Thursday, October 18, 2012

Townsend: Etude No. 1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos

I just have a little piece for you today. Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887 - 1959) is a very important composer, one of the short list of figures who created a modern school of composition in Latin-America. The two main influences on his music were the native music of Brazil and modern European music which he encountered through the French composer Darius Milhaud who was a member of the French legation at the time and introduced Villa-Lobos to the music of Debussy, Satie and possibly Stravinsky.

In the 1920s Villa-Lobos met Andrés Segovia, who inspired him to write etudes for guitar. These, though not easy to play, turned out to be successful compositions, adding a whole new dimension to the guitar repertoire and were followed by a set of preludes that are very frequently heard, and a concerto for guitar and orchestra.

The Etude No. 1 is one of the pieces that every aspiring guitar virtuoso struggles with. It is not as hard as it sounds in most ways, but in some ways it is harder. It is not so difficult to play quickly, but quite difficult to play evenly and with good rhythmic control. Nearly every student guitarist makes the same mistake with it: they don't read the tempo marking which is not vivace, presto, prestissimo or muy rapido, but rather is the more modest Allegro non troppo: Fast, but not too fast! Just about every recording is too fast and the notes tend to blend into an indistinguishable mush of sound. To be perfectly frank, if I were recording it again today, I would play it a bit slower. It is clearer, makes more sense and is more beautiful... Here is the first page of the score:

Click to enlarge
As you can see (you may have to click on the image), the tempo is Allegro non troppo!

One interesting thing about the piece is that it always seems to be a favorite with audiences who love the soaring arpeggios and colorful harmonies. Here is my recording:

video

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