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8.223389 - VILLA-LOBOS: String Quartets Nos. 1, 8 and 13

Heitor Villa-Lobos {1887 -1959) String Quartets Nos

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)

String Quartets Nos. 1, 8 and 13


"I love to write quartets. One could say that it is a mania." Villa-Lobos made his confession, quoted by Pierre Vidal, in Paris in the spring of 1958. He had completed his seventeenth and final quartet the year before and had begun to sketch an eighteenth. It is usual to think of Villa-Lobos's prodigious output in orchestral terms, and it may come as a surprise that chamber music forms a substantial part of his work. Of that chamber music string quartets are by far the major constituent, and within the broader context of the twentieth-century string quartet, dominated by Bartók and Shostakovich, Villa-Lobos's seventeen quartets must be considered a significant, though poorly acknowledged, contribution.


Villa-Lobos attributed his knowledge of the string quartet to the study of Haydn. Whether or not one accepts the veracity of his claim, any attempt to find traces of the Viennese master in the Brazilian's work would be in vain. There are no stylistic connections, and sonata form itself is all but absent. The keys to Villa-Lobos's quartet idiom lie elsewhere. A primary source of inspiration is the rich and diverse musical folklore of Brazil, which the composer discovered between the ages of 18 and 25, when he traveled extensively through the Northeast, the Amazon basin and the South with touring theatrical companies. Even earlier he had come to know the lundu, the chôro, the maxixe and other forms of "urban folklore," better described as the popular music of the times. To those Brazilian impressions may be added a taste for Renaissance polyphony, the ricercare, Bach's fugues and Franck's cyclical principle, the last acquired most likely through self-study of d'Indy's Cours de composition musicale. In this highly personalized scheme of things the Viennese classical structures and especially the sonata held little attraction for Villa-Lobos. Instead the mostly self-taught composer found his own, non-academic solutions to the problems of form and unity. His frequent reliance on imitation - the successive entry of a theme in all four voices - affirms an innate feeling for fugal thought. Variation, which substitutes for development, creates a sense of continuity, often transforming one musical idea into another in a "stream of consciousness." In his study of the quartets, published in 1978 by the Museu Villa Lobos, Arnaldo Estrella describes this as "a flowing brook, a constant becoming." Conversely, variation also creates contrast, a stylistic device that Villa-Lobos achieved even more dramatically through abrupt juxtapositions. Finally it must not be forgotten that the composer began his professional life as a cellist in small ensembles, "orquestrinas," that entertained in cafés, music halls and theatres. Many ideas in the quartets seem conceived in terms of the cello; even when introduced by another instrument, they attain fullest expressivity when heard in the cello part. Villa-Lobos's experience as a string player may also account for the uncommon sonorous combinations and instrumental techniques that impart a further dimension of originality. That is often most evident in the scherzos, which give freest reign to his exuberant flights of fancy.


Amidst the baffling, sometimes uneven profusion of the Brazilian's music, the seventeen string quartets maintain a consistently high quality and become in later years his chosen medium of expression. Chronologically they form four groups. The first four quartets were composed between 1915 and 1917, a period of much other chamber music, including the second Sonata-Fantasia for violin and piano, two cello sonatas and the second piano trio. Thereafter a fourteen-year hiatus intervenes in the quartets. That period from 1917 to 1931 saw the creation of major orchestral works, among them Uirapuru, Amazonas and the six orchestral Chôros. Much of that time was spent in Paris, where Villa-Lobos came into contact with Ravel, Dukas, Falla, Schmitt, Honegger, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Casella and Varèse - contact that obviously bore fruit. His return to the string quartet in 1931 produced one isolated example, the fifth. For the next seven years he energetically focused on the development of musical education in Brazil, composing a multitude of choral pieces. The sixth quartet, also isolated, appeared in 1938, and four more years were to pass before Villa-Lobos's involvement with the quartet resumed and intensified. From 1942 onward he produced eleven quartets in fifteen years.


Musically the quartets belong to three periods. To the early period belong the first four quartets. Of these, the first has little in common with the others. It is in fact a six-part suite with a folkloric veneer; its three successors, with few traces of national flavour, move tentatively toward the originality that Villa-Lobos was seeking. The fifth and sixth form an overtly nationalistic pair, even indicated by the designations Quarteto Popular No. I and II Quarteto Brasileiro. In a practice unusual for Villa-Lobos the fifth quartet quotes actual folk melodies, but the sixth absorbs folkloric elements into a broader musical spectrum and, significantly, marks the maturation of his quartet idiom. The seventh to the seventeenth quartets belong to the third phase, wherein national elements become increasingly universalized and find ultimate expression in the rarefied atmosphere of the final masterpieces.


Quartet No. 1, written in the mountain town of Novo Friburgo, had its first performance there at the home of composer Homero Barreto on 3 February 1915. Formally unlike any other of Villa-Lobos's quartets, it is a suite of six pieces, alternately lyrical and dancelike, nostalgic and happy. Its language is romantic, and its structure is deliberately simple. Four of the movements are virtually monothematic; the third and fifth are in ternary song form. A Cantilena (Andante) with the character of a serenade establishes a songlike mood at the outset. This is followed by Brincadeira (Allegretto scherzando), a lively Brazilian polka. Canto Iírico (Moderato) is expressive and contemplative, or perhaps tinged with irony and meant as a caricature of the romantic aria. A more animated Cançoneta (Andante, quasi allegretto) follows. Nostalgia pervades Melancolia (Lento), the quartet's most fully developed and true slow movement. Finally, Saltando como um Saci (Allegro), roughly translatable as Jumping Like an Imp, is a fugal dance with a catchy tune. Referring to Saci Pererê, a mythical, one-legged black dwarf who wears a red cap, frequents swamps and delights by night in frightening people, this delightful finale reaffirms the quarters folkloric nature.


Composed in Rio de Janeiro in 1944, Quartet No. 8 received its première there on 5 September 1946 by the Quarteto lacovino. After the monumental complexity of the seventh quartet, the eighth returns to the intimate dimensions of chamber music. Its rhythmic and thematic elements, disposition of voices and structural proportions all conform to the patterns of the authentic chamber idiom. In his study Arnaldo Estrella emphasizes that the quartet is systematically atonal, although he points out that each movement ends with an affirmation of tonality. In the Allegro the cello introduces a motoric idea, from which subsequent themes rise by diverse means, including variation and inversion. Despite its seemingly jarring juxtapositions the movement is logically constructed. The Lento begins in lamentation, but soon a lovely blossoming of melody affirms the C major tonality. Glissandi lend unusual colour to a third episode, and a return of the opening lament rounds off the movement. The scherzo, Vivace, waltzes along hurriedly in a lilting 6/8 meter and ends, both in the initial statement and in the return, with a curious, scurrying coda. The rhythmic trio has a typically Brazilian character and offers full display of Villa-Lobos's inventive power. The finale, Quasi allegretto, grows from an eight-bar introduction, related rhythmically to the trio theme. With organic links throughout, it nevertheless gives an impression of unbridled rhapsody.


Quartet No.13, dedicated to the Quatuor Municipal de São Paulo, dates from 1951 and had its first performance two years later. Specifying no key, it conveys a more definite feeling of tonality throughout than the eighth quartet. The broadly melodic, somewhat restrained Allegro non troppo owes its contrapuntal texture to imitation. Following the exposition the viola assumes a virtuosic solo role in a brief but effective episode. The scherzo, Vivace, virtually gallops along; a slow central section offers respite before the scherzo proper returns a fifth higher. Surely the magical opening of the Adagio is a supremely beautiful moment among the quartets. Muted strings provide a transparent harmonic support for the first violin's serene melody. A free dialogue ensues, and at the end one's hope for the return of the magical beginning is not disappointed. Retrogression and diminution take part in the construction of the concluding Allegro vivace, but that hardly seems to matter; the effect is of a highly stylized Brazilian dance that lifts the spirits.


Danubius Quartet


The Danubius Quartet has won considerable acclaim since its establishment in 1983. With the violinists Judit Tóth and Adél Miklós, violist Cecilia Bodolai and cellist Ilona Wibli, and the artistic direction of the distinguished violinist Vilmos Tátrai, the quartet won awards at Trapani, Evian and Graz in the earlier years of its foundation, and has recorded, among other works, the String Quartet No. 1 of Reményi for Hungaroton, the complete String Quartets of Villa-Lobos for Marco Polo and for Naxos the Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets. The Danubius Quartet has given recitals in Austria, Germany, Yugoslavia, Italy, France and Switzerland and appeared at a number of international festivals.

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