Lo, the Savior Approaches! – The Arrival of Villa-Lobos, Part Two: Paris Sojourn and the New Nationalism

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Villa-Lobos in Paris (AFP Photo / Archives)
Villa-Lobos in Paris (AFP Photo / Archives)

His Own Man

Of all the classical works written by Brazilian musicians from the time of Carlos Gomes, up to and including the early twentieth century and beyond, none could be accused of having taken full advantage of the incredible wealth and availability of native indigenous sources, along with West African, folkloric, caipira (“country”), Caribbean, and urban-style street influences, as had the numerous hybrid creations of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

The remarkable collection of songs, airs, sounds, tunes, snippets, and themes he amassed during this and other subsequent times in his life were put to fruitful, and often ingenious, use in much of his voluminous output.

In this, Villa-Lobos can be construed as the most nationalistic of Brazilian composers (certainly the most vocally demonstrative), and his country’s first truly authentic, resident musical representative:

“Yes, I’m Brazilian – and very Brazilian. In my music, I let the rivers and seas of this great Brazil sing. I do not put the brakes to or a gag on the tropical exuberance of her forests and skies, which I instinctively transpose to everything I write.”

Of course, this was all much easier in the saying than it was in the doing, a rather common occurrence with Villa-Lobos. Where exactly the voluble composer faltered, if one may be so bold as to use that term in connection with such a profoundly brilliant virtuoso, was in the area that he was most needed, i.e., the opera.

Two youthful short works, Agláia (sometimes given as Algáia) and Elisa, written in 1909 and 1910, respectively, were later fused into a single, four-act opus entitled Izath (or Izaht), completed between 1913 and 1914. It was met with some favor at its 1940 premiere and especially after the late 1950s, when the opera was revived in Rio for such prominent native talents as tenor Assis Pacheco and baritone Paulo Fortes.

The work showed trace influences of Wagner and Puccini, an early characteristic of Villa-Lobos’ vocal writing, along with the sophisticated scoring of French composer Vincent d’Indy. The end result, however, was a stillborn piece that paid considerable homage to traditional forms, the kind of thing Carlos Gomes used to do in his sleep, but with noticeably less assurance on Villa-Lobos’ part. The experience of writing his first opera convinced him to henceforth relegate all further attempts at the art form to the musical trash heap, what the composer himself termed “the graveyard of composers” — from his perspective, a remarkably clear-eyed appraisal. He would revisit the genre only after the Second World War’s hostilities had ended.

Unhappily, Izath has virtually vanished from the modern operatic repertoire and, to our knowledge, has never been performed in North America, nor has it received a complete recording, either in the United States or in its native Brazil.

The Week of Modern Art

The post-World War I period in Rio de Janeiro was one of undue privation for the enterprising young musician. He could be seen plying his trade in the many silent-movie houses, boîtes, bars, and bistros of the café-nightclub circuit, both as a composer-arranger and as a cello-playing accompanist. If anything, these early life experiences brought the unusually sociable Villa-Lobos into regular contact with an exceptional array of artists, writers, poets, and intellectuals,* all of whom shared his views and beliefs as well as his hand-to-mouth existence.

Those views and beliefs would be put to the test in February 1922, with Villa-Lobos’ acceptance of an invitation to participate in the now legendary Semana de Arte Moderna (or Week of Modern Art) at the Teatro Municipal in São Paulo. The exposition — more accurately, a continuous non-stop cultural happening — was taken up with lectures, symposiums, concerts, and workshops devoted to literature, painting, poetry, and sculpture, along with the “new music” of Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, and Villa-Lobos himself.

The composer had already commenced work on one of his “two great cycles,” the fourteen Choros (1921-29), which stand as the “first large-scale application of new, Latin American and thoroughly tropical musical forms and structures.” Indeed, much has been made of Villa-Lobos’ contribution to this event and its subsequent influence on future musical endeavors. Ask any musicologist or historian about it, and immediately the Week of Modern Art becomes linked in their mind to his name. The truth is Villa-Lobos lucked into the event by default as the only Brazilian composer around who was of age, or available, to attend.

Participants in the Week of Modern Art (diariodotrovador.7p.com)
Participants in the Week of Modern Art (diariodotrovador.7p.com)

The resultant Modernist movement, launched by such luminaries as writer and musicologist Mário de Andrade, poets Oswald de Andrade and Ronald de Carvalho, author and diplomat José Pereira da Graça Aranha, painters Tarsila do Amaral and Anita Malfatti, and pianists Guiomar Novaes and Hernani Braga, among others, represented a cultural backlash against the previous generation’s obsession with European influences. It was considered a major first step toward forging a purely nationalistic and fundamentally native-grown literary, artistic, and musical identity. Politically, it was “reflected… in the growing dissatisfaction with the coffee-oriented Old Republic, which was eventually overthrown by the revolution in 1930 that brought Getúlio Vargas to power.”

Negative, ad hominem reaction to Villa-Lobos’ presence, and to his flamboyant style overall, reverberated within the Municipal’s walls. Foot troubles had forced the normally fastidious and stylishly bedecked composer to make his entrance via cane and slippers. Quite amusingly, the noise these personal effects made as he cautiously groped his way down the aisles was loudly imitated by his detractors. None of this ado, however, appeared to have bothered Villa-Lobos in the slightest. Much as he had been leading — and would continue to lead — his own event-filled life, the maestro simply raised his baton on cue and, without hesitation, plunged headlong into one of his works, the audience and critics be damned.

The City of Light Awaits

With the modest success of the Modernist agenda behind him, Villa-Lobos, now an “undisciplined, willful and not at all coachable” adult, was encouraged in the early 1920s to spend time in Paris, the epicenter for artistic development (Germany and Italy had served the same purpose for previous generations of Brazilian artists and musicians).

Fortified by the confidence and self-reliance that were intrinsic to his makeup — and by the one-year government grant he was fortunate enough to have procured — Villa-Lobos took this stored up baggage with him to France. “I didn’t come here to study,” he immodestly announced upon his arrival there in 1923. “I came to show you what I have done.”

This was a different sort of bearing than most Europeans had been accustomed to hearing up to that point. Coming from a charming, tale-spinning Brazilian national, who relished the job of serving as “his own best publicity and promotion manager,” they were somewhat taken aback at first. Nevertheless, the “incorrigible child” within him literally lept at this opportunity of a lifetime, one he did not let go to waste.

It remains unclear if Villa-Lobos had any inkling of the troubles once experienced by his illustrious predecessor Carlos Gomes, who first set foot on foreign soil as a soon-to-be-feted Brazilian artist, only to be unconscionably tossed to the side by the region’s envious inhabitants, and later by his own compatriots.

Villa with Florent Schmitt (ENF Richlieu)
Villa-Lobos with Florent Schmitt (ENF Richlieu)

What is known about his two trips there was that, between 1927 and 1930, during the composer’s second Paris sojourn — financed this time by the philanthropist brothers, Arnaldo and Carlos Guinle — Villa-Lobos succeeded in attracting “the attention of the musical press, particularly that of the music critic of the influential daily newspaper Le Temps, Florent Schmitt, who turned into a great admirer and close friend…”

Philosophically and temperamentally, Villa-Lobos, the man and the artist — as intensely involved in self-promotion as any of his fellow expatriates — was as far removed from the Gomes model of “success” as coffee was from rubber. Vive la différence!

While in the City of Light, Villa-Lobos took it upon himself to hobnob with the leading aristocracy of the avant-garde, most notably composers Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, Edgard Varèse, and Darius Milhaud (who he had previously befriended, in Brazil, in 1917); conductor Leopold Stokowski; French cinéaste and poet Jean Cocteau; Spanish painter Salvador Dalí; classical guitarist Andrés Segovia; eccentric Russian émigré Igor Stravinsky; cellist Serge Koussevitzky; and Polish-born pianist Artur Rubenstein, to whom he dedicated a vivacious (and fiendishly difficult) piano piece called Rudepoêma (1921-26), and who in turn promoted and played much of the Brazilian’s music abroad.

We are indebted to maestro Segovia for the following humorous passage in which the Spanish instrumentalist, who revered the legacy of Bach as much as anyone else, recalled his dramatic first encounter with the extroverted Brazilian:

“Among all the invited guests that night, the one who impressed me the most upon entering the hall was Heitor Villa-Lobos. Although short in stature, he was well proportioned and had a virile bearing. A wild forest of unruly hair topped his vigorous head… His gaze shone with a tropical sparkle, which quickly turned to flame when he joined the amused conversation around him… When I finished my presentation, Villa-Lobos came up and said to me in a confidential tone: ‘I too play the guitar.’ ‘Marvelous!’ I responded. ‘So you’re capable of composing directly from the instrument.’ Extending his hands, he asked me for the guitar… And when I least expected it, he struck a chord with such force that I let out a yell, thinking the guitar had shattered. He burst out laughing and with a childish giggle said to me: ‘Wait, wait…’ I waited, restraining with difficulty my initial impulse, which was to save my poor instrument from this vehement and alarming display of enthusiasm.”

We can gather, from the above extract, how utterly irresistible the Brazilian composer must have seemed to those operating within close proximity. It was on or before this same time that “Villa,” as he was more affectionately known to friends and colleagues, completed work on his thirteen Canções Típicas Brasileiras (“Typical Brazilian Folksongs,” 1919); the Epigramas Irônicos e Sentimentais for solo voice and orchestra, with the text supplied by poet De Carvalho (1921-23); and the Serestas (1925-26), a fourteen-song, voice-and-piano cycle reminiscent of Portuguese serenades, referred by musicologist Vasco Mariz as “the climax of Villa-Lobos’ vocal output and of the genre of Brazilian literature set to music.” These unfamilar concert works deserve much wider exposure than they have been subjected to in the past.

On the debit side, some of Villa’s more, how shall one phrase it, “elaborate” fictional forays had begun to trickle back down to his fellow Brazilians. To make matters worse, they were not amused by what they heard and read:

“Although the speed within the communications media in the 1920s was not what it is today, Villa-Lobos’s tales soon reached his hometown’s local press, and disgusted his countrymen; they felt that their compatriot in Paris had done a serious disservice to Brazil and had caused embarrassment to Brazilians. This did not make much impression on Villa-Lobos, in spite of the fact that in those years he was not yet recognized in Brazil as the country’s leading composer…”

Back in the High Life Again

Not being recognized as Brazil’s “leading composer” may actually have helped to put this annoying business behind him than Villa-Lobos had cared to admit at the time. On the contrary, his best musical days still lay ahead.

Getulio Vargas & Villa-Lobos (abi.org.br)
Getulio Vargas & Villa-Lobos (abi.org.br)

Having done well for himself, artistically speaking, under the Old Republic, Heitor Villa-Lobos returned to Brazil less sure of his standing with the newly installed Vargas regime. He need not have been concerned. Despite the ludicrous yarns that were spun during his absence, the authoritarian Getúlio was most receptive to the composer’s nationalistic leanings and fully embraced his public-spirited stance.

This happy coincidence dovetailed perfectly with both Villa-Lobos and the administration’s long-term plans to bring music and choral education to the nation’s culturally deprived youth — and, as an added benefit, lend a much-needed air of legitimacy and support to the Brazilian strongman’s cultural and social platforms.

For quite unlike the captivated Carlos Gomes, who became, in his musical language and lifestyle, every inch the European the more he was exposed to Continental culture — taking as his wife the Italian-born pianist and teacher Adelina de Conte Peri, a former Milan Conservatory graduate; and adding along the way a bevy of contessas and duchessas to his string of society conquests — the worldly Villa, a bon vivant by nature, remained wholly and ingratiatingly Brazilian to the core. He inspired one Modernist poet, Manuel Bandeira, to write upon the composer’s re-emergence in Brazil:

“One would expect whoever has just returned from Paris to be full of Paris. However, Villa-Lobos has come back full of Villa-Lobos.”

Villa-Lobos himself, in response to habitual complaints that his so-called modern music “hurt the ears” of his listeners, went on to expound eloquently upon his own innate and, for the times, uncharacteristic sense of Brazilianness:

“I don’t write dissonance for the sake of being modern. Not by any means. The way I write is a cosmic consequence of the studies I’ve done, of the synthesis I’ve arrived at, to mirror a Brazilian nature. When I sought to develop my culture, guided by my own instincts and experience, I realized I could only come to a conclusion of conscious knowledge by researching and studying works that, on the surface, had nothing to do with music… I went on, comparing my studies [of the people and the natural wonders of this land] with foreign compositions, and I sought something to support and strengthen my personal approach, and the inalterability of my ideas.”

While his passion for, and pride in, his native country proved most refreshing, and endeared him overall to the populace at large — and to the powers that be — they tended to alienate him completely from so Western European an art form as the opera, to the unfortunate detriment of the domestic product.

(End of Part Two)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

* Some 40 or more years later, a bashful carioca native by the name of Antonio Carlos Jobim would find himself in similar straits. He, too, would make the acquaintance of one of the era’s best-known intellectuals: the poet, playwright, musician, and performer Vinicius de Moraes. Quite beyond either of their expectations, they would change the face of Brazilian pop music for all time.

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