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Way beyond the vitória-régia and the vatapá

Villa-Lobos ceases to be a nationalist icon to emerge as a major modern composer

Agência EStadoComposer at work: dialogue with the great musical names of his timeAgência EStado

With a good dose of enraged irony, Mário de Andrade used to object to a certain type of musical Brazilianness that he considered permeated by “strong sensations, vatapá [a typically Brazilian food], alligators and vitória-régia [Amazonian water lilly]”. Unfortunately for many, the interest in the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) lay precisely in the extent to which the composer, full of rhythms and melodies, appears to have come close to this exotic mixture, apparently a typically Brazilian recipe that he supposedly mastered with his intuitive geniality, by drawing out what was typical in the land. “One must refute the notion that the greatest or the sole merit of Villa-Lobos’ work lay in its national character, identifiable by the use of folk tunes and occasional use of the rhythms and instruments of Brazilian popular music. Another important point is to show that the qualities of certain works of the composer are not the result of mere casuistry, but of compositional labor in synch with the important problems of the time when they were composed and that today’s musicians still find instigating”, notes Paulo de Tarso Salles, from ECA-USP, author of Villa-Lobos: processos composicionais [Villa-Lobos: compositional processes] (Editora Unicamp publishing house, 264 pages, R$ 50).

“Villa-Lobos is often regarded as ‘the greatest composer of the Americas’, but this label lacks substance, because his work has more merit than mere exoticism and it made a real contribution to the music of the West, although few scholars really focus on such issues”, the researcher warns us. “He is always mentioned as a giant of twentieth century music, but he has never been given the ‘VIP card’ of seminal composers such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Varèse or Messiaen, who give rise to theorizations and reverberate in the language of twenty-first century composers. In general, Villa-Lobos is the son of nature, who excavated the land and dug up the talisman of national identify, which made him the greatest among the great of an art that we intuitively perceive as important, but that does not belong to us yet”, agrees the guitarist Fábio Zanon, a professor at the Royal College of Music and author of a newly-released biography of the composer. Indeed, whereas his contemporaries are endlessly analyzed, Villa has been assigned a peripheral position in which he stands as an exotic case, a Latin American whose intuition led to results that were occasionally sublime, but almost always uneven. “However, there were several style changes during the course of his life, which enable us to see not merely a ‘locally-bred dandy’ but a composer that imposed upon himself a heavy load of study and work; this goes against the myth of his being self-taught and of his ease (in the bad sense) of invention”, Salles analyses. From 1900 to 1917, we have a young composer who adopts French and Wagnerian models in his early phase, in an attempt to be acknowledged by Brazilian musicians and critics. As from his 1917 contact with the composer Darius Milhaud, the singer Vera Janacopoulos and the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, all of which took place in Rio de Janeiro, Villa’s music gains freer forms and structures; in 1923, the major landmark was his trip to Paris, where he established a dialogue with the music of the modern composers, in particular with Stravinsky. The third phase, in the 1930’s, is underscored by his return to Brazil, when, apparently, in order to survive the Vargas regime, the composer incorporated the image of a symbol of Brazilian culture that was apparently expected of him. As from 1948, his final phase, when he had been diagnosed with cancer, Villa, to foot his growing medical bills, starts to accept commissions and to perform in the United States and in Europe.

So many phases and changes would not be undertaken by an amateur or a casually self-taught person. “Those who regard Villa as a composer with little technique, who supposedly composed his music in the likeness of the idealized anarchy of the tropical rainforests, with very little control over form and traditional compositional strategies, are laboring from a viewpoint almost always based on poor understanding of the works and the composers with whom Villa-Lobos’ music maintained a dialogue”, evaluates the composer and researcher Sílvio Ferraz, from Unicamp. “His dialogues were underscored by meetings: Bartók, Varèse, Milhaud, Revueltas, all of them advocates of experimental musical esthetics. Villa dialogued with these composers who, in turn, but like him, carried a lot of the musical strength of the people of their respective countries. And what might this strength be? Not the kind easily imitated in a melodic simplification that many end up embracing, but sonorous power, the inventive power of these peoples in their way of singing and playing an instrument, or in how the music is speedily made with apparent ease. Villa was a genuinely Brazilian composer, in the sense that he had to invent the musical Brazil that was his due”. Hence the cumulative rather than excluding aspect of Salles’ research, that further reveals the composer’s musical wealth. “I did not intend to replace the very well known appreciation of the national identity of Villa-Lobos’ work. My aim was merely to complement it with yet one more aspect of the multifaceted work of the most important Brazilian composer, whose music has enough attributes to enable one, through it, to study some of the composition techniques that were fashionable in the first half of the twentieth century. Villa’s scores reveal, besides an obvious concern with a national identity, the restlessness of the composer in relation to procedures that had become academic, devoid of meaning for the music of his time”, the researcher comments. “This translates itself into his unique conception of form, whereby the sounds are emitted without the traditional Beethovian development notion, but according to their acoustic potentialities”. The researcher, analyzing Villa-Lobos’ composing processes, grouped them into three large ways of transforming compositional material.

Reproduction from the book A imagem de Mário; fotobiografia de Mário de Andrade/Villa-Lobos, Rio de Janeiro, 1941Villa, in his dedication to Mário de Andrade warns that this was not samba music, but BachReproduction from the book A imagem de Mário; fotobiografia de Mário de Andrade/Villa-Lobos, Rio de Janeiro, 1941

First, one must acknowledge that the melody, notes the researcher, is a secondary item in Villa-Lobos’ composition. This is a complicated issue in a country that has such a strong popular song tradition and where a melodic line is so important. Hence the first process, with the transformations obtained as a result of symmetries that are made progressively asymmetric or balanced with the occurrence of “accidents”. These transformations occur as the result of superimposing a “figure” on the “background”, with the functionality of the melodic figurations interacting on a more or less static textural background. The Villa-Lobos melody has an “accidental” role of transforming the texture. Thus, Villa’s music acquires a noticeably textural implication, i.e., all the components of the work generate an indivisible sonority, a universe of expressions that are brought together with no pre-established hierarchy. “The piano Cirandas [traditional children’s songs] illustrate this issue beautifully; their folk melodies are not ‘harmonized’, but rather incorporated into a ‘sonorous environment’ that confers upon them a rhetorical, metaphorical sense”. The concept of a sound environment, continues Salles, is constantly found in his symphonic works, in his dense orchestrations. “In Uirapuru, one can see the composers viewpoint unfold: it is not about a naturalistic reproduction of the characteristic melody of the uirapuru bird. The ‘uirapuru song’ that Villa created is an abstract melody, the sound of a ‘hyperbird’. What attracted him was the symmetric series of intervals that is submitted to several processes of lengthening and distortion. Villa enjoyed making the careful initial symmetry asymmetric. For him, symmetry was like an unstable stage of the composition”, he analyzes.

The zigzags that occur at several points in his textures are another process. They appear in several musical genera, as the projection of certain elements, sonorities and timbres, which establish a new statute for the motif, decoupled from its temporal-formal function in order to become a quantitative element in the achievement and fruition of the work. In Bachianas no. 5, in the martelo (second movement), this is found in the very melody carried by the soprano based on the text of Manuel Bandeira. In Choros no. 2, for clarinet and flute (dedicated to Mário de Andrade, at a time when their friendship had not yet broken down), the zigzag is used to created registry changes among the instruments. In Noneto, the same technique has cultural implications, announcing sectional and timbre changes. A third compositional process consists of the transformations by turbulence, which result mainly from rhythmic or timbre-related procedures, where Villa creates sounds saturated by the elements that constitute the texture, unleashing irreversible processes of expansion or contraction of the metric units. In sum, he used the density of the rhythm to control the sound saturation of the texture. In Rude poema para piano, one can hear how the saturated rhythm seems to provide several “eruptions” during the course of time. Rhythm and time seem to coordinate the action in his ostinatos (a repetitive melodic line around which other melodic layers evolve). In Choros no. 8, a symphonic creation that, as the researcher comments, could have been written by Stravinsky, Villa used 36 ostinatos, which are superimposed, juxtaposed, assembled and disassembled, in order to generate greater textural density.

“In this way, one can see that Villa’s music conducted a dialogue with that of his contemporaries, such as Stravinsky, Bartók and Varèse, for instance. All of them operated within a still unexplored territory of sounds, above and beyond the formal composition manuals of their time”, Salles states. “One must hear a Villa-Lobos that is far beyond merely grasping his melodies or the syncopated rhythms of the composers of choros, superficial elements that lend him local color but that are not the most instigating aspects of his works. The Choros series, for instance, is an expansion of the latent sound possibilities of all of Brazilian popular music, not only in relation to parameters such as loudness and rhythm (melody), but essentially related to timbre and all the properties that are linked to this very complex aspect of sound as being in tune, resonance, diffusion, etc”. According to Salles, the same applies to Bachianas, which led Villa to be labeled a “fertile melodist”, practically burying any speculative interest in his creations. “Villa-Lobos was no less restless and capable than other composers in seeking and finding interesting solutions, which do not merely fit into the issue of racial identity, for the problems of musical composition. As a Brazilian, he was prematurely regarded as ‘ingenuous’ because he had the audacity to launch himself into an unprecedented creative adventure and to do so without a manual written by a European. Latin America, from this standpoint, is destined to exist outside modernity, preferring to embrace a line of discourse centered on its racial originality.”

The link between Villa-Lobos and nationalism, Salles reminds us, was highly problematic and embodied in the emblematic figure of Mário de Andrade. After all, Brazilian nationalism favored rural elements to the detriment of urban ones and Villa’s ties to the choro music of Rio de Janeiro, besides being urban, clashed with the idea of being oriented to folkloric themes. “Only occasionally, as in the Cirandas series, does one hear folkloric melodies. Or in didactic works, such as the Cirandinhas for piano, or in the Guia prático”, [Practical guide], comments the researcher. “I am the folklore”, the composer used to enjoy saying. When Vargas appointed an intervenor for São Paulo and Villa stood beside him, even dedicating to him his String Quartet no. 5, a nationalist work that included folkloric themes, Mário de Andrade broke off relations with the composer once and for all. The quartet, moreover, included segments of a tune from the state of Rio Grande do Sul, where the dictator Vargas had been born, driving the author of Macunaíma to fly off the handle and to call the musician, in a letter to a friend, a bootlicker to the regime. Andrade preferred the composer Camargo Guarnieri as a disciple of his nationalism. The national element, however, was not what interested Villa the most, although it strongly underscored the composer’s career. This was, perhaps, his own fault, because during the New State period, Salles notes, due to personal interest and the need to survive, Villa-Lobos allowed an idea to take hold as to what everybody wanted him to be: the herald of the nation.

This image became so strong that even musicians were engulfed by it and shut their ears to the music of Villa-Lobos. This was the case of Willy Correa de Oliveira, an avant-garde composer and researcher from USP, a former detractor of Villa, who only recently changed the tune of his criticism, from considering Villa-Lobos a “worthless nationalist” to seeing the author of Uirapuru from a new angle. “Thinking about Villa as a nationalist composer is to diminish him. It is to be small-minded and reactionary: niggardly late nineteenth century. It reveals ignorance or an erroneous assessment of his work. An authentic twentieth century composer, Villa-Lobos was a man of his times, like Ives, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók and Webern. Villa’s boldness in producing abstract images in movement is of such importance that one can put him on the same footing as the mature Schoenberg, as the later Scriabin, as Debussy, Varèse and even Webern. To everyone’s delight, Villa belongs in an ideal and possible program that focuses the most creative and effective music of the twentieth century: in a world with no spoken erudite musical language, where each voice is a necessary testimony of man as a creator, surviving in an adverse, hostile and aggressive environment”. It was thanks to him that Brazil ventured, for the first time, into the music of the twentieth century. Ever since, it has not advanced further along such paths, as the composer left no musical “heirs”. “The new generations of composers have much to learn from the technical procedures of his works”, notes Salles. “Villa created the possibility of Brazilian music, instead of being created by it. He ‘became’ folklore”, adds Zanon.