Villa-Lobos the Teacher

A story told by Villa-Lobos pupil George Hufsmith

I went twice a week to study with him.  He took time off from his busy schedule, he was constantly writing.  He wrote with a Parker Pen, it was gray and had a very fine point, this was on his scores anyway.  He said "You'd have to learn to write music, not improvise music, that's no good.  You know just playing it and making nice things out at the piano isn't the way you write music.  It has to be written down.  Furthermore, I can't teach you unless I see it written down".  So I had to learn to write everything down, and I wrote things in rather big letters, and numbers and notes.  At first I was pretty awkward about it, but I rapidly got so I had pretty good manuscript. I would sit down with those things that I had written down during that part of the week and we'd go over it together.         
He loved Johann Sebastian Bach, and he made me study chorale preludes and write them down for string quartet, because most of them were four-part harmony pieces.  I wrote them for the string quartet and then he'd go over that with me, as well as going over my compositional efforts.  Then I would go home and work some more and come back.  As you can see now, Villa-Lobos has spread his teaching pretty thin in his teaching copying Bach into a string quartet and teaching rudimentary theory.  I think he understood theory quite well, although he was largely self-taught.  I was quite amazed that he knew that much of theory, but he did, he knew it very well.      
Villa-Lobos also began teaching me the study of orchestration.  He wrote out a large sheet of manuscript paper and put all the instruments on it, the instruments of the orchestra, even some very strange instruments, peculiar Brazilian instruments, mostly percussion.  He included it in that, and it showed the range of the instruments, and it was all in pencil.  He did it while I was standing looking over his shoulder, he wrote all of this.  He showed me all of the instruments of the orchestra, and what their ranges were.          
We began the orchestration of a piece that I had written called O menino mendigo, which means the 'Beggar Boy'. He liked it, and suggested that it was uncomplicated enough that we might get a little piece of orchestration out of it.  Villa-Lobos was searching in how to teach.  He spread himself thin in several areas, but it was fascinating and I was terribly impressed by his music.  We wrote this piece and orchestrated it.  I still have a copy of the original score of it for piano, which was copied by Ivan D'Azevedo, who was one of his copyists.  He had the copyists copy out the parts from the score.  It was not very long, I think it was just a two minute piece. They copied all of the parts out and then duplicated them for the strings, then we took it over during a rehearsal of one of his pieces with the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra or the Teatro Municipal Opera Orchestra.     

He had about three copyists working for him all of the time so that he would scratch out the work and then these copyists would firm it up for him.  That was a wonderful advantage of course for him and the Brazilian government was paying for this.  That was in a little room almost adjacent to his study, his big office, where these copyists were sitting behind tables.  It was awfully dark room.  I think it was lit by lights, there were no windows in it that I remember.  They were sitting there writing his music and that was a wonderful thing for them because they probably made more money doing that than they would doing anything else in Brazil.  People weren't paid very much money in those days so I think they were glad to have the job.          
We finally completed the orchestration, he let me do it all, then he would make suggestions.  It was a different kind of teaching than I learned at Yale.  He would  kind of watch what I was doing, and then he would make suggestions. He didn't say it ought to be this way or that way, which none of my teachers ever did including Paul Hindemith.
We went over to the Teatro Municipale, and he had apparently made arrangements to have this played.  During their rehearsal break he passed out all of the parts and as we sat in the auditorium they played it.  Villa-Lobos himself conducted it and instructed them.  He stopped them as they went through the piece and made the usual comments that conductors would do to improve the performance.  When he was done, he made everybody quiet and they performed it from beginning to end.  That was the first orchestral piece of mine I ever heard.  The orchestra was very kind and they tapped their violins they way you do for applause and that sort of thing.          
It was a rather small and inconsequential piece, but it was an interesting beginning.     

The material presented on this page is kindly provided by Eric Wenstrom.  It is used with the permission of Eric and of George Hufsmith.     

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