Imprimir Republish

A pátria em sons

The man who had to invent a Brazil

Research challenges the view of Villa-Lobos’ work as mere exotic nationalism

AFP Photo / ArchivesVilla mimics “chorão” and “cubist painting” in ParisAFP Photo / Archives

Contrary to the words that Brecht put into the mouth of his Galileo, sometimes “unhappy is the hero who needs his country.” A recurring stream of musicological studies has revealed that Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) was, in a way, a “victim,” even though it was of his own choice, of this inversion, because he tried so hard to take on the role of the “nationalist messiah” who had been so longed for by Brazilian modernity from the 1920s onwards. “A merely nationalistic appreciation of his work is restricting and is linked to a social and historical context that is no longer ours. It is necessary to deconstruct the link between Villa’s music and the building of a nation-state, in favor of a truly musical analysis,” declares the sociologist Leopoldo Waizbort, a full professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) Department of Sociology, who is putting the finishing touches to his project Villa-Lobos nacional e cosmopolita (Villa-Lobos, national and cosmopolitan), undertaken at the University of Berlin with a FAPESP grant for studying abroad.

“The national element in Villa is an interested construction. The nationalist choice was rooted with a historical background and he was only ‘national’ in the context that shaped him  this way. When he represented Brazil in the Choros, he was responding to a demand from the public, those who supported him. This is less about  Brazilianness expressed musically in his work than it is a work aimed at creating and revealing a musical identity to the nation,” he explains. In other words, it was not the national style that gave rise to the musician’s individual style, but rather an individual style that shaped a national style. “Villa wanted to find his place in universal music. But when he arrived in Paris, in 1923, despite the bravado that ‘he had come to teach rather than to learn’, he discovered that he was just ‘one more’ of many musicians who had also come from faraway lands and with similar bodies of work. It then became clear to him that the only way to stand out was to ‘sell’ his product as a national composer. It was in France that Villa became ‘Brazilian’,” notes the researcher. He began to explore the exoticism of “Brazilianness” to ensure his personal survival and to have a chance to show the public what he had to offer as a composer.

Right from the outset, Villa realized that his career as a musician and, hence, the possibility of composing depended on having a public that supported him, whether it was in Paris or in Brazil, where for a long time there had been a search for someone to be the musical icon that was lacking in the process of inventing modern Brazilian culture. “The appreciation of the exotic, so strong for a foreign artist coming from far-off America, echoed in every circle in the French capital. At the same time, the Brazilians who coexisted with Villa in France, such as Tarsila do Amaral and Sérgio Milliet, adopted a positive attitude toward the production of ‘national’ art. These were the factors that convinced the composer of the imperative need for his conversion, to become a composer of music with a national flavor,” explains the anthropologist Paulo Renato Guérios, from the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), another member of the “revisionist” group of Villa’s nationalism and the author of Villa-Lobos: o caminho sinuoso da predestinação (Villa-Lobos: the tortuous path of predestination) (FGV, 2003).

Breitenbach/Pix Inc./Time Life Pictures/Getty ImagesThe composer at the piano in 1957: external exoticism concealed experimentsBreitenbach/Pix Inc./Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Thus, the fact that the composer began to compose songs with a Brazilian accent in 1923 was not due to the discovery that he was at heart a Brazilian, but rather to a process of transformation triggered by a series of social mechanisms in the attribution of value. “That is why he accepted the French project for Brazilian art so naturally. He wanted to be acclaimed by the Parisian establishment, which he respected,” notes Guérios. “It’s enough to realize that Villa’s music was not the embodiment of the Brazilian nation in the form of sound, but rather it was the opposite: his music imagined a nation and set it to music, as well as imagining it as contradictory and complex, with its forests, whistles, dances, Indians, and children,” recalls Leopoldo. Therefore, it is not Brazil that shaped and created this music, but rather this music that shaped and created Brazil or, rather, “a” Brazil. “In other words, it was not the national style that gave rise to the musician’s individual style, but rather an individual style that shaped a national style,” says the researcher. The repercussion was even greater when popular musicians, such as Tom Jobim and others were inspired by these musical compositions and, as a result, created sounds such as Bossa Nova, which was heard all over the world as being Brazilian music par excellence, a hidden merit of Villa’s music.

“There are many challenges in order to remove the ideological and overly patriotic varnish that for many years cloaked Villa-Lobos’ work, in particular that its greatest merit lay in its national character, identifiable by the use of folk melodies and occasionally of rhythms from popular music,” observes musicologist Paulo de Tarso Salles, another notable “revisionist,” a professor at ECA-USP and author of the study Villa-Lobos: processos composicionais (Villa-Lobos: composition processes). “There’s also a need to show people that the qualities of some of Villa’s works are not the result of mere casuistry, but of composition that was in harmony with the main musical issues of the period and that the supposed ‘chaos’ in his music is not the result of ‘ingenuity’ or lack of technique, but a deliberate contribution that required a heavy load of work and study. It denied his work intellectual density: for foreigners, it was just a chaotic product, developed by chance, like everything else that would happen in Brazil,” he observes. This is why, in Salles’ opinion, Villa’s work has not received the same respected study as that dedicated to the work of Stravinsky and Bartok, with which Villa-Lobos’ production has a lot in common. “An unexpected outcome of his strategy to transform himself into an exotic, national symbol was that his music ended up being stigmatized. After all, back in Villa-Lobos’ day, there was no local musicologist capable of recognizing what he was doing and everything was reduced to nationalism. He suffered from the lack of debate and as a result of the mythology that he created and that was constructed around him.”

For Salles, listening to Villas is to go beyond the melodies and the syncopated rhythms of the choros, identifiable in some pieces, superficial elements that give local color, but that are not the most important aspects of his work. “He created music in which you can physically hear the sound, the temperature of the Brazilian sound landscape and its imagery. After all, he was a Brazilian. However, the most important thing in order to understand his compositions is his autonomy. He had musical training, but he was never obliged to associate himself with any music ‘school’ and did not have to give any explanations about his process of composition. Thus, his aesthetic choices were based solely on his vision, which made him one of the founders of a way of composing based on ‘I listen and I do’, which was viewed as chaos and barbarism,” according to Salles.

Escaping fate

Bettmann / CORBISVilla with Mindinha in the US in 1948, in front of a poster for the opening of the operetta that he wrote for AmericansBettmann / CORBIS

Therefore, what is national about Villa is the fact that he is Brazilian, that he had contact with popular musicians and that he had an impressive level of confidence in his own ability to create, escaping the fate of many of his contemporaries, who were suffocated by schools and by foreign models, although his capacity to “digest” what was modern and being produced in Europe cannot be denied. “But the national element was not the thing that interested him the most,” reveals Salles. This ended up making Villa an imperfect “nationalist messiah,” which displeased nationalists such as Mário de Andrade, for whom researching folklore as a source of thematic reflection was vital to the creation of national music that, subsequently, would be universalized through its global dissemination. However, for the author of Macunaíma, exoticism was an unforgiveable “sin,” as it destroyed the Brazilian nation’s uniqueness. Thus, after having called Villa “the Brazilian Homer,” Mário drew away from him, proclaiming that Camargo Guarnieri was the true national composer.

By declaring that “ folklore is me,” Villa made it clear that he was not prepared to subject himself to what the São Paulo-based modernists expected. “He’s the creator who invents his music and invents  folklore at one and the same time. Who cares if he does not reproduce the song of the uirapuru [Organ Wren] with ornithological accuracy, like Messiaen would have done. What matters is the symbolic efficiency as an identification mark. This assumes that this sound is the bird’s song; it is assumed that the song of the uirapuru is an indication of Brazil; it is assumed that the uirapuru does not sing like the birds there; and it is presumed that the listeners can recognize and authenticate all of this,” notes Leopoldo. “Far from detracting from Villa’s musical merit, this reinforces it, since, in spite of all these assumptions, if it were not for the remarkable power of the music, it would all fall apart.” The composer was always careful about his compositional procedures as well, but this was all ignored in favor of the mythology.

To understand this better, all you need to do is to listen to the Choros, from the 1920s, and the Bachianas brasileiras, written between 1930 and 1945. In the former, everything is daring; but in the latter, the sensation is one of palatable conservatism. Villa swore that the two series both expressed Brazil. However, why are they are so different? It’s as if one can perceive that the ‘national’ is a variable construction that results from the composer’s individual imagination, rather than a reflex of the ‘people’ or of ‘folklore’, both of which, in turn, are ideological, historical and social constructs,” notes the researcher. The work Amazonas is equally symbolic. “He went beyond everything that had been done in Brazil, but the decisive step was not his use of Brazilian themes or melodies, but the creation of a musical composition, of textures that, metaphorically, may be associated with the sounds heard in the forests. The most likely thing is that the title itself pushes us in this direction. But the score’s musical potential, which is where the real musical strengths are found, can’t be summed up in this way,” observes Salles. The researcher played a recording of the piece to a variety of audiences, including children, without mentioning the composer’s name or the title of the piece. “The people heard things ranging from forests to the Sahara desert, ‘victims’ of the marvelous mystery of music, which can both exalt multitudes, as Wagner did when it was played during Nazism, as well as make us dream.” You do not need anything as restricting as a country for this but, rather, talent, a universal virtue.

The Project
Villa-Lobos, national and cosmopolitan (nº 2010/01907-1); Modality Grant for Studies Abroad; Coordinator Leopoldo Waizbort – USP; Investment R$ 31,354.93 (FAPESP)