Bachianas brasileires No.5

          Brazil is a large and diverse country, with a veritable kaleidoscope of cultures and artistic styles.  While many composers have sought to blend elements of their native lands into the techniques and traditions of European art music, few achieved the unique integration of Villa-Lobos’ personal style.   Villa-Lobos from an early age was immersed, not only in the folk music of Brazil, but also in the popular music of its urban environment.   While he was largely self-educated as a composer, his father played an important rôle in his early musical education.  Young Heitor learned to play the clarinet, later his favorite instrument, the cello, and (secretly from his father’s knowledge) the ever-popular guitar--the bane of Brazilian proper society.  Villa-Lobos is not only the most important Brazilian composer of the twentieth century, but also one whose musical style and imagination place him among the original major composers of the period.  Traveling wide and far in his native land to expose himself to the delights of Brazil’s cultures, he also studied the music of Europe, particularly that of musical impressionism.  While contributing works in many genres, vocal and instrumental, he is especially important for the history of twentieth-century piano literature, many of which works were premièred by his wife, Lucília Guimarães, whom he married in 1913.   By the 1920s he had achieved a world-wide reputation, and spent much of that decade in Europe, especially Paris.  While there, he met and associated with many of the important musical luminaries of the time, and enjoyed a professional success unique among Latin American composers.

          During the period from 1930 to 1945 Villa-Lobos composed a series of works entitled Bachianas brasileiras.  There are nine of them, and they vary in their orchestrations.  Some are instrumental, while others included vocal parts.   All are so called because Villa-Lobos envisioned them as an homage to the universality to all peoples of the music of J.S. Bach.   These works, although including elements of eighteenth-century musical style, are all completely original compositions with a Brazilian flair.  One of the most important genres of the Baroque period was the suite, consisting of several dance movements.   Villa-Lobos followed this model in the  Bachianas brasileiras, labeling each movement of most of these works with a double title--one traditional Baroque, and the other a Brazilian characterization.  No. 5 is scored for solo soprano and cello ensemble.  It is probably Villa-Lobos’ most famous work.  Its beautiful first movement is a stunningly evocative combination of the Baroque, guitar-like pizzicato in the cello choir, and popular modinha vocal style.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan