Open Your Ears

Brazil, mid-20th century. Restless composers were eager to explore and exploit the rich musical treasures active across this country’s vast territory, where the European, African, and indigenous traditions merge in a complex and beautiful hybrid culture. To this day, the great Brazilian modernist composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), stands as a foremost representative of this 20th century Brazilian nationalist movement.

This set of five pieces offers a sampling of music from Villa-Lobos’ monumental Bachianas brasileiras and Choros compilations, as well as celebrated miniatures to which soloists are attracted to the music’s uniqueness and Latin spirit.

The pieces selected date from 1920 through 1951 and include some of the composer’s most well known and beloved works for solo and for ensemble. All boast the rhythmic energy and variety, romantic melodies, focused forms, and range of bright and dark timbres deemed signature to Villa-Lobos’ output (which numbers over 1,000 pieces). Distinct and varying elements blend into what is an unmistakably Brazilian classical sound, where strings, winds, and voice merge.

1. 5 Preludes, No. 1 in E Minor (1940)

Milos Karadaglic [4:35]

This famous guitar solo opens with a subtle descending melody, and since it’s built from a minor scale (E minor, to be exact), the mood is decidedly melancholy. An intermittently ascending then descending tune builds in, enriched by sporadic strums.

You may notice a fluidity that makes it hard to strictly decide the meter, mostly thanks to the performance practice options that guitarists typically indulge in—specifically the pushes and pulls of tempo (“tempo rubato”). Count it in “1-and-2-and,” but allow time to wallow, as the guitarist does, in slight delays. It’s also important to stay on your toes as you work through the piece’s various moods.

Startling chromatic pitches enter in to color the melodic line, and note how an interruptive, repetitive motive enters at [0:55], descending in sequence by half-step. Then at [1:26], a slight but fascinating shift to major heralds an even more significant change to come at [1:34], indicating the middle section of this three-part form. This B section (of the symmetrical A-B-A) is quicker and arguably more romantic and lyrical with its prominent (and higher pitched) melodic content. Still, it’s colored by obvious tempo changes and you might even imagine this evocative passage as representative of the sertão, or rural countryside of Brazil.

Stricter triple meter chords show up at [2:01], then a gradual decelerando at [2:48] introduces a recurrence of the opening idea, with loud then soft repetitions of it. The overall structure is appealing and satisfying, lending both unity and contrast over the course of the 4:30 piece.

2. A Lenda do Caboclo (1920)

Roberto Szidon [3:53]

This piano miniature is one of the most celebrated pieces in Villa-Lobos’ catalog. It opens with a left-hand ostinato countered with a melody lingering up top that brings sustained, bell-like tolling. The main melodic idea really emerges in clear homophony at [0:34], then at [1:03] comes a fresh focus on a bass register melody.

At [1:20] the main melodic idea returns, now transferred one octave down to deliver on a darker, more contemplative mood enhanced by dynamic contrasts. At [2:01] the texture thickens via some middle register blocked chords, layered with resonant single notes in the right hand’s higher register—and all of this goes on while the pianist manages still to exploit both melody and countermelody.

At [2:27], the familiar opening melody returns, starkly linear, again with dynamic contrasts across the repetition. Diminished dynamics alter things at [3:10], with poignant sustained pitches sounding over chord punctuations. The pianist uses the entire keyboard to feature a variety of timbres, working closely with the composer’s directive to play “moderato e muito dolente” (moderately and very sadly), employing romantic delays and anticipations from one note to another lend an emotive feel.

What was surprising about this piece at the time was how deliberately Villa-Lobos moved away from the prevailing international aesthetic of French impressionism, which did indeed influence him. However, here he ignored that common language to instead celebrate the reality of Brazil’s “coming of age” modernist era, just after World War I. It was as if the composer himself was “coming of age” as a nationalist, willingly asserting local and regional flavors.

A side note, the word “caboclo” from the title refers to a mixed-race person (mestizo) of Indian and European ancestry, an implication of centuries of colonization in Brazil and the imposition on indigenous cultures. Today, the term is used rarely, but would indicate “peasant.”

3. Bachianas brasileiras No. 5, “Aria-Cantilena” (1938)

Rosana Lamosa/Nashville Symphony Orchestra Cellos [6:27]

Number 5 in a set of 9 “Bachianas” (each scored for different instrumentation—and all positively riveting), this is easily Villa-Lobos’ most famous piece for voice. The first section is a vocalise on a wide open “ah” vowel, with some of the eight cellos working a descending pizzicato while the others provide the opposite effect—a more legato countermelody.

In essence, counterpoint results, which really exploits the Bach-like aspects of Villa-Lobos’ conception here—which was to meld a typical baroque melodic flavor to Brazilian music’s diverse rhythmic and metrical energy. Throughout, note how the dark cello timbre works in contrast to the more open and bright timbre of a typical soprano as she works long, lyrical phrases.

At [1:48] the cello ensemble goes it alone, repeating the opening material after the singer drops out. A poetic text—finally some words!—enters at [3:13] and this passage is very speech-like and declamatory, perhaps related back the chant heritage of this very Catholic country.

At [5:00] comes a return to the opening material (you’re once again getting the ternary arch form of ABA), this time with the singer vocalizing on a closed hum. This is tough on a singer, to be sure, as is the final demand, where she closes out on a high A, two octaves above middle C.

4. Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra, Movement II: Andantino e Andante (1951)

Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Pepe Romero [8:26]

This piece is a spot-on representative of the concerto form, a structure that originated in the Baroque era. The basic features to listen for relate to instrumentation and the relationship between opposing entities: soloist versus orchestra (referred to in the score as tutti). One striking feature is the prevailing “dialogue” between ensemble and guitarist, typical of the genre and the contrast it calls for.

Historically, concertos (or “concerti”) are in three movements, and this one is no exception. What you’re hearing is the slower middle movement (usually the three movements follow the tempo designations Fast-Slow-Fast), and throughout you’re getting a heavy dose of another thing the concerto typically embodies: the soloist’s virtuosity – a sort of show-off factor to really showcase the performer’s abilities. Listen for this starting around [6:30].

The opening sounds like movie music, with a hefty dose of flute, clarinet, and strings, then the guitar takes top billing in the homophonic texture with a memorable 3/4 time melody. Overall you’ll notice the orchestra is mostly accompanying, and often in a muted wash of sound. There is a delicate descending phrase ending at [1:09], which ushers in an orchestral tutti, then a passage of mostly winds in counterpoint over the strings sustained drone. The strings in their high register dominate at [2:34].

At [2:40], the guitar again emerges from the texture to play a solo, and at [3:12] the guitar and orchestra seem to amicably trade off, with the soloist playing intricate, linear scalar passages in “conversation” with fuller orchestral punctuations. At [4:30] you’ll enjoy how brilliant wind timbres surface, including a rather piercing flute melody. At [4:53] follows a characteristic (and improvisatory sounding) guitar flourish, or “cadenza”, before a return to the opening melodic material.

5. Choro No. 1 “Choro tipico” (1920)

Eduardo Fernandez [4:27]

Not unlike the Bachianas set, Villa-Lobos composed a series of choros—14 in all, and each for different instrumentation. The variety across the series is astounding and every one deserves a listen.

This guitar solo initiates the group, and it opens with an ascending melodic motive, soon enough contradicted by an ascending bass run-up before the main treble melody takes over. The tempo is brisk, and the metrical energy may cause you to sort of sway and swing, but note the signature delays at high points of phrases, just before a line dwindles to its more melancholy end.

At [1:44] there is a clear return to the opening melodic idea, and ultimately Villa-Lobos is exploiting what’s known as rondo form. At [2:28] comes episodic material—that is, content not related to the repeating refrain or ritornello required of rondo form. This episode is constructed of a linear bass-note sequence that really grabs the attention.

At [3:28] comes the return of that now-familiar ritornello, and by the time it’s over, you may be suffering (not in a bad way, of course) from an “ear worm.”

Next Steps in Brasilidade

Performers and listeners alike are attracted to Villa-Lobos’ music for the fresh and often dance-like energy it exudes. As one who came naturally to cultural patriotism, all of Villa-Lobos’ music will deliver on at least some amount of “brasilidade,” or a “Brazilian essence.”

Remarkably, he found a frequently found a natural expression of this very Brazilian essence in the clarity of the older European musical forms of the baroque era.

See for yourself! Take a wander through Villa-Lobos’ compositions on Spotify or YouTube, and listen out for the classical and baroque forms; fluid, exciting and multilayered rhythmic pulse; and the expressive, infectious melodies with romantic rubato.