Rio de Janeiro: the life and music of Villa Lobos

Villa-Lobos and 
Rio de Janeiro


November, 2004:

Please note that the Villa-Lobos Website is no longer being updated.

This resource will remain on the RDPL server.

The famous Suarloaf mountain presides over the great city of Rio de Janeiro. The photo is from the excellent website of Embratur, the official Brazilian tourist ministry. 
Heitor Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro on March 5, 1887.
"Brazil was not yet, toward the end of the century, during the years of Villa-Lobos' childhood, the gigantic state with all its problems of industrialization that it is now. Rio de Janeiro was still an idyllic city with its 600,000 inhabitants - precisely that charming garden town which immediately enchanted Europeans like Milhaud and Rubinstein,..." (Eero Tarasti, Heitor Villa-Lobos: the life and works, p. 37.)
Arthur Rubinstein gives a quick picture of Rio de Janeiro on his first visit to Brazil, during World War I, and a few years before his first encounter with Villa-Lobos:
"In 1918 one could not have called Rio de Janeiro a city that had been built and developed by its citizens; nature itself had created it. I would call it simply one of the masterpieces of nature. The inhabitants tried to spoil it later by building skyscrapers in imitation of New York but even the highest of them were dwarfed by the immense majesty of the surrounding mountains. Because it was divided up into several valleys and two or three disconnected beaches, it was impossible for the city to grow in this bay of paradise and so its fantastic beauty was preserved." (My Many Years, p. 25.)
The most important musical role that Rio de Janeiro played for the young Villa-Lobos was in his introduction to the choros - the home-grown urban music of Rio. Sheila Thomson has an excellent page on the choros on her indispensable Maria-Brasil website.
The choros developed as early as the 1870's. In this century, Rio de Janeiro saw it first escola da samba in the late 1920's. The Manguiera school has an excellent website, describing the history of the samba and its composers. Villa-Lobos visited the great samba composer Angenor de Oliveira - "Cartola" (1908-1980) in the 1920's and 1930's. Though Villa-Lobos did not make the samba style his own in the way that he did with the choros, it was obviously part of his musical vocabulary, and it comes out in a broad range of pieces from his earliest works to the home-sick reminiscences of the late 1950's composed in Paris and New York.  Harold Lewis' recent essay on Villa-Lobos and the 1999 Rio Carnaval shows how relevant his music is to the Rio Carnaval today.
In 1922, a World Exposition was held in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate the Centennial of Brazil's Independence. The Museu Histórico Nacional has an online exhibition relating to the Exposition, with some marvellous pictures of the site.
The Pavillion of Great Industries undergoes construction, with  
Santa Luzia Beach in the background.
Some important landmarks of Rio in the first three decades of the 20th century: 
  • the National Library, where Villa-Lobos' father worked as a librarian. Unfortunately, Villa-Lobos' father died of yellow fever in 1899.
  • the restaurant Cavaquinho de Ouro on the Rua Carioca, where Villa-Lobos played in a choro group.
  • the Odeon cinema, on the Avenida Rio Branco, where Villa-Lobos played in the orchestra. Ernesto Nazareth's beautiful "Odeon" tango is a reminiscence of this period.
  • An important concert took place in Rio's Teatro Lirico: a gala performance on November 15, 1926, which included the premiere of Choros no. 10, with a choral group of 200 voices. The concert was repeated in November at the Teatro Municipal.  The theatre was built in 1909; Villa-Lobos returned from abroad to appear at the 50th anniversary concert of the Teatro, the site of so many triumphs.
After Villa-Lobos' time in Paris during the 1920's, he returned to Rio de Janeiro in 1930. That year, Getúlio Vargas made his famous march from Rio Grande state to Rio de Janeiro, where he became president. With the rise of Vargas, political power became more centralized in the capital of Rio de Janeiro. Villa-Lobos became involved in the development of musical education in Brazil, and in 1932 took up a post as superintendent of music for Brazil's school system.
Getulio Vargas
Getúlio Vargas poses for sculptor Jo Davison  in 1939 [picture from CPDOC's CD-ROM A era Vargas]
  • The Vasco da Gama stadium was the site of many patriotic spectacles during the Vargas years. Villa-Lobos conducted up to 40,000 voices and 1,000 band players, from on top of a fifty-foot platform.
Though the 40's and 50's would be a period of much world travel and extended stays in New York and Paris, Rio remained Villa-Lobos' home and base of operations, and he died there on November 19, 1959.
Rio de Janeiro is the home of the Museu Villa-Lobos, dedicated to the life and music of the composer.
Today, of course, Rio de Janeiro is one of the world's great cities: with greatness made up of equal parts natural beauty, appalling poverty, violence and pollution, but most importantly a special spirit of its own that few cities can aspire to. Here are a number of sites which are beginning to bring that spirit to the World Wide Web:
The Museu da República, on the Rua do Catete, was built in 1858. Their website is in Portuguese, but there are some interesting features of general interest. 
One of the best of the Rio sites is by Sergio Koreisha in Oregon. This is part of his very highly recommended Meu Brasil website.
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