Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959)
Discovery of Brazil Suites Nos. 1–4
It was in the 1920s in Paris that Heitor Villa-Lobos first found recognition beyond the confines of his own country. After the Second World War he stayed there every spring, conducting concerts of his works, principally with the Orchestre National of Radiodiffusion Télévision Française. For musical enthusiasts of the new generation, the very name of the composer was revealed in the course of a concert of 28th February 1952 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where he conducted the first complete performance of his Descobrimento do Brasil. A powerful feeling of unshackled artistic authenticity was clearly apparent, the imagination of the very type of an ideal contemporary composer, able to satisfy all audiences. Convincing, instinctive, the work reflected the colours and scents of a new land and surprised by its felicitous instrumentation, its counterpoint, its luxuriant melodies and original rhythms. Its climactic moments contrasted with the picturesque scenes, the translation of which into musical terms lacked nothing by the side of the descriptions in the most distinguished writing of the explorers. It may be doubted whether music has often produced such epics, except from the representatives of people seeking to affirm their own national identity.
The origins of this music go back to 1936, when Brazil, under the government of Getúlio Vargas, was in the middle of a phase of nationalism. Educational cinema had been established for the promotion of Brazilian subjects and the director Humberto Mauro, author of documentaries, asked Villa-Lobos to collaborate in one of his productions, the Discovery of Brazil, an evocation of episodes from the crossing of the Atlantic in 1500 by the ships of the Portuguese fleet, under the command of Pedro Álvarez Cabral, and their arrival at a place that they called the True Cross. A letter from Pêro Vaz de Caminha, a notary with the fleet, to King Dom Manuel, recounting the events showing took place in Rio de Janeiro on 6th December 1937. Treated in the manner of painting of the grand style, the pictures idealised characters and situations. In this way the impact of cultures between that of the European sailors and that of the primitive Indians, the ties of friendship, provided scenes of truth and beauty that could not but move the heart of an idealist such as Villa-Lobos. As far as the present state of the film allows us to judge, only a very small part of his music was used, whereas earlier music, such as Chôros No. 3 and the Noneto are heard. All the material actually intended for the film was refashioned by the composer as a full-scale concert work, divided into four suites for full orchestra. The result was, in his own words, a translation of the text of Pêro Vaz de Caminha in musical images proper for the evocation of the atmosphere of the period and the spirit of those concerned. It should be noticed, however, that the score is not entirely original, with four episodes, Alegria, Adagio sentimental, A Cascavel and Ualalocê, deriving their substance from earlier compositions. Altogether the fresco succeeds in recalling the distant roots of Brazilian music, Indian songs in their original purity, popular Portuguese melodies, Spanish rhythms, plaintive Moorish singing. Events and states of mind are imagined, mingled with actual happenings. The orchestration, never over-loaded, is augmented by the inclusion of a number of Brazilian percussion instruments. With varied timbres and registers, it is marked again by the personal art of counterpoint practised by Villa-Lobos and his peculiar clarity of expression, even in tutti passages, a characteristic of all orchestrations that follow the example of Berlioz. The four suites consist of ten movements: the first six deal with the voyage and the four last with the newly discovered land and its inhabitants. “Civilised” at the beginning, the music grows in savagery and power as the New World draws nearer. A chorus is used in the last two movements.
The work opens with a passionate Largo Introduction of sixteen bars, suggesting the determination of the conquerors, whose theme is developed in the “Iberian Impression” of the Third Suite. This episode contains Portuguese dances, an evocation of the calm sea, fanfares from the four corners, representing the sailing-ships of the fleet in the night. In Alegria (“Joy”) the sailors and exiles recall the rural celebrations of their own country, in music adapted from Alegria na horta (“Joy in the Garden”), a piano piece written by Villa-Lobos in 1918.
With lmpressao moura (“Moorish Impression”) Arab turns of melody are offered in turn by flute and oboe, recalling the theory that there were Moors among the sailors and slaves on board. The Adagio sentimental has its origin in the song A Virgem of 1913, starting with a chant for the violins, developing with unusual instrumental sonorities and swelling romantically to suggest the nostalgia (saudade) of the navigators, as they recall their own country. A Cascavel (“The Rattle-Snake”) was originally for voice and piano, written in 1917, and suggesting, in its rapid movement, the redoubtable denizen of the tropical forest by means of instrumental slides and sudden leaps. In this way the composer symbolises the anxiety of the explorers, as they think of the dangers of an unknown land.
lmpressao iberica (“Iberian Impression”), marked by its Spanish character, takes its shape from the rhythms of Andalusia, melodies related to the canto jondo. Heroic sounds and fanfares announce the approaching discovery. The passionate theme of the introduction to the First Suite is quoted: the dialogue gains in conquering force, sustained by the throb of the percussion. Festa nas selvas (“Celebration in the Forest”) marks the moment when the navigators see land on the horizon. Villa-Lobos allows us surprising imitations in the orchestra of Indian instruments. Ualalocê is a celebratory and hunting song of the Parecis Indians, collected by Roquette Pinto. It formed part of the Three Native Songs, with piano or orchestra, written by Villa-Lobos in 1930. It is here introduced by the cornet and a muted trombone, forming a brief rhythmic interlude, with a second melody of the same origin introduced by the bassoon to provide effective counterpoint.
Villa-Lobos perhaps never expressed himself so completely as in his works for chorus and full orchestra. With the Chôros No. 10, this suite, in two movements, offers, in its majestic perfection, a point of reference in Brazilian art, bringing together a number of elements into an apotheosis in sound that is equally lyrical and spiritual. To understand the subject in its historical context, it will be remembered that the navigators, when they reached the New World, established friendly relations with the native inhabitants. On the occasion of the first Mass, said on the sandy shore of a small island on 1st May 1500, before disembarking onto the mainland, several Indians, who had up to then been quiet, seeing the gestures of the priest, began to dance, playing their primitive instruments. A picture by Vitor Meireles de Lima (1832-1903), A primeira missa no Brasil (“The First Mass in Brazil”), in the National Historical Museum of Rio, immortalises the scene. Procissão da cruz (“Procession of the Cross”) recalls a procession in which a cross was carried, the work of the ships’ carpenters, decorated with royal symbols. A long and spectacular introduction leads to a Scherzando, marked Allegretto, entrusted to the woodwind. The men’s chorus, symbolising the Portuguese, sings the words “Crux! Crux! Crux! Crucifixus!”, soon followed by a mixed chorus, representing the Indians. On Indian words two melodic motifs are superimposed, the first composed by Villa-Lobos in primitive style, and the second authentic, drawn from the collection of Roquette Pinto. Over a slow march, the mixed chorus sings a Latin motet of Ambrosian character, then the Pater nosier is recited by men’s voices. There follows a six-part chorus of Indians, interrupted by the Ave verum, forming the end of the movement. Primeira missa no Brasil (“First Mass in Brazil”), composed before the other movements in the suites, starts with a vocalise for tenor, doubled by the oboe. As in the preceding movement, sacred Latin chants and Indian songs are heard. After the Crucifixus etiam pro nobis (“He was crucified also for us”) of the Creed, the baritone soloist sings, in Portuguese, In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen, followed by the Tantum ergo. The conclusion is based on a Gregorian style Kyrie, sung by the men’s chorus, superimposed, in masterly fashion, on the wild rhythmic melody of the women’s voices, representing the Indians. As in Chôros No. 10 and Noneto, and other choral pieces, the Indian text is only a colouristic imitation of Indian sounds. This visionary scene, worthy of a country where several races would intermingle, remains the highest manifestation of the spirit of universal brotherhood dear to the composer.
© 1994 Pierre Vidal
English version by Keith Anderson