Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Happy Birthday, Heitor!

I'm a day late with this, but March 5th was the 125th  birthday of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887 - 1959). This seems a good time to talk about his music of which I have played a great deal over the years. Villa-Lobos is one of the most important composers of Latin America along with the Mexican Carlos Chávez, and the Argentinians Alberto Ginastera and Astor Piazzolla. All four of these composers were, to a greater or lesser degree, influenced by folk music. The pioneer in the study of folk music outside of central Europe was the slightly older Béla Bartók who began as early as 1908 to make excursions into the countryside, collecting folk music. "Folk music" in the sense I am using the phrase, is that pre- or non-literate music that is played all over the world by professional and non-professional musicians for all sorts of purposes and occasions. Bartók's interest was piqued by the discovery that the folk music of his own country, Hungary, had qualities quite different from the classical structures of German, French and Italian music. The scales were different, which implied different harmonies and, most interesting, the rhythmic structures were quite different. The further east Bartók's expeditions took him, such as to Rumania and Bulgaria, the more the rhythms diverged from central European models. In Bulgaria we find meters of 7 and 11 beats!

Many composers of the next generation or two found inspiration in folk music, but like his fellow Latin Americans, Villa-Lobos also inherited the classical traditions of Europe. They were perhaps weakest of all for him as he underwent very little formal musical study, instead learning several instruments on his own, including cello and guitar, and performing in informal settings from an early age. Villa-Lobos said regarding folk music that "I don't use folklore, I am the folklore." He probably meant by this that he didn't have to travel to study folk music as he grew up playing it!

One of the most important influences on Villa-Lobos was the music of Bach, which we can hear in this piece, the first of his Bachianas Brasileiras:

I think that there is also some influence from Debussy whose music he was introduced to by Darius Milhaud. We can hear some of that in the piano piece Rudepoema written in the early 1920s in Paris:

Of course Debussy would never have written some of those rhythms! Some of the most-performed of Villa-Lobos' music are his Preludes and Etudes for guitar, written for Andres Segovia. Here is the unusual Etude No. 5:

Yes, there are a couple of small flubs, but I like this performance because he is using as his source a manuscript version of the piece and not the published version which contains some misprints and one shockingly wrong note in the melody. The preludes are perennially popular with guitarists and audiences. The Bach influence is particularly strong in the third:

One of the most challenging, but beautiful, etudes is no. 7:

Villa-Lobos also wrote a rather nice Guitar Concerto. The first movement starts with some very tricky passages:

Good performance!

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