Sunday, 2 March 2008

Heitor Villa-Lobos - unsung genius

I was listening to some Villa-Lobos today and it raised my mood so much that I had to post here about how neglected this composer still is.

Eccentric, original, clumsy, haphazard, funny, noisy, stunningly beautiful - his music is all of these things at different times. I see him as rather like an eccentric old uncle who, when you first meet him, you dismiss as just weird. Once you get into his music, it's incredibly loveable. He wrote a huge body of work including seventeen string quartets, at least three of which are masterpieces, five piano concertos and nine Bachianas brasileiras (Brazilian Bach-pieces), twelve symphonies and fourteen Chôros, including two sadly lost. Obviously, not everything he wrote is brilliant, but he's a master of musical development.

I first heard Villa-Lobos' music more than twenty years ago. This was when recordings of many of his works were only just starting to appear. Thanks to the Marco Polo and Naxos CD labels, people now at least have the chance to hear many of his works, but he really doesn't seem to get the recognition he deserves, either in concert repertoires or in public awareness. The first work I heard was the Bachianas Brasileiras No 5 for soprano and cello ensemble - one of his most popular but (as is often the way) also one of his more ordinary. It was a few years before I was really hooked, when I heard his Piano Trio No 2 (piano, cello and violin) and its sublime Berceuse-Barcarolla.

To my mind, so many 'classical' composers (including the frustratingly canonised and over-recorded Mozart) manage to make everything sound light and elegant and totally lacking in emotional depth. I can't think of any other composer but Villa-Lobos who can take a theme and at first make it sound pedestrian or perhaps vaguely pleasant, and then suddenly transform it so that it glows with joie de vivre, like the sun coming out, or grabs you with its poignancy, like a spectacular sunset. There are works that don't sound vaguely Brazilian, and yet the rhythmic element is usually vital and other pieces are quintessentially "Latin American". Elegant is not the word for many of his works, but if you think he's incapable of that quality, listen to the Piano Trio. (Unfortunately this rather purple prose doesn't do the music justice: words have failed me.)

To hear him in lyrical vein, try String Quartets 1, 12 and 17 or the Piano Trio Number 2 (all available on the Marco Polo label). For a taste of all the qualities mentioned above in his orchestral works, try Chôros No. 12 or Forest of the Amazon. For the lighter side of Villa-Lobos, listen to his 'musical adventure' Magdalena, created in collaboration with the same people who developed Kismet from Borodin's music.

Incidentally, I wonder how many classical music lovers know that, if you're a member of Gateshead Libraries, you can have full access to the Naxos Music Library and Classical Music Library just by going to - or go to and click on Our Resources. Lots of these works including the Piano Trio No 2 are on there, provided by the saviour of the classical music CD market. If reading this has piqued your curiosity, go and have a listen - the quality isn't hi-fi but you'll hopefully get an idea of how brilliant the man was. If you don't live in Gateshead, check out your own public library - it may well subscribe to one of the on-line music libraries which will let you sample the world of classical music.

For more information on Villa-Lobos and his music, there's the Villa-Lobos Museum's web site. I also spotted another blog (with which I have no connection other than as an enthusiast).

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