Prelude No. 1

H. Villa-Lobos

by Thomas Stiegler

“I consider my works as letters written to posterity without expecting a reply.”    (H. Villa-Lobos) 1

Rio de Janeiro, the “River of January,” at the end of the 19th century. At that time, the city was still far from being the sprawling metropolis we know today. For even into the 1890s, it had a population that never exceeded half a million, which is relatively small when compared to the more than thirteen million people who live within its metropolitan area today. If we had the opportunity to step into a time machine and immerse ourselves in this world, we would be surprised at how European this city was then, and how much it resembled another city thousands of miles away in the heart of Europe: the Habsburg metropolis and present-day capital of Austria – the much-praised Vienna. For here, as there, it sounded on every corner, everywhere people played for dancing or simply sang for work, and the love of music went evenly through all parts of the population.

Rio de Janeiro, ©Heibe

In this context, one should also read the notes of Orlando Fraga, because they give us a rather realistic picture of the attitude to life at that time: “Whole groups of young men formed instrumental bands, played at parties, balls, weddings, the carnival and all kinds of celebrations. They roamed the streets all night, from one bar to the next, playing at each for a few drinks. The different groups met in the winding streets and challenged each other to musical competition. So it could be that the musicians walked for miles each night, singing and playing just for their own amusement.” 1

Into this world now was born on March 5, 1887, a boy who would grow up to be one of South America’s most famous composers under the name Heitor Villa-Lobos. From an early age, his father (himself an accomplished amateur musician and manic bookworm) inspired him with the world of European art and culture – a legacy that would later be formative for the young man. It was also he who taught him to play the cello, and this instrument was to accompany Villa-Lobos throughout his life and leave deep traces in his work. But for the time being, the young musician pursued other paths and he increasingly began to occupy himself with the guitar. He did this mainly (as described by Orlando Fraga) to wander the streets with other musicians and play choros and other Brazilian music together. For a long time, this way of making music seemed to be enough for him, but then his father’s legacy struck and he decided that if he was going to devote his life to music, he would do it only on the basis of a conservative musical education. But his first steps in this direction failed – Villa-Lobos, accustomed to a free life and music-making, found it extraordinarily difficult to submit to a strict set of rules, and so he began an aimless wandering that would take him all over Brazil over the next few years. During these years he also came to know and love the world of the Brazilian natives, and his later work bears witness to his preoccupation with them and their music.

This influence can also be felt in his most famous work for guitar, the “5 Préludes”. The first prelude from this collection is, by the way, also one of those pieces that is known even to people who are not otherwise involved with the guitar. It bears the title: “Homenagem ao sertãnejo brasileiro”, i.e. “Homage to the Brazilian Sertãnejo”, which already indicates the whole direction of this work.

Sol Sertao Brasilien, ©DavisonSoares

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This influence can also be felt in his most famous work for guitar, the “Five Préludes”. The first prelude from this collection is, by the way, also one of those pieces that is known even to people who are not otherwise involved with the guitar. It bears the title: “Homenagem ao sertãnejo brasileiro”, i.e. “Homage to the Brazilian Sertãnejo”, which already indicates the whole direction of this work.

For the population of the Sertão shows strong differences to the rest of Brazil – it seems that here a melting pot of indigenous, Portuguese, Dutch, Moorish and African cultures has emerged, which in this closed part of the country have developed their very own mixture of traditions and customs, and of course this is also reflected in their own musical forms.

Villa-Lobos now succeeds in drawing a successful synthesis from this world and his preoccupation with European art music. For the unusual use of the accompanying chords seems to come from the music of this region, while the cello-like cantilena is reminiscent of many a piece of classical music (not without reason the work also bears the subtitle “Melodia lírica”, i.e. “lyrical melody”).

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But let’s take a closer look at the piece: As already mentioned, the main feature of this work is a wide-swinging melody in the bass, reminiscent of a cello’s chant, which soars in several attempts. Once, twice, three times the cantilena rises, higher and higher, until at last it breaks at the apex and, after a brief transition (here a new motive flickers briefly), leads into the middle section of the work. Now it sparkles in the happiest major. Villa-Lobos writes a simple chordal decomposition and, quite in contrast to the first part, the melody now resounds in the upper voice. Twice it leads us to the climax e”, the first time in the purest major, the second time it clouds over and resounds in the minor. The third section of the work is the literal repetition of the first part, though this time Villa-Lobos leads us without transition directly to the conclusion of this wonderful work, which ends with sadly low chord repetitions equal to chimes.

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