About this Recording
8.573117 - VILLA-LOBOS, H.: Guitar Manuscripts (The) - Masterpieces and Lost Works, Vol. 3 (Bissoli)
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Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959)
The Guitar Manuscripts: Masterpieces and Lost Works • 3


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 a viola to begin with, as it was more suited to a 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 chosen for him by his mother in favour of music, an aim he pursued by travelling throughout Brazil, at first learning the country’s various folk traditions while 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 his earlier piano music, Villa-Lobos won the support of rich sponsors, which enabled him to move to Paris in 1923, 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 also changed Villa-Lobos’ future, 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 Amerindian, African and Portuguese traditions of his country. These he was able to translate into terms acceptable in concert halls and theatres. His music before 1930 shows French influences, or rather 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

“That year we spent the summer together in Lussac-les-Châteaux. We found a place to stay above a kind of pâtisserie that only opened on high days and holidays. Our rooms looked out over the garden at the back and were divided by a wooden panel that was so insubstantial we could chat to one another through the wall till the early hours. Villa planned to amuse himself by constructing a fleet of kites, so we’d arrived laden down with enormous lengths of bamboo, rope and sheets of paper: the lady who owned the shop below thought we must have been members of a circus … The day he flew the first kite (designed in the shape of a huge fish), it was caught by a sudden gust of wind just as he was launching it, and went up like a rocket; it dragged Villa along for several metres before I managed to cut its ropes. The kite came down three or four kilometres away: after that experience his “great beasts” frightened me. I suggested to him that in future he should tie them to a tree, for safety’s sake, and he agreed. Those kites were great fun for the people of Lussac. Some days, Villa would play the guitar late into the night (I should point out we were the only people staying at the pâtisserie); that was when he had the idea of composing his studies for the instrument.”

These reminiscences come from pianist Tomás Terán, one of Villa-Lobos’ friends and a renowned performer of his music. It was summer 1928, and the composer was immersed in writing a complete version of his Études, preparing to send them to his publisher Max Eschig. The idea had in fact first come to him some years earlier.

We need to go back to the spring of 1924, the bright lights of a sophisticated Parisian soirée, and the first meeting between “Villa” and the equally charismatic Andrés Segovia. Villa-Lobos more or less grabbed Segovia’s guitar from his hands! By the time he had finished playing, Segovia had been won over by the exciting sonorities, melodic invention and rhythmic vitality of his new friend’s performance. “We took it in turns to play until four in the morning. Segovia asked me to write an étude for him and we became such good friends that I ended up writing twelve instead.”

The instrument which passed back and forth at this first encounter was, in all likelihood, Segovia’s legendary 1912 Manuel Ramírez guitar—it came from the workshop of Madrid’s leading maker, and bears his name, but was actually made by another highly talented craftsman, Santos Hernández. On Ramírez’s death in 1916, Hernández ran his business for a while, sometimes using the old labels with the Ramírez name.

The instrument I play on this recording of the Études is a 1917 Manuel Ramírez: it has a spruce top and rosewood back and sides, and is signed by Santos Hernández. I chose it precisely because of its connections with that historic moment—I wanted to capture some echo of the past, to travel back in time to that evening when a visionary from the tropics met an aristocratic gypsy guitarist in the legendarily creative ambience of 1920s Paris.

The first published version of the Études only appeared in 1953. Although the overall structure of the work was unchanged, Villa-Lobos had by then reworked a number of aspects with cuts, additions and modifications, and the detailed fingering instructions present in the 1928 manuscript were largely absent. Strangely, however, there is a link between the earlier version and a piano score of 1911: Tarantela. Above each of the last three chords in this manuscript, there appears a circled cursive E. This symbol is not generally used in piano writing, but in a guitar score would mean that the note is to be played on the first or sixth string of the instrument. Villa-Lobos usually used the cursive E to indicate the first, as we can tell from his markings in the Études manuscript. Intrigued by this, I transcribed the last passage of Tarantela for the guitar: it worked well, and even more “comfortably” when the highest note in each chord was played on the top string. The hypothesis was backed up by further evidence: the opening theme uses the same harmonic pattern heard at the start of Étude No. 1; the cadenza that introduces the second subject seems to develop from an ingenious guitaristic figuration; the second subject, very easily playable on the guitar, is crossed out and rewritten immediately afterwards in a more naturally pianistic manner. “You see, in 1911, I didn’t know much about the piano!… I was just basing myself on the guitar.” Villa-Lobos’s response to his friend Alceo Bocchino’s struggles with certain complicated piano passages in the Trio No. 1 (1911) could be equally well suited to the Tarantela, which was probably also composed in 1911: it too may well have been written guitar in hand. This was a practice the composer never abandoned: Choros No. 6 for large orchestra, written many years later, seems to have stemmed from a bizarre quartet: E flat piccolo clarinet, trumpet, baritone horn and guitar.

The last three chords of Tarantela and the harmonic preceding the last two chords of the Étude No. 1 share the same fingering indication: a cursive E within a circle (i.e. “first string”).

As superintendent of musical education in Rio, in 1932 Villa-Lobos began to put together an anthology of brightly coloured songs for children, entitled Guia prático (Practical Guide). He made all the arrangements himself and, as befits a good teaching aid, they lend themselves to the demands of the most disparate of circumstances. Hence, in many cases, the songs are headed “voice and piano, instrumental group, or solo piano”: the choice would depend on what was available at the time and place in question. Vitú ) is a one-off case; here the note reads “voice and piano, or instrumental folk ensemble”.

The traditional choro groups that played such a key rôle in the musical nightlife of Belle Époque Rio were based around flute, guitar and cavaquinho (a kind of ukulele). Taking the hint from the words “instrumental folk ensemble”, I searched through the entire Guia prático for other traces of my own instrument, and ended up choosing a selection of pieces whose writing seems tailored to the guitar. The choro trio inspired most of the arrangements performed here, although I have also used violin, cello and double bass, where their sounds seemed appropriate. A central characteristic of the Guia prático is simplicity—not only did he intend the works to be straightforward to perform, Villa-Lobos was also revealing the essence of these traditional songs and thereby highlighting their expressive qualities.

The “symphonic episode” O papagaio do moleque (The little boy’s kite), like the Guia prático, dates from 1932. The composer wrote the following notes about this piece: “A little boy is out on a sunny day flying his brightly coloured kite. He has the kite under control, but it spins and whirls in tumultuous gusts and eddies. A piano can be distantly heard performing a picturesque slow waltz. A group of kids with bad intentions appears, armed with dangerous fighter kites: battle commences. The predators start turning vertiginously in the air; mastering the wind, they swoop down on the beautiful kite as it’s lit up by the sunlight… It hides, tries to break free and succeeds, momentarily… But it takes fright and gets confused, then all of a sudden it’s reattached and takes to the sky… The quarry wins and the battle is over.”

Villa-Lobos conducted this tale of youthful excitement and a magical flying hunt at his very last concert, on 12 July 1959. The final work on the programme that night was Choros No. 6, the recording of which can be found on the second volume in the “Guitar Manuscripts” series. My aim has been to pay tribute to the more surprising sides of the composer, via the sound of the instrument that first inspired him to write.

Andrea Bissoli
English translation: Susannah Howe

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