Music for Rio—Celebrating the Music of Heitor Villa-Lobos

The Olympic Games are set to open in Rio de Janeiro—the first time a South American country is hosting them.  In honor of this event, I wanted to share a bit of Brazilian culture.


Brazil is, of course, a major musical center, and has contributed much to the world music scene.  That said, Brazil is most famous for its popular music… dances like the samba or bossa nova.  Brazil’s dance tradition is so magnificent, it’s easy to forget that it has made great contributions to the world of classical music, too.

And while there have been many classically-trained composers over Brazil’s 500-year history, none has had the popularity or impact of Heitor Villa-Lobos.


Villa-Lobos is a curious character, with a life of contradictions.  He was essentially self-taught, and had a contentious relationship with standard music theory… yet he always aspired to write symphonies, concertos, string quartets, and Grand Opera.  As a boy he scratched out a living as a street musician in Rio de Janiero but ultimately rose to become a national hero. He traveled extensively, but always kept Brazil in his heart.

He was, quite simply, an original.

Getting to know Villa-Lobos’s music is a bit of a challenge.  He was incredibly prolific, writing more than 2,000 works before his death in 1959.  Given the vast quantities of music, some works feel like they were dashed off in a careless rush or tossed off on deadline.  Moreover, he had the reputation of being musically restless—choosing to jump to new works rather than edit those he finished.  In this, he was the mirror opposite of his contemporary Jean Sibelius, who often revised his works so thoroughly that the works he ultimately published were quite different from those heard at the premiere.

The result is that Villa-Lobos’s works can come off as sprawling, riotous and untamed.

But that is exactly why they are so exciting.

At his best, Villa-Lobos was a master of fusing classical forms with the sounds, rhythms, and instruments of Brazil.  His music literally teems with the street sounds of Rio, from bird calls and African street music to the sound of traffic and vendor’s cries. It is music that explodes with vitality and resolutely refuses to be tamed.  Moreover, he was brilliant at creating soundscapes… pulling sounds out of an orchestra that had never been heard before.

Curious to know more?  Here are some recommendations, grouped in a few key categories. Enjoy!

* * *

Bachianas Brasileiras

The extended suite Bachianas Brasileiras is most people’s introduction to Villa-Lobos’s music.  Indeed, his two most performed works are No. 2 (O trenzinho do caipira) and the haunting No. 5.  In these works, Villa-Lobos set out to fuse the music of Brazil and Johann Sebastian Bach.  The resulting music is fascinating… sometimes quoting Bach, sometimes interpreting Baroque dance forms with Brazilian flair, sometimes going off in completely unknown directions.  Each is scored for a different collection of instruments, with a different number of movements.  Some suggestions:

Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2, O trenzinho do caipira (“The Little Jungle Train”).  This work is a four-movement work for full orchestra.  The music is lively and great fun, but the work as a whole is most widely known for the fourth movement finale, “The Little Jungle Train.”  The indefatigable train merrily chugs its way through the countryside amidst a soaring, Baroque-style melody with a Brazilian lilt. Here’s the famous train sequence:


And here’s the piece in its entirety:


Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4. While not nearly as famous as the others from the collection listed here, this one has some wonderful music, and wears its Brazilian and Bachian heritage more prominently on its sleeve.  The first of the four movements summons the spirit of Bach most fully, while the final three movements draw inspiration from Brazilian folk music—with the final movement based on a samba-like dance called the miudinho.


Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. A gorgeous piece for soprano and an orchestra of cellos.  It’s best known for its first movement, where a soprano sings a wordless, ghostly aria.  That song won’t leave you alone for days.



Another collection of works that are completely unique.  The name “Chôros” refers to a type of street music popular in Rio during the 19th and 20th centuries.  While the Portuguese word refers to a “lament” or a “cry,” chôros by nature are usually upbeat and festive, and characterized by improvisation on the part of the performer.  Villa-Lobos  carried this idea of creativity and spontaneity over into his compositions.  Each is written according to its own rules, with its own particular set of performers, and no two are alike.

Chôros No. 10.  This work became an immediate hit, and it remains one of Villa-Lobos’s most famous compositions today.  The performing forces required are huge: a chorus plus an orchestra consisting of piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 2 timpani, tam-tam, tambourine, tambor, caxambu, 2 puitas, surdo, drums, reco-reco (large and small), chocalhos de metal e de madeira, piano, harp, strings.  And what an effect! The text of the piece is a poem by Catulo da Paixão Cearense, but a copyright dispute meant that when Villa-Lobos recorded the work, he was forced to have the chorus sing on neutral syllables instead of the actual words.


Chôros No. 1.  Worlds apart from the vast Chôros No. 10, the first Chôros is a brief, wisp of a piece scored for solo guitar.  But it is no lightweight… it is a favorite of professional guitarists, and has been recorded endlessly.


Orchestral Works 

Beyond his unique, more experimental musical forms, Villa-Lobos worked in a variety of conventional forms, including symphonies, concertos, tone poems, and more.  But while conventional in structure, these works still bear Villa-Lobos’s unique stamp.  For example, his approach to orchestration sometimes feels overwhelming—he took great delight in assembling vast forces in order to secure the greatest possible range of sounds and colors.  But at his best, his soundscapes feel rich and dramatic.

Uirapuru This early, short work was one of Villa-Lobos’s first international successes.  In some ways, it echoes Stravinsky’s The Firebird, which premiered six years previously; Uirapuru tells the story of a magical bird of the Amazon, and similar to The Firebird it started out as a ballet score.  But it is a stunning, original piece that captures Villa-Lobos at his most creative.


Dawn on a Tropical Forest.  This tone poem is a great example of Villa-Lobos’s ability to create unique sound worlds with more-or-less conventional instruments.  Commissioned and premiered by the Louisville Orchestra, the work dramatically relates the explosion of sound and life as the sun rises on the Amazon.  From its murky opening to its brilliant, sunlit conclusion, it is a work of startling originality.


Symphony No. 6, Sobre o linho das montanhas do Brasil (“On the Outline of the Mountains of Brazil”).  In concept, this work seems like a play off of serialism—Villa-Lobos charted the rise and fall of a Brazilian mountainscape on a graph, and used that as the basis of the symphony’s main theme.  That said, he really only used this amusical theme as a starting point, and the bulk of the score progresses more or less “normally.” The result is a work that melds neoclassicism with Villa-Lobo’s trademark lush orchestration.


Floresta do Amazonas.  One of Villa-Lobos’s later work, this piece in many ways encapsulates his career.  Originally, it was written as the film score for Green Mansions, which starred Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins.  MGM chose not to use the bulk of the music, however, and Villa-Lobos recast it as Floresta do Amazonas (“The Amazon Forest”).  It’s somewhat difficult to categorize—is it an extended tone poem? A suite?  No matter, it is dense, atmospheric and cinematic in scope.


Cello Concerto No. 2.  The cello was Villa-Lobos’s most cherished instrument, and one that he taught himself to play at an early age.  His second concerto is a mature work that captures the cello at its most expressive, with echoes of the Bachiana Brasileria No. 5.


Guitar Concerto.   Written for the legendary Andres Segovia in 1951, this work is a favorite of modern audiences.  While wholly original, it seems to reference the works of Beethoven, Debussy, and Bartók, along with Brazilian folk melodies.


Guitar Music

Villa-Lobos had a great fondness for the guitar, and was one of the first composers to break away from the traditional Spanish sound and compose modern-sounding works with original effects.

A good starting point is the Preludes, which are deceptively simple in design.


Another great collection of guitar music is the Etudes, which are more outwardly complex and technically difficult, but absolute joys to listen to.


String Quartets

Oddly enough for a composer who loved the big sound of a big orchestra, Villa-Lobos had a deep and abiding love for string quartets—over the course of his life, he wrote 17 in all.  They are classics.  The earliest ones seem to channel Debussy, while the fifth brims with Brazilian folk tunes.  The Seventh marks out a new maturity and expansiveness, while numbers 10 through 17 strike an expert balance between classical sensibility and Brazilian sound.

String Quartet No. 5 is gorgeous and immediately approachable.


String Quartet No. 9 is strong and invigorating.


And Quartet No. 12 is a classic of the form.









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