Heitor Villa-Lobos
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes

Villa-Lobos-Cigar

“He gives to each of his works a colour,” wrote Stefan Zweig of composer HEITOR VILLA-LOBOS (1887–1959) in Brazil: Land of the Future (1941), “which in their brightness, and again in their melancholy, seems to reflect the landscape and the Brazilian soul.” Villa-Lobos was born in Zweig’s adopted home of Rio de Janeiro, where life wasn’t easy: of Raul — a writer and amateur cellist — and Noêmia Villa-Lobos’ eight offspring, four died in childhood. Nicknamed Tuhú, Heitor was musically inclined and after Raul’s death in 1899, earned his living as a cellist for chôro bands. A capacious, highly complex fusion of European dance music with the sounds of Brazil’s African and indigenous peoples, chôro provided the practical foundation for Villa-Lobos’s future genius; while intensive folklore studies and the self-willed determination to become a non-imitative modernist composer would produce masterpieces small and humongous from the late-1910s onward. In 1918, Villa-Lobos met pianist Artur Rubinstein in Rio de Janeiro. Impressed, the Polish virtuoso added A Prole do Bebê to his repertoire and eight years later, Villa-Lobos celebrated their friendship with the flabbergasting Rudepoêma for solo piano. Though already a brilliant orchestrator — which fact Bachianas Brasileras (1930-1935), Symphony #10, Amerindia (1952) and numerous other works only confirmed — here was Villa-Lobos’ soul bared: “I compose, and you play, off the heart, making music live” he explained. “A monumental attempt to express the origins of the native Brazilian caboclos,” thought Rubinstein. “Their sorrows and joys, their wars and peace, finishing with a savage dance.”


Symphony #4, A Vitória (1917)

Rudepoêma (1921-1926)

Choros 11, for piano and orchestra (1928)

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Mark E. Smith, Rosa Luxemburg.

READ MORE about members of the Modernist Generation (1884–93).

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Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.