Tuesday, October 25, 2016


There are many stories of Villa-Lobos's multi-tasking, and his phenomenal ability to focus on his music in spite of many distractions. Here's a typical one, from the Presenca Villa-Lobos no. 10, in the Museu Villa-Lobos. The translation is by Harold Lewis.
In the text of a radio talk given in August 1975, Walter Burle Marx recalled that Villa-Lobos had offered to produce a piece for one of the young persons' concerts he (Burle Marx) was organising.  Two days before the concert, in November 1932, he visited Villa-Lobos in his little apartment in the centre of Rio.  The composer had just finished dinner and was clearing the table.
"I'll work on it tonight, and should finish it at 4 a.m."
 "Villa-Lobos," he inquired, "how far have you got with the work you've promised?"    "I'll work on it tonight, and should finish it at 4 a.m."
"And the parts?"
"I'll do them myself and some friends are coming to help me later."
"Then I'll let you get on with it and not disturb you." "You're not disturbing me at all," said Villa-Lobos, insisting that Burle Marx stayed.
After sorting the manuscripts on the table, Villa-Lobos went on working on the orchestration while talking to his visitor.  At the same time, in another room of the apartment, the pianist Jose Brandão was playing the transcription of the symphonic poem 'Amazonas', and form time to time, Villa-Lobos, hearing something that wasn't right, called out to Brandao, "No, no, it's G flat in the bass," and so forth. The fact was that next day at 9 a.m., the young musicians received the score of the Caixinha de Boas Festas, with all the parts written out.
Here's another: Lisa Peppercorn reminisces about her visit with Villa-Lobos while he and John Sebastian worked on the Harmonica Concerto.
It was one of my joys to work with John and Villa-Lobos during the writing of the Concerto. The composer sat at the huge semi-circular desk with a pot of black thick coffee, several cigars and ashtrays all around working on several compositions at once, while watching a TV at intervals. All the time wearing a hat...
These are examples of Digression or Divigation (Divagação in Portuguese), and I expect this is a common enough trait of great artists. The big, the very big, picture emerges in the mind of the genius, and he or she pokes around it, taking different paths, sometimes at once, to bring it to the rest of us. In the words of Italo Calvino, "Divagation or digression is a way to postpone the ending," and it's in story-telling that we see it most often. According to Lawrence Sterne, "Digression is the sunshine of narrative".  It reminds me of the tall tales Villa told during his first trip to Paris, most notably the one about the man-eating plant in the Brazilian jungle that swallowed a companion whole, but that spit him out unharmed when Villa played a tune on a flute. And this in answer to the banal question "where do you get your ideas?" The music itself is often full of musical digressions, with development sloughed off in favour of another theme, or two or three. Symphonies become suites, and suites are hidden as "Choros" with touches of samba or other urban serenades. In a way these stories and his huge body of work (which he turned into another tall tale, since it's nowhere near as large as he made out) are digressions, to postpone the ending.

Paul Holdengraber from the New York Public Library has been talking for a while about Digression. He quotes the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips: “Digression is secular revelation,” and explains more fully:
When we talk about digression, we’re talking about getting lost, about taking the side roads, or the road just behind the road we thought we were taking. What doesn’t quite fit, what might be dismissed, but isn’t, becomes the road to revelation.
Just a personal aside (ha!), my whole Villa-Lobos life on the web, which is coming up to 25 years pretty soon, is a series of hyper-text digressions to reveal some of the facets of the amazing person who was Heitor Villa-Lobos.

All this complex narrative, and I finally get around to what I wanted to post today, which is this very good performance of Villa's little piece for cello and piano which he wrote in 1946, entitled Divagação. Notice how the composer (a professional cellist himself) digresses with some ad libitum cello-drumming before he begins the actual cello part!

Thanks to @Holdengraber for his amazing Twitter feed, and for the great work he's doing at NYPL.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Villa-Lobos and Donga

I came across a great book by the guitarist and former Museu Villa-Lobos Director Turibio Santos, called Heitor Villa-Lobos and the Guitar. Originally published by the Museu in 1975, an English translation from Wise Owl Music came out in 1986. Here's a cool chapter about Villa's early days amongst the choroes.

Donga is Ernesto Joaquim Maria dos Santos (1890-1974). He wrote what is often considered the first Samba. That disc dropped 100 years ago, in 1916.

A few years ago I posted this at Tumbling Villa-Lobos. It gives another picture of Villa-Lobos hob-nobbing with the top popular musicians of the day.
"I went out for some bohemian fun with [historian Sergio Buarque de Holanda & journalist Pedro Dantas] the other night. With Villa-Lobos and Gallet, too. We went for an evening of guitar music and a drop of cachaça [cane liquor] with three true Brazilians - Pixinguinha, Patricio, and Donga."
The sociologist & cultural anthropologist Gilberto Freyre meets the greatest popular musicians - sambaistas - of Rio de Janeiro, from a diary entry in 1926. As usual, Villa-Lobos is right in the middle, as is his colleague Luciano Gallet. This is from the fascinating book The Mystery of Samba: Popular Music and National Identity in Brazil, by Hermano Vianna.

Another great caricature

This splendid caricature is from Marco Antonio Carvalho Santos's book Heitor Villa-Lobos, published by MEC in 2010. I can't find a credit; can anyone help with the artist's name?

And check it out! It's now my new Twitter profile photo.

Monday, October 17, 2016

54th Festival Villa-Lobos

Every November since 1961 the Museu Villa-Lobos celebrates the Festival Villa-Lobos. The 54th annual celebration takes place in Rio de Janeiro from November 4-15, 2016. There are a number of important celebrations taking place at this year's Festival. One is the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great composer Anacleto de Medeiros, who was born July 16, 1866. Also, this year Moacir Santos would have been 90 years old.

But the star of this year's show is Egberto Gismonti. He was born on December 5, 1947, and according to the Festival Villa-Lobos website, his 70th birthday celebrations begin with this year's Festival. Gismonti will perform at the opening concert on November 4th.

There are various versions of this improvisation by Gismonti on Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5. This one is elegant, elaborate and beautiful.

Follow the Festival Villa-Lobos twitter feed for the latest information.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Dudamel at Carnegie Hall

Coming to Carnegie Hall on Friday, October 7th: Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in a concert that includes Villa's 2nd Bachianas Brasileiras, which featured in Dudamel's Proms concert last moth.

Cellists: get on this!

If you asked me to pick one work by Villa-Lobos that deserves to be better known, I might pick the Fantasia for cello and orchestra. Here's a great version by Hugo Pilger, with Roberto Duarte conducting the Orquestra Sinfônica da UFRJ, from a July 2015 concert which commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Academia Brasileira de Música. Pilger and Duarte together edited the new score that ABM published as part of their Projeto Villa-Lobos Digital. Cellists: the score and parts are available from ABM.

P.S. Stick around after the applause. Pilger plays a lovely piece by Francisco Mignone: "Aquela Modinha que o Villa nao Escreveu", which I think might mean "The Modinha that Villa didn't write." 

Thanks to Rodrigo Roderico for sending me the video link.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Bachianas Brasileiras no. 2 at the Proms

Here is the last of the Villa-Lobos Proms from the Latin American-themed 2016 version: Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, from earlier today, September 4, 2016. You can listen for the next month at BBC Radio 3's website.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Dudamel conducts Bachianas Brasileiras no. 2 in Stockholm

From Swedish Radio, here is a very fine performance from the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel. This is from earlier today (September 1, 2016) at the 2016 Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm. BB#2 begins at 26:30.

1. Paul Desenne: Hipnosis mariposa.
2. Heitor Villa-Lobos: Bachianas brasileiras nr 2 (1930).
3. Maurice Ravel:
a) Dafnis och Chloe, svit nr 2 (1912).
b) La valse (1920).

This is the same programme that Dudamel will take to the BBC Proms on September 4, 2016.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Aaron Copland and the Good Neighbor Policy

This 2014 lecture by Carol Hess from UC Davis at the Library of Congress, entitled "Copland as Good Neighbor: Cultural Diplomacy in Latin America During World War II." is a very good overview of the American's views of the musical scene in Latin America during World War II. The transcript is here.

Copland was often very disparaging about his Brazilian colleague. “Villa-Lobos marshalled a range of modern French processes of composition such that his music is enormously picturesque at times, sometimes cheap and vulgar. Sometimes astonishing original." Copland also said Villa was "Manuel de Falla on a good day; Ottorini Respighi on a bad one."

Prof. Hess is the author of the fabulous book Representing the Good Neighbor: Music, Difference, and the Pan American Dream (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Marin and OSESP at the Proms

Enthusiastic Proms audience from OSESP's 1st visit in 2012.
Yesterday was OSESP and Marin Alsop's big day at the BBC Proms. Their first concert featured two Brazilian works: Marlos Nobre's Kabbalah, and the first movement of Villa's Bachianas Brasileiras no. 4. There was also a bonus for Villa-Lobosians: Richard Rijnvos's orchestration of Valsa da Dor. The audience was clearly having a great time. The second encore, by the way, was Nelson Ayres' orchestration of Edu Lobo's Pé de Vento from his Suite Popular Brasileira. You can listen to this concert for the next month at the BBC Radio3 website.

There was a much bigger bonus than just the two encores, though: the Late Night Prom featuring OSESP & the Sao Paulo Jazz Symphony Orchestra. I listened to this live (yesterday afternoon my time), and the energy from the musicians and audience was fantastic. Once again, you can listen until the end of September. Another triumph for Balmer's Alsop and the Brazilians!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

All dressed up

An uncharacteristically formal picture of Villa-Lobos, looking uncharacteristically serious. This is a 1956 portrait by Studio Harcourt in Paris, from the French Ministry of Culture.

Werner Janssen 78rpm disc

From the French National Library Gallica research portal, here is side 2 of a 1954 LP by Werner Janssen conducting Chamber Groups. Choros no. 4 and no. 7 are to this day rather rare in recordings or concert halls.

String Quartet 17 from the ABM

From the superb Quarteto Radamés Gnattali, Villa's final string quartet, filmed at a 70 anniversary concert in 2015 at the Academia Brasileira de Música. Sometimes people talk about a reduction in quality in Villa-Lobos's final years, but this work is a powerful counter-argument. It's a fitting end to the great series (only sketches of the 18th quartet survive). Here's a sad note: the composer gave the score to the violinist Mariuccia Iacovino of the Budapest Quartet in Paris, but he died in Rio de Janeiro before he heard of the October 16, 1959 premiere at the Library of Congress.

Thanks to Juan L. Restrepo for letting me know about this. As Juan says, it's great to see a quartet on YouTube that's not no. 1 or no. 5 (as fun as both of those pieces are!)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Composer of the week

All five episodes of Donald Macleod's Composer of the Week feature on Villa-Lobos are available On Demand at BBC Radio3's website, for the next month. This is a superb in-depth series: 5 hours altogether, easily the best Villa-Lobos radio feature I've come across in the past 25 years.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The problem of Latin American music

Andrew Farach-Colton has a feature story in the latest Gramophone magazine entitled Viva Latin America. With the Olympic Games underway in Rio de Janeiro, and Latin American music featured at the BBC Proms, this is the summer (or rather, in most of Latin America, the winter) to listen to Villa-Lobos, Chavez, Revueltas and most especially, Centennial Boy Alberto Ginastera. It brings up some issues and questions that I've been pondering a lot in the last few years, as I soldier on promoting the Big Guy on the web.

The basic facts are presented well: Latin American music seems to continue to suffer from a lack of profile, though I'm not sure (North) American music is really that much better off compared to European music. For a while in the new century it looked like Villa-Lobos would break through into the average concert goer's/record buyer's consciousness, but the reputation bounce from the 2009 Villa-Lobos Year hasn't done much better than the Republican National Convention's. After Villa, even at this lower level, there's a big drop-off. Is Latin American music a One Hit Wonder?

Unfortunately, even with Villa-Lobos there's a basic problem that comes with the perception that he was impossibly prolific. He was an undisciplined composer, to be sure, but the catalogue of his substantial works isn't outrageously large. Rather, he was a dedicated musical educator, and the everyday-ness of his arranging, especially for choir and band, resulted in multiple versions of many works. Some works are lost, it's true, but even with that list you can't be sure if he ever actually wrote them, or merely had meant to write them and never got around to it. A corollary of this focus on the hugeness of his catalogue is the idea that there's a huge undiscovered mass of music waiting to be discovered. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of Villa's music has been published, and the vast majority of that has been recorded, if not always that well. David Appleby pretty much got a handle on the Villa-Lobos Bibliography back in 1988, and that work has been extended by assiduous work by the Museu Villa-Lobos. His list of (substantial) works doesn't make it to 600, which is a lot, but puts him in the same ballpark as Bach and Telemann and Milhaud.

Villa-Lobos has actually been very well served by the gramophone industry. All 17 of the amazing String Quartets have been recorded, multiple times. All of his piano music as well (and it only makes up 7 or 8 discs in total). The core of his orchestral music - the Bachianas Brasileiras and (finally!) the Choros - is on disc in superb recordings. The guitar music has been recorded to death. Pretty much all of the chamber music, the concertos. most important choral works (a subset of a larger total, to be sure), all of this is on CD and streaming services. The symphonies? It's completely wrong for Arthur Nestrovski to say, as he does in the article, that OSESP's current symphonies series underway with Naxos is the first on record. There's a marvellous series on CPO from Stuttgart, conducted by Carl St. Clair, from around the turn of the century, and all still available.

And I can't agree with Marin Alsop's contention that ‘We only really know the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Villa-Lobos.' We know pretty much the whole enchilada - sorry, the whole feijoada. Would I welcome Marin Alsop conducting OSESP in Madona, a symphonic poem waiting for its first commercial recording? Of course. The same with some of the stage works, most notably the operas Yerma and A Menina das Nuvens. Villa-Lobos's reputation is based partly on his larger-than-life character: he's the Rabelais of music. It's a big part of his appeal, but it's also holding him back.

As to other Latin American composers discussed in the article, I'm pleased that Saúl Bitrán of the Cuarteto Latinoamericano was quoted as setting down the four most important: Villa-Lobos, Ginastera, Chavez and Revueltas, "the composers who pretty much invented the language of Latin American concert music."

Gramophone has done great work to promote Latin American music in the past. They have a number of knowledgeable reviewers writing for them - most notably Guy Rickards. It's nice to see this review article; I hope it might help to get the Latin American concert music ball rolling again.