Downes, Olin (1886-1955)

Olin Downes 1947Music critic for the New York Times from 1924 until his death in 1955, Olin Downes was a big booster of Villa-Lobos throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and became a close friend of the composer following Villa-Lobos's first visit to New York in 1944. [picture to the left: 1947 photo by Allan Grant from the Life Magazine Google Archive © Time Inc.  I love this picture!]

Downes' first notice of Villa-Lobos was in his article "Villa-Lobos as a Nationalist", on May 14, 1939. [the PDF file of the article is an excerpt from the Internet Archive scan of Olin Downes on Music.]

"He is not only enormously creative, he is still naïve, a thing which is of exceptional importance in the creative field.  When the artist can never lose his self-consciousness, when he cannot completely abandon self-examination because of an obsessing wonder before the fathomless miracle of the life that envelops him, his product is likely, if not certain, to become vitiated.  Some of the music of Villa-Lobos is as primitive as Caliban.  At the same time, he has not escaped, and did not wish to escape, the marvel of the European tonal art, so that Bach is to him a great and perhaps partly incomprehensible god, whom he worships and to whom he offers his own form of homage in his incredible Bachianas suites."  (p. 277 )

On the One Hand...

Downes's New York Times reviews contain as many raves about Villa-Lobos as any critic's.  Here's one of his best:

"...Villa-Lobos is a musician of extraordinary gifts, as he is one of the most incalculable of all modern composers.  He has a superb harmonic and orchestral sense.  He has produced pages of a primitive power, accent and color that few of his contemporaries can match for these qualities." ("Barbirolli offers Villa-Lobos Suite", Feb. 12, 1943, p. 22)

But On the Other...

But Downes wasn't blind to Villa's faults.  He goes on, in the above article, to trash the feature piece of Barbirolli's concert, The Discovery of Brazil Suite:

"In other places he has written with a singular naivete and relative superficiality which can hardly be taken seriously.

"The work heard last night is too long for its material, too unsubstantial for its objectives, which are the conveying of moods aroused by thoughts of the Portuguese discovery of Brazil.  The piece falls short; it becomes monotonous and commonplace.  One can hardly believe that this emanates from the author of 'Choros No. 10,' and creation of the 'Bachiana,' which have such vital and fascinating elements."

 In fact, it was only a year later that Downes elicited this quote from Villa-Lobos:

"I have written a great deal of music. Some of it is bad, but some of it is very good."  (review of the first performance of the orchestral version of Rudepoema, performed by Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony at Carnegie Hall.  NY Times, March 15, 1945, p. 47.)

In his article "Villa-Lobos and the Man-Eating Flower", Ralph Gustafson tells an entertaining story about a private dinner party he attended in New York where Villa-Lobos entertained a star-studded group of guests, including Downes, Ernest Ansermet, Walter Burle Marx, and Andrew & Belle Schulhof.  "It was a rapt audience."  [The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 1 (Spring, 1991), pp. 1-11]