Heitor Villa-Lobos - Constant Lambert



Peter Moran, of the Cheltenham Bach Choir, provides this informative essay on Villa-Lobos, along with a fascinating glimpse of Constant Lambert's connection to Brazil. 

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959)

Perhaps the best illustration of Villa-Lobos' life and approach to music comes from his arrival in Paris in 1923.  One of his first comments was 'I didn't come to study with you, I came to show you what I've done'. 

It is sometimes difficult to come to terms with this larger-than-life character.  As a child his musical talents were recognised by his father, who taught him the cello and the guitar.  Despite his father's efforts he was undisciplined, frequently escaping into the streets of Rio de Janiero to join the choroes: street musicians who sang the favourite folk songs of the day.  In 1899, his father died of malaria and the family, which included eight children, became impoverished. Heitor's mother tried to persuade him to study for a profession, but he refused to accept any type of formal learning and eventually started to earn a little money by playing the cello in cafés.  He also tried his hand at composition, mainly for guitar, voice or piano.

Despite being a skilled guitarist and passable cellist, Villa-Lobos was no child prodigy and continued to eek out a mean living in the streets and cafés, refusing to undergo any sort of formal musical training.  It can be argued that all experience is useful however.  One advantage of his Bohemian early life was that he came into contact with a number of musicians and poets who were creating a new genre: a mix of European classical styles and forms coupled with Brazilian melodies, rhythms and folklore.  Sometime after 1905, he joined the orchestras of several travelling theatre companies, which gave him the opportunity to tour the country. 

Although he undoubtedly gained considerable experience from these trips, this whole period is shrouded in uncertainty due to Villa-Lobos' life long predilection for exaggeration and story-telling.  These stories seem to fulfil a number of purposes: in some cases to improve his professional standing, in others to test the gullibility of his audience and, mostly, simply to entertain.  For example, although undoubtedly having travelled extensively, he claimed to have joined scientific expeditions and to have visited most (if not all) of the Amazon tributaries.  This was patently untrue, given the physical conditions and the time available to him.  He also claimed to have been inspired by rhythms and modulations picked up when captured by Indians in the jungle and said that he found his wife among the savages and brought her away with him!

After marriage to Lucília, a concert pianist, in 1913 he made attempts to undergo formal musical study.  Again he failed to find the necessary discipline, but at about this time his compositions started to be played in public.  Shortly after this, he experienced a major change in his fortunes when he became involved with visits by the Russian ballet and was very affected by his first hearing of works by the French impressionists and Stravinsky.  Most important of all, his work was heard and subsequently promoted by American pianist Artur Rubenstein.  As a result he was provided with the funds which enabled him to travel to Europe, where his concerts were a sensation (particularly in France) and where his extravert character and innovative work brought him considerable success. He once told journalists that he used Amerindian themes that were so old even the Indians had forgotten them.  When asked how, therefore, he had heard this music, he replied that he heard it from the parrots in the jungle who had incorporated the tunes into their calls!

In 1930 he returned to Brazil.  Although in his home country he and his music had always been controversial, the national element in his output attracted the attention of the new, post-revolutionary government.  He had also become interested in the idea of leading the mass population to the appreciation of serious music through the medium of folk music.  The outcome was that the government created for him the post of Director of Music Education in Rio de Janeiro (then the capital of Brasil) and his programme of cultural change was announced at the city university.

It seems strange that the man who had shunned all forms of formal education should be transformed into one of its greatest proponents.  He took on his task with enormous enthusiasm, developing his own method of Mani-sol-fa for teaching pitch and phrasing, developing a coherent programme of music teaching from primary school to higher training and encouraging children to learn about popular musical traditions and culture.

Although composition took a back seat during this period he made frequent appearances as a guest conductor throughout South America and later in the USA, where he had great success and continued to visit every year thereafter.  In 1945 he founded the Brazilian Academy of Music and remained its President until his death.  After the end of the World War II, he increased his tour schedule to include the major Euopean cultural centres. 

Villa-Lobos was surprisingly dismissive of Stravinsky and despised the work of most other composers, especially Schoenberg, Beethoven, Wagner and Mozart.  The sole exception was JS Bach, who he revered.  Largely self-taught, he developed his own styles and forms, the most well known being the Choros and the Bachianas Brasilieras. In both cases he started with a concept, which then became increasingly broadened to include a number of pieces only distantly related to the original idea.

The Bachianas Brasilieras were composed for a wide range of instrumental and voice combinations during the musical education years 1930 - 1945.  He believed that there was considerable affinity between Bach's contrapuntal writing and Brazilian folk music, where each instrumental part carries its own melody.  He explored these ideas in a series of nine suites, each movement having both a typical baroque title and a Brazilian venacular name.  In most of the suites the cello has a significant part, especially No 1, and No 5 with its famous Aria (Cantilena) for soprano and eight cellos.  In suite No 2 the movements are Prelude (O Canto do Capadocio); Aria (O Canto da Nossa Terra); Dansa (Lembraca Do Sertao) and Toccata (O Trenzinho Do Caipira).

The rhythmic sounds of the steam locomotive inspired many composers (famous examples being Honegger's Pacific 231 and Lambye's Copenhagen Steam Railway Gallop).  In O Trenzinho Do Caipira (the Little Train of the Caipira), the Caipira of the title means the country areas (in Brazil Caipira music compares with US Country and Western music).  The piece describes a journey on one of these ramshackle little railways, which the composer must have used many times in his travels.

The two unaccompanied pieces Villa-Lobos wrote in 1952, are part of his vast output of pieces for educational use.  The Two Amerindian legends in the Nheengatu language are The Iurupari and the boy and The Iurupari and the hunter, which are described in Eero Tarasti's 1987 work Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Life and Works, 1887-1959:

"They are both based on the figure of Iurupari, a sort of evil spirit often found in Indian myths.  Linked to the cult of Iurupari are special long trumpets producing a 'deep, mystical and somber' sound.  It is typical of Iurupari ceremonies that they are strictly forbidden to females.  The first choral legend is based on an accompanying ostinato in parallel fourths and on a primitivist imitation of an Indian melody, which moves in different voices.

"The second part creates an Indian atmosphere likewise with austere quartal movements, simple motifes such as those collected by explorers in Brazil, and a syncopated triple rhythm."

In 1948 Villa-Lobos was successfully treated for cancer.  He continued to pursue a demanding career for another ten years, until the after-effects of the cancer treatment finally killed him. He separated from Lucília in 1936 (divorce was not possible in Brazil at the time) and his companion for the rest of his life was Arminda, a former pupil.  She helped to create the Villa-Lobos Museum in Rio after her partner's death in 1959, but for ten years Villa-Lobos' music was increasingly rarely performed, mainly due to legal complications over competing claims on the estate by the two women.

Although the quality of his work is somewhat variable, it has increasingly regained its popularity over the last few years.  The originality of much of his output, the simple but beautiful melodies and the driving rhythms are very appealing.  Perhaps the final words, though, should be those of the composer: 'I regard my works as letters addressed to posterity that require no answer'.

For the Cheltenham choir's concert performance of the Two Amerindian Legends, Marcelo Rodolfo of the Museu Villa-Lobos was able to provide a Portuguese translation from the original Nheengatu language of Villa-Lobos' score:

Contam que uma mulher dormia em sua rede com seu filho.
O Iurupari tirou o filho dos braços dela e o pos debaixo da rede.
Dizem que o filho, então, disse à mãe: Mãe, Mãe, olha o Iurupari deitado
debaixo de nós.
Dizem que, então,a mulher pegou um cacete e bateu no filho.
O Iurupari saltou, então, dizendo:
Enganei! Enganei!
Correu e foi-se embora

Um homem foi caçar e encontrou uma veada com o filho.
Flechou o filho e pegou o veadinho. A mãe fugiu.
Fez chorar o veadinho e a mãe ao ouvir, aproximou-se.
Flechou, então, também a mãe do veadinho, que morreu.
Olhando para ela viu que a veada era sua própria mãe.
O Iurupari havia transformado a mãe em veada para enganar o filho, enquanto

Referência: Anais da Biblioteca Nacional do RJ, 1886/87, volume XLV, parte I

© Museu Villa-Lobos
Rua Sorocaba, 200
Rio de Janeiro
RJ 22271-110
Telefaxes: 021-266-3894 e 021-286-3097

Here is an English translation from the Portuguese:


The story runs that a woman was sleeping in a hammock with her child.  The Iurupari took the child from the mother's arms and placed the child beneath the hammock.  They say the child then said to his mother:  

Mother! Mother! Look at the Iurupari lying beneath us!

They say that the woman then took up a cudgel and hit the child.  The Iurupari then jumped up and said: fooled you, fooled you!  And he ran off.


A man went out hunting and found a deer with its fawn.  He drew his bow and shot the fawn with an arrow.  The mother fled.  The fawn cried out and the mother, hearing this, approached.  The huntsman then shot the mother of the fawn, killing her.  Looking at the deer he saw it was his own mother.

The Iurupari had transformed his mother into a deer to deceive him as he slept.

Constant Lambert (1905 - 1951)

Mention Constant Lambert's name, and most people will respond with 'who?' or something similar.  Some might recall Constant's son, Kit, co-manager of The Who and responsible for introducing guitar smashing into Pete Townshend's act.  Otherwise, the Lambert name has been largely forgotten: a great pity when, Dent, writing in 1946, called Constant Lambert 'the best all-round musician we have in this country'.

Constant Lambert was born in London after his parents (one Russian, the other Australian) emigrated to England from Australia.  He suffered physical ill-health throughout his life, but was also subject to severe mood changes which he attempted to cope with by drinking.  Sadly, he died at the early age of 46 from a combination of excessive alcohol and undiagnosed diabetes.

At the age of 17, Lambert won a scholarship to the RCM, where he studied under Vaughan Williams.  He quickly developed an interest in French and Russian music generally and ballet music in particular.  At this time he became friends with William Walton, Lord Berners (another eccentric English composer) and the Sitwells.  He was also introduced to Dyagilev and, while still a student, was asked by him to write a ballet for the Ballet Russes.  At the same time, he wrote a few opening bars for Walton's Facade, in subsequent performances of which Lambert and Edith Sitwell regularly co-recited the script.

Meanwhile, his relationship with Dyagilev had not gone smoothly, but the choreographer, Nizhinska, asked him to write a second ballet (Pomona), which she directed at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. Although an early work, it already shows the beginnings of Lambert's fascination with, and skill at combining, archaic European dance forms, such as the siciliana, with syncopated rhythms typical of jazz, rag-time and (somewhat bizarrely) 16th century English music.

During the 1920s jazz became an obsession, especially the work of Duke Ellington and the black singer Florence Mills to whom he wrote a tribute called the Elegiac Blues. Lambert started to incorporate jazz elements into his compositions, but inevitably with a nuance of his own.  He once said that he could 'take the night-club out of jazz in the same way that Haydn took the ballroom out of the minuet'.

Following the death of Dyagalev and the disbanding of the Ballet Russes, many of the talented dancers remaining in England gathered together and created a new company called the Camargo Society, with Lambert as conductor. This proved to be valuable experience and in 1931 he became musical director of the Vic-Wells (later Sadler's Wells, later Royal) Ballet.  He remained in this post until 1947, but continued to make guest appearances until the end of his life.

One is reminded of parallels with Leonard Bernstein.  Both men were gifted pianists as well as composers and conductors.  Both had problems balancing their work-loads, which included broadcasts and recordings as well as live performances, and both had wide-ranging musical tastes.  During the 1930s and 40s, despite less than perfect health, Lambert continued to work at a relentless pace: composition of original ballets, masques, small scale pieces and arrangements; concert performances as a pianist; playing the piano at ballet performances during the war years (when no orchestra was available); numerous radio broadcasts; associate conductor of the Proms and, as a music critic, producing his book, Music ho! (sub-titled A Study Of Music In Decline) and regular articles for two magazines.

The Rio Grande

The words to The Rio Grande were written by Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988), youngest of the Sitwell family: a great friend of Lambert's, who eventually inherited the baronetcy from his brother Osbert and thus acquired the most tongue-twisting title in the English peerage. He is perhaps known more for his prose writings (which combine a love of art and travel) than his poetry.  The three Sitwells were at odds for most of their adult lives, due to the terms of the estate left by their parsimonious father, but Edith continued to support her younger brother's claims to fame as a poet until her death.

From a purely practical point of view major aspects of both the poem and the themes used by Lambert are incongruous.  For example, the poem mentions a great river and the Brazilian air, but there is no river called the Rio Grande in Brazil (there is a city of that name in the southern part of the country).  Similarly, Lambert uses themes which are mainly of Spanish Latin American or jazz origin, neither of which have major associations with the Portugese/Amerindian society of Brazil.

But such quibbles miss the point: we are being transported to a fantasy country.  We have to take ourselves back to a time when, to the British public, South America seemed incredibly remote and exotic.  A time when travel to Brazil either took weeks on a ship, or required a two day train and motor ride to Scapa Flow then a journey over several days by flying boat around the Atlantic coastline in short 'hops'. When Fred Astaire could fly down to Rio in a flying boat and taxi right up to the hotel steps, when all South American men wore white suits and Panama hats, and the cost of a 'phone call across the Atlantic cost more per minute than many British men earned in a day.

Lambert takes up the fantasy, expanding on the poetry to conjure up a series of sound paintings.  These merge in an irresistible balance of driving rhythms, catchy themes and blend of choral, piano and orchestral sounds.  He not only exactly captures the sense of the words, but also creates a microcosm which, like all successful fantasy worlds, is close enough to our own so that we believe that somewhere, if we searched for long enough, it might really exist.

The piece starts with the orchestra and piano setting out their major themes: the orchestra playing a syncopated jazzy, almost rag-time, theme and the piano having a rumba-like combination of triplets and duplets. The chorus enters with the first lines of the poem, largely unaccompanied, and illustrates the sad, wailing notes of a madrigal that is definitely not suitable for performance by the Rio Grande.  Orchestra and piano keep up the driving dance pace as we quickly pass by the open church with its choir and move on down to the quiet river.  A flourish of trumpets and a martial theme announce the appearance of the Commendador and his retinue, but the people of this exotic society are undeterred.  The heat of the day becomes an inferno and the dance grows into a crazy riot of a cadenza for piano and percussion. 

But even in our fantasy world people cannot keep up this pace for ever.  The siesta hour approaches. The dancers relax, the streets empty and we move to the square where the music becomes a drowsy tango.  Not the graceless modern imitation beloved of the Tower Ballroom, but the seductive, languid rhythms now a century old (and typified by Albeniz's Tango in D, if you know it). Things are so quiet that sounds of the great, majestic river can be heard above the band.  The interlude is soon over, however.  The music picks up speed, our dancers join in, more percussion appears and the piano soloist takes over with a short, but stunning, cadenza.  Once again, the pace slows and the day draws to a close. The tropical sun is setting and we join the Rio Grande in its stately flow out to sea.  A balmy evening breeze cools the air and the lotus strains of the tango return, drifting over the ships at anchor in the bay into the ocean's infinite night.