Villa-Lobos is the obvious stop en route from Milhaud to Niemeyer. (You might get sent to the YouTube site to listen to this. It is worth watching as well as hearing.)
Many things, including much of the music, prevent people from recognising Heitor Villa-Lobos as a great composer. Stravinsky was asked whether Elgar was a great composer. “Of course he is not, but he is thought greatly of.” A nice Stravinskyism and, of course, like some other nice Stravinskyisms, nonsense.
Villa-Lobos’s quartets are in the league of Bartók’s and Shostakovich’s, some have said, (Haydn, he tells us, was his model), but they were unknown until recently, at least outside Brazil. I have argued (not here) for the seventeenth.
Peter Schneider has put the third movement of the sixth over his own photographs of people in Amsterdam. Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Saul Bitran – violin 1, Aron Bitran – violin 2, Javier Montiel – viola, Alvaro Bitran – cello. If you listen to this, especially the middle section, you might find yourself thinking: “Perhaps he really is a great composer.”
Villa-Lobos is comparable (and contrastable) with Milhaud in many different ways, which I don’t have time to summarise. From 1917 to 1918 (nearly two years) Milhaud was secretary to Paul Claudel, the French ambassador to Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro. He would set many of Claudel’s dramatic works to music and composed an orchestral Symphonie pour l’univers claudélien as late as 1968.
Claudel was an austere Catholic, but the French legation in those years may itself have been a conduit for new cultural ideas entering Brazil.
The Ballets russes visited in 1917 (without Diaghilev). Villa-Lobos, according to Milhaud, in his Ma vie heureuse (shocking title), was still playing the cello in front of a cinema (which others have said was the Odeon in the Avenida Rio Branco). He was busking as late as 1917? That was the year of his revolutionary Amazonas and of Uirapuru.
In February 1922, he would participate in the Semana de Arte Moderna, the Week of Modern Art, in São Paulo: a seminal and never-forgotten event in Brazilian cultural history.
His quartets are distributed over his career, with a gap in the ’20s. Numbers 5 and 6 were respectively termed “Popular” and “Brazilian” quartets. They were written in 1931 and ’38. This was during the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas.
Vargas was in power from 1930 to ’45 – and those are exactly the years of the idiosyncratic synthesis of Bach with Brazilian musical elements that Villa-Lobos called his Bachianas Brasileiras. In some works in that series (which, like the Chôros which preceded them, were scored for anything from a single instrument to a large orchestra) he was a great composer. For exuberance, his own recordings of them (and of much else) for French EMI in the ’50s, collected in a huge boxed set called Villa-Lobos par lui-même, have never been beaten.
The folksy fifth quartet is played more often than the, I think, more interesting sixth. What we have in this clip is only the third movement of a consistently inspired work. Like many other composers, he had written in a wilder, more experimental, way in the ’20s (the Chôros) and felt a need in the ’30s for a return to somewhat tighter formal structures. His weakness was diffuseness. Hence the Bachianas and the renewed interest in the discipline of quartet-writing.
It was also, for Villa-Lobos as for many composers in the ’30s, a matter of making their music more comprehensible and communicative, of coming out of the ivory tower of the avant-garde. Compare Rudepoêma (1921-26) with Ciclo Brasiliero (1936-37), both for piano (though the ’20s also produced the straightforward Cirandinhas and Cirandas). The sixth quartet was written at the time when, in the northern part of the hemisphere, Copland was writing his most appealing music (the period from El Salón México in 1936 to the second set of Old American Songs in 1952). Even Bartók wrote a popular masterpiece in 1943.
After the war, Villa-Lobos’s large-scale works were often rather formulaic responses to commissions. Most of his best work was in the chamber medium.
Distribution of the quartets:
The most enjoyable may be the rather innocent first, and the sixth and seventeenth. The slow movement of the sixteenth has harmonic transfigurations worthy of the Hammerklavier.