Heitor Villa-Lobos was Brazil’s first composer of international stature, and, along with Argentina’s Alberto Ginastera, one of the two greatest to emerge from South America. His life was also one of the most fascinating, exotic, and colorful of any composer. Remarkable, scarcely credible tales abound, such as how he introduced the gramophone to isolated jungle tribes, and how he barely escaped being cooked for dinner by cannibals. Even his date of birth is unconfirmed, though most sources by now have settled on March 5, 1887.
Villa-Lobos learned music early, though haphazardly and mostly on his own. His special love was the cello, the instrument that makes up an entire “orchestra” in his most famous work, the Bachianas brasileiras No. 5. This piece, along with three other Bachianas (4, 7 and 9) ̶ inspired by Bach and greatly influenced by Braziilian folklore ̶ make up the music for the show The Enchanted Gift, with original choreography by Ivan Cavallari for Les Grands Ballets.
The cello also brought him spending money during his younger days through jobs in cafés and cinemas. At the age of eighteen, he took off for the wilds of Brazil, and for seven years studied the folk and popular music of Amazon tribes, an experience that was to have profound and lasting influence on his own compositions.
Subsequently, Villa-Lobos spent seven years in Paris (1923-1930), where he assimilated the European concert tradition. A third crucial element to his musical makeup was the chôros ̶ bands of bohemian street musicians in Rio whose free, rhapsodic, improvisational style of music-making suited Villa-Lobos’ personality perfectly.
No one knows for sure just how many works Villa-Lobos composed. Counts vary wildly, from about 700 to over 3,000, depending on how one calculates the total. Much of the catalogue is pedagogical material (he was in charge of reorganizing his country’s musical education system during the 1930s), many pieces exist in various arrangements, and much is lost. At any rate, he was extremely prolific, and often commented that he wrote “by biological necessity.” He was commonly seen scribbling away on manuscript paper while in the midst of conversation at a party or luncheon.
The sights, sounds, colors and national spirit of Brazil pervade much of Villa-Lobos’ music, but strong influences also come from the Russian composers and the French Impressionists. Transcending national boundaries and influences, though, much of Villa-Lobos’ music possesses a suave lyricism and laid-back charm.