Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Brazilian Bach Part 1

By Joe Lopes
The standard contract for many visiting vocal artists to Brazil allowed them to appear in a work of their own choosing, while it stipulated for others that they perform in at least one Brazilian national opera, usually those of composer Antonio Carlos Gomes.

But other Brazilian operas were also presented, beginning with the works of Henrique Gurjão (Idlia, 1881) and Leopoldo Miguez (Pelo Amor!, 1897; Os Saldunes, 1901), followed by those of Henrique Oswald (La Croce d’Oro, 1872; Il Neo, 1900; Le Fate, 1902), Francisco de Assis Pacheco (Moema, 1891; Flora, 1898; Estela, 1900), Alberto Nepomuceno (Electra, 1894; Artemis, 1898; Abul, 1905), Antonio Francisco Braga (Jupyra, 1898-99; Anita Garibaldi, 1912-22), Francisco Mignone (O Contrator de Diamantes, 1921; L’Innocente, 1927; Mizu, 1937; O Sargento de Milcias, 1977), and Camargo Guarnieri (Pedro Malazarte, 1952).

Yet the most distinguished of the Brazilian classical composers was not even present in this hardly illustrious pack. As if to take up the compositional power vacuum left by the untimely death of Gomes in 1896, the young Heitor Villa-Lobos suddenly exploded onto the scene as a self-taught, and self-made, musical force onto himself.

With his endless fascination for popular and folk forms, and his incorporation of modern and neoclassical elements into his entire musical framework, Villa-Lobos appeared to possess the finest qualities of Dom Pedro II, Carlos Gomes, and Arturo Toscanini, all rolled into one indomitable and charismatic entity: the eclecticism and intellectual curiosity of the Emperor, balanced against the ambition and musical talent of the composer, blended with the poise and self-confidence shown by the conductor.

Here, at long last, the potential savior of the Brazilian national opera had conclusively emerged, and began to loom large over the vast musical horizon almost from the very moment of his birth.

Born in Rio de Janeiro on March 5, 1887, in the last decade before the end of the nineteenth century and a year after Toscanini’s impressive debut in the same city, Heitor Villa-Lobos was a peripatetic and immensely prolific musician of near Mozartian proportions, whose best work was consciously patterned after that of the German master Johann Sebastian Bach, whom he greatly admired.

Like the temperamental Italian conductor before him, Villa-Lobos began his musical life as a cello player, which, along with the clarinet, he learned to play at the tender age of six, thanks to his foresighted father. He would later write some of his finest scores almost exclusively for that soulful string instrument, as well as for the guitar, which he also mastered, and the piano.

Blessed with an astonishingly accurate and refined ear for melodies, harmonies, chords, and colors of every shape and form, the incurably precocious boy from the bairro of Laranjeiras soon started congregating with local street musicians, nightclub singers, sidewalk artists, and other disreputable types, all the while picking up and playing their tunes and dance rhythms-and improvising to a new and unique style of music called choro (an early precursor to samba), which formed the backbone for many of Villa-Lobos’ body of instrumental works.

His parents strongly disapproved of their son’s association with these unsavory street sorts, but after the premature passing of his father Raul in 1899, Villa-Lobos could no longer be constrained from seeking a career in music nor from curbing his insatiable wanderlust.

He abandoned plans to enter medical school in favor of travel to every part of his adored Brazil. Between 1905 and 1907, and throughout the years 1907 to 1912, he paid several visits to the states of Esprito Santo, Bahia and Pernambuco, with frequent side trips to the South, to the central region of Minas Gerais, Gois and Mato Grosso, and to the Caribbean island of Barbados; he even explored parts of the Amazon rainforest, a foray that, by all reports, left an indelible mark on the young wayfarer.

Part 2 next week…

Copyright 2007 by Josmar F. Lopes

A naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, Joe Lopes was raised and educated in New York City, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his wife and daughters. In 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com.


To read previous articles by Joe Lopes click below:

Two Brazilian Charmers Part 11
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 10
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 9
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 8
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 7
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 6
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 5
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 4
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 3
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 2
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 1
Teaching English In Brazil Part 21
Teaching English In Brazil Part 20
Teaching English In Brazil Part 19
Teaching English In Brazil Part 18
Teaching English In Brazil Part 17
Teaching English In Brazil Part 16
Teaching English In Brazil Part 15
Teaching English In Brazil Part 14
Teaching English In Brazil Part 13
Teaching English In Brazil Part 12
Teaching English In Brazil Part 11
Brazil: Thrills, Spills, and… Oh Yes, No Ifs, Ands or Head-Butts, Please
Teaching English In Brazil Part 10
Teaching English In Brazil Part 9
Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians Part 4
Brazil: Taking Flight on Florencia’s Fragile Wings Part 4
Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians Part 3
Brazilian World Cup Debacle: Just Wait Till 2010! Part 2
Brazilian World Cup Debacle: Just Wait Till 2010! Part 1
Brazil: Taking Flight on Florencia’s Fragile Wings Part 3
Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians Part 2
Brazil: Taking Flight on Florencia&rsquot;s Fragile Wings Part 2
Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians Part 1
Brazil: Taking Flight on Florencia’s Fragile Wings Part 1
Teaching English In Brazil Part 8
Teaching English In Brazil Part 7
Teaching English In Brazil Part 6
Teaching English In Brazil Part 5
Teaching English In Brazil Part 4
Teaching English In Brazil Part 3
Teaching English In Brazil Part 2
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest Part 4
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest Part 3
Teaching English In Brazil – Part I
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest Part 2
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest Part 1
Down in Brazil,” with Michael Franks Part 3
“Down in Brazil,” with Michael Franks Part 2
“Down in Brazil,” with Michael Franks Part 1
Brazil: A Candid Talk with Gerald Thomas
Getting to the “bottom” of Brazil’s Gerald Thomas
A Brazilian Diva Torn Between Europe and Brazil
The Enraged Genius of Brazil&rsquot;s Maestro Neschling
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest
Brazil’s Musical Polyglots: What Was That You Were Singing?
Did Bossa Nova Kill Opera in Brazil?

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