About this Recording
8.573151 - VILLA-LOBOS, H.: Symphonies Nos. 3, "War" and 4, "Victory" (Sao Paulo Symphony, Karabtchevsky)
English  Portuguese 

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959)
Symphonies Nos 3 ‘War’ and 4 ‘Victory’


In 1913 Heitor Villa-Lobos, a 26-year-old aspiring composer with memories of his youth of travelling, adventures and bohemian living still fresh in his mind, married Lucilia Guimaraes in Rio de Janeiro. If, at that moment, Villa-Lobos had, for whatever reason, given up composing, his name would today scarcely take up a footnote in the history of Brazilian music. His previous works, in spite of their vigour, reveal a composer with limited technical and aesthetic baggage, a virtual dilettante.

As events unfolded he was transformed into a figure at the helm of international modernism and a central protagonist in Brazil’s artistic world. Villa-Lobos was not simply a nationalist composer, but played a key role in creating the cultural identity of his country, an identity that grew richer as Villa-Lobos appropriated urban and rural traditions in order to become truer to himself. He is probably a unique example among great composers of someone who was able to conceive of such a significant aesthetic opportunity, starting from scratch at a relatively advanced age.

The stability of his domestic life and the professional support of his wife, a pianist with a more extensive musical culture than his own at the time, were instrumental in giving a direction to his legendary creativity. Villa-Lobos learned the piano, studied harmony, instrumentation and musical forms virtually on his own initiative and, between 1915 and 1918, he was already organizing concerts featuring his first great compositions: the first three string quartets, the sonatas for violin and cello, and the symphonic poems Naufrágio de Kleonikos (The Shipwreck of Kleonikos) and Tédio de Alvorada (The Tedium of Daybreak).

His works did not always elicit a positive response but, nevertheless, within artistic circles, they confirmed his commitment to composition. In 1918 he met the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who became a fervent champion of his music. This growing recognition made the premiere of part of his Symphony No 1 possible and culminated in the official commission of his ‘War triptych’, made up of Symphonies Nos 3 ‘War’, 4 ‘Victory’ and 5 ‘Peace’, in 1919. Symphony No 5, if indeed it was written in its entirety, was never performed and the score is lost.

Brazil had a minor involvement in the First World War, but the country was transformed by the impact of the conflict. It initially declared itself neutral, but the torpedo attack on Brazilian ships by German submarines in 1917 provoked national outrage, obliging the government to align itself against the Germanic coalition, by patrolling the south Atlantic. Coffee, Brazil’s only export product, was no longer deemed an essential commodity during the conflict, and this forced the country to diversify its economy and begin to establish an industrial infrastructure, which led to prosperity in the 1920s.

It is within this context that the two symphonies on this recording were commissioned. In 1920 the King and Queen of Belgium visited Rio de Janeiro and the symphonies commemorating the armistice were performed in a concert held as a tribute to the visiting monarchs. The three symphonies that form the ‘War tryptich’ were based on texts by the historian Luiz d’Escragnolle Doria, which were of very poor poetic and philosophical quality, and whose content seems more appropriate for awakening civic and pacifist values among high-school students.

Biographers and musicologists tend to view the Symphonies of Villa-Lobos as works of literary inspiration, an observation which is only half true. Villa-Lobos composed the first four symphonies in rapid succession at the end of the 1910s. All four take their inspiration from literary texts. His next symphony did not appear until 1944, after a 25-year hiatus. Symphonies Nos 6 to 12, in spite of the subtitles of Nos 6 and 7, are works of a purely symphonic character. The monumental exception is Symphony No 10, which is practically an oratorio. They amount to five programmatic works and six purely musical works without an extra-musical basis, but the fact is that Villa-Lobos had a very clear idea about his style as a composer of symphonies, and the sense of unity and consistency between them all is very evident. Even so, the two symphonies that feature on this recording are those in which form most often presents itself as subordinate to the content of the text.

The subtitle of Symphony No 3 was initially ‘Symbolic Poem’, but was later changed to ‘1st Symbolic Symphony’ and, finally, ‘War’. The first movement, ‘Life and Labour’, is structured as a kind of rondo in six sections. Although labour is represented by the frenzied activity of the orchestra, the hexatonic nature (that is using a six-note scale of equidistant tones)of most of the themes induces a sense of instability.

The second, ‘Intrigues and Rumours’, represents the political machinations that precede the outbreak of war, via the conflict between themes of a diatonic (white keys), chromatic (black keys) and modal character (in the old style, preceding the development of tonality or evoking oriental scales). The rhythmic structure and the accumulation of contrapuntal layers seem to have been inspired by Beethoven’s Eroica.

The third movement, ‘Suffering’, reveals a Villa-Lobos indebted to the gloomier side of Italian opera with the motif of cellos and double basses at the beginning—suggesting Verdi’s Rigoletto—and to the lyrical quality of the serenade-like melodic style. Traces of late Villa-Lobos are already present, with densely orchestrated sequences dissolving in a dissonance, and the division in sections without tonal contrast (practically all of them in C minor) only possible through the confident handling of the surrounding material and the fertility of melodic invention.

The final movement, ‘The Battle’, where the descriptive aspect is more pronounced in the frenetic orchestral activity and the belligerent interventions of the fanfare and the percussion, displays a cyclical format, picking up again, in the guise of formal growth, themes from the first and third movements, part of a collage containing fragments of the Brazilian national anthem and La Marseillaise.

The dazzling grandeur of this last movement is transferred to the first movement of Symphony No 4—even the tempo marking, allegro impetuoso, is the same. As in the previous work, the first movement, beneath its rhapsodic aspect, features a kind of martial leitmotif which returns at strategic points throughout the symphony. The Scherzo is a felicitous moment of orchestral brilliance in 7/4 time, made up of modal melodic ideas that bring to mind Debussy and Russian music. The third movement confirms the maturity of Villa-Lobos’s instrumental inventiveness: nobody other than he could have conceived of the combination of bass clarinet, contrabassoon and bass saxophone subordinated to the melody of the cor anglais and violas, in a funeral march that illustrates sensitively Escragnolle Doria’s phrase: “Europe is a cemetery of unknown graves”.

The final movement is much longer than the previous ones and exudes a sense of victory to a perhaps exaggerated extent, but there are innumerable moments of great imagination in the midst of the orchestral frenzy. The restatement of the leitmotif brings to mind the final movement of Henrique Oswald’s Symphony No 43, first performed in 1917, which Villa-Lobos admired and went on to conduct.

Both symphonies require a very large orchestra. In addition to the full orchestra, with piano, harps and celesta, there is a fanfare of bugles, cornets and other military instruments, creating a gripping effect. The Third Symphony also includes an ad libitum choir; whilst the Fourth adopts an “inner group” of requintas (high-pitched clarinets) and saxophones, creating the effect of spatial dislocation. This orchestral extravagance has led some scholars to detect an affinity with Respighi; however, the two composers must have achieved similar results via very different means, since Respighi’s most explosive works were written in the 1920s and 1930s (he visited Brazil in 1928). Here we have a young Villa-Lobos with extraordinary confidence in his orchestral “hand”, already a master of unusual effects, well versed in the work of contemporary French composers such as Vincent D’Indy and Florent Schmitt and inspired by Russians such as Alexander Borodin and Alexander Scriabin. He had perhaps little interest in conventional good taste, but he was at ease with the construction of a unified symphonic flow, coursing through highly evocative orchestral moods.

Fábio Zanon
Fabio Zanon is a Brazilian guitarist. He is Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music and author of Villa-Lobos (Publifolha, 2009).

Close the window