Tuesday 12 December 2017

Classical: From Bach to Brazil - the sweet music of Heitor Villa-Lobos

Prolific: Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959).
Prolific: Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959).

George Hamilton

Brazil might not be the first place to come to mind when you think of classical music. Oh yes, there's the samba and its derivative, the bossa nova, but Bach? Appearances can be deceptive. After all, Brazil boasts the Bolshoi Ballet's only academy outside Russia. It's based in Joinville, a city in the south of the country.

There's also the magnificent marble-fronted opera house in Manaus, deep in the Amazonian jungle, an attempt by the local rubber barons to create for themselves something to match the sophistication of far off São Paulo or Rio.

And as for Bach? Well, Johann Sebastian was a huge influence on the greatest musical export from the biggest country in Latin America.

The Bachianas Brasileiras - a fusion of the great German's music and the sounds and the rhythms of Brazil - is the most recognisable part of the legacy of Heitor Villa-Lobos, who was born in Rio de Janeiro on this day in 1887.

There are nine Bachianas in all, written for various combinations of voice and instruments.

Villa-Lobos's musical education came from many different sources. There was the viola that he was given as a little boy, too little to get it under his chin. He played it like a cello. The cello would become his favourite instrument and features prominently in the Bachianas.

Heitor was only 12 when his dad died, leaving him the main breadwinner in the family. He went out to play, first as a guitarist in a street band.

This was his principal instrument into his mid-20s. Only then did he learn to play the piano. His wife was a pianist.

He travelled to Europe and, at a party in Paris, met the greatest guitarist of the time - Andrés Segovia.

Segovia asked him to write a little study for him. Villa-Lobos came back with 12. (Segovia would become one of the most frequent performers of the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos.)

The enthusiastic response to that commission was typical of Villa-Lobos. He threw himself into his work with abandon.

He'd scribble down ideas as they came to him, and would rarely return to polish the finished article. He just wanted to get the music out there.

As a result, the quality can be uneven, critics suggesting that some of it does actually give the impression of having been written in a hurry.

It's true, the output of Villa-Lobos is vast. He dabbled in opera and ballet, and tried concerto and symphony too, as well as his own more idiosyncratic creations - over 1,500 works in all.

But for the many there may be that can be left to one side, there are mighty successes that far outweigh those pieces.

Chôros, another suite of his, is an example. Made up of 14 disparate approaches to the making of the music, solo guitar and solo piano, a male chorus and seven wood instruments, three horns and trombone, all feature and the full orchestra gets a look in too.

Chôros No 10 - for choir and orchestra - is reckoned to be one of his greatest works. Known as 'It Tears Your Heart' after lyrics put to it subsequently by a Brazilian poet, it's a melodic exploration of what happened when humans arrived in the rainforest.

All 14 Chôros fuse disparate influences. Villa-Lobos summed it up: Brazil is a heart-shaped country and all Brazilians feel its vibrant rhythm. He saw it as his mission to deliver this in a musical form.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday morning from 10am

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