The Kennedy Center

Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5

About the Work

 Villa-Lobos Composer: Villa-Lobos
© Thomas May

Not until the year after Heitor Villa-Lobos was born did his native Brazil legally abolish slavery. So it's easy to imagine just what an era of revolutionary change was under way as the young composer came of age in Rio de Janeiro. Villa-Lobos absorbed the idioms of the everyday popular music around him as an active participant; for a time he even earned his living by playing cello as a café musician. Already in 1905-a few years before Bartók began his famous ethno-musicological field research-Villa-Lobos began collecting examples of folk music in the northeastern states of Brazil. As was the case with Isaac Albéniz, Villa-Lobos loved to spin long, colorful tales out of the actual facts of his excursions (including accounts of his alleged capture by cannibals).

Villa-Lobos also liked to play up the non-academic aspect of his approach to composition-this even though he in fact did study at the National Institute of Music in Rio and later even became the architect of a system of music education that has had a profound impact on Brazil's cultural life. "My music is natural, like a waterfall," goes a typical pronouncement.

The quest to develop musical compositions using indigenous Brazilian elements fueled Villa-Lobos across his astonishingly prolific career, making him into his country's leading composer in the past century. At times this led to innovative approaches to form as well as function as he sought alternatives to European classical tradition. Although his reputation for a time suffered among his colleagues on account of his connections to the authoritarian regime of the dictator Getúlio Vargas, by the 1940s -when he completed the fifth in his series of Bachianas brasileiras-Villa-Lobos was riding a wave of international recognition and paid several important visits to the United States. His musical/folk operetta Magdalena opened on Broadway in 1948, becoming the most expensive show to have been produced on Broadway up to that time (though it was forced to close early owing to a musicians' strike).

Villa-Lobos also had fascinating connections to the European tradition-as both exporter of Brazilian idioms (he lived in Paris at various points in his life) and importer of such masters as J.S. Bach, a lifelong idol. The Bachianas brasileiras epitomize the composer's preoccupation with his Baroque predecessor-whom he regarded as "a mediator among all races"-and comprise a widely spanning series of nine suites (each from two to four movements long) that he wrote between 1930 and his time in New York in 1945. The word "suite" is especially suitable here, for in each Villa-Lobos alludes to the terminology of Bach's Baroque instrumental suites in the composite titles he gives most of the movements: the first evokes the world of Bach (Prelúdio, Aria, Fuga, and the like), while the second suggests a Brazilian context (as in Embolada, Modinha, Ponteio, etc.). In their musical content and form as well, the Bachianas brasileiras represent an idiosyncratic meeting ground of Baroque techniques and ideas with the folk and popular musical sources and even folklore from Brazil that were mother's milk for Villa-Lobos.

Some of the Bachianas are for chamber forces (one was even written for solo piano but later orchestrated), while others require a large orchestra. Number 5, the best known of the series, calls for eight cellos (Villa-Lobos's instrument) and soprano, using the voice both for traditional singing of words and for wordless vocalise (think of the first season of the Star Trek theme, the one featuring soprano). Its two movements were composed, respectively, in 1938 and 1945. The first, Aria (Cantilena), evokes the exquisite, longspun melodiousness of a Bach slow movement as it weaves the soprano's intonation in and against the ensemble of cellos playing in 5/4 meter. Its central section embeds folksong sensibility into the movement and sets a poem by the Brazilian writer Ruth Valadares Corrêa (also a soprano, who sang the Aria's world premiere). The poem is an ode to the moon's gentle rise against "the drowsy, beautiful firmament." Dança (Martelo) is the title of the later-composed second movement-martelo ("hammered"), notes the composer, referring to the persistence of the characteristically Brazilian rhythm of the embolada. The poem by Manuel Bandeira addresses a bird whose "songs come from the depths of the forest, like a breeze softening my heart."