Villa–Lobos, Heitor (1887–1959)

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Villa-Lobos, Heitor (1887–1959)

Heitor Villa-Lobos (b. 5 March 1887; d. 17 November 1959), Latin America's most famous twentieth-century composer. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Heitor Villa-Lobos was the son of a minor library official and amateur musician, Raul Villa-Lobos, and Noemia Villa-Lobos. The composer's earliest childhood recollections were of Saturday evenings when friends came to the household for music making. Villa-Lobos's first musical instruction was from his father, who taught him to play the cello and provided him with ear training. When Villa-Lobos was asked if he considered himself to be self-taught, he often replied that he received such a complete musical foundation from his father that further instruction was unnecessary.

In 1899 Raul Villa-Lobos died during a smallpox epidemic, leaving the family in desperate financial circumstances. Noemia Villa-Lobos attempted to provide for the needs of the family by taking in laundry. Although she enrolled Tuhú, as she called young Heitor, in classes that would prepare him for a medical career, he was much more interested in all-night music-making sessions with young improvisers of popular music, the chorões. He frequently missed school, and when his mother tearfully objected, he ran away from home to live with an aunt who was more sympathetic to his musical interests and who played Bach preludes and fugues in a manner that never ceased to amaze him.

At eighteen Villa-Lobos traveled in the northern and northeastern parts of Brazil, an area rich in folk traditions. After selling some rare books that had belonged to his father, Villa-Lobos embarked on a journey through Brazil that lasted several years. He was gone such a long time that his mother assumed, not unreasonably, that he had been killed. Although Villa-Lobos frequently cited the period of his travels as one of collecting folk melodies which he subsequently used in his major works, there is little evidence that he made a systematic effort to collect folk materials firsthand. However, he did acquire an extensive knowledge of his native country—its folk traditions, customs, and various kinds of musical styles.

Back in Rio de Janeiro by 1911, he began to establish himself as a musician and composer. In 1913 he married Lucilia Guimarães, a pianist and teacher at the National Institute of Music. Limited financial resources necessitated their moving into the small house of the Guimarães family. Villa-Lobos kept the family awake most of the night as he composed, usually beginning after the evening meal and working at the piano throughout the night. By 1915 he had collected a portfolio of works and arranged several concerts, the first of which was held in Nova Friburgo, a town in the state of Rio de Janeiro. By November of the same year he was ready for a complete program of his works in the the capital city of Rio de Janeiro.

The first review of Villa-Lobos's works were mixed. While recognizing a significant original talent, all the critics noted his lack of traditional training and disregard of conventional harmonic and formal principles of writing. In his attempt to find more acceptable expression for some of his musical ideas, Villa-Lobos was supported by his friend Darius Milhaud, who joined the staff of the French embassy in Rio in 1917. Milhaud encouraged Villa-Lobos to find his own way rather than imitate European models. With a recommendation from Arthur Rubinstein, Villa-Lobos secured funds in 1923 for a short trip to Europe, where he presented a few concerts of his music. In 1927 he obtained assistance for a longer stay, and with the help of Rubinstein and several Brazilian musicians in Paris, he performed several works at the Salle Gaveau, in Paris, on 24 October and 5 December 1927. With these performances Heitor Villa-Lobos established himself as a talented and original composer, and soon thereafter received invitations to present his music and conduct orchestras in London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Berlin, Brussels, Madrid, Liège, Lyon, and other European cities.

Villa-Lobos remained in Europe until 1930. With the country in a state of intense political disruption, Villa-Lobos decided to return to Europe to resume his career shortly after his arrival. In the meantime, however, he wrote a memorandum to the state government in São Paulo, expressing his distress at the condition of musical training and proposing a program of universal music education. He was summoned to appear at the governor's palace to defend his proposal. The next years were the busiest of Villa-Lobos's life. He postponed his plans to return to Europe and remained in São Paulo, and later Rio de Janeiro, as organizer and director of a program of choral singing, music education, and mass choral performances intended to instill patriotism. All of these programs were supported by the Getúlio Vargas government. In 1944 Villa-Lobos visited the United States for the first time and during the final years of his life, he spent several months each year in Paris and New York.

Villa-Lobos wrote a torrent of musical works, variously estimated at two or three thousand, including arrangements and adaptations. Although he is recognized for his incredible fecundity and facility of musical writing, most of his music is unknown and has not been performed internationally, despite worldwide performances during the Villa-Lobos Centennial Celebrations in 1987 and 1988, which gave a broader representation of his life work. His sixteen Choros are a microcosm of the riches of Brazilian rhythmic invention and the diversity of its folk music. His Nonetos, although frequently referred to as chamber music, call for a gigantic percussion section. His late string quartets, written when the composer was near death, represent some of his finest writing. Individual works such as Uirapurú (The Magic Bird) draw their inspiration from various Brazilian myths and show the composer's mastery of orchestration. The best-known work of Villa-Lobos is the aria from Bachianas brasileiras no. 5, written in 1938. Because of his use of national and regional materials, he is regarded as a crucial figure in the development of Brazilian musical nationalism. Capturing, and building on, the urban salon music tradition of Ernesto Nazareth, Villa-Lobos molded diverse elements into a musical language that has been internationally recognized as an expression of both individual genius and the spirit of Brazilian music.

See alsoMusic: Art Music .


David P. Appleby, The Music of Brazil (1983).

Vasco Mariz, Heitor Villa-Lobos: Compositor brasileiro, 11th ed. (1989).

Stanley Sadie, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980).

Additional Bibliography

Appleby, David P. Heitor Villa-Lobos: A Life (1887–1959). Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002.

Béhague, Gerard. Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Search for Brazil's Musical Soul. Austin: Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 1994.

Guérios, Paulo Renato. Heitor Villa-Lobos: O caminho sinuoso da predestinação. Rio de Janeiro: Editora FGV, 2003.

Paz, Ermelinda Azevedo. Villa-Lobos e a música popular brasileira: Uma visaão sem preconceito. Rio de Janeiro: Eletrobrás, 2004.

                                        David P. Appleby

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Villa–Lobos, Heitor (1887–1959)

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