Heitor Villa-Lobos


Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos was born on March 5, 1887 and died on November 17, 1959. In addition to being a composer, he was also a guitarist, cellist, and conductor. Villa-Lobos learned some music basics from his father, who was an amateur musician. Apart from this, he had very little formal music education in his youth.

Instead, he was heavily influenced by indigenous cultures of Brazil. At the age of twelve, he even earned a living playing music at local theater orchestras after his father’s sudden passing. However, Villa-Lobos was later influenced by European music. This fusion of musical styles is evident in most of his compositions for guitar.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music describes Villa-Lobos as “the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music”.

Heitor Villa-lobos
Heitor Villa-Lobos

Indeed, Villa-Lobos’ compositions remain as some of the most popular and well-known in all of South America. Many composers face significant challenges both professionally and financially during the course of their lives.

However, this is not the case for Villa-Lobos! He was in high-demand as a performer, composer, and conductor throughout his life.

His neoclassical and nationalistic music and legacy continued to inspire people worldwide after his death in 1959. In fact, Villa-Lobos was so highly esteemed that he was even featured on the Brazillian 500 Cruzados banknote in 1986.

photo of villa-lobos on Brazillian 500 Cruzados banknote, via Wikimedia Commons
Casa da Moeda do Brasil, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Villa-Lobos’ compositions have a unique blend of Brazillian and European music influences. However, he is also known for ‘liberating’ Brazillian music from the traditional confines of European music models in the 1920s.

For instance, one of his most famous quotes while touring Europe is: “I don’t use folklore, I am the folklore” (Eu sou o folclore).

Want to learn more about the life and legacy of Villa-Lobos? Check out this biography by David Appleby.

Villa-Lobos classical guitar music is very chordal, with rich, dark, and complex harmonies. In many of his pieces, Villa-Lobos takes a diminished chord shape, and moves it chromatically up and down the fretboard.

He often contrasts these bold chord with sweet and sonorous melodies, many of which are distinctive and memorable.

Here’s some of Villa-Lobos’ most popular and beloved guitar compositions:

You can buy an excellent collection of Villa-Lobos solo guitar works here:

12 Etudes

Villa-Lobos – 12 Etudes for Guitar (Score Video)

When you hear the term etude or estudio, meaning study, you may think that the piece is simple or easy. Well, anyone who’s played through Villa-Lobos’ famous collection of 12 etudes (Douze Études) knows that assumption is false!

In my opinion, the Villa-Lobos etudes are some of the most challenging–yet profound–classical guitar etudes of all time.

Each etude presents a variety of technical challenges for both the right and left hand. The tempo markings for some of the pieces are incredibly fast. Therefore, these upbeat studies require advanced precision and delicacy (particularly etude No.1 and No.2).

Each etude also features bold chords with strong dynamic sequences, as is true with almost every Villa-Lobos composition.

These 12 etudes are a terrific introduction to the Villa-Lobos guitar music. They’re also useful for learning/practicing techniques and exploring chordal and melodic phrases all over the fretboard.

You can download Villa-Lobos 12 Etudes sheet music for free here!

5 Preludes

Villa-Lobos – 5 Preludes for Guitar

Villa-Lobos’ set of five preludes for guitar are some of the most popular pieces in all of classical guitar repertoire. According to Julian Bream, there were supposedly six preludes in this collection originally. But unfortunately, the last one appears to be lost.

These intensely emotional pieces mostly create a deep, dark, and heavy atmosphere. An exception may be the A section of Prelude No.2. However, I often describe the B section of Prelude No.2 as “deep, dark, and heavy” as well.

These preludes are not only interesting melodically and harmonically, but they’re also very textural. For instance, Prelude No.4 has a loud and bold single melodic line that’s layered on top of light harmonic accompaniment. This harmonic and textural contrast helps facilitate movement within the piece.

In fact, this type of textural blending is something Villa-Lobos does brilliantly on guitar. All of these techniques combine to make each piece in this collection of preludes an absolute masterpiece.

Villa-Lobos – Suite populaire brésilienne

There are two “complete” editions of Villa-Lobos’ famous Suite Popular Brasileira (or Suite populaire brésilienne) that people often cite. The most frequently performed publication of the suite is the 1955 edition by Max Eschig, which includes five movements.

However, earlier publications of the suite have dates ranging from 1923-1928. Some of these arrangements carried over to the 1955 edition, and some new ones were added. In the chart below, you’ll notice that the Valse-Chôro from the 1920s edition was replaced by an entirely different piece. All of the these changes were verified and chosen by the composer himself.

The differences in suite editions can be a little confusing. So here’s a breakdown of the differences between the two publications and their movements:

Villa-Lobos Suite populaire bresilienne edition comparison chart
Villa-Lobos Suite populaire bresilienne – Edition Comparison Chart

Chôros No.1

Villa-Lobos – Chôro No.1 played by David Russell

Villa-Lobos’ fun and lively Chôro No.1 is a favorite in the classical guitar repertoire. The term “chôro” has several meanings, especially unique to Brazillian music. Chorar is a Portuguese verb meaning “to lament” or “to cry”. This meaning is certainly appropriate given the dark, often melancholy vibe his works are known for!

From a musical perspective, the term chôro meant at least two different things in the late 19th century. Structurally, a chôro was a rondo in duple meter, where the A section repeats three times (ABACA). True to form, Chôro No.1 also follows this form structure!

The other related term was chorões. This refers to musicians who would gather in small ensembles to improvise over well-known European waltzes, polkas, and mazurkas.

Bachianas Brasileiras

Bachianas Brasileiras No.5

Between the years of 1930-1945, Villa-Lobos composed nine pieces he named Bachianas Brasileiras (Brazilian Bachian pieces).

These pieces also take the form of chôros mentioned above. They combine the composer’s love for Bach with his neoclassical, nationalistic Brazillian style of the time.

Many of the Bachianas Brasileiras were arranged for various instruments. Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 (featured in the video above) is perhaps his most well-known for solo voice and guitar accompaniment.