Heitor Villa-Lobos was born on March 5, 1887 in Rio de Janeiro,
Brazil. When he was six years old, his
father, who worked as a librarian and amateur cellist, taught young Heitor
cello by using a specially adapted viola. His father also taught him music theory. Heitor
later learned the clarinet, piano, and was introduced to the music of J. S.
Bach when his aunt gave him the book, The
Well Tempered Clavier. Bach would
later become a great influence to Heitor.
Music filled the Villa-Lobos home every Saturday night when
musician friends came over and played their instruments late into the
night. But Heitor was most captivated by
the music called choro, composed and played by the street musicians (chorões) who gathered during Carnival,
parties, and in the streets regularly for the shear pleasure of playing music
together. When his father died, Heitor
taught himself guitar and often joined in with the chorões where he learned the art of improvisation. Since music surrounded him most of his young
life, his mother should not have been surprised when he declared that he would
devote all his attention to music, instead of becoming a doctor like she had
In 1905, at the age of
eighteen, Villa-Lobos began a seven year odyssey through Brazil where he collected
thousands of musical themes and folk songs from the various regions and wrote
them all down using a made-up short hand. He used these for future compositions. Also during this time, he continued his self-education by studying
pieces from the great masters and then composed his first major composition,
the Piano Trio No. 1.
Villa-Lobos returned to Rio de Janeiro in 1912 and married a
pianist named, Lucilia Guimarães. He
also enrolled in formal music education. However, he did not stay at his classes for long, as his personality and
musical endeavors were mismatched with the traditional academic establishment. Instead,
he played cello in cafes and cinemas and continued composing.
In 1915 Villa-Lobos gave
his first series of concerts in Rio de Janeiro. His modernistic music generated negative press reports and provoked rage
in the conservative ranks. Another
negative incident happened in 1918 when he was invited by the National
Institute of Music to conduct a concert of his own music, the Symphony No. 1 and Amazonas. The musicians in
the orchestra, accustomed to traditional music, refused to play what they
considered to be something made up of only dissonances.
Meanwhile, Arthur Rubinstein is in Rio on tour and befriends
Villa-Lobos. They would become life-long
friends, and it is Rubinstein who prompted Villa-Lobos to write more piano
music. Rubinstein was the first to
perform Villa-Lobos Prole do Bébé (the
Babys Family) a suite based on childrens themes. Villa-Lobos
would later become friends with Edgard Varése, Pablo Picasso, Serge Prokofiev,
and Leopold Stokowski.
Encouraged by friends,
Villa-Lobos traveled to Europe in 1923, stopping first in Paris, France where
in less than a year he made a name for himself with the help of Rubinstein and
singer Vera Janacopulus who performed his works in several European countries. Villa-Lobos returned to Paris in 1927 to
organize concerts and publish several works. During this second stay in Paris, he performed his compositions at
recitals, conducted orchestras (he introduced the Choros his work based on the time when he was with the wondering
street musicians) and gained international prestige, while still provoking
controversy over his modernistic and musical daring. He then became Professor of Composition at
the International Conservatory of Paris.
Villa-Lobos went to Sãu Paulo, Brazil in 1930 to do a concert
and ended up staying for two years because of his concern with the poor music
education program currently offered in the schools. He developed a new plan and became Rios
Director of Musical and Artistic Education. His focus was on choral music in the schools, out of which grew the
National Conservatory for Choral Music. In 1936 he travelled by Zeppelin to Europe to gain support for his many
plans regarding choral programs and at one time organized a choral group
consisting of 40,000 school children.
Villa-Lobos travelled to the United States for the first time in
November of 1944 where the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed a concert of
only his music. With his popularity
soaring, he traveled next to Los Angeles, New York and back again to Paris. Serious health problems in 1948 forced Villa Lobos to travel to
the United States for surgery related to cancer. After recovering, he continued his worldly
travels and fulfilled many commissions for works, including a guitar concerto
for the famous guitarist, Andre Segovia. Villa Lobos returned to Rio where
he died on November 17, 1959.
During the 1920s, Villa-Lobos began work on a cycle of
fourteen pieces collectively called Choros. These were composed for a variety of
ensembles and even established a new form of music. Between 1930 and 1945, his admiration for Bach is reflected in
his Bachianas Brasileiras (the Brazilian
Bach suites.) These are basically nine pieces for various instruments in a Baroque
form with added Brazilian color. He is
also known for writing several pieces that combine high and low pitched
instruments. The most popular is Associo a Jato (The Jet Whistle) and
uses the flute and cello together.
Villa-Lobos was a prolific composer. Besides the aforementioned pieces, he wrote
many symphonies, concertos, chamber music, string quartets, operas, ballets,
music for films (Hollywoods The Green
Mansions), works for solo guitar, and music for solo piano the largest collection
of all the categories. He became one of
South Americas most celebrated composers and was a charismatic man, full of
energy and passion for his music. In
most pictures, he is smiling and holding a big cigar. When trying to sum up his music, one can
refer to the words of a music critic who once wrote in Le Monde: A Villa-Lobos concert is always something
tasty, explosive and powerful.
-- Monica Hart (more on the author...)