About this Recording
9.70127 - VILLA-LOBOS, H.: Sexteto mistico / Duo for Oboe and Bassoon / Fantasia / Distribuicao de flores (Heyboer, Hauser, McAllister, Roth, Gibson, Rubio)

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959)
Sexteto Místico • Duo for Oboe and Bassoon • Poema singelo
Chôros No. 5: Alma brasileira • Caixinha de música quebrada Distribuição de flores • Fantasia


Heitor Villa-Lobos was born one year before Brazil abolished slavery and two years before military republicans overthrew Emperor Pedro II. Both actions contributed to the demise of Brazil’s longstanding colonialist status, and the subsequent environment of modernisation and progressive politics fueled the young Villa-Lobos’s resistance to the dominance of European musical culture in Brazil. Although his father, a librarian and amateur musician, tried to teach theory and harmony to his son, Villa-Lobos was more interested in Brazilian popular and folk music. His father did manage to teach him to play the cello, however, and the instrument informs some of Villa-Lobos’s best-known compositions. After his father’s death in 1899, Villa-Lobos spent almost a decade traveling into the interior of Brazil where, as Simon Wright noted, he “[absorbed] folk, geographical, ethnographical, and musical influences as if he were a sponge”. These journeys were of profound importance to the development of the composer’s unique musical voice, and it was during this period that he began seriously to compose. From 1923 to 1930, Villa-Lobos was centered in Paris, and although his musical vocabulary was already established, the stimulation to create that he found in the modernist Parisian environment was further encouraged by the increasing popularity of his music. During this period he also traveled to Dakar and studied sub-Saharan African music, which was of particular importance to Brazilian folk-music. Villa-Lobos’s return to Brazil in 1930 coincided with the country’s October Revolution and Getúlio Vargas’s subsequent presidency. The composer had long campaigned for far-reaching Brazilian music education, and he found the new and nationalistic regime highly sympathetic to this cause. He was called upon to create concert tours throughout the country, and he established bold programmes in music education in the public schools, eventually founding the Brazilian Academy of Music in 1945. His music was popular internationally, and his awards ranged from the title of commander in the French Légion d’honneur to various honorary doctorates.

The context for nearly all of Villa-Lobos’s compositions was his desire to identify and express in music what he called the alma brasileira, or Brazilian soul. Indeed, at one point the composer wrote, “In my music, I let the rivers and seas of this great Brazil sing. I don’t put a gag on the tropical exuberance of our forests and our skies, which I intuitively transpose to everything I write.” That transposition was aided by Villa-Lobos’s deep interest in the vernacular music of his country, an interest demonstrated in his early years by his emergence into the popular musical styles eventually used in his concert music. In addition to the samba and the tango brasileira, two indigenous dances, Villa-Lobos was attracted to the modinha, a popular style of sentimental love-song, and the chôro. The latter inspired his fourteen Chôros, written from 1920 to 1929, works that, with his later Bachianas brasileiras, define his nationalist aesthetic. The word chôro suggests crying or lamenting, although Villa-Lobos’s chôros are more wide-ranging in mood than that etymology might suggest. Villa-Lobos listened to, and sometimes played with, ensembles known as chorões, serenading groups of musicians heard in the streets, cafés, and theatres of Rio de Janeiro that performed the traditional chôros, which were improvisational, virtuosic, and often polyphonic (like much Brazilian folk-singing). Most of his chôros were composed while he was in Paris, where they were received with much enthusiasm. Although much of Villa-Lobos’s music between the 1930 revolution and the end of Vargas’s regime in 1945 was propagandistic and politically motivated, his Bachianas brasileiras were exempt from this hyper-patriotic context. These works, which, along with the chôros, are the composer’s best known, reveal Villa-Lobos’ belief in a connection between the music of J. S. Bach and Brazilian folk-music, a connection based on his singular perception of Bach’s music as “a universal folkloric source”.

The performances on this recording demonstrate the astonishing range of Villa-Lobos’s music. The Duo for Oboe and Bassoon (1957; première in 1967) is one of several duets for wind instruments that include the Bachiana brasileira No. 6, although it is the only one for two double reeds. The three movements last over sixteen minutes, making this a rather large-scale work considering its limited sonic resources. Nonetheless, its rhythmic complexity and interplay of melodies demonstrate Villa-Lobos’s highly developed contrapuntal writing.

The five Preludes for Guitar (1940), three of which are recorded here, demonstrate what Gerard Béhague called “some of Villa-Lobos’s most profound and affectionate expression of the Brazilian soul”. Prelude No. 2 was meant to recall the melandro carioca of Rio de Janeiro, hustlers and followers of malandragem, an idle lifestyle usually supported by petty crime. Prelude No. 4, although referred to by Villa-Lobos as an “homage to the Brazilian Indian”, is less an actual recreation of Indian music than what Béhague calls “stereotypical formulas associated with Indian music at that time”, and Prelude No. 1 is evocative of the sentimental modinha. Its middle section, especially, also seems to recall the sertanejo, or folk guitarists, to whom Villa-Lobos considered it an homage.

Chôros No. 5 for solo piano is subtitled Alma brasileira, and like the first prelude for guitar, it evokes the modhina with its expressively sentimental lyricism. Further, the opening indication dolente (sadly) is indicative of the overall melancholy character of the chôros. Villa-Lobos constructed a predominantly descending melody over a carefully crafted accompaniment that suggests a free rhythm, even though it actually is performed in tempo. The seeming artlessness of this exquisite piece conceals Villa-Lobos’s master craftsmanship.

Two more solo works for piano, Caixinha de Música Quebrada (Broken Little Music-Box) and Poema singelo (Simple Song), follow. The first, from 1931, was composed on a train during a concert tour of Brazil, and its chromatic dissonant harmonies are meant to recreate the sound of a broken music-box. The second was composed in either 1938 or 1942, and it is somewhat ironically titled: the piece is not “simple”, and its rondo form is spiced with some unexpected harmonic excursions.

Distribuiçao de flôres for oboe and guitar (1937) is an example of Villa-Lobos’s public ceremonial music. Although its modal harmonies infer Greek antiquity, it was composed for a public display of nationalism. Villa-Lobos first used flowers as a central compositional idea as early as 1916–18 in his Suite floral for piano.

The Fantasia for saxophone and piano (1948) was originally scored for soprano saxophone, three horns, and strings. After a typically rhythmic introduction, the first movement settles into a tango, while the second movement is a nocturne. The final movement shifts between 7/4 and 4/4 time and features virtuosic writing for the saxophone.

The Sexteto místico (1917) is uniquely scored for flute, oboe, alto saxophone, guitar, harp, and celesta. The impressionist harmonies suggest Debussy, but Villa-Lobos exploits them to evoke the remote and often mysterious interior of Brazil, which he was exploring at the time of its composition. Contrasting the woodwinds with the coloristic strings and celesta, the work is an early example of Villa-Lobos’s mastery of orchestration and harmony.

Jim Lovensheimer

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