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8.223182 - VILLA-LOBOS: Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 3

Heitor VilIa-Lobos (1887-1959)
Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 3


The Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1887. By the time of his death in 1959 he had long been established as the leading composer of his native country, the varied traditions of which had become the source of his musical inspiration. In childhood Villa-Lobos learned the cello, taught by his father, who worked at the National Library. He was later to learn to play the guitar, and these two instruments assumed considerable importance in his later work as a composer. It had been intended that he should become a doctor, but the early death of his father, and his own interest in the popular music of the streets, drew him into the world of the choro, a form of music current in the popular culture of Rio de Janeiro.

As a young man Villa-Lobos spent a number of years travelling in Brazil, engrossed in the study of the various forms of indigenous and imported music flourishing in its many different regions. At the same time, although lacking technical training, he wrote music, although his intermittent serious attempts at formal musical study proved fruitless. As a composer he was, in fact, largely self-taught. Nevertheless a concert of his works in Rio in 1915, with a programme that included his first Piano Trio and second Violin Sonata, attracted some local interest, which grew during the following years, in spite of opposition in some quarters, into a measure of official recognition.

In 1923, in good part through the influence of the pianist Artur Rubinstein, who had been impressed by his work, Villa-Lobos received financial support for a visit to Paris, where he established himself for the most part until 1930, although the period brought visits to Africa and concerts of his music in Argentina and at home in Brazil. Paris, however, brought direct contact with the mainstream of contemporary music and association with leading musicians that was of great importance to him. Here he was much influenced by Ravel and established a friendship with Varèse, a musician with whom he would seem to have little in common. His music, meanwhile, proved very successful, appealing, no doubt, in its originality and exotic vigour.

With the new decade Villa-Lobos returned to Brazil, where he struggled to introduce contemporary music from Europe against considerable difficulties. In 1932, however, in the aftermath of the national revolution under Vargas, he assumed responsibility for national music education, occupying a position specially created for him and busying himself to a considerable extent with music for massed choirs and bands. In 1942 he established a National Conservatory in Rio and in 1945 set up the Brazilian Academy of Music, an association of the most distinguished musicians of the country. By the time of his death he had won honours at home and abroad and a general reputation as the most important Brazilian composer of his generation.

Villa-Lobos wrote his first Piano Trio in 1911. In the key of C minor, the work opens in its declared key in rapid unison, leading to a romantic theme, shifting in harmony, a prelude to the strongly lyrical melody that dominates much of the movement, in a style that suggests Fauré. The piano introduces the slow movement, followed by the violin, the cello entering to share a second theme, as the music unfolds in rhapsodic style. The third movement Scherzo starts softly, at first with plucked strings and piano together, establishing the change of key from G minor to G major, although key and mood soon change, before the return of the scherzo theme. The final movement opens in fine fugal style, violin, cello and piano in turn an A flat subject, which immediately re-appears in another key, leading to further contrapuntal treatment. A relaxation of mood is interrupted by a passage of increased intensity, references to the fugal subject and a final section marked Rondo-Presto, capped in grandiose fashion.

The third of the four Piano Trios of Villa-Lobos was completed in 1918, following the fourth string quartet, the first two symphonies and the first Prole do bebê piano suite that was to prove so popular. The new Piano Trio is a much more demanding work than the first, of greater tonal ambiguity, but with the same extravagance of melody and lyrical imagination, and a wider exploration of possible string effects. Much of the work is dominated by a theme of Brazilian provenance first announced by the cello. The second movement offers a contrast in its simple opening texture, the violin introducing a gentle melody, to an appealing piano accompaniment. The cello version of the melody is answered by a return to the theme of the first movement, interjected by piano and violin, and later to make a more emphatic return. The movement ends with the piano playing the first theme, accompanied by the chords of the muted strings, and a passage that exploits the possibilities of chordal harmonics on the cello. What has by now assumed the importance of an idée fixe is suggested at the start of the third movement, and duly makes its appearance, either implied or fully stated, as the movement proceeds, eerily interrupted by the artificial harmonics of the strings and a passage that demands the striking of the strings with the ivory tip of the bow. A coda played sul ponticello leads to the conclusion of the movement. The finale finds room for another treatment of the characteristic figure of the recurrent pentatonic theme and for passages of some astringency in music of varied originality that makes greater demands on players and listeners than the earlier trios. Here Villa-Lobos combines something of the thematic and rhythmic material with which he had become familiar in his years of wandering through Brazil with techniques with which he was to become still more closely associated in Paris.

Keith Anderson

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