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ClassicsOnline Home » VILLA-LOBOS, H.: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 (Sao Paulo Symphony, Karabtchevsky)
Heitor Villa-Lobos is generally acknowledged as Latin America’s foremost nationalist composer and his best known works, such as the Bachianas Brasileiras (Naxos 8.557460–62), have tended to overshadow the rest of his work. Symphony No 6, which launched his mature symphonic style, derives some of its themes from the contours of Brazilian hills and mountains, in a process devised by the composer to obtain a melody from an image by means of a graphic chart. The Symphony No 7 is scored for a huge orchestra and is one of the composer’s most ambitious and significant statements. Both works represent the composer’s powerful desire to invent a specifically Brazilian idiom. This is the first volume of a complete cycle of the Villa-Lobos Symphonies.
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959)
Symphonies Nos 6 and 7
Heitor Villa-Lobos is generally perceived as the foremost nationalist composer to have emerged from Latin America. Today his best-known works remain those where the national voice speaks more vibrantly, above all the major series of Choros and Bachianas Brasileiras (Naxos 8.557460–62). Yet this is a somewhat distorted perception, one that has left a huge part of his work in shadow, notably his twelve symphonies (or rather eleven, the Fifth being lost), works of which he was clearly proud.
Villa-Lobos’s struggle to establish a distinctly Brazilian voice is only part of his aesthetic mission. He was aware of the weight of history affecting any consideration of what makes a symphony, as he made clear in a lecture given in 1958: “[a symphony] is music for the music. Superior music, intellectual music, not a tune to be whistled. In a symphony…if one tries to employ special effects of an exotic, folkloric or other similar type, I do not think it would be correct to call it a symphony”.
His first four symphonies were composed before 1920, and Symphonies Nos 6 to 12 were written after 1944. The 24-year-long hiatus belonged to obviously nationalistic and experimental works in unorthodox forms.
Symphony No 6 ‘On the Outline of the Mountains of Brazil’ (1944), which launched his mature symphonic style, derives partially from his educational work. “Millimeterization” was the process he invented for obtaining a melody from an image. On a piece of transparent graph paper he would allocate the vertical lines to the pitches and the horizontal ones to the durations; this transparency would be superimposed onto a photograph, whose main points would determine the melodic contour. A skilled teacher could then harmonize the often unusual tune thus obtained, and the result was intended to encourage creativity in children. Villa-Lobos used this process twice in concert works, New York Skyline (1939), for solo piano, and this Symphony No 6. This method was occasionally adopted, later, by such composers as Messiaen and Cage.
The various themes of this symphony were apparently plotted on a graph transparency of photographs of the Serra dos Órgãos (Órgãos Mountains) and of the famous hills of Rio de Janeiro, Corcovado and Sugar Loaf. The actual images have never been disclosed; the art déco statue of Christ the Redeemer was only placed on the top of Corcovado in 1931, and one wonders whether it may have determined the profile of any of the themes. They are some of the most angular in his output, and constitute a paradox for a composer who expressed contempt for “paper music, born on paper and dead on paper”.
Villa-Lobos is extraordinarily imaginative in his harmonization technique, which seems to evolve from the chromatic and unstable first movement to the more positive language of the third and fourth movements. The first motif heard in the piece is developed and inverted to preserve aural unity in all four movements, either in sequential form or as part of free counterpoint. The slow movement creates an atmosphere of mystery in its upward sweep, but the high point of this piece seems to be the concise third movement, Allegretto. The fourth movement, without making any direct reference to nationalistic traits, bears the composer’s unmistakable stamp in the expansive theme played on divided violas and cellos, in the free fugato sections and in the rhythmic vitality of the horn theme before the reprise. The unusual thematic inspiration and the comparative lightness of this symphony have made it the most often played of Villa-Lobos.
Symphony No 7 was written in 1945 for a composition competition promoted by the Detroit Symphony. In spite of being considered by the composer as one of his best works, it was not awarded any prize. (The second prize, somewhat ironically, went to a symphony dedicated to Villa-Lobos by another Brazilian composer, Camargo Guarnieri.) It is scored for a huge orchestra, with all sections doubled or tripled, a vast percussion section and an unusual array of piano, two harps and a Hammond Novachord, possibly the first electronic synthesizer. It was given its première in 1949 by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer.
The programme notes at the première contained a short and somewhat mystifying description, calling this symphony Odyssey of Peace, with the four movements entitled Prologue – Contrasts – Tragedy – Epilogue. These titles do not seem to bear a clear correspondence to the music and do not figure in the manuscript. Nine years later, Villa-Lobos gave a similar title to a symphonic poem, Odyssey of a Race, dedicated to the State of Israel.
This symphony is strongly balanced in favour of the massive wind section, and the strings are often on the brink of being submerged by its weight. But this does not invalidate the author’s own assessment of the symphony’s importance: it really is one of his most ambitious and significant statements, where the textural variety and free harmonic flow never obscure the sense of dramatic construction.
The idiosyncratic approach to the symphonic tradition represented by Villa-Lobos’s mature symphonies bears witness to his conscious effort to invent a specifically Brazilian classical idiom, rather than being passively led by a folklorism that was becoming increasingly out of step with the rapid changes in Brazilian society in the 1940s.
Fábio Zanon is a Brazilian guitarist. He is Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music and author of Villa-Lobos (Publifolha, 2009).
This recording forms part of the complete cycle of Villa-Lobos’s symphonies, with revised scores. The project was launched in 2011 by São Paulo Symphony Orchestra’s publishing branch (Criadores do Brasil), under the general guidance of maestro Isaac Karabtchevsky.
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VILLA-LOBOS, H.: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 (Sao Paul...