The sparse operatic content of the country’s foremost musical apologist, Heitor Villa-Lobos, was indeed cause for much consternation among lovers of great music for the lyric stage. He may have helped to obfuscate the issue early on by boasting to the French of his purported “operatic successes in far-off Brazil.”
But that was not all: Villa-Lobos was widely known to have exploited his foreign affiliation at every turn, believing “…that his allure to sophisticated and fickle Parisians with little knowledge of Brazil and no real conception of the old world tastes of Rio, was as an exotic.”
Whether or not this was a mechanism for his own survival, or an amusingly offhanded method of getting back at those who alienated the once-admired Carlos Gomes, the fact remains he had very little in the way of staged opera to show for his efforts. Apart from his preoccupation with the national consciousness, this absence was likely due to the composer having spread himself thin across the musical landscape through his total involvement in, and complete dedication to, multiple educational and extra-musical endeavors, thanks to his various government posts.
Among these were as Superintendent of Artistic and Musical Education, or SEMA, in 1933; the organization of the Conservatório Nacional de Canto Orfeônico (“National Conservatory for Choral Singing”) in 1942; and the presidency of the Brazilian Academy of Music, which he founded in 1945 and served until his death in November 1959.
All this non-stop activity, however, did not hinder Villa-Lobos from composing, which after all came naturally to him, and was considered as normal an everyday function — in the composer’s estimation, “a biological necessity” — as dining out with friends, smoking Cuban cigars, or shooting pool (his favorite hobby). Not for nothing was he known as “the composer who composed compulsively.”
In addition to those mentioned above, quite a number of his duties revolved around the conducting art, of which, we are constantly reminded, he was far from being a complete master: he not only presided over his own eclectic brew of works, but those of Bach, Arcangelo Corelli, Debussy, Stravinsky, and quite a few others as well.
One of the artist’s he expressed the sincerest admiration for was the recently unearthed Carlos Gomes, whose oratorio Colombo he helped restore to Rio’s Teatro Municipal in October 1935. It was in the spirit of restoration that Villa-Lobos turned his attention toward mending the campineiro’s tarnished reputation at home, a task indirectly imposed upon him by Brazil’s President Vargas.
The Modernists, it seemed, had formed their own preconceived opinions about Gomes: they considered the discredited composer — if they thought of him at all — mainly as “an aberration. All of us have felt so, even when we were small. But since we are dealing with a family jewel, we have to swallow all that Guarany and Schiavo claptrap, as phony, inexpressive and nefarious as it is.”
Villa-Lobos was not amused by all the rancor, and remained unfazed by their arguments; instead, he worked tirelessly to erase and simultaneously improve upon Gomes’ legacy as a miserable failure and unredeemed mediocrity.
Although he was not physically present at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Park, in New York, Villa-Lobos’ music was given pride of place there in the form of the ballet Jurupari (“Creation”) — actually, a choreographed section of his Choros No. 10 — along with the best of the numbers from the Bachianas Brasileiras Nos. 2 and 5. The concurrent success of such performers as Carmen Miranda and Bidu Sayão, in addition to a revelatory 1940 exhibition of the work of Brazilian painter Cândido Portinari at the Museum of Modern Art, clearly indicated the timing was right for Villa-Lobos to put in a personal appearance of his own.
That he was able to make such a splash by simply keeping his distance showed him to be a careful student of local politics, an art that Carlos Gomes, with all that stored-up knowledge he acquired at Dom Pedro II’s court, had failed to grasp by his unwanted intervention in the International Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois.
(End of Part Four)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes