The Choros of Villa-Lobos
If people are talking about Brazil and the words “Classical Music” and “composer” are used in the same sentence, chances are reasonable that they’re talking about Heitor Villa-Lobos. Born in Rio de Janeiro (1887), Heitor Villa-Lobos is worldwide praised as one of the most interesting musicians of modern times.
Villa-Lobos grew up in a period during which Brazil experienced important changes. The abolition of slavery (1888) also marked the end of Portuguese colonization. As a reaction on the somewhat classy, on foreign countries focused artistic climate, a new progressive approach led to an interesting evolution in Brazilian culture. Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for Heitor to grow up. Out of an alto violin his father made a cello for 6 years old Heitor, or rather: Heitor used a viola da braccio (“violin for the arm”) as a viola da gamba (“violin for the leg”). On this instrument he developed his first musical skills. When Heitor was 12 his father died. His mother threw out all music instruments and urged Heitor to study medicine. This was against his will and as soon as he was old enough, Heitor decided to travel through Brazil. He teamed up with the so-called chorões, musicians who played choro, Brazil’s popular music inspired by European dance music such as polkas and waltzes. His adventurous mind brought him all over Brazil, mainly in the Amazon and desolated places in Brazil’s northeast. He returned not only with the most fantastic stories, but also with a rich musical background. Heitor loved to tell about how he was almost cooked by cannibals and other made up adventures. His thoughts about music also benefited from his wealthy fantasy. He soon started to use folkloric influences from the places he visited, thus creating a very original style. Over the years he also started playing piano, guitar and clarinet. He perfected his piano skills by taking lessons from pianist and teacher Lucilia Guimarães, who later became Mrs. Villa-Lobos (1913). She was a motivation for Heitor to also write music for piano. His compositions attracted the attention during many events. The Week of Modern Arts (São Paulo, 1922) earned him a scholarship in Paris, France. His good friend, the legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein introduced Heitor to many musicians in Europe. It was another fruitful trip for him. He mixed his Indian and Brazilian folkloric interests with his adoration for European composers.
It’s during his trips to Paris (1923-1929) that Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote his series of 14 choros. Some of the most interesting of those can be found on this DVD. Back in Brazil (1930), Villa-Lobos was witness of the end of the old republic, when militaries installed Getúlio Vargas as the new president. It was the time that Heitor decided to focus on teaching, mainly for younger students who proved to be more open-minded for his progressive music than the elder generation. His collection of children’s and folkloric songs from all parts of Brazil (“Guia Prático”, 1932) is one of his famous achievements during that time. He also expressed his adoration for Johann Sebastian Bach with his series of Bachianas Brasileiras (written between 1930 -1945).
The post World War II period gave Heitor the opportunity to travel all over the world, conducting his music for various ensembles and orchestras and gaining the success that he certainly earned. In 1959 he died in Rio de Janeiro after suffering from prostate cancer.
The DVD mainly covers the period during which Villa-Lobos wrote his series of choros, performed by the Cia. Bachiana Brasileira, the artistic division of Rio’s Sociedade Musical Bachiana Brasileira. During a concert in the historic Sala Cecília Meireles (Rio de Janeiro; December 15th, 2006) the often complex music of Villa-Lobos is performed with a perfect artistic and emotional dedication. Conductor Ricardo Rocha leads his musicians through some of Heitor’s most important works.
It’s strongly recommended to watch the documentary on the DVD first, before enjoying the concert. It has subtitles in English, French and Spanish. In the documentary each of the performed compositions is vocally illustrated by one of its interpreters. “Choros Nr 1” is a solo piece for guitar that reflects Heitor’s affection for the choro. In the documentary master guitarist Turíbio Santos demonstrates how Heitor Villa-Lobos and his choro companion João Pernambuco influenced each other. He also explains the odd use of the plural form of choro by Villa-Lobos. “He always used the plural to refer to the complete series of Choros.” As a side-note, his compositions for guitar often frustrate the guitarists who try to perform them. As an autodidact, Heitor used his ten fingers when playing guitar, where the schooled guitarists never use the right little finger and the left thumb.
“Choros Nr 2” is an ingenious conversation between the clarinet and the flute. A male choir provides “Choros Nr 3” with the sounds of the woodpecker (Píca-Pau). In this piece Villa-Lobos shows his involvement with Indian culture, nature and animals. “Choros Nr 4” is composed for a rather strange instrumentation (three French horns and a trombone). “Choros Nr 5” is a solo piece for piano, performed by one of Brazil’s most sought after classical pianists, Tamara Ujakova. It’s a beautiful piece of music with two opposite Brazilian faces. One is romantic and melodic and the other shows the explosive temper of Brazilian rhythms. Tamara Ujakova performs the composition the way only a Brazilian can, with devotion and understanding.
Next, conductor Ricardo Rocha decided to add a rather unfamiliar composition that Villa-Lobos wrote in 1917, “Sexteto Místico.” The maestro explains that the composition already shows the French influences in the pre-choros music of Villa-Lobos. “Sexteto Místico” experienced its world debut not before 1962. This composition features the clarinet (Cristiano Alves). We also hear one of Brazil’s most demanded saxophonists, Mauro Senise, along with harp, flute, celesta (an idiophone — with metal plates –operated by a keyboard) and acoustic guitar. It’s a wonderful piece of chamber music.
The program continues with “Choros Nr 7,” written for the beautiful combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, sax, bassoon, cello and violin. Violist Daniel Guedes explains that “Choros Bis” (for violin and cello) got this name because Villa-Lobos thought it didn’t fit in the series but that it could serve as some kind of an encore. The final work that is performed is a lesson in complexity, “Nonetto.” This composition got the subtitle “A Quick Impression of all of Brazil” and indeed features many Brazilian musical influences, especially with the use of secure chosen percussion instruments. The very unusual and complex instrumentation (flute, oboe, clarinet, sax, bassoon, harp, celesta, piano, percussion and choir) makes this a most difficult piece to perform. Its appearance here on DVD is a unique chance to hear this seldom performed composition. The music is illustrated with a few images from all over Brazil; the futuristic Brasília, the Portuguese heritage in Minas Gerais, the beauty of Rio and others.
The marvelous quality of the musicians and conductor from the Companhia Bachiana Brasileira and the guest soloists makes this DVD an absolute “must” for people who want to learn more about this period in the musical life of one of Brazil’s most outstanding classical composers. The project is treated with a wonderful approach. The documentary is more than enlightening; the music is conducted and performed with noticeable affection and even the booklet that accompanies the DVD is informative and well taken care of. It makes it unnecessary to say that sound and video quality is perfect, too. Let’s hope there’s a sequel. You can visit the Companhia Bachiana Brasileira and view clips from this DVD at their very informative website.
Companhia Bachiana Brasileira
Quadros de uma Alma Brasileira (Pictures of a Brazilian Soul)
Sociedade Musical Bachiana Brasileira SMBB006 (2007)
All compositions by Heitor Villa-Lobos.
- Choros Nr 1
- Choros Nr 2
- Choros Nr 3 (Pica-Pau)
- Choros Nr 4
- Choros Nr 5 (Alma Brasileira)
- Sexteto Mistico
- Choros Nr 7 (Settimino)
- Choros Bis
- Nonetto (Uma Impressão Rápida de Todo o Brasil)