About this Recording
8.573451 - VILLA-LOBOS, H.: Symphony No. 12 / Uirapuru / Mandu-çarará (Sao Paulo Symphony, Karabtchevsky)
English  Portuguese 

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959)
Symphony No. 12 • Uirapuru • Mandu-Çarará


Villa-Lobos completed his final symphony on his 70th birthday, in 1957, dedicating it to his companion Mindinha. When it premiered the following year, in a performance by the Washington National Symphony Orchestra, contemporary composition was going through a turbulent phase.

It was the time of Stockhausen, Kagel and Schaeffer’s first great electronic and musique concrète compositions; Messiaen was composing his Catalogue d’oiseaux, Boulez was loosening his ties to integral serialism in Le Marteau sans maître, and Xenakis was gaining recognition for applying statistics to composition in Pithoprakta. But at the same time the great musical institutions were commissioning works by those composers who had been part of the modernist vanguard of the 1910s and 1920s. Stravinsky was making an about-turn by adopting an austere serialism in Threni and Canticum Sacrum. Symphonies and concertos were springing up everywhere: Shostakovich and Kabalevsky were bowing to the communist cultural agenda, and in the West there was an attempt to recover the great symphonic tradition. This is perceptible in the work of Villa-Lobos, but also in that of Martinů, Milhaud, Hartmann, Tippett, Copland and many others.

Where had Villa-Lobos, the outlandish iconoclast of the 1920s, been hiding? His project to formulate a classical language for Brazilian music was still ongoing, but it was a project of many facets. The lavish landscaping of his ballets and Choros was one of them; the tropical baroque quality of Bachianas Brasileiras was another, as were the formal surprises of his chamber music. He remained faithful to each of these facets, but within the context of each genre. The least explored facet, however, is one that he devoted a great deal of energy to in the last decade of his life, namely being a dedicated composer of symphonies and string quartets.

But Villa-Lobos being Villa-Lobos, these apparently conventional works steer well clear of official academicism. Symphony No. 12 brings together the symphonic craftsmanship of the great masters and a typical explosion of energy, unusual harmonic patterns, rhythmic restlessness and a fondness for free counterpoint and symmetrical figurations. Villa-Lobos betrays no hint of nostalgia, jadedness or any other sign of being in his twilight years: it is a piece of work that seems to have been penned by someone 50 years younger, but that, in its historical context, sounds strangely bound to the past.

The typical re-reading of Bach, Wagner and the French and Russian composers can here be extended to the Villa-Lobos who took Haydn’s concepts of propulsion and the unified gesture as a model for his string quartets. Symphony No. 12, along with No. 9, is the lightest and most compact of his symphonies. The orchestration, despite still including a considerable percussion section, dispenses with the piano and the vast wind sections of the others.

The first movement has a curious structure: the first theme, with its strong ascending impulse, which swells on the cellos and bassoons and is answered by the violins, reappears modified after the second thematic group, which is introduced in a more moderate fashion by the clarinet, followed by the oboe, bassoon and tuba. The concluding section is loosely based on elements of the second theme and some secondary material that had got lost along the way. In this way Villa-Lobos complies with the economy and possibilities for thematic development demanded of a symphonic allegro, at the same time as giving free rein to his imagination in the detail.

The Adagio is one of the most interesting of all the symphonies, and has an anxious and solemn quality. The theme announced by the bassoon is a collection of archetypes: a theme initially similar to Wagner’s Tristan, announced in the high-pitch section of Stravinsky’s Rite, without repeating notes, in the manner of a dodecaphonic series that never materializes. It is developed with different counterpoint modalities, passed on to the bass clarinet and the English horn. A short contrasting section is dominated by the brass section, and the sinuous melody is taken up again by the strings, in the midst of a rich counterpoint, which combines quartal, chromatic and pandiatonic¹ elements.

The Scherzo is a piece of such orchestral brilliance that it could easily be used as an encore. The fourth interval dominates the theme, in the form of a call, and again, in a dazzling ascending impulse. A theme of parallel minor chords, announced by the horns and, later, by the tubas, adds a humorous touch. The central section, with its slightly oriental flavour, does not interrupt the breathless vitality of the movement as a whole.

The final movement tangentially follows the form of a rondo, with a military-style theme, which returns transformed at regular intervals, and alternates with another more impassioned one with a sequential structure. The bass line is extraordinarily active throughout the movement and creates a kind of link to the large amount of secondary material that appears before the triumphant finale. This exemplifies the difficulty that listeners have in finding their way through Villa-Lobos’s symphonies: his imagination is so consistently bold that what in the hands of other composers would be filler or linking material, ends up taking on an involuntarily leading role in his symphonies. In his final symphony, Villa-Lobos delights in a sea of themes and sounds, and flings them generously in the direction of the listeners, to quote his own words, in the form of “letters written to posterity without expecting a reply”.

The hiatus between the official date of its composition (1917) and its premiere (1935 in Buenos Aires) seems to suggest that Uirapuru is one of the cases where Villa-Lobos dated the score to reflect when he conceived of the work, rather than the actual date of composition. In the case of Uirapuru, which among his most frequently performed works is the most original and intransigently modern, the bringing forward of the date would mean that the composer was the first to use certain musical techniques that, in theory, he would only become familiar with after living in Paris in the 1920s. The fact is that Uirapuru is, to a large extent, based on one of his first symphonic works, the symphonic poem Tédio de Alvorada (Tedium of Dawn) of 1916 (which premiered in 1918), and it is highly probable that Villa-Lobos had worked on the radicalization of his aesthetic approach throughout the 1920s.

Uirapuru is the offspring of international modernism and in it Villa-Lobos not only displays his constant interest in the richness of texture, tonal expansion, orchestral colour, fluidity of form, melodic symmetry and the rereading of his compositional references (particularly Wagner, Debussy and Stravinsky), but creates a specifically Brazilian sound, without directly drawing on folkloric elements—precisely what makes him one of the supreme inventors of Brazilian culture.

The composer created a storyline that suited the ballet format, perhaps in the hope that Diaghilev would be interested in including it in the repertoire of the Ballets Russes, a collaboration that unfortunately never materialized. The uirapuru is an astonishing bird even in the context of the biodiversity of the Amazon. It is found only in the depths of the forest, and has an extraordinarily melodious song, tuneful and varied, whose power of seduction only manifests itself in the midst of the silence of other kinds of song—all of which endows it with a powerful mythical force.

In the ballet’s storyline, indigenous groups find themselves drawn deep into the forest by the magic of the bird’s song; there, a young woman hunts the uirapuru and sees it transform into a young male warrior. Finally, when he is killed by an indigenous intruder, he transforms once again into a bird. The story and the music create a very distant echo of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Stravinsky’s Firebird. Villa-Lobos, without the interest in real bird song that Messiaen had, transforms the theme of the uirapuru into a model of stylized symmetry, which opens up into a complex network of formal and harmonic growth. Especially after being recorded by Leopold Stokowski, Uirapuru deservedly became a calling card for the modernist Villa-Lobos.

On the other hand, it is a mystery why such a spectacular work as Mandu-Çarará is virtually unknown. It belongs to a group of works like Descobrimento do Brasil (Discovery of Brazil) or Choros No. 10, in which Villa-Lobos combines a choral format with orchestral opulence, within the primitivist aesthetic of his 1920s’ works, which brought him to the attention of an international audience. Mandu-Çarará is obviously a secular cantata, but the piano score is subtitled “Ballet”, despite the fact that there is no record of it being presented in this format. Dated 1940, it was premiered in Rio de Janeiro in 1946 and in the USA in 1948.

The work is based on legends from the region of the Solimoes River, which were gathered together by Barbosa Sobrinho. Mandu-Çarará is the god of dance. An indigenous man abandons his children in the midst of the forest so that the little girl will marry Mandu-Çarará, but they get lost and end up finding themselves alongside Curupira, the spirit that protects the forest, who has green teeth, red hair and feet pointing backwards, and who wants to lure them to his hut and devour them. They manage to deceive Curupira, go into his hut, kill his wife, throw her into a cauldron of stew and flee. Curupira eats the stew and goes to hunt for the children, but when his own belly answers his cries he realizes that he has eaten his wife. The forest spirits are saddened, as he is, and the children manage to find the way back to their village, where Mandu-Çarará is waiting for them so that they can celebrate together, in a finale of dances and games.

The score is notable for several reasons. First, for the way in which Villa-Lobos establishes the contrast between the solemn style of the adult choir, representing Curupira, and the brisk levity of the children’s choir, in a text written in the indigenous Nheengatu language that is highly onomatopoeic. Second, for its thematic economy, with all the motifs maintaining an intense rhythmic vitality derived from the obsessive reiteration. The lushness of the forest is portrayed by the systemic polyphony and by the various simultaneous layers of sound, which always seem to be dictated by an inexorable dance beat, fitting for the storyline of the work.

Fábio Zanon
English translation by Lisa Shaw

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

¹ A compositional technique that uses the notes of a diatonic scale not restricted by the principles of traditional harmony.

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

Close the window