Left: Heitor Villa-Lobos at the end of a concert in Tel Aviv, 1952; right: Villa-Lobos, circa 1922 (photos: Wikipedia.org)
On the morning of August 25, 1954, New York Times
readers found much of Page One devoted to the news that Brazil’s
president Getúlio Vargas who had dominated his nation’s politics for a
quarter of a century even when in short-term eclipse had killed
himself. The man so cryptic that historian Richard Bourne called him
“the Sphinx of the Pampas” had sprung one last surprise on his foes.
accused Vargas of undue charm-offensives. In fact, through his
diminutive physique (a mere five feet two inches tall), through his
bespectacled face, and through his temperament, he made Gerald Ford look
like Justin Bieber. Having achieved absolute office in a 1930 coup,
Vargas first used his unbridled strength to smash Brazil’s hitherto
influential Communist Party; then, when national fascist elements
thought they had a faithful patron in him, he shunted them to
the sidelines. Having bestowed upon the Third Reich’s representatives
enough honeyed words to suggest that he would join the Axis, he
proceeded to hurl the considerable weight of Brazil’s army on the side
of the Allies. Brazilian troops saw particularly severe fighting against
Mussolini’s Salò Republic. Forced to resign six months after Nazi rule
collapsed, Vargas vegetated within the federal senate before returning
to the presidential palace in a 1951 election that even his enemies
admitted to be fair. But that same army which he had sent to oppose the
Führer and the Duce increasingly gave up on him, as inflation approached
Weimar Republic levels. Rather than aggravating what had already become
a low-level civil war in the streets of Rio (the capital would not move
to Brasilia for another six years), Vargas entered one of the palace
bedrooms and there committed suicide. The pyjamas which he wore while
doing the deed, and the revolver with which he did it, have been on museum display ever since.
would not require more than a footnote to cultural history if he had
not done the arts a turn so good as to compel our gratitude long after
his economic and administrative policies the policies in which he took
the greatest pride had ceased to interest anyone save specialists.
That good turn consisted of supporting Heitor Villa-Lobos, by every
possible and many an impossible measure the most musically talented man
that South America has ever produced.
In 1930 Villa-Lobos, having turned 43, could not forever continue brandishing the flag of enfant-terribilisme.
He had eagerly waved that flag for as long as he could, and perhaps
longer than was prudent. For example, he rewrote his own résumé with a
frantic imaginativeness that might have made Lawrence of Arabia blanch.
Like Lawrence, he showed such flair at having blended spin-doctoring
with equivocations, half-truths, and periodic outright lies that the
resultant heady postmodernist brew frustrated genuine scholarship for
decades ahead. If Villa-Lobos’s own accounts are to be believed, he
spent part of his pre-1914 youth hobnobbing with cannibals of the
Brazilian jungle. It took the 1980s’ researches of biographer Lisa M.
Peppercorn to dispel these myths, which Villa-Lobos circulated in order
to make himself more novel to European audiences, and which must
eventually have alarmed him by the completeness with which they attained
official sanction. Let us reflect upon that profound caveat from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
spectacle of governments using the Servile State’s full weaponry to
exalt individual musicians a spectacle which necessitates demonizing,
and occasionally means jailing or murdering, other individual musicians
not thus pampered proved so catastrophic in its outcomes for most of
the 20th century (Goebbels, Zhdanov, and Madame Mao are merely the three
most notorious names which come to mind) that Villa-Lobos’s creative
success is more remarkable than ever. Perhaps it can be in part ascribed
to Vargas’s fundamental philistinism. Concert-going, when Vargas could
not shirk it, bored him to distraction. What he did have was the
instinctive perception that music would be important for his regime;
that Villa-Lobos would be important for music; and that whatever kept
Villa-Lobos on side was, within reason, worth fostering. Which is why,
only two years after taking office, he appointed Villa-Lobos to the role
of general manager at Brazil’s SEMA (Superindendéncia de Educaçao Musical e Artistica).
This role ensured that in Dr. Peppercorn’s words Villa-Lobos, “at
the age of 45 … had for the first time a salaried position.”
Villa-Lobos supped with the Devil, he managed to employ a remarkably
long spoon. His pedagogic and other official pieces do not represent him
at his most interesting, granted. Still, compared with the
near-pornographic love-letters to collective farms and hydroelectric
power stations by which Stalin’s tame minstrels avoided the gulag, their
virtues are conspicuous. And as for his non-official pieces, they give
no indication of a free spirit having sold his soul.
soul, and the nation’s, Villa-Lobos expressed at length through his
obviously exotic utterances, best known of these being the series of
nine Bachianas Brasileiras: intended, as their title indicates,
to strain Bach’s polyphonic techniques through a Lusotropical colander.
Here and everywhere else, he always (and for the most part truthfully)
denied stealing musical demotics. He went further, maintaining that “I
don’t use folklore, I am folklore,” rather as Elgar in England
had insisted that “I am folk music.” Even when Villa-Lobos deliberately
imitated the sound of Brazil’s street musicians in his 1920s series of
12 Choros (originally 14, though two are lost), his original
models suffered “a sea-change / Into something rich and strange,” not to
mention a sea-change beyond the imaginings of any Brazilian street
musician who had ever previously drawn breath.
During the Hitler
war’s final stages, the combination of a looming 60th birthday and
Vargas’s departure from national leadership seems to have impressed upon
Villa-Lobos the belief that to quote Dr. Johnson when discussing old
age “it is time to be in earnest.” His creative ethos underwent no
violent shift, no Stravinskyan stylistic whiplash. Nor did he reject, as
Paul Hindemith (eight years his junior) rejected, his own early
productions as mere childish things to be either put away or
bowdlerized. When it suited him he could still turn on the enchantment,
lovability, and sheer Kodachrome gorgeousness which had dominated such
pre-1945 hits as Bachiana Brasileira 5 (an unexpected
best-seller for England’s H.M.V. label when Victoria de los Angeles
recorded it) and “The Little Train of the Caipira” from Bachiana Brasileira 2.
Yet more and more he had other priorities. Another indispensable
Villa-Lobos scholar of our time, David P. Appleby, puts it best:
written late in his life with traditional titles such as symphonies,
concertos, and string quartets aroused expectations on the part of
critics that these works would also be written in traditional forms.
This expectation was one that Villa-Lobos did not want to fulfil, or
perhaps could not fulfil.
Among his growing concerns was the
sacred. Catholicism-themed compositions, very rare in his catalog before
the ascetic, unaccompanied Saint Sebastian Mass of 1937 (he had introduced to Brazilian audiences Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli), abounded thereafter. Thank goodness that a British CD enterprise, Hyperion, has devoted an entire disc
to these works. Nobody can claim to understand Villa-Lobos who has not
at least sampled them; but those who have discovered them will find them
so totally different from the Villa-Lobos of mainstream acceptance that
they could readily assume some massive job of misattribution. Such an
assumption is untenable. The hermetic, austere, sober-sided Villa-Lobos
of this repertoire had subsisted all along. Two pieces in the anthology
warrant special notice: the Panis Angelicus of 1950, and the Magnificat of eight years later.
Any listener who hopes that Villa-Lobos’s Panis Angelicus
might resemble César Franck’s understandably beloved setting of the
same text all ear-worm melody, incense, comfort, and the odor of
beeswax will feel like ripping Hyperion’s CD out of the stereo after
the first 20 seconds. Villa-Lobos’s a cappella treatment is
shadowy, viscous, and grave, as if belief in transubstantiation had been
attained only through enough dark nights of the soul to keep St. John
of the Cross laboring double-shifts. In its accents can be discerned
something of Messiaen (whose O Sacrum Convivium the
Francophile Villa-Lobos could well have examined, although he never
demonstrated toward Messiaen the lively enthusiasm he always felt for
Darius Milhaud). The result, as in Messiaen, fully accords with the
spirit of authentic religion, but accords not at all with the spirit of
slushy pietism. Culture-Of-Nice apologists need not apply.
If Panis Angelicus exemplifies Villa-Lobos at his most introverted, then the Magnificat
exemplifies him at his most jubilant. Whilst Vargas’s self-removal from
the scene did not subject Villa-Lobos to the outright persecution which
a new political order’s advent in Moscow or indeed Buenos Aires would
have done, it confirmed the widespread idea among young and
strenuously hip Brazilian intellectuals that the composer had grown
truly vieux jeu. To a sympathetic journalist he grumbled: “The
country [Brazil] is dominated by mediocrity. Every time a mediocre
person dies, five more are born.” Elsewhere he allowed himself a
defiance echoing the fox deprived of his grapes: “I regard my works as
letters addressed to posterity requiring no answer.” The crowd-loving,
crowd-pleasing Villa-Lobos of olden days would have made no such remark.
although Brazil’s post-Vargas privilegentsia despised Villa-Lobos, one
figure far more strategically and morally significant than any of them
still felt for Villa-Lobos’s musical gifts an exalted respect: Pius XII.
In 1958 the Pontiff, his own health declining, commissioned from the
Brazilian master a motet to mark the centenary of Lourdes’ apparitions.
(He might not have done so had he realized the complexities of
Villa-Lobos’s domestic arrangements. Divorce being illegal in Brazil
before 1977, the composer had since 1936 maintained a de facto spouse, Arminda Neves d’Almeida, 25 years his junior. No hint of this extended companionship reached curial ears.)
papal commission’s outcome smacked of nothing which even Villa-Lobos
had attempted before. With its thundering drums, with a mezzo-soprano
part as solemn and persistently low-pitched as Erda’s contribution to Siegfried, and with its massed brass instruments’ antiphonal motifs suggesting Giovanni Gabrieli, this Magnificat
is no hearts-and-flowers setting of Mary’s Canticle, but rather, a fit
and proper response to the Catholic Church’s imagery of the Blessed
Virgin as militant: “terrible as an army in battle,” a Judith for all
times and all races. Pope Pius never lived to hear Villa-Lobos’s
swansong, but Villa-Lobos himself just did. The Magnificat had its première in Rio’s Teatro Municipal on September 7, 1959. To cite Dr. Peppercorn afresh:
a box he listened to his own music. When it was all over Villa-Lobos
received an unforgettable ovation; it was though, in premonition of his
imminent death, the public was paying a final act of homage to its
nation’s great composer. Visibly moved, Villa-Lobos, as though
delivering a last farewell, waved a feeble, friendly hand.
Thereafter he ceased to appear in public. Ravaged by cancer, he died on November 17.
the popular image of Villa-Lobos as check-shirted, gap-toothed,
cigar-chomping prankster is way overdue for work under warranty. In 2014
Brazil’s greatest musician stands revealed as a far more versatile
and downright anguished creator than most of us have ever suspected.
Mere clowning? Yes, Villa-Lobos sometimes showed himself guilty as
charged. But music-lovers, of all people, should never discount the
mythic force of that archetype immortalized by Caruso in Pagliacci: the clown who laughs because he must not weep.