About this Recording
8.223552 - VILLA-LOBOS: Rudepoema / Dancas

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959)
Dança frenética • Danças características africanas • Dança dos mosquitos • Rudepoema


Heitor Villa-Lobos occupies an unrivalled position in the music of his native Brazil. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1887, son of a senior official at the Brazilian National Library, he began cello lessons as a child with his father, using a viola. By the time of his father’s death in 1899 he had a reasonable knowledge of music theory and could play the clarinet and the cello, and went on to take guitar lessons from a neighbour, hiding the fact from his mother, who wanted him to be a doctor. It was in part through the early influence of his father that Villa-Lobos became fascinated by the varied folk-music of Brazil, while the city itself provided opportunities to hear and later to join in the music of the chôro. At the age of sixteen he left home, giving up any idea of medical study and finding a more sympathetic lodging at the house of an aunt, an amateur pianist with a particular love of Bach. He now earned a living as best he could as a jobbing musician, helping to support his family by playing the cello at the Recreio Theatre and performing in hotels and night clubs.

From the age of eighteen Villa-Lobos spent some seven years of intermittent travel to the remoter regions of Brazil, interrupted by a brief period of study at the National Institute of Music in Rio. To keep himself he first sold the remaining books of his father’s library and then took casual employment, whenever possible, experiencing, as he travelled, the indigenous music of the country, although never encountering cannibals, as falsely related subsequently in Paris. He had already turned his hand to compositions of a relatively undemanding kind. Settled once again in Rio in 1912, he began to tackle music of greater complexity, with an opera, lzath, piano trios and the completion of a work on which he had been intermittently engaged for some years, the guitar Suite populaire brésilienne. In 1915 he began a series of concerts of his works, arousing the anger of critics and occasionally of performers, while attracting support from a group of young sympathisers. Although his style of writing was not influenced by European trends of the time, it was nevertheless original and alarming enough. An influential critic in Rio, writing of the Dança frenetica of 1919, remarked that the work had the wrong title and should have been called “St. Vitus’s Dance” with an explanatory note advising that it should be performed by epileptic musicians and heard by paranoiacs. 75 years later it is difficult to understand such criticism, although there might be some sympathy for the same critic’s jibe at the prolific nature of the talent of Villa-Lobos. At this early stage of his career he was already writing a great deal of music, and was to continue to do so.

Villa-Lobos drew on music heard during his years of Brazilian pilgrimage for the three Danças características africanas, originally written for piano in 1914. Here he made use of musical ideas derived from the Caripunas Indians of Mato Grosso, a race that had an intermingling of African. The three dances, which represent stages of human life, have about them a wild energy, and a complexity of cross rhythms, an element of primitive ritualism in their insistent repetition, that could not have failed to appal an audience expecting gentler entertainment. The dances were arranged for octet and orchestrated in 1916. The earlier period of his creative life, with the self-explanatory titled Dança dos mosquitos of 1922, the year of the scandalous and provocative Week of Modern Art in Rio, came to an end in 1923, when he left for Europe.

The music of Villa-Lobos had already attracted the attention of Darius Milhaud, employed by Paul Claudel at the French Embassy in Rio during the war of 1914 to 1918, but it was the virtuoso Arthur Rubinstein who did as much as anyone to persuade the Brazilian Congress and other patrons to provide sponsorship for a journey to Paris, allowing Villa-Lobos to introduce his music to the French public and at the same time to profit from the stimulating intellectual climate of the city. Through Rubinstein he was introduced to the publishing house of Max Eschig, the sponsor of his first Paris concert in 1924. As in Rio, his music was acceptable to those with more progressive ideas on the nature of music and to an even wider public by the time of concerts of his works given on a much larger scale in 1927, although there were still voices raised in objection. In Paris Villa-Lobos was associated with leading musicians and artists of the time, helped by Roger-Ducasse, praised by Paul Le Flem and Florent Schmitt, and commissioned to provide a ballet for Dyagilev. During the seven years that he spent largely in Paris, he also found it possible to travel to Africa and to return to South America for concerts, not isolating himself from the cultural life of his own country.

In 1930 Villa-Lobos returned to Brazil, finding himself, after the October Revolution, in a leading position as a composer whose music so fully represented the spirit of the country and the nationalist mood of the time. After initial attempts to bring music to a much wider audience during a nine month tour, he was entrusted with establishing a scheme of music education at every level and this led later to the setting up of a conservatory in Rio in 1942, followed by the establishment of similar institutions in regional capitals. When this work came to an end in 1945, with the change of government, he began to win a regular place for himself in the concert life of the United States and, with the war now over, was able to renew his ties with Europe. He died in Rio de Janeiro in 1959, his death an occasion of public mourning.

While the Dança frenetica, Danças características africanas and Dança dos mosquitos belong to the earlier period of his life, Villa-Lobos wrote the remarkable Rudepoema over a number of years, from 1921, completing it in Paris in 1926. Originally for piano, this savage poema seeks to record the spirit of its dedicatee, Arthur Rubinstein. The work has something improvisatory about it, in its lack of a clear form, although in certain other respects Rubinstein saw in it a Brazilian equivalent of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a reflection of the composer himself and above all of Brazil. Rudepoema consists of a series of juxtaposed episodes, separate to the eye in the score, but to the listener forming a continuous whole. A certain motivic unity is provided with shorter melodic or rhythmic elements that return, some derived from the music of the Caripunas Indians. All in all, the work has about it a naked savagery, suggested in its title, a vigour, energy and force that is a world away from the tenderness of Prole do bebê, for example, the gentler evocation of childhood that also formed part of Rubinstein’s repertoire. It remains as a challenging and masterly summary, outstanding among the works of Villa-Lobos in its power and originality.

Keith Anderson

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