VILLA-LOBOS: A Prole do Bebe, No. 1 / Cirandas (Sonia Rubinsky) (Naxos: 8.554489)
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Piano Music Volume 1
Heitor Villa-Lobos is universally recognized as the greatest and mostinfluential Brazilian composer. He was extremely prolific and his enormousoutput includes works composed in every genre, ranging from educational piecesfor the piano to large dramatic works and film-scores.
Villa-Lobos's style resulted from an eclectic training and from theassimilation of apparently conflicting influences, which he managed to absorbon a self-taught basis rather than subjecting himself to any formal academicinstruction. These influences derive from three sources: the folk traditions ofBrazil, with their combination of African, Amerindian, and Portuguese elements,the urban popular music of Rio de Janeiro and other cities, and the Europeanavant-garde at the beginning of the twentieth century. The ease and spontaneitywith which he mingled such diverse elements in his music have created somedifficulty for scholars, who are still baffled by his extremely free treatmentof form and thematic development.
The nationalistic element that pervades the music of Villa-Lobos isundoubtedly its most distinctive and unifying feature, as he made clear in oneof his many speeches: "My work is the consequence of predestination, andit is so vast because it is the fruit of an immense, ardent and generousland". He travelled widely in Brazil, collecting folk-melodies andnoting down regional dances and chants which he later incorporated in his worksor used as raw material for ingenious rhythmic and harmonic experiment. Thesetravels in Brazil gave him a solid basis on which to build the main elements ofhis nationalistic style, which he enriched by incorporating techniques derivedfrom urban popular music. In his youth, he was relentlessly drawn to thebohemian atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro, and his contact with the popularmusicians of his time helped him develop his taste for improvisation and for aflexible treatment of melody and rhythm. Other aspects of Villa-Lobos's earlyapprenticeship were his broad knowledge of the technical capabilities ofmusical instruments, several of which he played himself, and his acute sense oftone-colour. His father trained him, from an early age, in the task ofdistinguishing and responding to a variety of sounds, not only those producedby musical instruments and their endless combinations, but also to sounds foundin the environment, noises from the city, and those produced by animals. Thispractice established the basis for his rich and varied sound palette, whichbecame one of the hallmarks of his style.
In addition to the national roots of Villa-?¡Lobos's style, there wasalso an international aspect to it, which sprang mostly from his years of studyin Paris between 1923-1930. His journey to Paris was mainly the result ofArthur Rubinstein's efforts. Rubinstein met Villa-Lobos in Rio de Janeiro in1918 and was deeply impressed by his music, as can be inferred from this note: "I became convinced that thiscountry [Brazil] has in this composer an eminent artist, equal to the greatestcomposers in Europe. He has all the characteristics of a musical genius".
(A Noticia, 6/24/1920). Rubinstein quickly arranged for financialsupport so that Villa-Lobos could go to Paris. There, he was received extremelywell, and concerts of his works were invariably successful. He was also inclose contact with the most prominent musicians and artists living in the city,and it was during this time that his international reputation began toestablish itself. Villa-Lobos travelled to Paris following the start of theModernist Movement in Brazil, which was launched by a series of important andground-breaking artistic events in 1922, with Villa-Lobos himself as one of itsmost prominent advocates. It might seem paradoxical, therefore, that at a timewhen the avant-garde in Brazil were trying to free their artistic products fromoutside influences, Villa-Lobos went to Europe, supposedly with the intentionof studying the European avant-garde. That was not so, however. According tohim, he went to Paris with the express purpose of showing himself anddisplaying his accomplishments, which he undoubtedly succeeded in doing. Thesecircumstances help clarify the national ideal as cultivated by Villa-Lobos. Theuniversal appeal of his music is due to the fact that he transcended the"exotic" quality of his folk material, by presenting it in a dazzlingand highly imaginative aural landscape. By doing so, he also established anideological foundation for the next generations of young Brazilian composers,who were often divided between allegiance to their national roots and thedesire to embrace a more universal musical style.
Returning to Brazil in1930, Villa-Lobos became extremely active as a promoter of musical education inall levels of society, and he managed to engage the government in majorprojects whose importance and later developments can still be felt today.
During this period he also travelled throughout the Americas, and theincreasing popularity of his works further contributed to the consolidation ofhis status as a world-renowned composer. When he died in 1959, he had an arrayof distinctive titles from cultural and political institutions in severalcountries and his music was already deeply engraved in the minds of millions ofadmirers.
Villa-Lobos was not avirtuoso pianist (the cello was his primary instrument). This did not preventhim, however, from devoting a large portion of his output to the piano. Infact, about one fifth of his works (a little over two hundred compositions)were written for piano solo. Most importantly, he showed a remarkableunderstanding of the technical and expressive possibilities of the instrument.
This familiarity with the piano developed after his marriage in 1913 to LuciliaGuimar?úes, a virtuoso pianist who was especially fond of music by Schumann andChopin. This also helps explain why the influence of these two composers is soreadily identifiable in Villa-Lobos's style of piano-writing. An importantfeature of Villa-Lobos's piano music is the wealth of themes derived from orinspired by the world of childhood. It is interesting that Villa?¡-Lobos, havingno children of his own, used to refer to his works as his "children".
Moreover, in his works for piano solo he presents a microcosm of Brazilian lifeand national traditions, similar to that achieved by Bartok in Hungary.
Before proceeding todiscuss the pieces in this programme, a word should be said about the use offolk material in Villa-Lobos's work. Folk melodies and rhythms are used byVilla-Lobos in two slightly different ways. First, there are those pieces inwhich the folk material is quoted almost verbatim within a context of simpleand straightforward harmonic elaboration, such as in the collection of didacticpieces Guia Pr?ótico (1932-1949); second, and perhaps more significantly,there are more elaborate works in which the folk material is used as a basisfor complex structures, and the transformations to which it is subject arecarried on in such an original fashion that it is possible to speak of actualre-creation. To this group belongs the collection of Cirandas (1926),which will be discussed below.
Villa-Lobos composedthree collections of short pieces called Prole do Beb?¬, each one of themdevoted to a different aspect of a child's imagination. The first from 1918portrays the different personalities and attributes of dolls, the second from1921 is devoted to animals, and the third from 1916 depicts children's games.
This last series was never published, and its manuscript was lost. The firstseries is by far the most f