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8.557460-62 - VILLA-LOBOS: Bachianas brasileiras (Complete)
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Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)
Bachianas brasileiras

It is no overstatement to say Heitor Villa-Lobos put Brazilian music on the cultural map. Yet the composer who travelled widely in South America and the Caribbean, absorbing ethnic idioms at first hand, also won lasting respect from many European musicians for his innovative music. Having spent most of the 1920s based in Paris, Villa-Lobos returned to Brazil in June 1930. Soon after, Getúlio Vargas overthrew the Old Republic and embarked on a transformation of Brazilian institutions. Given his credentials as composer and organizer, it was no surprise when, in 1932, Villa-Lobos was invited to take charge of music education in Rio de Janeiro. This led him to eschew the sophisticated idiom he had cultivated in Paris for one where Brazilian folk and popular influences were made paramount.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Bachianas brasileiras. These pieces range from instrumental and chamber to large orchestral forces, and are given focus through the Brazilian idioms being wedded to harmonic and contrapuntal techniques directly derived from the Baroque era. From his adolescence Villa-Lobos had been fascinated by Bach, finding in his work analogies with the traditional music of Brazil. Thus the present sequence was intended as an explicit homage to Bach, a factor most evident in the designation of almost every movement with twin titles alluding both to the actual movements of Baroque suite forms and also to specific Brazilian popular styles.

Bachianas brasileiras No. 1 is scored for an ‘orchestra of cellos’, so paying tribute to Bach’s Cello Suites while allowing Villa-Lobos to exploit the tonal and textural range of his favourite instrument. Composed in 1930, what is now its first movement was added eight years later for performance at the composer’s own Sociedade Pro Musica concerts. This Introdução (Embolada) takes a folk-song from North- Eastern Brazil as inspiration for a driving, toccata-like movement which potently combines melodic appeal, harmonic richness and contrapuntal dexterity. The Prelúdio (Modinha) that follows draws on a type of popular love-song in music the gentle motion and stylized, even archaic themes of which evoke the slow movements of Bach concertos. The Fuga (Conversa) that concludes the work is inspired by the ‘question and answer’ routines often improvised by Rio street musicians during the composer’s childhood.

Bachianas brasileiras No. 2, also written in 1930, is a suite depicting aspects of Brazil that the composer would have seen on his travels during the early years of the twentieth century. Its textural richness belies the modest orchestra required, as in the Prelúdio, (O Canto do capadócio), with its affectionate but unsentimental portrait of the impoverished rural underclass. Aria (O Canto da nossa terra) is another alternately expressive and insinuating number of the modinha type, which the Dança (Lembrança do Sertão) that follows complements with lively rhythmic motion often reminiscent of a ‘moto perpetuo’. The Toccata (O trenzinho do Caipira) has remained one of Villa-Lobos’ most enduring pieces, a vivid evocation of a steam locomotive moving steadily through the ‘backlands’ of North-Eastern Brazil, one far removed from the mechanized precision of Honegger’s Pacific 231 in its very audible limitations.

Bachianas brasileiras No. 3, completed in 1938, might be described as a ‘sinfonia concertante’, the piano oscillating between Romantic display and a Baroquelike continuo rôle. Both aspects are evident in the Prelúdio (Ponteio), drawing on the melodic ‘picking’ of guitar-playing in music that is among the most fullblooded of the series. The Fantasia (Devaneio) is a freely-evolving movement of scintillating though never showy virtuosity, and with passages of respite that suggest the calm of a Bach chorale-prelude. The Aria (Modinha) is among the composer’s most affecting, with the piano’s first entry highly Bachian in its limpid poignancy, and builds to an emotional apex before a regretful close. A mood which the Toccata (Picapu) dispels in its lively demeanour, the call of the woodpecker adding its inimitable touch to the discourse.

Bachianas brasileiras No. 4, composed for solo piano in 1939 and orchestrated two years later, again adopts a suite-like format. The Prelúdio (Introdução) is a relatively brief entrée, alluding to the ‘Royal Theme’ from The Musical Offering in an elegy which tellingly contrasts solo and ensemble strings. The Coral (Canto do Sertão) consists of a plaintively unwinding melody which is imaginatively embellished, and with the blacksmith bird’s single-note call ever-present. The Aria (Cantiga) is an intermezzo whose main theme evolves along the lines of the ‘tale’ implied but not stated by its title, while the Dança (Martelo) that concludes the work brings a more animated mood and sonorous harmonies in the depths of the orchestra, which the composer likened to the sound of a cathedral organ, to underpin the vibrant activity elsewhere.

Bachianas brasileiras No. 5 has long been Villa- Lobos’s best-known work. Its two movements, written in 1938 and 1945, are scored for soprano and an eightpart cello ensemble. Aria (Cantilena) opens with guitarlike pizzicati, the soprano intoning an insinuating melody which cellos accompany in unison, before taking up the melody in their own right. A more dramatic central section features soprano in lines from a poem by Ruth Valadares Corréa, before the vocalise continues in much the same vein. Dança (Martelo), setting lines by the composer’s contemporary Manoel Bandeira, is designed to evoke the improvised poetry contests once common in North-Eastern Brazil, and features the soprano in an imitation of various species of birds. The voice’s combination with cellos creates a sparkling atmosphere as well as formally articulating the rondo-type movement, which closes with a brief vocal flourish.

Bachianas brasileiras No. 6, dating from 1938, is equally unusual in its format and scoring. Employing only flute and bassoon, the work frequently evokes Bach’s two-part inventions in its imitative counterpoint, though the carefully gauged harmonic dissonance could only be the product of a more recent era. Of the two movements, Aria (Choro) is inspired by the urban street musicians that Villa-Lobos encountered in his youth. Its leisurely and unruffled progress belies its technical difficulty, in which long-held melodic phrases are freely juxtaposed with intricate passagework. The Fantasia is unusual in its having no Brazilian subtitle, though the nature of the music makes it a natural complement to the previous movement, not least in an emotional quality which is poised between the wistfully inward and the dryly humorous; a link with Bach’s expressive domain, albeit refracted through the passing of two centuries.

Bachianas brasileiras No. 7, in complete contrast, is by some distance the longest and weightiest of the series. Composed in 1942, and dedicated to Gustavo Capanema, the Brazilian Minister of Education, the work attempts a synthesis of Bachian and Brazilian traits and reinforces their equal relevance at a time of worldwide conflict and cultural collapse. The Prelúdio (Ponteio) expands the musical procedures of the third and fourth works in the series to near-symphonic proportions, though the formal thinking retains its improvisatory feel. The Giga (Quadrilha Caipira) is an attractive conflation of a Bachian gigue with the quadrille then popular across Brazil, with the even livelier Toccata (Desafio) inspired by the improvised singing contests that were equally common. The Fuga (Conversa) returns to more serious issues, reflecting lessons learnt from the formidable contrapuntal masterpieces of Bach’s last years.

Bachianas brasileiras No. 8, which followed in 1944, is on almost the same scale, this time suggesting a ‘concerto for orchestra’ for which there is a notable precedent in the first and most instrumentally diverse of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. The Prelúdio is of a more relaxed manner, albeit with sufficient variety of mood and pacing to prevent too overt a uniformity. The Aria (Modinha), with its mellifluous writing for lower woodwind and strings, is one of the composer’s most appealing such pieces, opening up to reveal a truly panoramic perspective. In marked contrast is the Toccata (Catira batida), where Villa-Lobos adds to his native sources an incisive traditional dance from Southern Brazil, giving the movement a hectic excitement and physical abandon. The Fuga that concludes the work, while less intense than that of the preceding work, builds intently to a massive and harmonically ambiguous final chord.

Bachianas brasileiras No. 9, composed in New York during 1945, is in many respects a summation of the whole series. Originally written for an unaccompanied chorus, it sounds equally convincing when played by string orchestra, and might be thought of as a musical paradigm for the synthesis that Villa-Lobos had sought in the previous eight works. Thus the Prelúdio is taken up with a long-breathed melody, unfolding in expansive harmonies that could almost be a composite of those already heard. Only when the Fuga proceeds is the theme revealed as the subject of the latter movement, which ranks among the most impressive of the composer’s such pieces. Although the range of contrapuntal techniques is applied, the most striking factor is the composer’s blurring of the distinction between what is Bachian and what is Brazilian, surely an intentional QED as the work, and the series as a whole, reaches its affirmative close.

Richard Whitehouse


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