The series, particularly Chôros No. 10, caused a sensation and catapulted him into the upper echelon of European classical circles. Segovia made a request for studies focusing on guitar, resulting in Douze Etudes (Twelve Études). Drawing from the same well that produced the Chôros series, the studies went on to become standard repertoire for guitar students around the globe.

By 1930, circumstances forced Villa-Lobos to relocate to Brazil once again. Much of his work was becoming increasingly nationalistic, particularly Canto Orfeônico and Invocação em Defesa da Pátria. Though he was now a national hero, it would be a series of apolitical pieces that would seal his legacy, Bachianas Brasileiras. Encompassing nine suites, the series features a variety of instruments played in a hybrid style comprised of Bach’s European technique with Brazil’s folk tradition, emphasizing the uncannily similar melodic nature of each. The series contains what is perhaps the composer’s most popular work, Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, for soprano & 8 cellos, A. 389 showcasing the convergence of Brazil’s exotic flair for melody with the Baroque style perfected by Bach.

By the midpoint of the 20th century, Villa-Lobos once again made Paris his home. He accepted occasional conducting jobs and commissions, in addition to paying frequent visits to the United States. Later in life, he continued to write symphonies, vocal scores, and concertos for cello, harp, piano, and – for his friend Segovia – guitar. An offer to provide the score to an Audrey Hepburn film, Green Mansions, was accepted, but only a portion of his music was ultimately used. Upon his passing in 1959, Villa-Lobos was given a state funeral in Rio de Janeiro in recognition of his contribution to Brazilian culture.

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