About this Recording
8.573777 - VILLA-LOBOS, H.: Symphonies Nos. 8, 9 and 11 (São Paulo Symphony, Karabtchevsky)
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Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959)
Symphonies Nos. 8, 9 and 11


The early 20th century was a time when the repertoires of symphony orchestras concentrated predominantly on a historical canon. It was also a time when major North American orchestras matured artistically and administratively. Statistical studies show that, in the first half of the century, of a total of over 1600 composers whose work was performed by the USA’s major orchestras, the 100 most performed represented 86% of the overall repertoire and just 13 of them accounted for over 50% of the works performed.

The première of a work was (and still is) a costly operation, which involves a larger number of rehearsals, preparation of the orchestral parts and the payment of copyright dues, and its impact on ticket sales is unpredictable.

What appeared to be a stagnant situation for contemporary composers then witnessed a number of unexpected shifts. The economic crisis of 1929 led to unemployment among musicians. Protectionist measures were adopted, obliging orchestras and theatres to include living American composers in their programmes. This established a model for linking public resources to a commitment to innovating the dominant repertoire, one that continues to this day in orchestras all over the world.

A decade later, during World War II, concerns over the indoctrination of Latin America by Nazi Germany via the radio led to the adoption of the Good Neighbour Policy within the cultural sphere. American cultural missions visited Latin America in search of new talents and cooperation; orchestras began commissioning new works preferably by Latin American composers. It was a particularly beneficial moment for composers such as Guarnieri, Chávez, Ginastera and Orbón, who established careers in the USA.

In the 1940s Villa-Lobos was already widely recognised as Latin America’s greatest composer and is one of the leading examples of this trend. In the 1920s, resident for the most part in Paris, he had formulated a far-reaching vision of Brazil in his music; his concertos and symphonies from the 1910s had been put to one side in favour of free forms, in which he could take full advantage of the material that sprang up in his imagination, inspired by what he had heard during years spent travelling the country. The vast cycles of his Chôros and Bachianas Brasileiras took up most of his time in the 1920s and 1930s, and represented new possibilities for Brazilian classical music. “I am folklore”, he once said. In fact, most of what we identify today as being typically Brazilian can be more easily traced through the distinctive works of Villa-Lobos than in ethno-musicological research.

Cognisant of his own worth, he declared: “I will go to the United States only when the Americans are willing to welcome me like they welcome European musicians, that is to say, based on my own qualities and not due to political considerations.” His first visit to the USA was in 1944 and, the following year, he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the first time. These were events that had a tremendous impact; the list of musicians who were present at these concerts is like a who’s who of music at that time. The works performed in New York, Boston, Washington DC and Philadelphia benefitted from the symbolic capital of those orchestras and became part of the Villa-Lobos canon.

Right up until the end of his life, Villa-Lobos alternated annual visits to Paris and the USA to conduct his own works. An equally important effect of his new-found recognition in North America was a stream of commissions; this demand coincided with Villa-Lobos’s return to more stable formats, namely symphonies, concertos or string quartets. His Symphonies Nos. 8, 9, 11 and 12, half a dozen concertos, three string quartets, several orchestral works (including the vast Chôros No. 12 and the ballet The Emperor Jones), the musical Magdalena and the opera Yerma were commissioned and/or premièred in America.

Beginning with his Symphony No. 6, written in 1944, Villa-Lobos’s late symphonies contain a strong sense of stylistic cohesion (with the exception of Symphony No. 10, written for chorus and orchestra); the composer’s signature sound is always present, but he no longer emphasises folkloric or picturesque elements, avoids exotic effects and, in general, without espousing the Classical dialectic with much conviction, seeks conciseness and possibilities for thematic transformation.

Symphony No. 8 was written in 1950 and premièred in 1955 at Carnegie Hall, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and conducted by Villa-Lobos himself. It was dedicated to The New York Times critic, Olin Downes, who described it as “something we could call an inventive current, where structure, as opposed to drama, is emphasised”. The first movement, incorrectly described as monothematic, begins with a theme quite similar to that of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, which is constantly “encircled” by secondary material, which threatens to overpower the inventive current but is systematically expelled by transformations of the “Schubert-like” theme.

The slow movement is dominated by an expressive, angular melody on the violas and cellos, embellished with an intricate counterpoint; a sequential central section creates sufficient contrast to ensure that the return of the initial melody sounds like a climax that gradually dissipates. The Scherzo adopts a format often seen in Villa-Lobos’s symphonic works: it is a movement in which short ideas, apparently unconnected, follow each other in quick succession until a more defined melodic profile emerges on the cellos and bassoon and is, later, absorbed by the rest of the string instruments. The ending is one of the lightest and most carefree of all his symphonies, wherein a syncopated motif skates over a highly unconventional harmonic scheme.

The magnitude of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has created a heavy symbolic burden for subsequent 9th symphonies, which require serious reflection. Two of the most significant symphonic composers of the 20th century, Shostakovich and Villa-Lobos, consciously chose, for different reasons, a strategy of studied lack of pretension. In his Ninth—just like Beethoven in his Eighth—Villa-Lobos makes use of disguise. We are presented here with agitated propulsion, the thick layer of orchestral activity that flows in a seemingly uncontrolled manner, but this is his shortest symphony, more economic in terms of ideas and, although the orchestration sounds chimerical in comparison with the likes of Haydn, pre-Beethoven symphonies are his formal inspiration.

The first movement is so compact that it would be justifiable to call the work a sinfonietta. Three ideas linked together by quick, difficult forms flank the movement, with a small central section that suggests an unfinished fugato. All the ideas are united by the quartal harmonisation, and Villa-Lobos maintains a secure sense of direction by gradually inserting altered chords and chromaticism. This is the type of construction that is reminiscent of a clockwork toy, so often used by Haydn in his intermediate-period symphonies. Such unification also characterises the Adagio. All the magical orchestral setting is present right from the introduction, which springs from the depths of the double basses and bass clarinet. The Scherzo, like that of Symphony No. 8, is made up of a succession of vaguely interrelated ideas, all of them in the form of a rhythmic ostinato, which follow on from each other in a kind of dancing carousel; echoes of Respighi, Ravel and Dukas can be heard here and there.

The start of the last movement makes even more explicit use of the 18th-century model. It accompanies tangentially the Classical form of the rondo, with a constant beat and tempo throughout the movement. Contrasting episodes, as in Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, are created from an intricate contrapuntal foundation. This neo-Classicism of Symphony Nos. 8 and 9 often seems like a reproduction of the neo-Classical elements of Perséphone or Jeu de Cartes by Stravinsky. Both composers would be shocked by this comparison: Stravinsky used to say that all music he did not like seemed to be by Villa-Lobos, whilst the latter tried to downplay Stravinsky’s influence on his style.

This symphony, dedicated to his partner Mindinha, was composed in 1952, in fulfilment of a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra, which gave the première performance of the work, the same year, conducted by Eugene Ormandy.

Symphony No. 11 was a commission to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and was dedicated to maestro Serge Koussevitzky, who played a major rôle in promoting the music of his time, and to his wife Natalie. Its première, conducted by Charles Munch, met with mixed reviews: Musical America said that it was a score of “immediate charm”, with “formal solidity and daring individuality”; The New York Times was less generous and called the material “superficial”. In truth, it is the perfect introduction to the later work of Villa-Lobos.

Its first movement is presented in a structure similar to that of his Symphony No. 9, where a short, more relaxed section is flanked by others characterised by greater agitation and thematic variety. The second movement is very different from the majority of Villa-Lobos’s slow movements, featuring an almost archaic seriousness and polytonal harmonisation. Much of the colour of the Scherzo stems from the predominance of melodies built on fourths, whereas the final Allegro often draws on exciting fanfares on the brass instruments to create bridges between contrasting ideas. In a quasiparody of Stravinsky (a technique used in Villa-Lobos’s Suite Sugestiva, of 1929), an idea reminiscent of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony takes on considerable importance; yet again, fourths cover a wide tessitura, giving a sense of space and amplitude.

The inclusion of a new work into the international repertoire does not follow a particular set of rules. The Bachianas Brasileiras seem to be Villa-Lobos’s international calling card, but they represent almost an exception within his aesthetics as a whole. Of the works written for the USA in the 1940s and 1950s, the concertos have been given intense worldwide exposure since the 1960s, thanks to the scarcity of works of high quality for guitar, harp, saxophone and harmonica soloists. The symphonies, in general, have not yet had the same good fortune, both because they represent an unexpected dimension of the composer’s oeuvre and because of their degree of difficulty, exacerbated by the uncertainties inherent in the original orchestral material. Listeners now have the chance to familiarise themselves with these exciting works via this recording, which was the result of an intense process of revision and correction of the scores carried out by the performers concerned, together with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra’s editorial team.

Fábio Zanon

English translation by Lisa Shaw

Fábio Zanon is a Brazilian guitarist. He is Dean of the Campos de Jordão International Winter Festival, Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music and author of Villa-Lobos (Publifolha, 2009).

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 (Editora da Osesp), under the general guidance of maestro Isaac Karabtchevsky.

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