HEITOR VILLA-LOBOS was one of the twentieth century’s most beloved, most revered and most prolific composers, equally inspired whether composing songs, orchestral works, dance works or instrumental works, or works for Broadway, opera or film. His music is noted for its exotic sounds from the rain forests of his country, for its inventiveness in form, and for its synthesis of influences from Brazilian popular and folk music and European classical tradition into his own “universal” style.
It has been estimated that his catalogue includes over 1,200 compositions. Among his works are: Emperor Jones (choreographed by Jose Limòn), Bachianas Brasileiras #5 (recorded by such diverse artists as Victoria de los Angeles and Joan Baez), Bachianas Brasileiras #2 Finale--The Little Train of the Backwoods (recorded by Herb Alpert), and Magdalena (a musical for Broadway with lyrics written by Robert Wright and George Forrest, which starred John Raitt, Irra Petina and Dorothy Sarnoff, and was directed by Jules Dassin). Late in his life, he also composed the score for the 1959 MGM film Green Mansions, based on naturalist William Henry Hudson’s literary classic set in the Amazon rain forest. The film starred Audrey Hepburn, Anthony Perkins and Lee J. Cobb.
Villa-Lobos’ personality was as large as his musical output. He wrote under any conditions, not distracted by the comings and goings of visitors to his apartments, television programs playing in the background, or any other activities of life around him. He loved to entertain others with stories about his adventures in the interiors of his country – one famous story being that when he was travelling through the rain forest with his cello, he was captured by unfriendly inhabitants and escaped death at their hands only because he was able to charm them completely by playing his music for them.
Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro on March 5, 1887. His first music teacher was his father, Raul Villa-Lobos, who taught him cello on a viola he re-constructed for that purpose, and made him take dictation from every sound he heard. Villa-Lobos later played the cello in cinema orchestras and cafés, as well as guitar and clarinet in street bands. In his late teenage years, Villa-Lobos explored Brazil’s interior, and was exposed to the folkloric music of his country. This experience led him to disregard conventional compositional training, and made him a lifelong advocate of using popular and folkloric themes in Brazilian concert music.
Still, European influences were important to his development as a composer, including his exposure to the Ballet Russes when they toured Brazil in 1917. At that time, he also met French composer Darius Milhaud, who exposed Villa-Lobos to the music of Debussy, Satie and possibly Stravinsky. It was also during this time that Villa-Lobos met pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who became his mentor and champion.
In the 1920s, Villa-Lobos went to Paris, where he received significant recognition for his work, most notably his Choros, a number of chamber and orchestral works based on the melodies of the street music he so loved of his country. During this time he was in contact with many international figures such as Varese, Stokowski, Copland, Segovia and Picasso.
In the 1930s, Villa-Lobos returned to Brazil, where he devoted his time to another one of his passions – music education -- following his conviction that music was a universal language capable of bringing people together. During this period, he also wrote many of his Bachianas Brasileiras, which combined the influences and forms of Bach with Brazilian popular and folk music, and became some of his most widely-played pieces.
After the end of the second World War, Villa-Lobos spent months of every year in the United States, receiving many commissions, and fulfilling them in spite of his failing health. Among these were several commissions for major orchestras, such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and major solo artists such as cellist Aldo Parisot, pianist Ellen Ballon, guitarist Andre Segovia, harpist Nicanor Zabaleta, and harmonica virtuoso John Sebastian. Villa-Lobos also received ballet commissions for Genesis from Janet Collins and for Emperor Jones for Jose Limón, and the commission for an opera, Garcia Lorca’s Yerma.
During this period, he enjoyed tremendous international recognition as a composer and as a conductor of his own works. Among the awards he received were the Légion d’Honneur from France and the Richard Strauss Medal from Germany, and many honorary doctorates from universities in the United States and around the world.
Long an advocate for peace, and for bridging cultural divides through music, Villa-Lobos addressed the United Nations on this subject. He considered his homeland of Brazil a true “melting pot” nation of the world, aptly summarizing his feelings in the lyric of his 1950 song Samba Clássico – “Happy is one who lives in this holy land with no chosen race nor preferred creed.” This “universal” harmony was his fervent hope for the world.
He died in Rio de Janiero on November 17, 1959. The epitaph on his gravestone reads: “I consider my works to be letters to posterity, written without expectation of an answer.”