Born in Rio de Janeiro, he was the son of a civil servant and amateur musician of Spanish extraction. Largely self-taught, as a young man he earned a living by playing in cinema and theatre orchestras in Rio, as well as with many local Brazilian street-music bands.
Having taught himself to play the cello, guitar and clarinet, Villa-Lobos later spent some time as a cellist in a Rio opera company. Encouragement from a pianist and music publisher, Arthur Napoleão, finally decided Villa-Lobos to take up composition seriously.
In February 1922, some of Villa-Lobos compositions were performed at a festival that took place in São Paulo but they were badly received. In 1923 Villa-Lobos travelled to Paris with the intention of performing his works there. The first work performed, after his arrival in the French capital, was his recently completed Nonet for chorus and ten players.
Villa-Lobos stayed in Paris in1923–24 and 1927–30, meeting such figures as Edgar Varèse, Pablo Picasso, Leopold Stokowski and Aaron Copland. It was in Paris that the first European performance of his Chôros No.10 for chorus & orchestra (1925) was given, causing a sensation.
In 1930 Villa-Lobos was back in Brazil where he arranged concerts around São Paulo, and composed patriotic and educational music. In 1932, he became director of the Superindendência de Educação Musical e Artistica (SEMA), his duties included arranging concerts. Villa-Lobos’ music combines the influences of Brazilian folk music and the sounds of Brazil with stylistic elements from the European classical tradition.
Villa-Lobos’ compositions include the well-known nine Bachianas Brasileiras, fourteen numbered Chôros, operas, twelve symphonies, concertos including five for piano, other orchestral works including ballets, chamber works including seventeen string quartets, music for guitar, piano and film music.
It is his more exotic works such as the Bachianas Brasileiras (1930-1945) that have proved most popular, whereas his other works such as the symphonies and piano concertos have never held the public’s interest as much. His Momoprécoce fantasy for piano and orchestra (1921) has always been more popular than the piano concertos.
Of the twelve symphonies (1916-1957), only eleven remain, the fifth (1920) having been lost.
Naxos www.naxos.com have now started a recorded cycle of Villa-Lobos’ symphonies with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra www.osesp.art.br/portal/home.aspx
conducted by Isaac Karabtchevsky www.karabtchevsky.com.
The first issue in this series features Symphonies No.6 and 7.
The profile of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra has increased in recent years with Marin Alsop now their Principal Conductor. From 1988 to 1994, Isaac Karabtchevsky was Artistic Director of Tonkünstler Orchestra in Vienna, from 1995 to 2001, Artistic Director of Teatro La Fenice, in Venice and from 2004 to 2009 he was Artistic Director of the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire. He is currently Artistic Director of Petrobras Symphony Orchestra in Rio.
In his Symphony No.6 ‘On the Outline of the Mountains of Brazil’ (1944) Villa-Lobos used a technic that he had used for encouraging children to compose, that of using a transparent piece of graph paper to plot the image of a photo in order to allocate the pitch and duration of music against vertical and horizontal lines.
The opening of the Sixth Symphony meanders somewhat as if searching for a direction before a stronger theme, more typical of Villa-Lobos, arrives. However, it is not until the end of the movement that any tangible development is made.
The second movement Lento has a quiet but lush opening before the arrival of mysterious passages, first for solo violin, then various sections of the orchestra. There are a number of gentle climaxes before the quiet end. This is a truly evocative movement that seemingly conveys some exotic landscape.
After a strong start the third movement Allegretto quasi animato again moves around mysteriously before a rumbustious end. The finale, an allegro, seems to continue where the third movement left off but has a more developed sense of purpose leading to strong coda.
The longer Symphony No.7 (1945) opens firmly with full orchestra and maintains a sense of momentum. The orchestra is large with the added timbre of piano, two harps and an electronic synthesiser (Hammond Novachord). Descending motifs, typical of Villa-Lobos, join with the rhythms of Brazil and a dominant contribution from the brass. As in the sixth symphony, the second movement, a Lento, is the longest, with strange sounds emerging from the orchestra in this engagingly exotic and beautiful movement.
The scherzo dashes along with more of the composer’s typically Brazilian rhythms, broad melodies and a real sense of purpose and direction. The finale, an allegro preciso, is lifted from any chance of being bland by Villa-Lobos’ exotic twists and turns before building to a terrific coda.
Perhaps these symphonies are a little overlong in places but I find them attractive and well worth hearing. The São Paulo Symphony Orchestra plays marvellously under Isaac Karabtchevsky and the recording from the Sala São Paulo is excellent. I look forward to the next instalment.