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8.223394 - VILLA-LOBOS: String Quartets Nos. 2 and 7 (Danubius Quartet)

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

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)

String Quartets Nos. 2 and 7


"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.


Composed in 1915 and first performed two years later, String Quartet No. 2 could scarcely be more different from the first quartet, and the fact that both were written in the same year makes the contrast all the more startling. In his study of Villa-Lobos's quartets Arnaldo Estrella proposes that the leap from the first to the second quartet cannot be thought of as an evolutionary one but as a complete rupture or perhaps a rebeginning. During the First World War the poet Paul Claudel came to Brazil as the French ambassador, and he brought Darius Milhaud with him as a cultural aide. Milhaud brought the latest musical advances from Europe, including bitonality and atonality, and Villa-Lobos embraced those new techniques enthusiastically, finding that they resonated with his own aspirations for freedom and innovation.


Unlike the first quartet, which is a six-movement folkloric suite, the second quartet approximates the classical four-movement scheme in generalities but not in details. The absence of key signatures indicates a free attitude towards tonality, and the overall impression is one of rhapsodic sprawl. The moderately paced, broadly lyrical first movement, Allegro non troppo, begins with the viola's announcement of the main theme, then repeated by the cello, followed by the second violin. This marks the beginning of Villa-Lobos's frequent employment of imitation, a common device in the string quartets. The passionate, lyrical nature of the theme recalls the Brazilian seresta. The movement unfolds in free discourse and comes to an end in a glow of harmonics. The scherzo conjures up impressionistic mists with the first violin's and the cello's ethereal rhythmic figures, over which the second violin and viola playa succession of melodies, creating an atmosphere of reverie. There is a surprising amount of slow music n this scherzo, and new melodies continue to arise, always accompanied by the delicate but obstinate rhythmic underpinning. The Andante has an almost improvisatory quality. Its opening theme bears a relationship to the initial theme of the first movement. The più mosso middle section takes on the colour of fin de siècle romanticism. The finale, Allegro deciso, consists of three parts. The first, Allegro, has a pervasive, Iberian-based rhythm. The second, Presto, is inked thematically to the scherzo's second theme, and the interval of the third dominates both melodically and harmonically. In later quartets Villa-Lobos returned to this idea of the horizontal and vertical dominance of a given interval, although the interval varies in different quartets. Finally, the Prestissimo section starts abruptly and quietly. All four instruments play tremolos sul ponticello, ending the quartet with startling originality.


Composed in 1942 and dedicated to the Borgerth Quartet, who first performed tin 1945, the seventh is the largest and most difficult of Villa-Lobos's quartets, lasting 38 minutes. The customary use of imitation and its attendant polyphony are in large part absent, replaced by long passages of transcendental virtuosity for all four instruments. There are no key signatures, but various tonalities, especially C major, affirm themselves, creating the feeling that Villa-Lobos is only flirting with the atonality that was to emerge fully in the eighth quartet.


The Allegro opens with a simple, short theme that generates various episodes and recurs in later movements as well. Announced by the first violin, it is taken up by the other voices in accordance with Villa-Lobos's customary practice. Primarily rhythmic, the first idea forms a contrast to a second, more lyrical episode. The two are counterposed and lead to the tonality of A major, in which the cello introduces a broad, noble theme. The free repeat of the first section creates a movement in the usual ternary structure. The Andante also follows ternary form. The principal theme, given to the cello, is exceptionally long, and it contrasts with the polyphonically dense, harmonically bright più mosso middle section, based on a descending motif. In the scherzo everything stems from the opening cell of the first theme, which becomes subject to various permutations, including a retrograde treatment in the minor mode as well as truncation and amplification. The trio section, accompanied throughout by a pedal, introduces a new theme, suggestive of A minor and also related to the scherzo proper. In the last movement, Allegro giusto, the interest is primarily rhythmic rather than melodic, and virtuosic passages that move within each instrument's most favourable range occur in abundance. The harmonies, frequently based on superimposed fourths, create rich sonorities befitting the finale of this largest of Villa-Lobos's quartets.


© 1994 David Nelson


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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