In a genre where the European model has prejudiced judgment, Villa-Lobos's string quartets have become landmarks of 20th century chamber music.

Bruce Gilman

At moments of profound introspection about both self and music, composers turn to the string quartet. It's odd but composers have always thought, have always functioned this way. The string quartet is the most serious, most intimate, most significant piece a composer can write. It is a genre in which the composer holds a mirror up to himself and to his way of composing. Musical substance, unobscured by orchestral effects, lies open to view.

Throwing light on some of the most profound philosophical statements in music, this year's Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival in Finland has as one of its themes the string quartet. At Kuhmo, the entire Villa-Lobos string quartet cycle will be performed between July 19 and August 2. Additionally, Cuarteto Latinoamericano will perform the 17 Villa-Lobos string quartets in five concerts between October 20 and 25 as part of the 26th Festival Internacional Cervantino in Guanajuato, Mexico. According to Marcelo Rodolfo of the Villa-Lobos Museum in Rio de Janeiro, these will be the first live performances ever of the Brazilian composer's complete quartet cycle.

Cuarteto Latinoamericano is an ensemble that illuminates both the classicism and the passionate modernism of Villa-Lobos. The players are ardent about emphasizing the changing moods, tone color, and exotic twists in this volatile music. Reaching into the repertory of Villa-Lobos with the same attention others give to Mozart, they play Villa-Lobos with an intense conviction and a rapport that verges on the telepathic, bringing out not only the nostalgia in the harmony but articulating the rhythm, which is intrinsic to Villa-Lobos's avant-garde, nationalist, and folkloric works.

Comprised of Javier Montiel (viola) and the brothers Saul and Aron Bitran (violins) and Álvaro Bitran (cello), the Cuarteto is a unique fraternity. Since 1987, they have been the quartet in residence at Carnegie Mellon University and have a similar residency at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico. In concert the group has collaborated with such international figures as flutist Julius Baker, cellist Janos Starker, guitarist Narciso Yepes, and conductor Eduardo Mata. The group has consistently worked to erode some of the most enduring cultural misconceptions about classical and string quartet music by committing themselves to the discovery, performance, and recording of under-represented Latin and South American composers.

Sharing the ability to stretch the boundaries of classical music, Cuarteto Latinoamericano is seen by many as the Latin American imprint of the Kronos Quartet. The group has already recorded most of the existing string quartets by Latin and South American composers for the New Albion, Dorian, and Elan labels. Their first digital recording of quartets by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Alberto Ginastera, and Silvestre Revueltas was selected as Critics Choice for 1989 by The New York Times.

And last year the group was presented the ASCAP-Chamber Music Award for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music. Presently they are recording the entire cycle of Villa-Lobos string quartets for Dorian. To get the insiders' perspective on the string quartets of Villa-Lobos, I interviewed the players one afternoon between World Cup games.

Brazzil—What is the importance of the Villa-Lobos string quartets in relation to the Brazilian classical repertoire and to the 20th century European repertoire as a whole?

Álvaro—In a genre that traditionally supplies the classical world with some of the best creations by its greatest composers: Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Revueltas; the Villa-Lobos quartets illustrate the enormous productivity of Brazil's most prominent composer. In the context of 20th century string quartets, his quartets represent the voice of an extremely original composer who wrote string quartets throughout his life. But ultimately, the importance lies in their quality.

Saul—Also, we have to remember that there were few string quartets being written in Latin America before 1915. With that in mind, it's astonishing to realize that Villa-Lobos didn't follow the European pattern of composition, but rather, even from the first quartet, developed a totally new approach to quartet writing.

Brazzil—Can a listener notice the composer's artistic developments or marked stylistic periods as the quartets progress from 1 through 17?

Saul—Definitely. Even though all of the quartets share some common features —a richness of timbre, exacting instrumental writing, an abundance of melodic material, the nostalgic character of the slow movements—they clearly reflect three groups, defined both stylistically and chronologically:

Quartets 1 to 6 (1915 to 1938) share the unmistakable influence of popular Brazilian music, French Impressionism, and the interest for unusual performance techniques and original sonorities—abundant use of pizzicato, harmonics, mutes, etc.

The second group, Quartets 7 to 9 (1941 to 1945), represents the pivotal part of the cycle. The depth of their expression, their harmonic sophistication, their contrapuntal richness, the high level of instrumental difficulty, and sheer length make them an unparalleled milestone in 20th century quartet literature. The last seven, Quartets 10 to 17 (1946 to 1957), mark a return to a simpler, almost Neo-Classical compositional approach. The counterpoint becomes explicit—predictable—and the rhythms simpler, although ever ingenious.

Brazzil—How does the mood, harmonic language, tone color, and rhythm of the Villa-Lobos quartets compare to those of Bartók and other European composers?

Aron—It is very different to compare these works with Bartók or any other European works from the same period. All four of the elements implied in your question differ in Villa-Lobos from his European counterparts. The mood is clearly Brazilian in that it relates vividly to the landscape of that country in a way that is more than a subjective appreciation. The rhythms are enormously original, yet the meter seldom changes, unlike Bartók and most contemporary European composers. And the tone color is determined, above all, by the lyrical capabilities of the instruments.

Brazzil—What are some of the stylistic considerations a performer needs to keep in mind when interpreting Villa-Lobos?

Aron—One must never forget that this music, no matter how sophisticated it may at times be, comes directly from Brazil's folklore. Rhythmic flexibility in the melody combined with a relentless pulse in the accompaniment, accounts for that wonderful combination of energy and freedom that defines these quartets and Brazilian music as a whole. These two elements must be kept in mind constantly when performing the Villa-Lobos quartets.

Brazzil—Can you explain some of the distinctive string techniques Villa-Lobos employs in the quartets?

Aron—Villa-Lobos makes extensive use of harmonics, pizzicato, double stops (playing two strings together), col legno (playing with the wood of the bow rather than the bow hair), and the use of mutes. In the third quartet there is an unusual placement of the mute on the side of the bridge. There is also prevalent use of extremely high registers, particularly in the first violin part.

Brazzil—Why is it that few of the high-profile quartets—the Tokyo, Emerson, Kronos—play the Villa-Lobos quartets?

Aron—It is indeed hard to explain. There may be three reasons that partially account for it. First, until recently there were few recordings available. Second, it is quite hard to get a hold of scores and individual parts. Villa-Lobos's music was published by several different houses, and many have not reprinted the music in years. And third, at first reading the music appears quite hard to interpret, almost cryptic. It is only after extensive work has been put into clarifying the balance that the textures become evident and the music flows nicely.

Brazzil—Has the complete cycle of 17 Villa-Lobos string quartets been recorded?

Aron—Yes. The complete cycle was recorded by the Hungarian group, Danubius Quartet. And we are presently in the middle of recording the complete cycle as well, having already released Volume 1 (quartets 1, 6, & 17), Volume 2 (quartets 3, 8, and 14) and Volume 3 (quartets 7 and 15).

Brazzil—When will the recording be complete?

Aron—We expect to complete the cycle by the summer of 1999.

Brazzil—Which is the most demanding quartet to perform?

Aron—Unquestionably number 7 because of its intensity, duration, and enormous technical difficulties.

Brazzil—Are there any high-profile Brazilian String Quartets who specialize in the works of Brazilian composers?

Álvaro—No, unfortunately there are none. There was, however, a Brazilian quartet called Bessler-Reis who recorded many of the Villa-Lobos quartets before splitting a couple of years ago.

Brazzil—Can you talk about the goals of Cuarteto Latinoamericano?

Javier—I think we can talk about both short and long term goals. In the short term, we are putting a lot of time and effort into the Villa-Lobos project, which includes the performances at the Cervantino Festival in October `98 in Guanajuato, Mexico, where as you know, we will play for the first time the 17 Villa-Lobos string quartets in five concerts. This project also includes the continuation of the quartet recordings. As Aron mentioned, we are in the middle of that project, with three CD's out. By the way, Vol. 3 was nominated this year for the Cannes Classic Award in Chamber Music, 19th and 20th Century. In the long term we hope to continue our strong ties with the U.S.A., Europe, and South America and to keep playing the main festivals and, of course, continue teaching and coaching.

Brazzil—Does Cuarteto Latinoamericano have an ensemble philosophy?

Javier—Although there is nothing etched in stone, part of our philosophy is to give our best at every performance. No matter whether it's a short rehearsal, a very important concert in a major chamber music series, the tenth take of a difficult passage in a recording session, or a performance for fourth grade children; we always approach a performance as if it were our last. Another important aspect of our credo is that, as far as priorities go, families come first and the job second. I strongly think that this is one very important reason we have been together for more than seventeen years.

Brazzil—Will international recognition come to Cuarteto Latinoamericano as it has to quartets like Kronos, Tokyo, Emerson, and Juilliard?

Álvaro—I am not the ideal person to compare our success with these other great quartets. We have a very different profile. For example, we travel with 30 or more pieces just for a weeklong tour, and we seldom play the traditional repertoire. We do meet these ensembles at most of the chamber music societies and festivals, and like them, we also have a high-pressure recording and performance schedule.

Brazzil—Gentlemen, thank you.


A Notch

Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote quartets throughout his lifetime. The sheer number penned by Villa-Lobos is remarkable, not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of their magnetism and authority. By adding the fabric of Brazilian folk and popular music to one of the most traditional genres from the Classical and Romantic periods, and by disregarding the formal structure of the European model, Villa-Lobos created string quartets of a highly personal world with remarkable contrasts and rhythmic sophistication. The structural ingenuity, rhythmic vitality, and melodic fluency of his string quartets were a forceful rebuke to European parochialism.

Today the 17 quartets of Villa-Lobos are recognized as the most remarkable cycle after Beethoven, and scholars assert that these works are as important to the 20th century repertoire as those written by Bartók and Shostakovich. If anything, the string quartets of Villa-Lobos exemplify the conviction of a composer who would not abandon his musical concepts simply because they were too challenging for his contemporaries to realize. What Villa-Lobos did with harmonics (partial tones produced by the vibration of fractional parts of the string that give a dreamlike transparency to a note) in his third quartet is, without a doubt, extraordinary. In 1916, before Bartók or Shostakovich, Villa-Lobos wrote a complete movement with left-hand pizzicato (notes played by plucking the strings) and double harmonics —techniques few had even thought of.

There are passages in the quartets where players are directed to go to the highest possible register of the instrument, where distance can no longer be measured on the fingerboard, and to play precise pitches. For the listener these are striking effects, but performers can really suffer. Most have to revoice, that is, redistribute certain lines to different strings in order to play their parts. Critics of Villa-Lobos argued that he was too eager to expand the limits of the quartet literature and that he never worried about the awkward demands he placed on performers.

They claimed that Villa-Lobos wrote too quickly and that he was exhaustively preoccupied with his wish to assert himself and declare his artistic career. But when we put aside all the exoticism, we can look at the depth, the originality, and the power of his music. Written over a period of forty-two years, the seventeen string quartets of Villa-Lobos represent the most important contribution to the string literature of the 20th century by a composer from a continent without a rigorous tradition in the accepted European repertoire.

Bruce Gilman, music editor for Brazzil, received his Masters degree in music from California Institute of the Arts. He leads the Brazilian jazz ensemble Axé and plays cuíca for escola de samba MILA. You can reach him through his e-mail: cuica@interworld.net

Cuarteto Latinoamericano
Selected discography:

Title ......................................................Label ..................................Date

Four, For Tango.................................... New Albion NA100CD...... 1998

(Contains "Homenaje A Gismonti")

Villa-Lobos: Complete String Quartets... Dorion DOR-90246............. 1997

Vol. 3 Nos. 7 and 15.

Villa-Lobos: Complete String Quartets ....Dorion DOR-90220 .............1996

Vol. 2 Nos. 3, 8, and 14.

Villa-Lobos: Complete String Quartets .....Dorion DOR-90205 .............1995

Vol. 1 Nos. 1, 6, and 17.

Quarteto Bessler-Reis
Selected discography:

Title ....................................................................Label ............................Date

Heitor Villa-Lobos—Quartetos de Cordas ...........Kuarup KCD051 ...........1989 & 1991

Nos. 12, 13, 14. (Prêmio Sharp)

Heitor Villa-Lobos—Quartetos de Cordas............ Kuarup KCD045 ...........1988-89

Nos. 1, 2, 3. (Prêmio Sharp)

Heitor Villa-Lobos—Quartetos de Cordas ............Kuarup KCD042 ............1988

Nos. 15, 16, 17. (Prêmio Sharp)

Heitor Villa-Lobos—Quartetos de Cordas ............Kuarup KCD034............. 1987

Nos. 4, 5, 6. (Prêmio Sharp)

Quarteto Amazônia
Strongly Recommended:

Title............................................................... Label............................ Date

Heitor Villa-Lobos—Quartetos de Cordas .......Kuarup KCD080/1 .......1996

Nos. 7 through 11 (2 CD's) (Prêmio APCA Melhor Disco Clássico)


For more information about the Summer Festival in Finland please check the following URL: http://dml.kajak.fi/kuhmof/kamaen98.htm

For an updated Cuarteto Latinoamericano discography see their Website: http://www.cmu.edu/cfa/music/cuarteto/

The Heitor Villa-Lobos Home Page is at: http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/1155/

The Kuarup Discos Web Page is at: http://www.kuarup.com.br — E-mail: kuarup@uninet.com.br

Supplementary Brazilian music links can be found at: http://www.thebraziliansound.com

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