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ClassicsOnline Home » VILLA-LOBOS: String Quartets Nos. 4, 6 and 14
Quartets Nos. 4, 6 and 14
love to write quartets. One could say that it is a mania." Villa-Lobos
made his confession, quoted by Pierre Vidal, in Paris in the
spring of 1958. He had completed his seventeenth and final quartet the year
before and had begun to sketch an eighteenth. It is usual to think of Villa-Lobos's
prodigious output in orchestral terms, and it may come as a surprise that
chamber music forms a substantial part of his work. Of that chamber music string
quartets are by far the major constituent, and within the broader context of
the twentieth-century string quartet, dominated by Bartók and Shostakovich,
Villa-Lobos's seventeen quartets must be considered a significant, though
poorly acknowledged, contribution.
attributed his knowledge of the string quartet to the study of Haydn. Whether
or not one accepts the veracity of his claim, any attempt to find traces of the
Viennese master in the Brazilian's work would be in vain. There are no stylistic
connections, and sonata form itself is all but absent. The keys to Villa-Lobos's
quartet idiom lie elsewhere. A primary source of inspiration is the rich and
diverse musical folklore of Brazil, which the composer discovered between the
ages of 18 and 25, when he traveled extensively through the Northeast, the
Amazon basin and the South with touring theatrical companies. Even earlier he
had come to know the lundu, the chôro, the maxixe and other forms of
"urban folklore," better described as the popular music of the times.
To those Brazilian impressions may be added a taste for Renaissance polyphony,
the ricercare, Bach's fugues and Franck's cyclical principle, the last acquired
most likely through self-study of d'Indy's Cours de composition musicale. In
this highly personalized scheme of things the Viennese classical structures and
especially the sonata held little attraction for Villa-Lobos. Instead the
mostly self-taught composer found his own, non-academic solutions to the
problems of form and unity. His frequent reliance on imitation - the successive
entry of a theme in all four voices - affirms an innate feeling for fugal
thought. Variation, which substitutes for development, creates a sense of
continuity, often transforming one musical idea into another in a "stream
of consciousness." In his study of the quartets, published in 1978 by the Museu
Villa Lobos, Arnaldo Estrella describes this as "a flowing brook, a
constant becoming." Conversely, variation also creates contrast, a
stylistic device that Villa-Lobos achieved even more dramatically through
abrupt juxtapositions. Finally it must not be forgotten that the composer began
his professional life as a cellist in small ensembles, "orquestrinas,"
that entertained in cafés, music halls and theatres. Many ideas in the quartets
seem conceived in terms of the cello; even when introduced by another
instrument, they attain fullest expressivity when heard in the cello part.
Villa-Lobos's experience as a string player may also account for the uncommon
sonorous combinations and instrumental techniques that impart a further
dimension of originality. That is often most evident in the scherzos, which
give freest reign to his exuberant flights of fancy.
the baffling, sometimes uneven profusion of the Brazilian's music, the
seventeen string quartets maintain a consistently high quality and become in
later years his chosen medium of expression. Chronologically they form four
groups. The first four quartets were composed between 1915 and 1917, a period
of much other chamber music, including the second Sonata-Fantasia for violin
and piano, two cello sonatas and the second piano trio. Thereafter a
fourteen-year hiatus intervenes in the quartets. That period from 1917 to 1931
saw the creation of major orchestral works, among them Uirapuru, Amazonas and
the six orchestral Chôros. Much of that time was spent in Paris, where
Villa-Lobos came into contact with Ravel, Dukas, Falla, Schmitt, Honegger,
Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Casella and Varèse - contact that obviously bore fruit.
His return to the string quartet in 1931 produced one isolated example, the
fifth. For the next seven years he energetically focused on the development of
musical education in Brazil, composing a multitude of choral pieces. The
sixth quartet, also isolated, appeared in 1938, and four more years were to pass
before Villa-Lobos's involvement with the quartet resumed and intensified. From
1942 onward he produced eleven quartets in fifteen years.
the quartets belong to three periods. To the early period belong the first four
quartets. Of these, the first has little in common with the others. It is in
fact a six-part suite with a folkloric veneer; its three successors, with few
traces of national flavour, move tentatively toward the originality that
Villa-Lobos was seeking. The fifth and sixth form an overtly nationalistic
pair, even indicated by the designations Quarteto Popular No. I and II Quarteto
Brasileiro. In a practice unusual for Villa-Lobos the fifth quartet quotes
actual folk melodies, but the sixth absorbs folkloric elements into a broader
musical spectrum and, significantly, marks the maturation of his quartet idiom.
The seventh to the seventeenth quartets belong to the third phase, wherein
national elements become increasingly universalized and find ultimate
expression in the rarefied atmosphere of the final masterpieces.
No. 4 dates from 1917 and is unique among Villa-Lobos's quartets in that its
first performance took place some 30 years later, when the Quarteto Borgerth
premiered it in Rio de Janeiro. Compared to its three predecessors, the fourth
quartet displays greater simplicity and clarity, and the four voices move with
greater independence. Serenity prevails in the opening movement, where the
cello introduces the first theme in C minor. Before long, tonal ambiguity sets
in, dominating the movement and producing beautiful, fleeting harmonic colours.
The more animated central section displays a conflict between B major and C
major; more significantly, it establishes a rhythmic pattern that becomes a
feature of the later quartets. The movement follows Villa-Lobos's customary
ternary design, but the reprise shows considerable variation of the original
material and a heightening of tension. A simple rhythmic pattern, gently played
by the violins and viola, begins the slow movement, providing an accompaniment
to the cello's haunting melody, evocative of Afro-Brazilian spirituality. The
contrasting middle part, with its rustic characters, looks ahead to the Bachianas
Brasileiras. The scherzo begins with a galloping figure and later becomes more
melodic with accompanying scale passages in the cello. Polyphony dominates the
central section. In contrast to the scherzo, which presents many difficulties
of execution, the finale has few complications. Tonally straightforward,
adhering in large part to C major, and rythmically simple, it moves along with
a clear sense of purpose. Its contrasting episode is a vivacious fugue, wherein
the successive entries in alternating tonic and dominant maintain the tonal
clarity and brightness of mood.
by the Stanley Quartet and composed in Rio de Janeiro in 1953, Quartet No. 14
was premiered in the United States the following year. Known as "the
Quartet of Fourths," it is dominated by that interval in terms of melodic
and harmonic construction. The rhythms in the first movement create a sense of
urgency. The slow movement begins with an expressive, chromatic theme in the
second violin, which passes a fifth higher to the first violin, then an octave
lower to the viola and then to the cello. The more diatonic middle section
gains in harmonic richness through doubled tenths, fifths and fourths, and it
is followed by are turn of the initial section in condensed form. The
imaginative scherzo features scales in contrary motion, and the contrasting
central part offers a more serene lyricism with an underlying melancholy.
Fourths play a generative and cohesive role in the strong finale, which builds
to a satisfying conclusion.
from being a sequel to the folkloric fifth quartet, Quartet No. 6, entitled Quarteto
Brasileiro, is the pivotal work in the series and one of its masterpieces.
Composed in 1938 and premiered in 1943 by the Quarteto Haydn in Rio de Janeiro,
it is the most Brazilian of Villa-Lobos's string quartets, having absorbed the
melodic and rhythmic essence of Brazilian folk music. In joyful E major, the
opening movement utilizes the characteristic syncopated rhythms of the Sertão,
Brazil's northeastern hinterland. In construction it grows from an initial
generative idea, thus representing a huge advance over the previous quartets.
In like fashion the second movement's harmonic base derives from that same
initial germ, and the theme of the slow movement arises from the previous
movement's main theme. Instead of a scherzo, the sixth quartet has in second
position a sunny allegretto in A major. The main theme, first heard in the
cello against a pizzicato accompaniment in triplets, returns in the reprise in
the first violin's high register. Villa-Lobos characterized the slow movement
as "slightly tragic," and it stands, searching and profound, in sharp
contrast to the extrovert nature of the other movements. Its middle section is
in the manner of a ricercar. The finale in E minor skips along with lilting
vitality until interrupted by not one but two central episodes. The first
evokes a rustic harmonica, and the second turns contemplative. Finally, the
lilting initial section returns, surging to an end in a brief, energetically
Danubius Quartet has won considerable acclaim since its establishment in 1983.
With the violinists Judit Tóth and Adél Miklós, violist Cecilia Bodolai and
cellist Ilona Wibli, and the artistic direction of the distinguished violinist Vilmos
Tátrai, the quartet won awards at Trapani, Evian and Graz in the earlier years
of its foundation, and has recorded, among other works, the String Quartet No.
1 of Reményi for Hungaroton, the complete String Quartets of Villa-Lobos for
Marco Polo and for Naxos the Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets. The Danubius
Quartet has given recitals in Austria, Germany, Yugoslavia, Italy, France and
Switzerland and appeared at a number of international festivals.
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VILLA-LOBOS: String Quartets Nos. 4, 6 and 14