Presença de Villa Lobos - essays by Harold Lewis


Between 1965 and 1981, the Museu Villa-Lobos in Rio de Janeiro, jointly with the Ministry of Education and Culture, published twelve volumes of essays, appreciations and reminiscences under the title 'Presença de Villa-Lobos'. The quality and interest of the contributions are variable; but for me, the best parts of the material are the texts by the composer himself, the perceptive analyses of aspects of his work by experts such as Eero Tarasti and Pierre Vidal, documentation about the composer's endeavours in musical education, and a wealth of recollections from artists and musicians who knew Villa-Lobos.

Some of the anecdotes that are told, for instance, by his widow, Mindinha, and by his close friends have appeared elsewhere in print; but since all the biographical material in the 'Presença' volumes is in Portuguese, the following examples, which I have translated and paraphrased, may help to give a flavour of the composer's personality for those not familiar with that language. Villa-Lobos could be fairly certain that the cultural elite who hosted him on his tours abroad - particularly in North America - understood not a word of Portuguese.

He enjoyed the opportunity this gave him to speak his mind in a characteristically forthright way. In an essay entitled 'The human side of Villa-Lobos' (PVL no. 9), Edgard de Brito Chaves Junior, who acted as an interpreter for Villa-Lobos on these occasions, recalls an evening in New York when a friend accompanied the composer to a party in a fashionable club. Villa-Lobos did not find the environment to his liking. A blonde 'with a voice like a clarinet' approached the composer and said to his companion, "please tell the maestro that this club has received celebrities like Toscanini, Stravinsky, Stokowski, Rachmaninov and others."

When this was translated to him, Villa-Lobos growled in Portuguese, "That's of no interest to me." "What did he say?" asked the blonde. "Ah, he said 'splendid, splendid'." The blonde smiled and went on, "Tell Mr. Villa-Lobos that the fact that he doesn't speak English isn't of the least importance. We admire him so much that we're happy just to see him here." Villa-Lobos replied, "Tell her I'm not a parrot or a circus clown." This was translated as "The maestro says he is so very happy to be here today," which drew a contented murmur from the party guests. This exchange was followed by a question and answer session, which gave the translator a lot of work, since the composer's replies were harsh, confusing and almost paradoxical. Finally, Villa-Lobos decided to play one of his compositions. Settling himself at the piano, he played a chord, grimaced, and turned to a friend, "Tell the lady that her piano is out of tune - a real honky-tonk machine."

In the text of a radio talk given in August 1975, Walter Burle Marx recalled (PVL no. 10) that Villa-Lobos had offered to produce a piece for one of the young persons' concerts he (Burle Marx) was organising. Two days before the concert, in November 1932, he visited Villa-Lobos in his little apartment in the centre of Rio. The composer had just finished dinner and was clearing the table. "Villa-Lobos," he inquired, "how far have you got with the work you've promised?" "I'll work on it tonight, and should finish it at 4 a.m." "And the parts?" "I'll do them myself and some friends are coming to help me later." "Then I'll let you get on with it and not disturb you." "You're not disturbing me at all," said Villa-Lobos, insisting that Burle Marx stayed.

After sorting the manuscripts on the table, Villa-Lobos went on working on the orchestration while talking to his visitor. At the same time, in another room of the apartment, the pianist Jose Brandão was playing the transcription of the symphonic poem 'Amazonas', and form time to time, Villa-Lobos, hearing something that wasn't right, called out to Brandao, "No, no, it's G flat in the bass," and so forth. The fact was that next day at 9 a.m., the young musicians received the score of the Caixinha de Boas Festas, with all the parts written out. Burle Marx recalls an incident from Villa-Lobos's youth. When some friends urged him to take lessons in harmony from a Portuguese professor named Nascimento, Villa-Lobos went along to see what the professor had to teach. Nascimento spent the first lesson picking out chords and declaring in a dogmatic manner how each had to be resolved. After one chord, Villa-Lobos told the harmony professor that it could also be resolved in another way. "No," retorted Nascimento, "it can't!" "But J.S. Bach did it differently." "Impossible!"

The following week Villa-Lobos took along the work by Bach which bore out his claim. "Well, he's another madman like you!" shouted Nascimento. With that the lessons ended. During an orchestra rehearsal in Chicago, the harpist whom Burle Marx describes as a 'disagreeable person', claimed that a passage was unplayable as Villa-Lobos had written it. The composer got down from the podium, took his place at the harp, played the passage, and went back to the podium without saying a word, receiving an ovation from the rest of the orchestra.

In an essay printed in PVL no. 11, Andrade Bello recalled the sensation Villa-Lobos caused at a concert given as part of the 1922 Week of Modern Art in São Paulo, by coming onto the platform in tails but wearing a carpet slipper on his left foot. This apparition was greeted with boos from the conservative sections of the audience and with a roar of delighted approval from others who had come to the concert expecting outrageous novelties. Years later, Villa-Lobos commented, "There's been a lot of nonsense talked about that. People exaggerated and thought up innumerable reasons for my 'provocative gesture'. That same afternoon, I'd bought some patent leather shoes to wear for the concert, but they were a bad buy because they hurt my toes unbearably.  While the orchestra were tuning up, I sought the only remedy to hand - the comfortable slippers my mother had given me.

Writing about the guitar concerto, Villa-Lobos composed for Segovia, Mindinha recalled that the famous guitarist, noting there was a part for trombone in the score, was apprehensive that the orchestration would be too heavy. So Villa-Lobos changed the orchestra markings from pp to pppp (!) At the first rehearsal (Houston, February 1956), Segovia asked Mindinha, "Can you make out the guitar?" "Yes," she replied, "but what I can't hear is the orchestra."

Stokowski, of course, was an enthusiastic proponent of Villa-Lobos's music, responsible for several first US performances. In 1940, with the help of VL, he arranged for the famous series of recordings issued by CBS as 'Native Brazilian Music' (two albums with four 78s each, C-83 and C-84) and re-issued through the Museu Villa-Lobos as part of the 1987 centenary year celebrations on one LP (MVL 033).

Presença no. 12 reproduced some correspondence from Stokowski that I find puzzling. In 1966 Stokowski wrote, in a note to Mindinha dated 31 January:

"Dear Mme Villa-Lobos: "We are having difficulty in finding the score, orchestral parts and piano score for the voice of "Cançoes (sic) do Carreiro (Sereste (sic) NO. 5 (or no. 8)."

The note goes on to advocate the production by the Brazilian Government of a complete edition of all the compositions of Villa-Lobos. Five weeks later, Stokowski wrote again:

"Dear Mme Villa-Lobos: "I have been studying the voice and piano part of Canção do Carreiro, and believe it is one of Villa-Lobos's greatest compositions. We urgently need the score and orchestral material. We would be most grateful to you if we could receive the score and parts soon, so that we can begin to study this music in detail."

On 7 April 1966, Stokowski sent a further note: "Thank you for sending the score and orchestral parts of the Canção do Carreiro, which have arrived safely. It will be wonderful if you could be with us for the concert on Monday, April 3 1967."

Now, the Canção do Carreiro is about 3 minutes in duration. It's a highly attractive song, which Villa-Lobos himself recorded with Jennie Tourel and the Columbia Orchestra (ML 4357 and Columbia Records Set 249), and which was recorded also by Gerard Souzay, Elsie Houston and Maria Kareska among others. But why on earth should the great conductor have needed a whole year to prepare apparently this one 3-minute song for performance?

- essays by Harold Lewis

Here is another interesting posting from Harold: Sanctus, a company based in Rio de Janeiro ( has transferred to CD a group of recordings made by Villa-Lobos between the 1920s and the 1940s, published originally on an LP issued by the Museu Villa-Lobos in 1970 (MEC-MVL 002 on the Brazilian Caravelle label). The Sanctus CD (SCSH 010), which was produced with the support of the Museum and came into Harold Moores shop in London last week, has exactly the same content as the LP - about 28 minutes of music, plus an 18 minute talk by VL about music in general recorded in João Pessoa, Brazil in 1951.

On the CD, VL plays the Prelude no. 1 and Chôros no. 1 (guitar) plus Chôros no. 5, A Lenda do Caboclo and Polichinelo (piano) - with some interesting departures from the music as published. We also hear VL as piano accompanist to the German soprano Beate Rosenkreuter in four of his songs. The sound has been cleaned up to an extent, though the transfers do not disguise the inadequacies of the original recordings. But at least we are spared the rough-and-tumble of the original Brazilian LP pressings. The songs were recorded in June 1936 during a brief stopover in Germany as part of a European visit.

VL then travelled back to Rio on the airship Graf Zeppelin. In one of the 'Presença de VL' books of essays and reminiscences published by the Museum, there is an anecdote of how VL was waiting with the other passengers in the departure lounge at Frankfurt when several officials entered, accompanying a man who had a small, black moustache. Everyone jumped to their feet and saluted - except for VL, who remained seated and umimpressed. The officials asked to see his passport, decided that this Brazilian national, who was described as a composer, was of no consequence to the Nazi party, and took the matter no further.