About this Recording
8.555286 - VILLA-LOBOS, H.: Piano Music, Vol. 3 (Rubinsky) - Circlo Brasileiro / Choros Nos. 1, 2 and 5
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Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)

Piano Music, Volume 3


In discussing the legacy of Heitor Villa-Lobos the question of nationalism versus universalism cannot be avoided. In previous volumes of this series, the influence of Brazilian culture on Villa-Lobos’s piano works has been addressed from various perspectives, and it is my intention to add to this fundamental feature of his artistic development. Nationalism in the nineteenth century was associated with the political movements of the time. In the early twentieth century, it was invariably linked to a genuine concern in music for ethnographic research and the due preservation of cultural heritage. This view informed major ethnographic projects by Bartók, Kodály, Stravinsky, and Villa-Lobos himself, who in 1905 started a series of research trips throughout Brazil. The manner in which this material was later incorporated into Villa-Lobos’s works continues to generate scholarly interest because of the enormous variety of compositional procedures to which this material was subjected. These techniques range from direct quotations to newly invented themes that have an unmistakable folk character, as the composer himself acknowledged. Villa-Lobos conceived of nationalism as distinct from any political implications: “Patriotism in music, and capitalizing upon it, is very dangerous. You will have propaganda instead. But nationalism – the power of the earth, the geographic and ethnographic influences that a composer cannot escape, the musical idioms and sentiment of people and environment – these origins, in my opinion, are indispensable to a vital and genuine art”. This genuine nationalism must also be distinguished from the superficially cultural veneer of exoticism. Villa-Lobos, however, sometimes seemed to capitalize on exoticism. He often remarked, for instance, that the Dansa do Índio Branco, the last piece in the suite Ciclo Brasileiro, was his musical portrait.


In doing so, he opened the door to the folklorisation of his legacy, which can be detected not only in scholarly studies but in performances of his works. Significantly, the Brazilian modernist writer Menotti del Picchia coined the expression “an Indian wearing smoking” to refer to Villa-Lobos, no doubt as a reference to the confluence of regional and cosmopolitan elements as a determinant of his style. Equally significant for an understanding of Villa-Lobos’s style is the fact that, throughout his career, he remained fiercely independent from any direct influence. According to him, whenever he felt that another composer’s influence was taking root in his works, he would shake himself free from it. This sense of independence was sustained by a lifetime of continuous study and self-discovery, and eventually led him to disdain any critical appreciation of his works, which he considered to be “letters written to posterity and to which he expected no answer”. He elaborated further on this notion, when responding to criticism about the difficulty of some of his works: “I do not write in a dissonant style just to be modern. What I write is a direct consequence of my studies, of the synthesis that I have achieved in order to express the particular nature of Brazilian culture. I tested my studies against the heritage of Western music and eventually arrived at a middle ground that represents the individuality of my ideas”.


As before in this series, the works recorded in this volume offer a comprehensive sample of the genres and styles found in Villa-Lobos’s piano music. The majority of his compositions for this instrument consist of character pieces, single or organized into suites or collections. They reveal a bewildering variety of formal procedures, but pieces belonging to the same genre often share some structural framework that influences not only the nature of the musical material but also the dimensions of the work.


The Suíte Floral is a relatively unknown work, in spite of its great beauty. Written in 1917-18, it belongs to a phase of Villa-Lobos’s career in which the influence of French impressionism is at its most prominent. The harmonies and sonorities of Idílio na Rede (Idyll in a Hammock) suggest a blend of Debussy and Fauré, with no hint of a Brazilian idiom. The swinging rhythm and leisurely pace are particularly effective in suggesting the indolence of a warm afternoon as one dozes off in a hammock. The second piece, Uma Camponeza Cantadeira (A Singing Country Girl), has an interesting quintuplet figure in the left-hand accompaniment suggesting the uncertainty and wonder of the country girl. This device is a good example of Villa-Lobos’s ability to paint a character with only a few strokes. The delicacy of the piece does not preclude an element of melancholy, which is soon dispelled by the joyful rhythms and lively textures that characterize Alegria na Horta (Joy in the Garden), the only piece in the Suíte in which a distinctly Brazilian flavour is noticeable. The second piece of the Suíte Floral was performed in one of the concerts organized during the Week of Modern Art in São Paulo in 1922.


The Ciclo Brasileiro, composed in 1936, is unquestionably one of the most important works that Villa-Lobos wrote for the piano, a representation of the romanticism that characterized much of his work during the 1930s. The four pieces are musical snapshots of the Brazilian character and landscape, each one alluding to a specific genre of Brazilian music. The opening piece, Plantio do Caboclo (The Peasant’s Sowing), is based on a hypnotic, hymn-like melody that unfolds through the arpeggiated chords in the left hand, enveloped by an ostinato figure in the right hand. The calm atmosphere is disturbed only through the quick modulations of the central section, which soon give way to the sustained character of the opening. Impressões Seresteiras (Impressions of a Serenade Musician) is a waltz built on an engaging melody whose motives are fragmented and recombined in different ways throughout the piece, often combined with sparkling virtuosity. The writing is highly idiomatic, and the wide range of sonorities and textures creates a sharp contrast with the uniform texture of the opening piece. The virtuoso Festa no Sertão (The Fête in the Heartlands) is written in the manner of a toccata with elements from the traditional Brazilian dance batuque. Its harmonic vocabulary, which includes chords based on the whole-tone scale, is ingenuously offset by rhythmic writing of astonishing diversity. The polyrhythms of the central section support a languid melody in 5/4, creating a type of texture that was particularly favoured by Villa-Lobos in many of his piano works. The last piece, Dansa do Índio Branco (Dance of the White Indian) is based on a few ostinato figures that have a distinctly percussive character. The work calls for great virtuosity, especially in bringing out the melody embedded in the fierce succession of alternating chords. The harmonic vocabulary is primarily diatonic, with the melodic motives centred in the key of A minor. This piece has been explained as “the memory of how the composer met in a Brazilian forest a white Indian, who constantly danced and died”, but this explanation does not seem plausible, given Villa-Lobos’s own assessment of the work as his musical self-portrait.

The six pieces that comprise the collection Brinquedo de Roda (Children’s Round Games) date from 1912. They represent Villa-Lobos’s earliest turn to childhood as a subject for his piano works. Each piece is based on a traditional melody from Brazilian children’s round games, which is treated in a simple texture that clearly differentiates between right and left hands. The pieces may have had a didactic purpose, and in the delicacy of their writing they can be compared to the pieces collected in later works such as the Cirandinhas and the Guia Prático.


The Danças Características Africanas, composed in 1915, were performed during the Week of Modern Art in 1922, and became one of the targets of critics who charged the composer with degeneracy in his musical style. They are based on themes of the Caripuna Indians from the state of Mato Grosso, which reveal African ethnic and musical elements. Each of the dances represents a stage in the human life cycle: Farrapós (dance of the elderly), Kankukus (dance of the youngsters), and Kankikis (dance of the children). Because they were composed during a phase in Villa-Lobos’s career when he was under the influence of impressionism, the Brazilian character is a little elusive. The syncopated rhythms, however, emerge as a distinctive feature of these works, and remain emblematic of the African influence on Brazilian music. The suite exists also in an orchestral version by the composer himself.


Tristorosa (Sorrowful) is a typical Brazilian waltz, combining a leisurely rhythmic pace with a melody of great languor and sinuosity. It is structured as a five-part rondo, the two contrasting episodes displaying a more lively texture and greater rhythmic activity. Written in 1910, it belongs to an early group of independent waltzes for the piano, a genre which Villa-Lobos would revisit in the 1930s when he wrote the celebrated Valsa da Dor.


Perhaps no other genre is so emblematic of Villa-Lobos’s inventiveness than the series of fourteen Chôros, written for various instrumental combinations, raising the improvisational character of the traditional choro to a compositional determinant and a reflection of Villa-Lobos’s highly individual approach to composition, which often accommodated disparate elements and techniques, unexpected juxtapositions between the erudite and the popular, and a treatment of form that was essentially organic and self-generating. The composer himself gave an account of his conception of the Chôro as follows: “The Chôros represent a new form of musical composition in which different modalities of the Brazilian Indian and popular music are synthesized, having as its principal elements rhythm and some typical melody of a popular nature, which appears in the work every now and then, always modified according to the personality of the composer. The harmonic procedures, too, are almost a complete stylization of the original. The word ‘serenade’ can give an approximate idea of what ‘choros’ means”. Originally, the choro was the quintessential urban genre of Brazilian music, with which Villa-Lobos was familiar through his own participation in ensembles performing nightly serenades in Rio de Janeiro. As cultivated by Villa-Lobos in his own compositions, however, the genre broke all the boundaries of its models. Chôros No. 1, originally written for guitar in 1920 and transcribed for piano by Odmar Amaral Gurgel, is still very close to the urban model. It is written as a five-part rondo, suffused with a rhythmic suppleness that recalls the works of Ernesto Nazareth. The work’s swinging character is emphasized by tempo rubato and the strategic use of fermatas. Chôros No. 2, originally written for flute and clarinet and transcribed for piano by the composer himself, represents already a complete stylization of the genre, setting it apart from Chorôs No. 1 and crystalizing the style that was to be adopted for the other works in the series. It has a playful and humorous character which is emphasized by rhythmic motives of an uncertain and hesitant nature. The juxtaposition of an ostinato, rhythmically syncopated figure, with a sustained melody in the central section suggests a conversation between two strong-willed characters who do not seem to see eye-to-eye. The piece ends with a truly comical gesture, as if surprised at its own ending. Chôros No. 5, ‘Alma Brasileira’ (Brazilian Soul) is one of Villa-Lobos’s best known compositions for the piano. Written in 1925,  the work displays many of the hallmarks of Villa-Lobos’s piano writing, including the use of ostinato figures, syncopated accompaniment, polyrhythms, and percussive dissonance. Its form can be expressed as ABC(B)A, each section being differentiated through textural changes. Particularly successful is the interlocking of melody and accompaniment that characterizes the B section, one of the best examples of Villa-Lobos’s penchant for multi-layered textures. The march that precedes the recall of the opening section is striking in its rhythmic vitality, offering a sharp contrast to the introspective melody that comprises the main motive of the work.


James Melo

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