Death of Villa-Lobos Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Heitor Villa-Lobos, one of the twentieth century’s foremost Latin American composers, wrote his works in a style deeply influenced by Brazilian folk music, as well as by European composers.

Summary of Event

Heitor Villa-Lobos was born on March 5, 1887, in a section of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, called Laranjeiros. His father was a functionary at the National Library, a politically conservative man with great intellectual curiosity. He wrote books on many subjects, sketched portraits, and skillfully played the cello. When he became aware that Heitor had precocious musical talent, he began to instruct him in ear training and on the cello. Music;classical [ kw]Death of Villa-Lobos (Nov. 17, 1959) [kw]Villa-Lobos, Death of (Nov. 17, 1959)[Villa Lobos] Music;classical [g]Latin America;Nov. 17, 1959: Death of Villa-Lobos[06240] [g]Brazil;Nov. 17, 1959: Death of Villa-Lobos[06240] [c]Music;Nov. 17, 1959: Death of Villa-Lobos[06240] Villa-Lobos, Heitor[Villa Lobos, Heitor] Villa-Lobos, Lucília Guimarães[Villa Lobos, Lucilia Guimaraes] Rubinstein, Arthur Bach, Johann Sebastian

Raul Villa-Lobos died of smallpox in 1899, leaving his son and his widow with little money to live on. Villa-Lobos’s mother began to work to support the two of them. Villa-Lobos had begun to study the clarinet and guitar just before his father died. He had developed skill on the cello and written his first composition, “Os Sedutores,” "Sedutores, Os" (Villa-Lobos)[Sedutores, Os (Villa Lobos)] that same year. During this difficult period, he sought the friendship of popular musicians who played choros.

The choro Choros (musical form) is an improvised, melancholy kind of music performed at serestas, or serenades. The term is related to the Portuguese verb chorar (“to weep”) and was also used for the groups performing this sad, amorous music. Although “serenade” suggests a vocalist, the chorões, or instrumentalists, were rarely accompanied. They produced beautiful harmonies in a spontaneous original ensemble, improvising melodies and variations. A cultish devotion to their music was ascribed to the players, who would assemble for weddings or parties but then continue to play in the streets, often urged on by followers throughout the night. Young Villa-Lobos played the guitar in a choros group whose other members went on to become well known. The influence of these times surfaces especially in his Bachianas Brasileiras, No. 1, Bachianas Brasileiras (Villa-Lobos) in its fugue composed in the style of another popular player of the time.

The young musician’s interest in the choro groups grew to the point of devotion. He began to stay out all night with them, to the detriment of his schoolwork and to the distress of his mother. At the age of sixteen, he left home to live with his Aunt Zizinha and escape his mother’s reprimands. Zizinha was more tolerant of his love for choros and the popular musicians.

In Rio de Janeiro, he played in nightclubs, hotels, movie theaters, and bars with choro groups. At the same time, he was a cellist in the orchestra of Recreio Theater, the most popular theater in Rio de Janeiro, where operas and operettas were performed. He was also composing waltzes, schottisches, military marches, and polkas. He met many well-known artists whose styles he absorbed and analyzed well enough that echoes of their playing appeared later—and authentically—in his work.

At the age of eighteen, Villa-Lobos left Rio de Janeiro obsessed with a desire to travel and see the world. To finance his travels, he sold several books from a rare collection his father had left to him. He visited the northern Brazilian states of Espírito Santo, Bahia, and Pernambuco, then went further into the northeastern hinterland, where he studied the music of popular singers, their styles of interpretation, and their primitive instruments. In a shorthand he devised himself, he recorded calls, chants, desafios (improvisational musical duels between two singers), and music of dramatic dances and plays. His deep interest in popular music later evoked strong national feelings in his classical works.

Villa-Lobos’s bohemian lifestyle lasted for several years. Except for brief periods of time, he was absent from his home in Rio de Janeiro during the years 1905 to 1911. In 1907, he became a student at the National Institute of Music for a few months. He then decided that formal classes were not as interesting as the folk music he had heard on his travels. He traveled in northeastern Brazil again as well as in the western areas of the country. In Bahia, he heard some compositions by Claude Debussy for the first time and was not much impressed, although Debussy’s music was to influence a later period of his works.

Despite almost constant traveling and his refusal of formal training, Villa-Lobos wrote at least forty-three compositions between 1899 and 1911. Most were short songs and pieces for guitar, his favorite popular instrument, along with some pieces for piano, chamber groups, and band or chorus. The most significant of the period were Suite Populaire Brésilienne Suite Populaire Brésilienne (Villa-Lobos) (1908-1912), a five-movement suite for guitar; and Trio No. 1 Trio No. 1 (Villa-Lobos)[Trio Number 1 (Villa Lobos)] for piano, violin, and cello.

Back in Rio de Janeiro in 1912 (after his mother, believing him dead, had ordered a mass to be said in his name), the nonconformist musician continued to compose a variety of works, including one-act operas and religious choruses. He was briefly fascinated with Richard Wagner and Giacomo Puccini. On November 12, 1913, he married Lucília Guimarães, a pianist who had graduated from the National Institute of Music. His wife became an enthusiastic promoter and interpreter of his piano works.

In 1915, he began to establish his reputation through public performances of his works. The first major performance in Rio de Janeiro was on November 13, 1915. Reviews were favorable. Villa-Lobos had written more than one hundred works but was still relatively unknown, although critics recognized his talent. His works indicated a great desire for harmonic innovation, as in the experiments of Igor Stravinsky, whose music he had not yet heard.

Meeting Arthur Rubinstein in 1918 helped Villa-Lobos get established. He still had no regular income, except his wife’s salary and fees for music lessons, in addition to a small income from performing in cinemas and restaurants. The famous pianist Rubinstein was able to convince a number of wealthy Brazilians that Villa-Lobos deserved support. He included many of Villa-Lobos’s works in his concert tours, gaining worldwide attention for the composer. All this time, Villa-Lobos was continuing to experiment with typical Brazilian subjects and popular themes in his work, including the tunes of children’s songs in his piano pieces.

In 1923, he was sent by the Brazilian government to Paris to introduce his work, but not until a second trip in 1927 did he make his mark. His Paris apartment became a popular meeting place for artists and musicians. A Villa-Lobos festival held in Paris in October, 1927, had great success. During the 1920’s, he crowned his success by completing his Chôros series Chôros series (Villa-Lobos) , considered along with the Bachianas Brasileiras (1930-1944) to be his best contribution to modern music. He also finished his piano masterpieces based on children’s tunes, the Cirandas Cirandas (Villa-Lobos) (1926), and Rudepoema Rudepoema (Villa-Lobos) (1926), which was dedicated to Rubinstein.

The last twenty-seven years of his life were dominated by the Bachianas, as well as seven more symphonies and thirteen string quartets. He explained that the Bachianas were inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s work, which he called a universal source of music. With a sort of mystic devotion, he adapted Bach’s baroque contrapuntal style and applied it to Brazilian folk music.

Villa-Lobos spent the 1930’s composing and promoting music education. In 1932, he took charge of musical education throughout Brazil and established musical instruction programs for public schools. He directed a school he helped found for the education of music teachers. It was a time of incredible activity for the composer. He founded the Brazilian Academy of Music in 1945.

In 1948, Villa-Lobos was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder. The bladder was removed, and he continued with his active life as a conductor and composer. In 1944, he had begun yearly trips to the United States to conduct orchestras, fulfill commissions, and speak to organizations. He never stopped composing. His incredibly demanding schedule, which would have taxed a healthy man, required him to follow a carefully supervised medical regimen.

On his seventieth birthday, in 1957, the city of New York paid Heitor Villa-Lobos special tribute and published an editorial in his honor in The New York Times. The Ministry of Education and Culture in Brazil declared 1957 “Villa-Lobos Year.” The following year, he composed Magnificat Alleluia Magnificat Alleluia (Villa-Lobos) at the request of the Vatican. He died in Rio de Janeiro on November 17, 1959.


“My music is Brazil but international!” Villa-Lobos once exclaimed. He said his Bachianas Brasileiras were “Bach placed in Brazil.” His genius, inventiveness, and creative vitality—and the flagrant lack of convention in his music—led followers and critics in his own time to call him the undisputed avant-garde musician of Latin America. No other Western composer had thrived so intensely on his own country’s indigenous music and transformed it so strikingly in classical compositions. He loved taking his inspiration from the streets, from the language and rhythms of the Brazilian populace. On the other hand, he knew the work of European composers very well and was keenly aware of his indebtedness. Once, during an orchestral rehearsal of his Magdalena, he was asked why he kept popping up to tip his hat to the music. “I pay my respects to Debussy, Strauss, Beethoven, Villa-Lobos, as they pass by,” he said. The composer had a gift for comedy as well as for music.

Although his instinctive and revolutionary approach to classical composition led some critics to oppose the self-taught musician and composer, many have considered him to be the greatest musical talent to emerge in modern times from the Western hemisphere. Others maintain that his importance in the history of Western music is questionable—or rather, not yet understood. Musically, he was a rebel who scorned academic learning. His defiance of scholarship and his love for melodies from children’s songs and popular music both delighted and perplexed his audiences. The ongoing disputes over the extent of his genius at the very least confirm Villa-Lobos’s uniqueness. Although they may not agree on the measure of his greatness, scholars accept his importance and the need to demonstrate and further define his place in twentieth century music.

His position in the history of Brazilian music is fundamental; naturally his music influences every contemporary Brazilian composer. It is likely that much “primitive” and popular Brazilian music would have been lost without his devotion to it. He denied the notion that his music reflected Brazilian nationalism and that the soul of Brazil resided in everything he wrote. He was against blind nationalism in art and believed that every country contributed its culture to world music, because “music is for itself.” He maintained that great music had commonality, or universal appeal.

Besides helping to reveal Brazil’s great treasury of folk and popular music, Villa-Lobos left Brazil with a valuable legacy: a means to learn to appreciate the joy of music. He almost single-handedly reformed the system of public-school music instruction in Brazil. He spent much of the 1930’s and early 1940’s trying to reorganize the system nationwide. In order to arouse public concern over the issue of arts education, he organized demonstrations in which enormous choral groups performed in carefully planned and organized events. These “canto orfeônico” concerts had more than thirty thousand performers singing and using body gestures to enhance the effect of the music. To lead the group, which included one thousand instrumentalists, Villa-Lobos used an individualized system of hand signals and several choral assistants. The numbers were chosen for their civic and patriotic effect. The performances of these gigantic choral groups have not been duplicated anywhere.

The music of Villa-Lobos is generally accepted as the embodiment of the soul of Brazil, but its spirit has touched lovers of music all over the world. Its dazzling combination of wild exuberance and haunting melancholy may provide some listeners with a musical metaphor for the clash of cultures between the Old World and the New World. The tension between the primitive and the sophisticated is often a theme: the mechanistic culture of the city rising from a jungle, perhaps to overtake it; the energy and fertility of the jungle and virgin frontier eclipsing the decayed and crumbling ruins of old “civilization.”

Heitor Villa-Lobos was one of the most prolific composers of the twentieth century. He is said to have lost count of the pieces he wrote; about two thousand works are credited to him. His influence on the music of Latin America was enormous, and his death left a distinct vacancy in the world of modern music. Music;classical

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Appleby, David P. Heitor Villa-Lobos: A Bio-Bibliography. Bio-Bibliographies in Music 9. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. A short informal biography is followed by a complete listing of the composer’s works and performances, including dates of composition and first performances. The discography section lists all major recordings and recently available recordings. Includes a selected bibliography, two appendixes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Heitor Villa-Lobos: A Life, 1887-1959. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002. Study of the composer’s development from childhood to obscurity to international success, based primarily on Villa-Lobos’s own private papers and correspondence. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gustaphson, Ralph. “Villa-Lobos and the Man-Eating Flower: A Memoir.” Music Quarterly 75 (Spring, 1991): 1-11. This remembrance of Villa-Lobos by one of his friends describes the composer during a visit to the United States in 1948 and provides insights as to the composer’s opinions on music, including his own music. Entertaining, thoughtful sketch.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mariz, Vasco. Heitor Villa-Lobos: Brazilian Composer. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1963. A biography of Villa-Lobos and study of his works by a Brazilian musicologist. Mariz offers a chapter on each genre of music the composer wrote: the Bachianas, the Chôros, the chamber music, the piano compositions, the symphonies, the vocal music, and the ballets. Originally published in Portuguese in 1949.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peppercorn, Lisa M. Villa-Lobos, the Music: An Analysis of His Style. London: Kahn and Averill, 1991. Peppercorn discusses selected works by Villa-Lobos and likes to point out what he borrowed from other composers, such as Claude Debussy and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. She does not demonstrate satisfactorily why Villa-Lobos is a great composer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, Simon. Villa-Lobos. Oxford Studies of Composers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. This study of Villa-Lobos’s music is useful and concise. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

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