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Brazzil - Music - September 2003

Brazil's Fat Lady Can't Sing - Act Three

With his endless fascination for popular and folk forms, and his
incorporation of modern and neoclassical elements into his entire
musical framework, Heitor Villa-Lobos appeared to possess the finest
qualities of emperor Dom Pedro, Carlos Gomes, and Arturo Toscanini,
all rolled into one indomitable and charismatic entity

Joe Lopes


Act Three, Scene One: The Brazilian Bach

The standard contract for many visiting vocal artists allowed them to appear in a work of their own choosing, while it stipulated for others that they perform in at least one Brazilian national opera, usually those of Antonio Carlos Gomes.

But other Brazilian operas were also featured, beginning with the works of the aforementioned Henrique Gurjão (Idália, 1881) and Leopoldo Miguez (Pelo Amor!, 1897, Os Saldunes, 1901), followed by the operas of Henrique Oswald (La Croce d'Oro, 1872, Il Neo, 1900, Le Fate, 1902), Francisco de Assis Pacheco (Moema, 1891, Flora, 1898, Estela, 1900), Alberto Nepomuceno (Electra, 1894, Artemis, 1898, Abul, 1905), Antonio Francisco Braga (Jupira, 1898, Anita Garibaldi, 1912-22), Francisco Mignone (O Contrator de Diamantes, 1921, L'Innocente, 1927, Mizu, 1937), and Camargo Guarnieri (Pedro Malazarte, 1952).

Yet the most distinguished of the Brazilian classical composers was not even present in this hardly illustrious pack.

As if to take up the compositional power vacuum left by the untimely death of Carlos Gomes, the young Heitor Villa-Lobos suddenly exploded onto the scene as a self-taught, and self-made, musical force onto himself.

With his endless fascination for popular and folk forms, and his incorporation of modern and neoclassical elements into his entire musical framework, Villa-Lobos appeared to possess the finest qualities of Dom Pedro, Carlos Gomes, and Arturo Toscanini, all rolled into one indomitable and charismatic entity: the eclecticism and intellectual curiosity of the Emperor, balanced against the ambition and musical talent of the composer, blended with the poise and self-confidence shown by the conductor.

Here, at long last, the potential savior of the Brazilian national opera had conclusively emerged, and began to loom large over the vast musical horizon almost from the very moment of his birth.

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1887, in the last decade before the end of the 19th Century and a year after Toscanini's impressive debut in the same city, Villa-Lobos was a peripatetic and immensely prolific musician of Mozartian proportions, whose best work was consciously patterned after that of the German master Johann Sebastian Bach, whom he greatly admired.

Like the temperamental Italian conductor before him, Villa-Lobos began his musical life as a cello player, which, along with the clarinet, he learned to play at the tender age of six, thanks to his foresighted father. He would write some of his finest scores almost exclusively for this soulful string instrument, as well as for guitar, which he also mastered, and piano.

Blessed with an astonishingly accurate and refined ear for melodies, harmonies, chords, and colors of every shape and form, the incurably precocious boy from the bairro of Laranjeiras soon started congregating with local street musicians, nightclub singers, sidewalk artists, and other disreputable types, all the while picking up and playing their tunes and dance rhythms—and improvising to a new and unique style of music called choro (an early precursor to samba), which formed the backbone for many of Villa-Lobos' body of instrumental works.

His parents strongly disapproved of their son's association with these unsavory street sorts, but after the premature passing of his father Raul in 1899, Villa-Lobos could no longer be constrained from seeking a career in music nor from curing his insatiable wanderlust.

He abandoned plans to enter medical school in favor of travel to every part of his adored Brazil. Between 1905 and 1907, and throughout the intervening years of 1907 to 1912, he paid several visits to the states of Espírito Santo, Bahia, and Pernambuco, with frequent side trips to the South, to the central region of Minas Gerais, Goiás, and Mato Grosso, and to the Caribbean island of Barbados; he even explored parts of the Amazon rainforest, a foray that, by all reports, left an impressionable mark on the young man.

Act Three, Scene Two: Paris Sojourn, and the New Nationalism

Of all the classical works written by Brazilian musicians from the time of Carlos Gomes, up to and including the early 20th Century, none could be accused of having taken full advantage of the incredible wealth and variety of native indigenous music, along with West African, Caribbean, folkloric, caipira (country), and urban-style street influences, as had the numerous hybrid creations of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

The remarkable collection of local airs, ditties, songs, sounds, themes, and tunes he had amassed during this and other subsequent periods of his life were put to fruitful, and often ingenious, use in much of his voluminous output. In this, Villa-Lobos can be construed as the most nationalistic of Brazilian artists, and his country's first truly authentic, resident musical representative:

"Yes, I'm Brazilian—I'm very Brazilian. In my music, I let the rivers and seas of this great Brazil sing. I don't put a gag on the tropical exuberance of her forests and skies, which I intuitively transpose to everything I write."

Heitor Villa-Lobos

Where exactly the Carioca composer faltered—if one may be so bold as to use that term in connection with such a profoundly brilliant virtuoso—was in the area that he was most needed: the opera.

Two youthful short works, Aglaia (also written as Algaia) and Elisa, written in 1909 and 1910 respectively, were later fused into a single four-act opera entitled Izath (or Izaht), completed between 1913 and 1914.

It was met with some favor, especially after the Second World War, when the work was revived in Rio de Janeiro for such prominent Brazilian singers as tenor Assis Pacheco and baritone Paulo Fortes. Unhappily, Izath has virtually vanished from the modern Brazilian repertoire, and to my knowledge has never been performed in the United States neither has it received a commercial recording.

In 1922, Villa-Lobos participated in the now legendary Semana de Arte Moderna (Week of Modern Art) in São Paulo. The resultant Modernist movement, launched by such intellectuals as poet Oswald de Andrade, writer and diplomat Graça Aranha, painter Tarsila do Amaral, and many others, represented a backlash against the previous generation's obsession with European influences, and was a major step toward forging a purely nationalist and fundamentally native-grown literary, artistic, and musical identity.

With the success of the Modernist agenda, Villa-Lobos was encouraged in the mid-twenties to spend time in Paris, the epicenter for artistic development, where he met and hobnobbed with the leading aristocracy of the avant-garde, most notably composers Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, and Darius Milhaud, whom he had previously befriended in Brazil; conductor Leopold Stokowski; cineaste Jean Cocteau; eccentric Russian émigré Igor Stravinsky; and Polish-born pianist Artur Rubenstein, to whom he dedicated a vivacious piano piece called Rudepoêma (1921-26), and who in turn promoted and played much of the Brazilian's music.

It was around this period that "Villa," as he was more affectionately known, began work on his Canções Típicas Brasileiras (Typical Brazilian Songs, 1919), the Epigramas Irônicos e Sentimentais for solo voice and orchestra (1921), and the Serestas, a 14-song cycle for voice and piano (1925) reminiscent of Portuguese serenades.

Having done well for himself—artistically speaking—under the Old Republic, Villa-Lobos was less sure of his standing with the Vargas regime, which came to power in October 1930. He need not have been concerned, for the authoritarian Getúlio was most receptive to the composer's nationalistic leanings and fully embraced his public-spirited notions. This happy coincidence dovetailed perfectly with both Villa-Lobos and the administration's plans to bring music and choral education to the nation's culturally deprived youth.

Quite unlike the captivated Carlos Gomes, who became in his musical language and lifestyle every inch a European the more he was exposed to Continental culture—taking as his spouse the Italian-born pianist and teacher, Adelina del Conte Peri, and adding along the way a bevy of contessas and duchessas to his string of society conquests—the worldly Villa, a bon vivant by nature, had remained wholly and ingratiatingly Brazilian to the core. He inspired one Brazilian poet, Manuel Bandeira, to write upon the composer's return:

"You would expect whoever has just returned from Paris to be full of Paris. Villa-Lobos has come back full of Villa-Lobos."

Villa-Lobos himself went on to expound eloquently upon his own innate and, for the times, uncharacteristic sense of Brazilianness:

"The way I write is a cosmic consequence of the studies I've done, of the synthesis I've arrived at, to mirror a Brazilian nature… I went on, comparing my studies (of the people and the natural wonders of this land) with foreign compositions, and I sought something to support and strengthen my personalism, and the inalterability of my ideas."

While his passion for, and pride in, his native country proved most refreshing, and endeared him overall to the populace and to the powers that be, they tended to alienate him completely from so Western European an art form as the opera, to the detriment of the domestic product.

Entr'acte: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5

On the occasions when Villa-Lobos deigned to write memorable vocal music—his failure to create a clear-cut national opera notwithstanding—he was plainly unsurpassed in inventiveness, originality, and means of expression.

For example, a thorough study of his superb Bachianas Brasileiras (1930-1945) is an absolute requirement for any classically trained artist to achieve a deeper understanding of the Brazilian composer's methodology and mindset.

The most performed of the Bachianas is No. 5 for soprano soloist and 8 cellos, written in two movements, with the first having its world premiere in 1939 in Rio, and sung by its lyricist, the singer Ruth Valadares Corrêa; and the second completed around 1945, with words by the poet Bandeira.

The cream of operatic vocal talent, including Arleen Auger, Kathleen Battle, Victoria De Los Angeles, Renée Fleming, Maria Lúcia Godoy, Jill Gomez, Barbara Hendricks, Eva Marton, Anna Moffo, Bidu Sayão, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Galina Vishnevskaya, has recorded this gorgeous and oft-performed showpiece, focusing primarily on the lyrical Ária Cantilena section.

A small portion of the aria has even found its way onto the grooves of the post-pubescent singing team of Sandy and Junior, as a brief solo number for Sandy on her live Mercury CD entitled Quatro Estações (Four Seasons, 2000), further attesting to the popularity of the tune with teenagers.

Once heard, this hauntingly beautiful melody is not soon forgotten, and it has remained one of the composer's most easily recognizable and universally beloved pieces of music from among his over 1,500 compositions.

Inconceivably, the familiar female part was originally intended for the violin. But at the suggestion of soprano Bidu Sayão, the composer was sufficiently convinced to rescore the work with her voice category in mind, thus equating the success of this lovely elegaic ode to the diminuitive diva's prescient advice.

Act Three, Scene Three: Broadway Bound

The sparse operatic content of Brazil's foremost musical apologist was indeed cause for consternation among lovers of great music for the lyric stage.

Apart from his preoccupation with the national consciousness, this absence was likely due to the composer having spread himself thin across the musical landscape through his total involvement in, and complete dedication to, multiple educational and extra-musical projects, such as the Superintendency of Artistic and Musical Education, or SEMA, in 1933; the organization of the Conservatório Nacional de Canto Orfeónico, or National Conservatory for Choral Singing, in 1942; and the Presidency of the Brazilian Academy of Music, which he founded in 1945, and served until his death in November 1959.

All this non-stop activity, however, did not hinder Villa-Lobos from composing, which came naturally to him, and was considered as normal a bodily function as eating, drinking, bathing, or sleeping.

A little known aspect of the Brazilian's overseas experience involves his first tour of the United States, where, in 1944, he was invited to conduct a concert of his works at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California. Amazingly enough, a newfound American appreciation for the composer's music eventually paved the way for the Broadway production of his Magdalena, a 1948 "musical adventure in two acts."

The background of the work's evolution is an intriguing yet light-hearted tale of behind-the-scenes bartering and bickering, well documented in the excellent essay, "Villa-Lobos on Broadway," by conductor Ricardo Prado.

The show has been somewhat inaccurately described as a south of the border rip-off of Lehár's The Merry Widow, a Viennese operetta without the schmaltz. It came at an especially trying time for the composer, who was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder and immediately hospitalized at Memorial Hospital in New York, on the same night as the premiere. A simultaneous musician's strike called soon after the opening crippled plans to broadcast radio excerpts and record the original-cast album, de rigueur for shows back then.

The wonderful cast assembled for the run featured Metropolitan Opera star Irra Petina, theater actor John Raitt (of Carousel fame), soprano Dorothy Sarnoff, and Czech actor-director Hugo Haas. Boasting an elaborate plot and exotic South American locale (Colombia, not Rio), this lively Latin extravaganza basically revamped many of Villa-Lobos' previous themes, with the music taken in part from sections of the Bachianas, as well as the folk arrangements found in his Guia Prático (Practical Guide, 1932).

Despite favorable reviews, the musical came and went in less than three months. It has since been revived several times throughout the U.S., and there even exists a hard-to-find Sony recording of a live 1987 Lincoln Center concert performance in honor of the centennial of the composer's birth. But for all intents and purposes, Magdalena remains comparatively unknown, even in its native Brazil, a regretful oversight.

Act Three, Scene Four: Yerma, and the Flirtation with Hollywood

Villa-Lobos' only other stabs at the theatrical genre were the opera Yerma (1955-56), written to a Spanish text and based on the 1934 play by dramatist Federico García Lorca; and his final subject for the stage, a comic opera, A Menina das Nuvens (The Girl in the Clouds, 1957-58), given a fair number of presentations in Rio and São Paulo.

As his most ambitious and innovative vocal work yet, Yerma was an atypical oeuvre in the canon of the confirmed Brazilian nationalist. But if the operatic idiom was still an unfamiliar dialect, certainly the play's tightly-knit structure (three acts with two scenes each) and dramatic plot devices (the clash of earthly frustrations with the magical and supernatural) stirred Villa-Lobos to new heights of lyricism; in fact, the story bore striking similarities to Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow, 1919) in its psychological depiction of the eternal feminine and the archetypal yearning for motherhood, albeit transplanted to rural Spain.

Yerma never saw the light of day during the composer's lifetime and, therefore, went unperformed until New Mexico's Santa Fe Opera finally mounted a production in August 1971, a full twelve years after his demise. It did not catch on with audiences or with other opera houses, and has languished in undeserved obscurity for the better part of half a century.

An amusing footnote to Villa-Lobos' long musical career focuses on his Hollywood commission to write a score for the 1959 MGM film adaptation of the W. H. Hudson novel Green Mansions. Directed by actor Mel Ferrer, the movie starred his talented wife, the delicate but miscast Audrey Hepburn, as Rima, the bird girl of the Amazon, and featured the boyish Anthony Perkins, in his pre-Psycho phase, as the blasé love interest.

With typical Hollywood logic, the producers informed the master composer of their intention not to have him orchestrate his work—actually, a standard studio practice at the time, but which infuriated the usually unruffled Brazilian. MGM further compounded the offense by releasing the finished film with music credited to Bronislau Kaper, a more experienced movie veteran, who had previously scored the delightful Leslie Caron vehicle Lili (1953).

Nevertheless, Villa-Lobos took advantage of filmdom's casual disregard for his capabilities and refashioned the completed score into a large-scale symphonic tone poem for soprano, male chorus, and expanded orchestra, renaming it A Floresta do Amazonas, or Forest of the Amazon, a title that recalled, and paid belated tribute to, his earlier wanderings into the rainforest region. The richly exotic treatment of this colorful orchestral opus was everything one could expect from so fiercely independent and astute an artist; it was a classic case of Hollywood's loss and the concert hall's gain.

The work was committed to posterity by United Artists Records in 1959, with the difficult soprano part sung by Bidu Sayão, who came out of retirement as a special favor to the conductor of the recording sessions: her most esteemed friend and admirer, the gravely-ill composer.

Postlude: The Villa-Lobos Legacy

Heitor Villa-Lobos eventually succumbed to the cancer that had been temporarily halted by the operation he had undergone a decade earlier.

Four months before his death, Villa-Lobos received the prestigious Carlos Gomes Medal as part of the festivities commemorating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro.

One might have assumed this award to be a rather dubious honor, what with his having produced no celebrated operatic work of any lasting renown. On the contrary, he had done more for Brazilian music education, and for Brazilian social awareness of music's beneficial properties and potential, than any other national celebrity before or after him.

Though not the prophesied redeemer of the Brazilian national opera, Villa-Lobos was without a doubt the most famous and highly regarded native-born classical musician in memory.

Who would have thought that another citizen of the state of Rio, the pert and petite Bidu Sayão, would as a result of championing his works and following Toscanini's baton beat become the person most linked in the minds of the theater-going public with the very best that Brazil would produce in operatic circles; and the country's first international exponent of the French, Italian—and Brazilian—repertoires.


Sources & Recommended Reading:

Academia Brasileira de Música, http://www.abmusica.org.br/patr.htm, no date.

Barnett, Rob, "Forest of the Amazon," Classical Reviews, www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/2001/July01/VilaForest.htm, July 2001.

"Biografia de Heitor Villa-Lobos," Conservatório Villa-Lobos, www.conservatoriovillalobos.com.br/biovilla.html, no date.

"Brazilian Music Collection: Heitor Villa-Lobos," The University of Akron, Bierce Library, Brazilian Music Archive: Composer Profile, www.uakron.edu/bmca/composers/Villa-Lobos , no date.

Church, John J., "A Brazilian Yerma," Opera World, www.operaworld.com/special/yerma.html, 2001.

Page, Joseph, A., The Brazilians, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Reading, Massachusetts, 1995.

"Panorama da Música: Villa-Lobos," www.itaucultural.org.br/aplicexternas/enciclopedia/musica/index, no date.

Prado, Ricardo, "Villa-Lobos on Broadway," www.no.com.br, 2000, Red Deer Public Library, translation by Lee Boyd, 2001.

"Villa-Lobos Museum—Villa-Lobos: Life and Works," www.museuvillalobos.org.br/mv111.htm, no date.

Warrack, John, and West, Ewan, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1992, updated 1994.

Wright, David C. F., "Heitor Villa-Lobos," 1989, revised May 2002, www.musicweb.uk.net/classrev/2002/July02/Villa-Lobos_article.htm .

Wright, Simon, "Villa-Lobos: Music for Flute," Excerpts from the sleeve notes, 1989, www.hyperion-records.co.uk/notes/55057.html.


Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his Brazilian wife and two daughters. In January 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is a lover of all types of music, especially opera and jazz, as well as an incurable fan of classic films. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com

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