About this Recording
8.573116 - VILLA-LOBOS, H.: Guitar Manuscripts (The) - Masterpieces and Lost Works, Vol. 2 (Bissoli)
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Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959)
The Guitar Manuscripts: Masterpieces and Lost Works • 2


Heitor Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1887. His father, an employee of the National Library, was also an amateur musician, enthusiastic enough to teach his son the cello, using to begin with a viola, more suited to the child’s size. Villa-Lobos was later to acquire a knowledge of the guitar and, in adolescence, close acquaintance with the popular music of Rio, where the choro had become a popular urban form for street serenaders. After his father’s death he soon deserted the medical studies proposed for him by his mother in favour of music, an aim he pursued by travelling throughout Brazil, learning at first various folk traditions of the country and writing music of his own that accorded fully with what he heard. After some years of this irregular existence, Villa-Lobos attempted a more formal study of music in Rio, but soon gave this up, preferring freedom and the personal development of his impatient genius, which won more general acceptance with a series of concerts devoted to his works. Largely through the advocacy of Arthur Rubinstein, who had been impressed by the earlier piano music, Villa-Lobos won the support of rich sponsors, which enabled him to move in 1923 to Paris, where he based his activities for the following years. His return to Brazil in 1930 proved permanent, although he had had every intention of returning to Paris, a place congenial to his talent, as soon as he could. It was during these Paris years, interrupted by a trip home from 1925–27, that he wrote his fourteen Choros, a series of works for various combinations of voices and instruments, derived in inspiration from the popular music of the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The change of government in Brazil in 1930 brought a change in the future of Villa-Lobos, who found himself increasingly responsible for the organization of national musical education, a task that he continued with inspired enthusiasm. His reputation abroad grew rapidly, while at home he occupied an unassailable position as the musical leader of his generation. As a composer Villa-Lobos was thoroughly imbued with the very varied traditions of his country, Amerindian, African and Portuguese. These he was able to translate into terms acceptable in concert halls and theatres. His music before 1930 has strong traces of French influence, or rather of the influences current in Paris in the 1920s, while his later work in Brazil was to include that fascinating synthesis of Brazil and Bach, Bachianas Brasileiras and a series of compositions in which a demand for instrumental virtuosity made itself known.

Keith Anderson

“A piece for guitar…an instrument played by scoundrels…Mother of God!” The very thought was enough to horrify Villa-Lobos’ mother Noêmia, whose fondest hope was that her young son would one day become an eminent doctor. We know a few things about the piece that upset her so much: it was a free-form composition written in 1900, about two minutes long, entitled Panqueca (Pancake), in tribute to one of his favourite treats. At the time, Villa-Lobos was taking his first steps on the guitar, helped by his friend José Rebello da Silva, nicknamed Zé do Cavaquinho, of whose teaching this was the first fruit; but as all trace of the manuscript has been lost, we can only speculate about what the music sounded like.

The earliest of Villa-Lobos’ works to have survived is a song he wrote the following year. The manuscript of Dime perché (Tell Me Why) is preserved at the Museu Villa-Lobos in Rio de Janeiro. It is dated 10 April 1901 and was therefore written at a time when he was composing almost exclusively on the guitar. One of his closest friends was the poet Catulo da Paixão Cearense, whose art as a lyricist transformed attractive choro melodies into the enchanting modinhas for which he is remembered today.

Dime perché is also about two minutes long, and is made up of an Andante, an Andantino, an Allegro and a da capo return to the Andante. In the score, the accompaniment is written for piano, but many of its sonorities recall those of the “instrument played by scoundrels”, while the main theme and final crescendo demonstrate Villa-Lobos’ familiarity with the cavaquinho, a small four-stringed Brazilian folk guitar. Its strings are tuned to a G major chord, and the Andante and the da capo of Dime perché are also written in that key.

Taking the view that Villa-Lobos might have followed his friend Catulo’s example and adapted an earlier instrumental piece, I have tried to uncover the score’s hypothetical origins. The only real problem I encountered in transcribing it for guitar was a sudden modulation to the key of D flat major on the final chord of the opening Andante. I decided to read the key signature of the two middle sections as containing two sharps (D major) rather than five flats (D flat major)—that way the Andantino and the Allegro conform quite naturally to the ideal of simple yet skilfully idiomatic guitar writing.

The only two works Villa-Lobos wrote for guitar in those years are Panqueca and the Mazurka in D major. If Dime perché was in fact originally designed for guitar, its freedom of form, spirited charm and, last but not least, its choice of metre (4/4) would make Panqueca the more likely source. Either way, what matters is that this song clearly shows the place the guitar then held in the composer’s fertile imagination, heralding what was to come.

Zé do Cavaquinho preferred gut to steel strings, and it may have been this that encouraged Villa-Lobos to seek out a purer sound. The embodiment of this ideal was at that time Miguel Llobet, for whom he composed a waltz that would make history. In the 1920s, someone asked the great Segovia if he knew Villa-Lobos, without telling him that the composer was within earshot. The guitarist replied that Llobet had shown him some of his works, but that they were “anti-guitar”. “In what way?” asked the composer. Caught by surprise, Segovia tried to explain that one of his pieces, a Valsa, required the player to use the little finger of the right hand: “We don’t use that finger in classical guitar.” “Well, if you don’t use it, why don’t you cut it off?” fired back Villa-Lobos.

We do not know if the piece discussed by these legendary figures was in fact the Valsa Concerto No. 2, but it seems a reasonable guess that it was. The score includes a number of modulations typical of Llobet’s style, and its five-note chords appear to require a fifth digit: the little finger…

All we have of this work and its eventful history is contained within a single unfinished manuscript; given up for lost, this work was discovered by Amaral Vieira in 1995 and was published in 2014 by Éditions Max Eschig. The score contains an introductory Andante of futuristic sonorities, a Valsa Brilhante conceived in the manner of a fantasia, a sketched-out theme in A minor and five empty lines. I have completed the A minor theme, and added a da capo and a coda which goes back to those opening sonorities. In so doing, I have tried to capture a reminiscence of Chopin, as suggested by the title.

The Sexteto místico was started in 1917, but was probably completed years later. The resulting three-movement work (Allegro non troppo – Adagio – Quasi Allegro) is played without a break. The instrumentation echoes the sounds of the traditional Brazilian choros: guitar, flute and saxophone were key members of the street bands whose music would at one time have filled the night air of the “Cidade Maravilhosa”, the Marvellous City of Rio. Here, the addition of harp, oboe and celesta transforms them, bathing them in the light of a modernist fresco, in which each instrument plays at imitating itself. Villa-Lobos seems to have discovered the secret behind street music, its poignant nocturnal serenades, eastern touches and primal rhythmic obsession. Everything finds its way into the form of the music and nothing overwhelms the style; it is perhaps in this unexpected joining of forces that the secret implicit in the title lies.

From this perspective, his highly successful series of works with the title Choros can also be defined as ‘mystical’. As the composer himself explained, “The Choros represents a new form of composition, one which synthesizes the different modes of our indigenous and folk music.” The Sexteto, which predates the Choros, clearly anticipates this “new form”.

Villa-Lobos defined his Introdução aos Choros (Introduction to the Choros) as “a kind of old-style symphonic overture, scored for all the instruments involved in the rest of the works in the [Choros] series”. It features numerous references to the other Choros, from the opening Forte, a transfiguration of the flute melody at the start of Choros No. 6, to the brief cor anglais solo in the finale, which anticipates the very first guitar notes of Choros No. 1.

Choros No. 1 itself was dedicated to the charismatic pianist-composer Ernesto Nazareth (1863–1934), but also pays overt homage to Sátiro Bilhar, legendary choro guitarist and author of Tira poeira, dubbed a “damned” polka by fellow musician Donga, who recounted how “Sátiro would go into a house, say good evening, and immediately win over everyone present. Then he would slip his hat into his pocket, so that when he wanted a change of air he was spared the ceremony of having to ask the mistress of the house to get it for him.” Choros No. 1 has all the enigmatic wit of Bilhar, as well as the sublime blend of melancholy and disenchantment that characterized Nazareth.

The horizon broadens in Choros No. 6: masterfully constructed, this piece evokes the spirit of Brazil as a whole. There are the hills sinking into the ocean, almost hidden by the misty light of dawn: the day begins with a gentle, hypnotic dance; the owl’s call is hushed, a solitary flute brings its serenade to an end. This “mournful and suburban” soliloquy, to use the composer’s own phrase, is echoed in the second guitar cadenza in the Introdução aos Choros. That relationship and the significance of this work for large orchestra within Villa-Lobos’ artistic life led to my choosing to include it on this album, enabling me in the process to pay my own particular tribute to his skill and profound sense of poetry. His orchestral style tends to bypass the usual logic dictating the elaboration of different orchestral parts, pushing the instruments to the limits of their solo potential. His lush orchestration, moreover, often calls for an ensemble both large in number and exotic in nature—he himself used to make the percussion instruments he wanted for performances of his music. As a result, some of these compositions are not often programmed, in comparison to the popularity of the guitar morceaux for which he is perhaps best known. It therefore gives me great pleasure that the humblest of instruments should, paradoxically, enable a work of such breadth of scope to gain a wider audience.

In 1958 Villa-Lobos composed a soundtrack for the hit film Green Mansions, although his music was only partially used in the final cut. The composer himself recorded the original score for United Artists, under the title Floresta do Amazonas (Forest of the Amazon). Canção do Amor (Song of Love) is a serenade: the orchestra enfolds an intimate dialogue between voice and guitar, lifting its resonances into the far distance.

Andrea Bissoli

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