Heitor Villa-Lobos

The Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) was the most prolific and original of those Brazilians who, during the 20th century, worked toward the development of a national idiom in serious music that incorporated African and Native American motifs.

Heitor Villa-Lobos was fascinated early by the popular music and samba rhythms of his native Rio de Janeiro at a time when gentility forbade such interests. Although his father, a college professor and librarian, had encouraged this interest, Villa-Lobos ran away from home at 16 to escape his widowed mother's attempt to keep him from developing further his musical talents.

Soon Villa-Lobos began drifting. He absorbed the folk music of whatever region he passed through, listening, mimicking, improvising, elaborating, and composing as he went. He traveled along the Amazon in a canoe, listening to the songs of tropical birds and the drums of the Indians. Although he occasionally enrolled for formal schooling, he found such experiences boring; he remained principally self-taught. In his 20s he lived for 3 years in the culturally diverse city of Bahia, where the Afro-Brazilian influence was strongest. Then he returned to Rio de Janeiro, where he studied European music on his own.

Meanwhile, Villa-Lobos experimented continuously and wrote a great deal, always seeking to express Brazilian qualities. His nationalism was reflected in the following incident. In 1923 wealthy friends raised money and sent him to Europe, but when upon his arrival he was asked what he had come to study, he replied, "I am here to demonstrate my own achievements." Indeed, Parisians showed more interest in his works than had Brazilians, perhaps because in Europe they were considered exotic. He remained in Paris for 7 years, composing some of his most important work.

Back in Brazil in the 1930s Villa-Lobos became a music educator, campaigning for the introduction of Brazilian music into the school curriculum and staging performances by massed a cappella choirs extolling nationalistic themes. The semiauthoritarian dictator Getulio Vargas gave him full support in this campaign, and Villa-Lobos's influence can still be seen in musical education in Brazil.

At this time Villa-Lobos composed the nine suites entitled Bachianas brasileiras. These are his best-known works; in all of them he used a contrapuntal and fugal technique superimposed upon typically Brazilian themes, although otherwise they are quite diverse. They are characterized by an impressive range, great power, melodic inventiveness, and controlled structure.

Villa-Lobos composed over 1, 500 works in almost every conceivable genre, including operas, ballets, church Masses, choral pieces, orchestral works, guitar solos, and movie scores. Not all his work is good, but at his best it is superb.

Further Reading on Heitor Villa-Lobos

There is no serious book-length study of Villa-Lobos in English, although Vasco Mariz prepared a short summary, Heitor Villa-Lobos: Brazilian Composer (1963), a condensation of the author's biography published in Rio de Janeiro. Villa-Lobos is set in the larger context in Nicolas Slonimsky, Music of Latin America (1945). There is a section on the composer in Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961).

Additional Biography Sources

Behague, Gerard, Heitor Villa-Lobos: the search for Brazil's musical soul, Austin: Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 1994.

Peppercorn, L. M. (Lisa Margaret), Villa-Lobos, London; New York: Omnibus; New York: Distributor, Music Sales Corp., 1989.