Monday, April 27, 2009

The Bachianas Brasileiras of Heitor Villa-Lobos - A Response to Hannah Porter's Journal Entry

There are several reasons to appreciate music. It can be for its beautiful melodies, harmonies and timbres. It can be for the way the composer has woven together previously unrelated ideas in new ways. It can be enjoyed for the emotions and feeling that surface through the listening process. Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras fulfill all three of these qualifications of “good” music. In Hannah Porter’s journal article, she argues that that these works should be enjoyed as a whole rather than trying to disect the parts. In fact, the thick orchestration of many of the Bachianas Brasileiras makes it difficult to clearly hear every note that is played. However, each line that Villa-Lobos writes has such an interesting character that I cannot help but to want to follow to see where it leads.

I was drawn to the same two Bachianas that Hannah explored, nos. 1 and 6, as well as no. 3 (for Piano and Orchestras). The first Bachiana is for an orchestra of violincelli. I think Villa-Lobos was on to something with this unique instrumentation. The ‘cello is such a versatile instrument because of its wide range and warm, rich timbre. It can be at once jarringly rhythmic and beautifully melodic. In the Introduction(Embolada) Villa-Lobos presents a Brazilian rhythmic motif that is played in the higher register while a nationalistic melody in the lower register brings to heart the passion of the Brazilian people. This theme comes to back at the end to the movement closure. The second movement is a Preludio and a Modhina. It feels like a lament at times with desceding lines and at other times it feels more like an empending tornado of emotions. There are chromatic rises and falls interspersed among lush, romantic sweeps. Villa-Lobos takes the listener from the Brazilian countryside to a cafĂ© in Rio in a matter of seconds. The third movement, a fugal “conversation” is perhaps the most Bachian of the first Brasileira, yet it’s A theme speaks of the influence of the Arab immigrants in northern Brasil, where Villa-Lobos visited. As the movement progresses the language of Bach becomes more prominent, yet I never forget where I am at in the world. Ms. Porter is correct in ascertaining that the fugue is definitely the most “baroque” sounding movement of the work and that the composer succeeds in demonstrating the similarities between music that is two centuries and a globe apart.

Bachiana Brasileira No. 6 for flute and basson is perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of music that exists. Again, the passion of Brasil and its people comes through strikingly clear. While the instruments and compositional style are quite European, even in the most romantic composers it is difficult to find this kind of emotional expression. No. 6 is another example, also, of unique instrumentation. I believe there is great merit in combining varying timbres because the overtones that one instrument lacks, the other fills in. In this case, the flute, which has such a pure tone, creates overtones that have more relative space, while the bassoon’s overtones are more rich and thus cover some of the emptiness of the flute. It is a work such as this that would inspire me to learn one of these sonorous instruments.

Leaning towards beautiful timbres, my other favorite Bachiana Brasileira is No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra. The piano makes this piece. Like the ‘cello, the piano is quite versatile and seems to be well suited for just about any style of music, especially the dramtically emotional music of latin America. While I am usually one to loathe the genre of concerto for the lack of inspiration that the orchestra recieves, Villa-Lobos pulls this one off. His use of timbres is unique and modernistic. Of all of the Bachianas, this one (the first movement in particular) I could hear in a dark adventure movie as background during a development. Batman goes to Brasil? The fourth movement introduces a xylophone to play with the high winds. As a percussionist I appreciate this, although it surprises me that coming from a country with such a rich percussion tradition that the only idiophones and membranophones used are those that are directly European. It makes me think that Villa-Lobos was working within certain boundaries and had a very specific audience that he was trying to appeal to, namely that of upper-class Europe. It is evident from the stories he told aristocrats in Paris about his travels to the savage jungles of Brasil that he was trying to impress. To this degree I think it is unfortunate that the composer did not use more colors of Brasil aside from melodies, scales and rhythms. I think Bach’s musical style could benefit from an added pandeiro, surdo, ganza or tamborim. While Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras are perfect for what they are: some of the most beautiful compositions ever, the genre he invented leaves much room for expansion. In addition to Ms. Porter’s hope that these works be studied and appreciated as they are, I sincerely hope that composers of the present and future take up where Villa-Lobos left off.


Peppercorn, Lisa. Villa-Lobos: The Music. New York: Pro/Am Music Resources Inc. 1991.
Mariz, Vasco. Villa-Lobos: Life and Work of the Brazilian Composer. University of Florida Press 1970.
Peppercorn, Lisa. “Villa-Lobos’ Brazilian Excursions.”
The Musical Times, Vol. 113, No. 1549 (Mar.,
1972), pp. 263-265.

No comments:

Post a Comment