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Carmel Guitar Society Journal
No. 14, Sept. 2004

A Study of Three Works of Villa-Lobos - Part I

Research in Performance Practices of the Twentieth Century:
A Study of Three Neo-Classic Works for Solo Guitar
by Heitor Villa-Lobos

Richard Kevin DeVinck

Master of Fine Arts in Music
University of California, Los Angeles, 1989
Professor Roger Bourland, Chair

Villa-Lobos was not a guitar virtuoso, but if he had not dedicated himself to composition, he could have become one. As guitarist AndrÚs Segovia wrote in his preface to the Twelve Studies, "Villa-Lobos knew the guitar perfectly." As a child Villa-Lobos became well acquainted with the guitar; thus beginning a life-long relationship with the instrument, resulting in his composing several -- perhaps hundreds -- of works for guitar (although only a marginal number of these works were ever published).

Villa-Lobos's familiarity with the guitar is manifested in the idiomatic writing which is evident in his compositions. The expressive character of his style has been attracting guitarists to Villa-Lobos's music for many years and no doubt will continue to do so for many years to come. It would seem logical to assume that much has been written about the guitar works of Villa-Lobos -- particularly in regards to performance practice issues. This is not the case, however.

It is the purpose of this paper to focus on a few of these issues in order to offer the guitarist insight into a number of performance techniques which may be applied to enhance and/or express the moods and character of each selected work. The analysis will center on 1) editions, 2) tempo, 3) articulation, 4) phrasing, and how they relate to three works for solo guitar by Villa-Lobos -- Ch˘ro No. 1, Prelude No. 1, and Etude No. 11. These issues, in particular, pose a number of problems for the guitarist.

In searching for answers to these questions, the author has used a number of secondary sources which are closely affiliated with Villa-Lobos, his music, and/or the music of Brazil. Many of the ideas expressed in this paper have been formulated on the information that was collected through interviews, recordings, and writings of Brazilian guitarists Laurindo Almeida, Turibio Santos, and scholar Brian Hodel. Naturally, a great deal of information about the works in question was drawn from the music itself and many of the expressed ideas are based on the author's own interpretation.

Villa-Lobos and the Guitar

"[Villa-Lobos is] the only major modern composer as yet to have composed a substantial number of works for the guitar. In doing so he [laid] the foundation of the modern guitar repertoire -- extending the expressive boundaries of the instrument far beyond where they had been -- and sparked the revolution in technique that underlies the tremendous progress the guitar has made as a concert instrument in recent years." [1]

Villa-Lobos wrote over 50 pieces in which the guitar has a prominent part. He wrote for the guitar because he was a guitarist and loved the many expressive qualities of the instrument. His first compositions (Mazurka is D major, 1899, and Panqueca, 1900) were for guitar. He was also an accomplished cellist and pianist. Although the guitar works exemplify the guitar's inherent characteristics, they also incorporate styles of other instruments -- particularly the cello.

One glance at any of the guitar works of Villa-Lobos will confirm his close affiliation with the guitar. AndrÚs Segovia often ridiculed and criticized Villa-Lobos's technique. However,

"just how good a guitarist Villa-Lobos was seems implicit from his guitar compositions. They extend guitar technique in the logical way only a master of the instrument could propose, and they sound appropriate for the instrument, bringing out its inherent characteristics and exploring new realms no prior composer had imagined. There is proof of Villa-Lobos's ability preserved on two recordings. He made a commercial record of his Ch˘ro No. 1 (Ch˘ro Tipico) for RCA Victor-Brazil (Catalog no. 12-204) in 1940. The 12-inch, 78 r.p.m. was released the following year. He also made an acetate recording of his Prelude No. 1. Both selections were recently edited on a single LP -- along with examples of his piano playing and a long discourse in Portuguese on Brazil's musical heritage -- by the Villa-Lobos Museum and the Brazilian Cultural Ministry: 'Villa-Lobos - 0 Interprete, MLV-002'." [2]

Guitarist and scholar Brian Hodel, who has heard the recording, insists that "through the scratches and primitive recording technology it was evident that Villa-Lobos had very good tone and technique." [3]

About the Music

Villa-Lobos's guitar works have been recorded and performed numerous times. Most guitarists include at least a few of the Preludes [4] and Etudes [5] in their repertoire. Yet many questions regarding performance issues of these works have gone unanswered. There has been no collective study of these works. What little information does exist on such issues can be found in an occasional article written for a guitar journal.

It is largely due to the recent centennial of the composer's birth, which has sparked a renewed interest in his music, that these articles have been written. Until about 5 years ago little information about these works has been available to the public. Many of the manuscripts and other primary sources have been under "lock and key" since the composer's death in 1959. Furthermore, those who studied with Villa-Lobos (i.e. Abel Carlevaro, Laurindo Almeida, Turibio Santos) have only recently divulged any information about the composer or his music to the public.

Villa-Lobos's music is heavily influenced by a number of different styles. First and foremost of these styles is that which he grew up with -- the folk music of Brazil. Another influence on Villa-Lobos was the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. His music for guitar also reveals strong influences from Impressionism (especially Debussy), the art of the instrumental miniature (especially Chopin), 'end of the century' salon music, and American ragtime.

From childhood, Villa-Lobos had been fascinated by Bach's music, and he quickly came to regard it as a universal heritage, almost a folklore in its own right. He also saw many stylistic parallels between Bach and certain types of melody and texture found in Brazilian folk music. The form of the nationalistic Ch˘ro hangs on a purer, classical framework (the form of Ch˘ro No. 1 is a rondo). [6] Much has been made of the Bachian versus the Brazilian elements in these works, and it is tempting to extract these components cold-bloodedly and lay them out side by side. That, however would be to misunderstand Villa-Lobos's creative process. What he wished to achieve was a rarified Ch˘ro, paying homage to both Brazilian life as he saw it and to the greatest of his European predecessors, Bach.

Brazilian rhythms, melodies, and textures of the Ch˘ro and samba echo in virtually all of Villa-Lobos's music; the same way that Flamenco styles of Spain influence the music of Rodrigo and Turina. Naturally, such folk traditions are not fully understood by many. Guitarists often feel awkward or estranged when performing such works. Their ignorance of such styles can be attributed to their perpetuating the myth that in order to fully understand these styles, one must be raised within the culture in which the style lives. This attitude leads to a great deal of poor performances of Villa-Lobos's music.

This attitude, along with the many unanswered questions about Villa-Lobos's guitar solos, has served as inspiration towards searching for some answers (in the course of which many more questions arose). Chosen here are three works of Villa-Lobos's guitar repertoire -- each from a 'set' or 'cycle' of works. Each represents a certain style and form. All three reflect the genius that was Villa-Lobos.

The focus of Part II of this series is the Villa-Lobos work Ch˘ro No. 1.

1 Brian Hodel, "Villa-Lobos and the Guitar," Guitar Review, No. 72 (Winter 1988), p. 21.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Heitor Villa-Lobos, Cinq Preludes (pour Gitare) (Eschig edn., 1954).
5 Idem, Douze Etudes (pour Gitare) (Eschig edn., 1953).
6 Idem, Ch˘ros [No. 1] (Eschig edn., 1960).

Mr. DeVinck is a classically trained guitarist and board member of the Carmel Guitar Society who has transcribed guitar songbooks for publishers Hal Leonard, Warner Bros., and Creative Concepts.


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Text copyright 2004 Richard DeVinck