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(1887-1959).  Brazil's greatest composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos was born in 1887 in Rio de Janeiro, and died in the same city in 1959.  His early musical life involved popular as much as classical music.  He played guitar in a "Choros" ensemble, where his nickname was "Classical Guitar".  He played in a cinema orchestra (accompanying silent films) at the Odeon Theatre, along with the great pianist Ernesto Nazareth.

On the classical side, he studied for a short time with various professors, but never completed any formal composition programme.  He played cello in symphonic and opera orchestras.  The cello was his first instrument; his father started him on a half-sized instrument.  Villa's on-the-job training as a composer included playing the works that influenced his early compositions.  He learned, from the inside-out, the operas of Puccini, orchestral works of the 19th century Russian masters, and the music of Stravinsky, which arrived in Brazil with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1913.

The early works of Villa-Lobos, written from 1907 to 1916, were in the salon style of the day, though the influence of the piano music of Maurice Ravel and especially Claude Debussy introduced a modernist flavour to his works.  Villa-Lobos's first wife Lucillia, an accomplished musician and pianist, collaborated on these works, and became his first best advocate in public recitals and concerts.  A number of operas were written in this period; only occasional excerpts remain in the repertoire.

1917 was the great year of the full flowering of his compositional genius, and shows the strongest examples of the twin influences of Debussy and Stravinsky.  The two orchestral works Uirapuru and Amazonas are Stravinskian tone-poems written for a very large orchestral complement.  Both works are based on Brazilian themes, and use a wide variety of Brazilian percussion instruments playing complex rhythms.

In the early 1920s Villa turned to the piano.  In Rio de Janeiro he met the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who became the model for the fiercely difficult work Rudepoema.  The three books of Prole do Bebe (the third of which was unfortunately lost) became an important part of Rubinstein's repertoire.

1922 was an important year in the intellectual life of Brazil.  With the Semana de Arte Moderna (Modern Art Week) in Sao Paulo, many of Brazil's artists, theorists, and propagandists came together to promote the idea of modernism.  A small group of musicians led by Villa-Lobos represented modernism in music.  Villa-Lobos was the centre of attention at concerts which excited controversy, and nearly ended in riots.  It was all according to plan...

With his modernist credentials polished up, Villa-Lobos was ready to make the journey to the cradle of modernism, and the centre of the musical world, Paris.

In Paris during 1923-24 and again for three years later in the decade, Villa-Lobos fraternized with Eric Satie, Sergei Prokofiev, Florent Schmitt, Edgard Varese, Arthur Honegger, Albert Roussel, and Olivier Messiaen.  He also met the master guitarist Andres Segovia, for whom he wrote some of his great works for guitar (which include the Preludes, Etudes, and the Guitar Concerto). 

In the 1920s he completed the series of Choros (works for solo guitar, piano, various chamber music combinations, orchestra, and chorus), which meld Brazilian rhythms with state-of-the-art modernist composition.

Back in Brazil in the early 1930s, Villa-Lobos turned to music education.  He organized the Excursão Artistica Villa-Lobos, a tour of 54 communities in the back country of Brazil.  Under the Getulio Vargas regime, which fostered a new spirit of nationalism, Villa-Lobos led a comprehensive program of music education that had a huge impact on the musical life and the political spirit of the country.  One of Villa-Lobos's most important contributions to musical nationalism was his creation in 1942 of both the National Conservatory and the Brazilian Academy of Music.

During the 1930s he began his second great series of music in various forms: the nine Bachianas Brasileiras, which combine a Brazilian musical sensibility with Bachian forms. 

The years of the Second World War brought important visitors from America to Brazil, part of the "Good Neighbor Policy" designed to counter the influence of the Axis powers in Latin America.  Orson Welles, Walt Disney and his talented animators, Leopold Stokowski, and Marian Anderson were some of the Americans who learned about Brazilian popular and erudite music from Villa-Lobos.

As the war drew to a close, Villa-Lobos made his first visit to America, which remained a favourite destination for the composer.   The U.S. was the scene of many triumphs over the next 15 years.  He received many commissions for symphonies, concertos, and chamber works; undertook a long series of concerts where he developed his conducting skills; and broke into Broadway and Hollywood.  He also returned to Paris for long periods in the 1950s.

Heitor Villa-Lobos died at his home in Rio de Janeiro, on November 17, 1959.
This biography was most recently edited by...
Simeon - 1 Feb 2010
steven - 14 Jan 2010
dfrey - 8 Apr 2009
dfrey - 7 Apr 2009
dfrey - 7 Apr 2009
dfrey - 5 Apr 2009
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