About this Recording
8.554489 - VILLA-LOBOS, H.: Piano Music, Vol. 1 (Rubinsky) - A Prole do Bebe, No. 1 / Cirandas
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Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)
Piano Music Volume 1

Heitor Villa-Lobos is universally recognized as the greatest and most influential Brazilian composer. He was extremely prolific and his enormous output includes works composed in every genre, ranging from educational pieces for the piano to large dramatic works and film-scores. Villa-Lobos's style resulted from an eclectic training and from the assimilation of apparently conflicting influences, which he managed to absorb on a self-taught basis rather than subjecting himself to any formal academic instruction. These influences derive from three sources: the folk traditions of Brazil, with their combination of African, Amerindian, and Portuguese elements, the urban popular music of Rio de Janeiro and other cities, and the European avant-garde at the beginning of the twentieth century. The ease and spontaneity with which he mingled such diverse elements in his music have created some difficulty for scholars, who are still baffled by his extremely free treatment of form and thematic development.

The nationalistic element that pervades the music of Villa-Lobos is undoubtedly its most distinctive and unifying feature, as he made clear in one of his many speeches: "My work is the consequence of predestination, and it is so vast because it is the fruit of an immense, ardent and generous land". He travelled widely in Brazil, collecting folk-melodies and noting down regional dances and chants which he later incorporated in his works or used as raw material for ingenious rhythmic and harmonic experiment. These travels in Brazil gave him a solid basis on which to build the main elements of his nationalistic style, which he enriched by incorporating techniques derived from urban popular music. In his youth, he was relentlessly drawn to the bohemian atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro, and his contact with the popular musicians of his time helped him develop his taste for improvisation and for a flexible treatment of melody and rhythm. Other aspects of Villa-Lobos's early apprenticeship were his broad knowledge of the technical capabilities of musical instruments, several of which he played himself, and his acute sense of tone-colour. His father trained him, from an early age, in the task of distinguishing and responding to a variety of sounds, not only those produced by musical instruments and their endless combinations, but also to sounds found in the environment, noises from the city, and those produced by animals. This practice established the basis for his rich and varied sound palette, which became one of the hallmarks of his style.

In addition to the national roots of Villa-­Lobos's style, there was also an international aspect to it, which sprang mostly from his years of study in Paris between 1923-1930. His journey to Paris was mainly the result of Arthur Rubinstein's efforts. Rubinstein met Villa-Lobos in Rio de Janeiro in 1918 and was deeply impressed by his music, as can be inferred from this note: "I became convinced that this country [Brazil] has in this composer an eminent artist, equal to the greatest composers in Europe. He has all the characteristics of a musical genius". (A Notícia, 6/24/1920). Rubinstein quickly arranged for financial support so that Villa-Lobos could go to Paris. There, he was received extremely well, and concerts of his works were invariably successful. He was also in close contact with the most prominent musicians and artists living in the city, and it was during this time that his international reputation began to establish itself. Villa-Lobos travelled to Paris following the start of the Modernist Movement in Brazil, which was launched by a series of important and ground-breaking artistic events in 1922, with Villa-Lobos himself as one of its most prominent advocates. It might seem paradoxical, therefore, that at a time when the avant-garde in Brazil were trying to free their artistic products from outside influences, Villa-Lobos went to Europe, supposedly with the intention of studying the European avant-garde. That was not so, however. According to him, he went to Paris with the express purpose of showing himself and displaying his accomplishments, which he undoubtedly succeeded in doing. These circumstances help clarify the national ideal as cultivated by Villa-Lobos. The universal appeal of his music is due to the fact that he transcended the "exotic" quality of his folk material, by presenting it in a dazzling and highly imaginative aural landscape. By doing so, he also established an ideological foundation for the next generations of young Brazilian composers, who were often divided between allegiance to their national roots and the desire to embrace a more universal musical style.

Returning to Brazil in 1930, Villa-Lobos became extremely active as a promoter of musical education in all levels of society, and he managed to engage the government in major projects whose importance and later developments can still be felt today. During this period he also travelled throughout the Americas, and the increasing popularity of his works further contributed to the consolidation of his status as a world-renowned composer. When he died in 1959, he had an array of distinctive titles from cultural and political institutions in several countries and his music was already deeply engraved in the minds of millions of admirers.

Villa-Lobos was not a virtuoso pianist (the cello was his primary instrument). This did not prevent him, however, from devoting a large portion of his output to the piano. In fact, about one fifth of his works (a little over two hundred compositions) were written for piano solo. Most importantly, he showed a remarkable understanding of the technical and expressive possibilities of the instrument. This familiarity with the piano developed after his marriage in 1913 to Lucília Guimarães, a virtuoso pianist who was especially fond of music by Schumann and Chopin. This also helps explain why the influence of these two composers is so readily identifiable in Villa-Lobos's style of piano-writing. An important feature of Villa-Lobos's piano music is the wealth of themes derived from or inspired by the world of childhood. It is interesting that Villa­-Lobos, having no children of his own, used to refer to his works as his "children". Moreover, in his works for piano solo he presents a microcosm of Brazilian life and national traditions, similar to that achieved by Bartók in Hungary.

Before proceeding to discuss the pieces in this programme, a word should be said about the use of folk material in Villa-Lobos's work. Folk melodies and rhythms are used by Villa-Lobos in two slightly different ways. First, there are those pieces in which the folk material is quoted almost verbatim within a context of simple and straightforward harmonic elaboration, such as in the collection of didactic pieces Guia Prâtico (1932-1949); second, and perhaps more significantly, there are more elaborate works in which the folk material is used as a basis for complex structures, and the transformations to which it is subject are carried on in such an original fashion that it is possible to speak of actual re-creation. To this group belongs the collection of Cirandas (1926), which will be discussed below.

Villa-Lobos composed three collections of short pieces called Prole do Bebê, each one of them devoted to a different aspect of a child's imagination. The first from 1918 portrays the different personalities and attributes of dolls, the second from 1921 is devoted to animals, and the third from 1916 depicts children's games. This last series was never published, and its manuscript was lost. The first series is by far the most famous of all, thanks to Arthur Rubinstein who performed and recorded the piece, and immortalised the O Polichinelo (Punch – No. 7) as a frequent encore. Each piece of the cycle has a double title, one which indicates the material of which the doll is made, and another which refers to their ethnicity and/or symbolism. The only exception is the O Polichinelo, a character taken from the commedia dell'arte. Villa-Lobos's insight into the world of childhood is reflected, among other things, by the names of the dolls in this cycle. He uses the names in the diminutive, which in Portuguese has a strong association with tenderness, familiarity and deep intimacy. Furthermore, although at first glance the names of the dolls might seem to express only their external appearance, they have the same meaning as proper names and cannot, therefore, be translated without losing a substantial part of their meaning. The use of diminutives is also found in the second series, where the animals are referred to in the same tender, affectionate way.

Although one can detect the presence of folk melodies and rhythms in A Prole do Bebê No. 1, sometimes quoted in full as in the middle section of the O Polichinelo, the folk influence in these pieces is less overt than in the Cirandos. The most remarkable feature of the cycle, however, is the powerful psychological insight into the "personalities" of each doll and the emulation of their symbolic function. The musical language shows some influences derived from French Impressionism, as in the harmonic progressions in A Pobrezinha (No. 6), or the colourful tone­-painting in the opening of Branquinha (No. 1). Elsewhere in the cycle, the piano-writing assumes an almost descriptive character, as in the flying motions depicted in A Bruxa (No. 8), or the tingling sound of porcelain in the high notes at the end of Branquinha (No. 1) A Prole do Bebê No. 1 was Villa-Lobos's first major success, and the only work he dedicated to his wife Lucília. It has been argued, in fact, that Villa-Lobos's interest in the world of childhood as a source for composition was prompted by his wife's performance of pieces such as Schumann's Kinderszenen and Album for the Young. Whatever the case may be, it should be pointed out that Villa-Lobos's collections belong to the same tradition that embraces the similar works of Schumann, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky. Rubinstein made a few changes when performing this cycle, which eventually became common in subsequent performances: he rearranged the pieces within the cycle, so as to end with the O Polichinelo, whose brilliance captivated audiences worldwide. Furthermore, he added a repeat to this piece in order to extend its duration, and also a glissando at the end. In this recording, Villa-Lobos's original version of the cycle is maintained.

The Ciranda is a round or circle dance originating in Portugal, where it was originally danced by adults. As the tradition evolved in Brazil, it became increasingly a dance for children, although in some regions of the country adults still participate. The verse structure of the ciranda always calls for a child to go inside the circle and sing alone, while the others continue to sing joining hands. By the time Villa-Lobos began to work on the Cirandas, he was conceiving a large-scale anthology of Brazilian folk-music, which eventually materialised in the Guia Prâtico. In 1925 he composed a collection of nineteen short and simple pieces using children's melodies, which he entitled Cirandinhas (the diminutive of ciranda). In the following year, he completed the more ambitious and far more successful set of sixteen Cirandas. This cycle is one of the best examples of music inspired by children to be found in Villa-Lobos's entire output. Each one of the Cirandas follows a unique formal design. Villa-Lobos avoided any preconceived formal restraints, preferring instead to let the material suggest its own particular treatment, according to the individual structure of each melody. This is fundamental for the Cirandas, because in these pieces the original folk material is deeply imbedded in the musical fabric, so much so that the mood of the entire piece is totally conditioned by the character of the original melody which is used as its basis. In spite of the internal variety of the Cirandas, however, the majority of them fall into a broad ABA pattern in which A constitutes newly composed material used as both an introduction and an epilogue, and B uses the folk-melody in a variety of elaborations. The introduction creates the environment and the emotional atmosphere, as if setting the stage for the appearance of the original melody, which many times is presented in sharp contrast with the surrounding sections. The cycle abounds in a wonderful variety of moods: pages of beautiful lyricism in No. 15, Que lindos olhos (‘What Beautiful Eyes!’); rhythmic vitality and energy in No. 4, O cravo brigou com a rosa (‘The Carnation Fought With the Rose’), and in No. 8, Vamos atrás da Serra, Calunga (‘Let's Go to the Mountain, Calunga’); tragedy and anger in No. 11, Nesta rua, nesta rua (‘In this street, in this street’); irony and humour in No. 5, Pobre cega (‘The Poor Blind Woman’). All the melodies used in the Cirandas, except that for Ciranda No. 13, A procura de uma agulhà (‘Looking for a Needle’), appear in the Guia Prâtico, where the words were revised and adapted by Afrânio Peixoto, a great pedagogue and a distinguished writer belonging to the Academy of Letters of Brazil. The melody to Ciranda No. 15 was used by Villa-Lobos again in his Fifth String Quartet of 1931.

Hommage à Chopin was composed in 1949 to a commission from UNESCO to commemorate the anniversary of Chopin's death. It was performed at the Salle Gaveau in Paris, on 3rd October, 1949, as part of a programme consisting of pieces commissioned from different composers for the same purpose. In this piece Villa-Lobos gives free rein to his romanticism and lyricism. It opens with the evocative Noturno, based on a languid melodic pattern presented in the left hand, which in spite of its romantic nature still contains typically Brazilian inflections. As it becomes increasingly charged with dramatic pathos and anxious intensity, it moves towards its climax as the right hand ushers in a downward cascade of double thirds. A middle section follows, reminiscent of the dark moods found in much of Rachmaninov's music, before the return of the original theme. A la Balada is arguably more successful in emulating Chopin's style. Its theme suggests in its melodic contours the beginning of Chopin's C sharp minor Waltz, Op. 64 No. 2. The development, however, is typical Villa-Lobos, with a wandering pattern in the right hand, full of chromatic motion mingled with double minor sixths and fifths. The ostinato character of the left hand propels the piece forward, while the right hand is free to elaborate on the different statements of the basic theme. The piece is written in a highly idiomatic pianistic style, which is in fact the best homage that could be paid to the most pianistically-minded of all composers.

James Melo

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