Saturday 25 November 2017

Bach of the net! This Samba star showed there's more to Brazil than soccer

George Hamilton

Football's Confederations Cup – the warm-up for the World Cup next year – took me on a first adventure to the wonderland that is Brazil. Believe all you've ever heard. Samba bands and soccer on the beach.

While there's enough to foment discord that brought tens of thousands on to the streets, the feel-good factor is still intense.

Brazil mightn't be the first place you'd think of in terms of classical music. But there was Moreau Gottschalk, the Chopin of the Creoles as he was known, the American composer whose extensive travels in South America coloured his work.

His first symphony, A Night in the Tropics, has its roots in the music of Brazil, with its syncopated score for brass. Poor Gottschalk died there, after collapsing on stage in Rio de Janeiro.

Then there's the man who sounds like he might be managing Tottenham Hotspur – Heritor Villa-Lobos. He was born in Rio in 1887 into a family with an interest in the arts. His father was a librarian, and a bit of a musician. His aunt loved Bach.

They gave the little boy a viola, but he was too small to get it under his chin, so he played it like a cello, and the cello would become his favourite instrument. He learned to play the guitar and the clarinet as well.

Heritor was only 12 when his dad died from malaria. All he had to contribute to the household – the way it was at the time, his mother had no career – was his music, so he would go out to play.

This wasn't the classics, not the music his father and his aunt would have loved, more the street music they wanted to hear in the cafés, and the kind of thing that would be played in picture houses to back up silent movies.

Things obviously settled down at home, for he felt free enough around the time he was 18 to take off and travel the vastness of Brazil. No easy thing in those days.

It was to prove a seminal period in his life. All that he learned of native music and rhythms would come to colour what he'd produce when he became a serious composer.

That followed his marriage to Lucília Guimarães, who was a pianist. She was instrumental in getting him to give up performing and get down to some serious writing. Heritor went at it with gusto. His output was immense.

He's best remembered for his Bachianas Brasileiras. The clue is in the title. This is Villa-Lobos saluting the German master his aunt had swooned over, nine very different pieces – for voice, for chamber ensemble and for orchestra – that marry the rhythms and colour of Brazilian music to a template laid down by the master of the Baroque.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

Irish Independent

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