Prelude No. 2 and 3
by Thomas Stiegler
At the beginning of the 20th century the guitar had almost completely disappeared from public consciousness and hardly anyone remembered the role it had played in concert life only fifty years earlier.
But in a small circle around the Spanish guitarist Francisco Tarrega, a quiet revolution began, which would soon lead to a new flowering. Tarrega, a lonely tinkerer and enthusiast of the instrument, continued to develop the playing technique and, together with his students Emilio Pujol and Miguel Llobet, laid the foundation for the further development of the guitar in the 20th century.
In the 1920s, the Andalusian guitarist Andres Segovia conquered the concert stages of first Europe and then the world and remained the most important representative of the classical guitar until the end of his life. He trained himself on the works of F. Sor and F. Tarrega, but unlike the latter, he was an extrovert and with his work he restored the guitar to its rightful place in musical life.
As he found little contemporary music, he prompted numerous composers to write for him. In doing so, he had fixed ideas about the music he wanted to perform. He demanded works that were firmly grounded in tonality and only allowed for a gentle impressionism with Spanish echoes. This field was covered by his favourite composers such as J. Turina, F. Morreno-Torroba or J. Rodrigo.
More difficult, however, were composers such as Manuel de Falla or Frank Martin, who, with their musical language, which was modern for that time, only found the recognition they deserved in the hands of J. Bream and J. Williams.
Somewhere in between these two groups is the music of H. Villa-Lobos. This is probably one of the reasons why Segovia had such a divided relationship to his music. He seemed to love some of his pieces, such as the Prelude No. 1, because he played it again and again in his concerts. Others, however, he rejected and never performed them in public.
These included the Twelve Etudes which he commissioned in 1929, as he was looking for pieces to build up a repertoire. Villa-Lobos combined popular playing techniques with various themes from Brazilian folk music, but could not meet the taste of Segovia.
Even when he did not rework the pieces at the guitarist’s request, Segovia refused to play them in his concerts and only included the first etude in his programme.
For many years Villa-Lobos turned his attention to other fields of music, and it was not until 1940 that he began to work with the guitar again. In that year he wrote the five Preludes, which can also be seen as a counter-draft to his twelve Etudes. For after he had written the Etudes explicitly to solve technical problems, he concentrated here on bringing the musical ideas and the attitude to life of his homeland to the fore.
The Prelude No. 2 bears the subtitle “Melodia capadocia”.
In the first part we see the improvising guitar player from the vagabonding choro groups of Rio, whose constant rubati remind us of the carefree rawness and mocking laughter of the capadocia.
The Capadocia is a villainous figure of the Brazilian carnival, representing an imaginary inhabitant of Rio. She comes along carefree and boastful, while the second part with its flood of sounds is the climax of a carnival parade.
Ragingly fast arpeggios, a characteristically rhythmic bass line (found in some regions of Brazil in the carnival blockade) and harmonic combinations created only by shifting a single chord across the fretboard increase to a wild tumult that finally calms down, after which we finally find ourselves back in the warm streets of Rio, at the feet of the mockingly laughing Capadocia.
Somewhere I once read that Villa-Lobos had two great passions: the guitar and the music of J. S. Bach. Therefore it seems only logical that the Prelude No.3, “Homage to Bach”, is the centre of the whole cycle.
The piece is again written in the three-part form we are familiar with. Musically, there is not much to be found, but I have found some nice words about it in a work by Luka Vehar: “The first part is again improvisational and could be interpreted as a dialogue between two sides of Villa-Lobos’ personality: The strong, determined part, which faces all obstacles, is contrasted by a soft and melancholic side, which recognizes that a fight cannot lead to a goal in the long run”.
The connection to Johann Sebastian Bach is mainly found in the second part, with a decomposition in clear harmonies reminiscent of Bach’s Preludes.
For me, this part is always like a reminder of a time long past (perhaps the time of Bach?), but one that still lingers and is present in the life of the composer.