Monday Musical Moment: Heitor Villa-Lobos

Happy Monday to all!


I hope everyone enjoyed last week’s trip down to Argentina with the “new tango” of Piazzolla! This week I thought we could stay in South America and journey south to Brazil. More specifically, today we will look at one of, if not the most important creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music, Heitor Villa-Lobos.


Villa-Lobos was born and raised in Rio de Janero in the late 19th century amidst a turbulent time. With the abolishment of slavery in 1888 and the overthrowing of the Brazilian Empire in 1889, the musical landscape changed dramatically. Previously, most music in Brazilian conservatories (schools that teach primarily in the arts) was dominated by European traditions but Villa-Lobos’ family chose not to receive that training. Instead of attending Conservatório de Música,Villa-Lobosmost of his musical schooling by observing musical evenings at his house that his librarian/amateur musician father hosted, eventually learning to play cello, clarinet, and classical guitar.


Villa-Lobos’ compositions absorbed the musical culture of Brazil and incorporate many influences from Brazil’s indigenous cultures, themselves decendant from Portuguese, African, and American Indian elements. Therefore, his early works were the natural result of improvisations on the guitar. European influences did findVilla-Lobos eventually, however. 1917 brought international tours of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, and in the 1920’sVilla-Lobos decided to move to Paris (like Piazzolla) where he was exposed to French art and music. After returning to Brazil in 1930’s, he began teaching and writing, as well as creating propaganda for new president Getúlio Vargas.


One of Villa-Lobos’ most famous pieces is his Bachianas Brasilieras, which is a set of nine works, each written for a different combination of instruments. The set as a whole represents Villa-Lobos’ fusion of Brazilian folk music with the European style of composers like Johann Sebastian Bach, freely applying various Baroque harmonic and contrapuntal (multiple melodic lines moving simultaneously) procedures to Brazilian music. In fact, “Bachian” in Bachianasdirectly refers to Bach’s style and music.


Perhaps the most popular of the set isBachianas Brasilieras No. 5, a two-movement (Ária & Dança) workcomposed originally for solo soprano and orchestra of cellos, later arranged byVilla-Lobos for soprano and guitar. The first movement, Ária, isVilla-Lobos’ best-known work and has been arranged to fit many instrumentations. It is composed in three sections, two outer sections that feature a beautifully haunting melody sung with a neutral vowel (“ah”) then hummed, and a middle section that resembles a recitative (freely sung in the rhythm of natural speech) from early operas.


The video for this week features one of my favorite singers of all time, Houston’s own Ana Maria Martinez, singing under Gustavo Dudamel conducting cellists of the Berlin Philarmonic. Enjoy!





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