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! Continue reading