About this Recording
8.573243 - VILLA-LOBOS, H.: Symphony No. 10, "Amerindia", "Sumé pater patrium" (Neiva, Javan, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Karabtchevsky)
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Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959)
Symphony No. 10 ‘Ameríndia’ (Sumé, Father of Fathers)


The music of Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959) is often described in such terms as those used by the great modernist poet Mario Andrade: ‘violent, irregular, with an extreme, even disconcerting, wealth of rhythmic modulations—sometimes wild, sometimes evoking a typically Brazilian sentimentalism, sometimes with a childlike, very delicate air’. It may come as a surprise to learn that the wide-ranging and long-term plan informing this sprawling, colourful, heterogeneous and often extravagant output owes more to J.S. Bach than to any other conscious influence. Bach adopted elements from the music of different places and developed a different technique and outward appearance for each genre; his sense of order made the results both universal and eminently personal. Villa-Lobos, who worshipped Bach and regarded his music as a legacy for all humanity, followed his example and strove to develop an idiom that would both find a place on the world stage and play a key role in establishing a national Brazilian musical culture.

Just as Bach had his clearly demarcated stylistic boundaries, Villa-Lobos too, throughout his career, favoured particular ways, depending on the genre in question, of organizing his chosen material and form, and the kind of aural impression he wanted to make. Those looking for some kind of linear development from one work to the next over his fifty years as a composer will find internal coherence only within each individual cycle. Those expecting to find echoes of the Bachianas Brasileiras or Choros in his concertos or symphonies will be left totally at sea.

The symphonies are the least-explored works in Villa-Lobos’s vast orchestral output. In the 1920s the most striking feature of his music was the unconventional aesthetic of the Choros, while in the 1930s it was the personal take on Neoclassicism to be found in the Bachianas Brasileiras. His first five symphonies (or rather four, as No. 5 is considered lost) were written before 1920 and are loosely programmatic works; he only returned to the genre in 1945 with his No. 6, and the symphonies he wrote after that are, superficially at least, surprisingly orthodox, in that they are instrumental, four-movement works, whose thematic material is not overtly nationalistic and whose orchestration does not call on any exotic instruments, although what he does within these parameters is far from conventional.

Symphony No. 10 ‘Ameríndia’ is, however, a quite exceptional work, its stylistic variety and eclecticism making it unique in his output: the only other works that might be described in similar terms were originally conceived as film scores (The Discovery of Brazil and Forest of the Amazon). The Tenth Symphony was written in response to a commission for a major event in Brazil, the celebration in 1954 of the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city of São Paulo. Curiously, the score is dated 1952, which has misled some writers as to the date of the anniversary itself; and, as things worked out, its premiere was given in Paris, in 1957. The Brazilian premiere took place six months later in São Paulo’s Theatro Municipal.

The difficulties involved in classifying this work begin with the title page, which bears two subtitles, Sinfonia Ameríndia and Sumé Pater Patrium. The description ‘Oratorio for soloists, chorus and orchestra’ makes clear it is not a choral symphony like Beethoven’s Ninth—it is in fact closer in scope to Mahler’s Eighth or to Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass.

The second subtitle, Sumé Pater Patrium (‘Sume, Father of Fathers’), refers to a pre-Columbian, mythological figure who was part of the indigenous Tamoyo Indian culture. Sume is described as a bearded old man, white as daylight, who came from the sea and roamed the coast, teaching agriculture, the use of fire and social organization. The Catholic colonists spread the story that Sume was in fact St Thomas the Apostle (Sao Tome, in Portuguese, who is believed to have preached in India). Villa-Lobos takes this legend into the sixteenth century, projecting the civilizing role played by Sume onto an allegorical vision of the Jesuit priest Jose de Anchieta (1534–97), one of São Paulo’s founding fathers.

Anchieta, who was canonized in 2014, is one of the most extraordinary figures in early Brazilian history. Born in the Canary Islands to a Basque father and a mother of Jewish origin, he entered the Jesuit order in 1551 and travelled to Brazil before the age of twenty, as a volunteer missionary. He soon learned the Tupi language (then called ‘general language’) and wrote its first grammar. In spite of suffering from a spinal condition, he climbed the coastal mountain range to the plateau where, in a tiny shack on 25 January 1554, he celebrated the Mass for the foundation of the town that would eventually become the vast metropolis of today. The shack became his home, a hospital and a school, and a Jesuit college still stands on the site in central São Paulo.

The conversion of the native population to Christianity is condemned today as a ‘cultural massacre’, but Anchieta’s aim was in fact to protect the indigenous peoples from the slave trade operated by the Portuguese colonists, even offering himself as a hostage to the native Indians during peace negotiations with the Portuguese in 1563. It is said that during this period of captivity he worked a number of miracles and also wrote his De Beata Virgine Dei Matre, an epic poem (over 5000 lines long) in praise of the Virgin Mary, by inscribing it with a stick on the sand and memorizing it, only committing it to paper after his release. Excerpts from this work are set in the extensive fourth movement that forms the central episode of Villa-Lobos’s Tenth Symphony.

The composer seems to have tried to create a compendium of his various styles in this work. Its first three movements have much in common with his earlier symphonies. The first, purely instrumental, is headed A Terra e os Seres (‘The Earth and its Creatures’) and depicts the profusion of virgin forests. With each rehearsal number in the score, a new theme emerges; some of these recur in later movements, undergoing minor developments or modifications.

Villa-Lobos tends to depict the primitive state by means of themes based on repeated notes, narrow intervals, parallelism and echoes of pentatonic scales. One particularly important motif consists of neighbouring notes followed by a descending fifth, and appears in a modified form in the second movement. The latter, entitled Grito de Guerra (‘War Cry’), is a lament for lost innocence in which the chorus sings wordless melodies and the bass, representing the Voice of the Earth, calls on the native people to become masters of the Earth.

The third movement is a Beethovenian scherzo-gigue, a regular feature of Villa-Lobos’s late symphonies. The chorus sings settings of Tupi texts found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel journals, suggesting the evolution of monkeys into builders of houses; the inference being that this only happened with the arrival of the Europeans. The choral texture is essentially reliant on parallelisms and a question-response structure, while a new character, a native Indian sung by the baritone, also makes an appearance.

The fourth movement, as long as the first three put together, is the dramatic core of the piece. Its succession of episodes and dialogue in contrasting musical idioms produces an effect similar to that of the Credo in a Mass setting. Given that this movement is approximately twenty-five minutes long, almost enough to be a symphony in itself, some have speculated that it may be a re-use of Villa-Lobos’s lost Fifth Symphony (originally entitled A Paz, ‘Peace’, as part of a triptych of war symphonies).

In it, the natives ask who is coming, wondering whether it will be the sun-god, the god of evil, or Sume himself. Instead, it is Jose de Anchieta who appears, praising the glories of Creation. In successive episodes Anchieta repents his sins, swears allegiance to the Virgin Mary, and asks for the mercy of God. A turbulent episode for solo baritone warns of the presence of an infernal dragon (a metaphor for the Protestantism of Calvin), which is driven off by the imprecations of the chorus as the movement comes to an end.

The fifth movement begins with an acknowledgement of the peace brought by the Virgin and her Son. Then the chorus greets the Holy Spirit and recalls the way in which kings and prophets have glorified the Virgin’s name. The final episode celebrates the conversion of St Paul and the founding of the village of São Paulo.

The Anchieta text, a brief fragment of what is unarguably the first poetic masterpiece written in Brazil, reveals in vivid language all the mystical complexity of its author. As such, it plays a major part in making this Symphony the most ambitious of all Villa-Lobos’s choral works—one in which he succeeds in intertwining the conflicting strands of his musical preferences in line with the contrasting sentiments expressed by the text, and in translating a mystical conflagration into a musical climax.

Villa-Lobos was notorious for the extravagant demands he made on orchestral musicians, and this work is no exception. The writing for strings and voices is extremely difficult, all winds and brass are tripled or quadrupled, the percussion section is vast and there are significant parts for piano, harps and organ.

The ‘Ameríndia’ Symphony was composed in what many would regard as less than promising circumstances: a hybrid of symphony and oratorio, based on a long and profound text in three different languages, with references to two religions (paganism and Catholicism) and circumscribed by delicate political and ideological constraints. In such situations, composers have to make a choice: they can either write calculatedly bureaucratic music, or seize the opportunity to display their talents to their best. Officialdom did not prevent Handel, Beethoven or Britten from writing great music in, respectively, the Coronation Anthems, The Consecration of the House and the War Requiem. Villa-Lobos too undoubtedly went for the second option. This symphony-oratorio stands proud as a coherent composition rich in atmospheric passages, and one that reflects a clash of cultures with a breadth of scope seemingly unparalled in classical music.

Fábio Zanon
Fabio Zanon is a Brazilian guitarist. He is Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music and author of Villa-Lobos (Publifolha, 2009).

English translation by Susannah Howe

This recording forms part of the complete cycle of Villa-Lobos’s symphonies, with revised scores. The project was launched in 2011 by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra’s publishing branch (Criadores do Brasil), under the general guidance of maestro Isaac Karabtchevsky.

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