Heitor Villa-Lobos

Heitor Villa-Lobos (March 5, 1887 – November 17, 1959) was a Brazillian classical guitarist, composer, cellist, and conductor. 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. This perspective was clearly stated on a regular basis. For instance, when touring Europe with his music he’s known to have said, “I don’t use folklore, I am the folklore” (Eu sou o folclore).

The guitar music of Villa-Lobos can be described as very chordal, with rich, dark, and complex harmonies. In many of his pieces, Villa-Lobos might take a diminished chord shape and move it chromatically up and down the fretboard. His bold chords are often juxtaposed with sweet and sonorous melodies that are just as distinctive as they are memorable.

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

12 Etudes

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

When you hear the term etude or estudio (meaning study), there might be a connotation 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–and also some of the most profound–classical guitar etudes ever composed.

Each etude presents a variety of technical challenges for both the right and left hand. Some of the pieces are played at an incredibly fast tempo, requiring 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.

Villa-Lobos etudes are a terrific introduction to the work of Villa-Lobos. 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 well-known and beloved pieces in all of classical guitar repertoire. According to Julian Bream, there were supposedly six preludes in this collection originally, however the last one has been 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 the B section can clearly be described 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’s loud and bold single melodic line is layered on top of light harmonic accompaniment that helps facilitate movement within the piece. This type of textural blending is something Villa-Lobos does brilliantly on guitar, and makes each piece in this collection of preludes an absolute masterpiece.

Villa-Lobos – Suite populaire brésilienne

Villa-Lobos’ famous Suite Popular Brasileira (also titled Suite populaire brésilienne) has two “complete” editions that are often cited. 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 were found with dates ranging from 1923-1928. Some of these carried over to the 1955 edition, some new ones were added, and one (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. Below is 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. Etymologically speaking, chorar is a Portuguese verb meaning “to lament” or “to cry”. This meaning is certainly appropriate given the dark, often melancholy vibe found in many of Villa-Lobos’ popular works!

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, Villa-Lobos’ Chôro No.1 also follows this form structure!

The other related term was chorões, referring to instrumentalists who would gather in small ensembles to improvise and play music over well-known European dance pieces (waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, etc).

Bachianas Brasileiras

Villa-Lobos – Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 played by John Williams and Nana Mouskouri

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, and combined the composer’s love for Bach with his neoclassical, nationalistic Brazillian style of the time.

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

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