Heitor Villa-Lobos, is one of the best-known Latin American composers of the 20th century and the most significant composer of Brazilian music to date. His work contains rich musical examples of Brazil’s diverse cultures. Through his music Villa-Lobos turned the dynamic landscape of his country into a driving, rhythmic soundscape which changed the sound of classical music in the Americans.
Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro on March 5, 1887. His father, who was a talented amateur musician and librarian, introduced him to music. After his father died in 1899 Heitor became a professional musician who played the cello in bars and cafes to escape the career in medicine that his mother had planned for him.
In 1905 Villa-Lobos made the first of many trips into the vast interior of Brazil. There he absorbed a dazzling array of musical influences from his country’s three primary ethnic groups: Portuguese, African and Amerindian. Even though he studied briefly at the National Institute of Music in Rio de Janeiro, he never conformed or compromised his style. Many years later he said, “My music is natural like a waterfall.” He blended these distinct musical styles into one, separating them forever from European classical music. By doing so, he gave his country a revitalized musical foundation with a vivid, distinct voice of its own.
One of his most important compositions is a series of nine suites written between 1930 and 1945 called Bachianas Brasileiras. Each suite creatively adapts traditional Baroque harmonies and counterpoint to Brazilian music.
After a taste of success as well as controversy, Villa-Lobos traveled to Paris in 1923. Paris during the 1920s was an artistic haven and a “home away from home” to many musicians from around the world. At the time African music was particularly in vogue, so Villa-Lobos’ melodies and the fluid motions of his exotic rhythms captivated his audience in Paris.
When Heitor Villa-Lobos returned to Rio de Janeiro in 1930, he was named director of music education in the city. He began his second career by designing a complete system of musical instruction which influenced Brazilians for several generations. Basing his programs on Brazil’s varied musical cultures and patriotism, his legacy endures today.
Heitor Villa-Lobos remains one of the most powerful and unique composers of the early 20th century. During his career he composed numerous orchestral, chamber, instrumental, and vocal works. By using his natural curiosity and delving into the anthropology of his country, he brought an ethnic influence into classical music which gave it a powerful and lasting musical language in the New World.