Heitor Villa-Lobos is certainly one of the most extolled and most loved Brazilian composers of all times. His musical works not only epitomized the variegated Brazilian backdrop but also represented it in all its copiousness, ingenuity, and verve. An ingenious talent, his orchestral, chamber, and instrumental pieces exhibit a fine blend of Western classical with Brazilian folk music. The exquisite blend of diverse genres is what made his musical pieces unique from his peers. With a musical career spanning across 50 years, Villa-Lobos had written more than 2,000 compositions, the cream of the crop being his most loved masterpiece “Bachianas Brasileiras”. According to John W Duarte, “Villa-Lobos remains one of the most individual and colorful figures in twentieth-century music, one who took what he wanted from the music he heard floating in the air and bent it to his own strongly personal purposes - one of which was to present a panorama of all aspects of his homeland.” Through his remarkable efforts, he carved a niche for himself that very few musicians can think of surpassing.
Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Childhood And Early Life
Heitor Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro in a wealthy family. Raul, his father was a librarian, an amateur astronomer and a musician. Villa Lobos acquired most of his musical teaching from his father who was one of Rio’s fine amateur musicians. In 1899, after the tragic demise of his father, his mother relentlessly urged him to take up the medical profession. However, he brushed aside his mother’s goading and went ahead with his musical aspirations, playing in parties, streets and cafes and earning a living for his family. Within a few years, he could play the cellist like a pro and started earning his livelihood by playing in cafes. He indulged in travelling in the Brazilian countryside to enjoy the pure indigenous music within his homeland and led a purely Bohemian lifestyle from eighteen to twenty-five years of age.
Later he attended the National Institute of Music in Rio de Janeiro, where he utilized this opportunity to refine his musical style. Villa Lobos was fortunate enough to be born in a musical family where they entertained musicians at home every weekend and listened to musical recitals late night. Although his family wanted him to pursue medical studies, he was determined to take up music as his career.
He learnt cello, clarinet and guitar at a very young age and played music in cafes and parties. At that time, the Brazilian culture was majorly influenced by African, Portuguese and Amerindian cultures. Villa Lobos gathered all the unique traits of the cultures and combined all the valuable elements to create a sound that was diverse. It was something that was different and people had not experienced such a blend before in the realms of classical music. When he was eighteen, he had been to Amazon where he dealt with primeval music and later integrated those sounds into his compositions. Hs work received mixed reviews at his homeland. While some didn’t know what to make out from the composition, a few others enjoyed the new essence and accepted the idea.
As he hit his thirties, he decided to move to Paris with the hope of making it big in the cultural center of Europe. It was where every musician, artist or writer would give his or her arms and limbs to play or at least put up an appearance. His decision was also inspired from the cold response of his music in his homeland and the rising controversies around it. His music was well received by the French, as it seemed to be new and fresh and anything unlike what the European ears were used to. The arty audience of Paris encouraged and accepted Villa Lobos. The composer was not new for the French, as they were already familiar with his music that was played by his compatriots or by European artists who had a chance to meet Lobos in Brazil. The French labeled his music as colorful, rhythmic and strangely apprehended work and thus his music found its ideal destination in Paris during the 1920s. He returned to Brazil in 1930, Sau Paulo, for a concert where he ended up for two years considering the poor state of the musical education being offered in schools. As a solution to this condition, he initiated a new strategy and became Rio’s Director of Musical and Artistic Education. After this, he achieved the fame that was denied to him earlier. He became the representative of Brazilian music in the entire world.
In 1944, November he travelled to United States to perform in Boston Symphony Orchestra. He returned to Paris after going to Los Angeles, New York. In 1948, he was diagnosed with cancer and had to travel to United States for the surgery after which he fulfilled most of his assignments including a guitar concert for Andre Segovia, a famous guitarist.
His contributions include the fantasy piece for the flute and cello, “Assobio a Jato” (The Jet Whistle), which was written in New York in 1950 and performed in 1950 on March 13 in the city of Rio de Janeiro. This work was dedicated to Elizabeth and Carleton Sprague Smith and displayed a beautiful piece of the blend of low and high voiced instrumental duets.
During his lifetime, Villa Lobos composed about 1,000 compositions and was mainly known for writing duets. His specialty of writing duets was that he paired flute or any other high voice instrument with a comparatively low voiced instrument such as a cello.
Ultimately, Villa Lobos came back to Brazil in order to leave a mark in music in his homeland. For this, he had established a huge vocal group that included people belonging to all the social classes from the city of Sao Paulo. The government of Rio de Janeiro also called him over to organize the education of music in schools in the city.
In 1945, after Vargas decayed his power, Villa Lobos was able to travel again and he went to Paris, visited United States, to Great Britain and to Israel. In these trips, he received many commissions and fulfilled them to a certain extent, despite his declining health.
- Amazonas, ballet (1917)
- Symphonic poem, Uirapuru(1917)
- Symphonic poem, Erosão, Erosion (1950)
- A ballet,Emperor Jones (1956)
- Profane Cantata, Mandú-Cárárá(1940)
- The Kite of the Guttersnipe, a symphonic episode, Papagaiodomoleque (1932).
- An Amazonian Parrot or The Papagaio is considered as one of many Brazilian birds that appear apparently in a Villa-Lobos score.
- Uirapuru (1917)
- Danca da terra (1939)
- Ruda (1951)
- Genesis (1954)
- Emperor Jones (1956)
- Appointed Director of Musical and Artistic Education , 1932
- Received Degree of Doctorate Honoris Causa in Music from New York university and Los Angeles University, 1943
- Awarded Prize by the Brazilian Institute of Education, Science and Culture, 1947
In 1912, he married the pianist Lucilia Guimaraes and started to consider his music career seriously. He played the cello in orchestras for parties and gathering all over the city to earn a living. He started to publish his works in 1913 and from 1915- 1921; he composed the chamber concerts occasionally. At the age of forty-nine in 1936, he had an affair with Arminda Nevesd’ Almeida who was also a musician and greatly influenced Villa Lobos. He was with her until his death. Arminda took over the last name Villa Lobos though he had not divorced his wife. He had dedicated some works for Arminda, which included ‘Ciclobrasileiro’ and many more. After his death, Arminda took charge as the Director of the Mseu Villa – Lobos in the year 1960 and retained the position until her death in 1985.
Villa Lobos succeeded to create a path that stimulated the musicians to think out of the same line. It was after this that the classical music composers sought to expand their shattered vocabulary and merged the elements obtained from different cultures. This led to advancement and uniqueness in the composed music that was being presented to the audiences. Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein were composers of the United States who were greatly motivated by this personality and regarded the music of Villa Lobos as a new perception towards the musical language of the New World.