Prelude Nr. 1   H. Villa-Lobos

by Thomas Stiegler

„I regard my works as letters that I have written to posterity without expecting an answer.“ (H. Villa-Lobos)


Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of the last century. The city was still far away from the sprawling metropolis we know today. Even in the 1890s it had a population of only half a million, in contrast to the more than six million people who now live within its borders.

Due to its history, it was strongly European at that time. Similar to Vienna at the turn of the century, the love of music, which went through all parts of the population, was striking.

In this context, it is interesting to read the notes of Orlando Fraga. Of course, the whole thing is somewhat romanticised and exaggerated, but there should still be a relatively realistic picture of this 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 with everyone for a few drinks.

The different groups met in the winding streets and challenged each other to a musical competition. So it could be that the musicians ran for miles every night and only sang and played for their pleasure.“


In this world, H. Villa-Lobos was born in 1887. His father, an educated librarian and experienced hobby musician, introduced him to music at an early age and taught him to play the cello.

The cello remained his main instrument for the rest of his life, but in his youth,  he began to dedicate himself autodidactically to the guitar. He mainly used it to roam the streets with other musicians and to improvise choros and other Brazilian music together.


Only at the age of 20 he wanted to put his musical studies on a solid foundation and enrolled at the Instituto Nacional de Música in Rio de Janeiro.

Since he had been composing since childhood, however, he found it difficult to obey a set of rules, left the school and travelled for years through Brazil.

Villa-Lobos was fascinated by the world of the Brazilian natives and his compositions testify to his preoccupation with them and their music.

This influence is also evident in his most famous work for guitar, the five preludes. The first in the collection is also one of those pieces that people who are not otherwise interested in the guitar know.

Prelude No. 1 is entitled: “Homenagem ao sertãnejo brasileiro”, “Homage to the Brazilian Sertãnejo”, thus a resident of the Sertão.

The Sertão is a large semi-dry desert in northeastern Brazil with a population that is very different from the rest of Brazil. It is a melting pot of indigenous, Portuguese, Dutch, Moorish and African cultures with its own musical tradition.


In the subtitle the piece is called “Melodia lírica”, “lyrical melody”, a title that explains itself at first listening. The main part of the work consists of a typically Brazilian sounding melody, which is played around by simple chords.

H. Villa-Lobos may have got the idea for this from the rich musical tradition of the inhabitants of this region, but he enriched it with his knowledge of European art music.

Above all, he must have felt inspired by his beloved cello, because, unlike in traditional music, he places the melody in the bass and the accompaniment in the upper voice.


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Let’s take a closer look at the piece.

The Prelude consists of three parts, the third being the almost literal repetition of the first. (A B A’)

The A-part begins with a sustained melody in a minor key. It comes along wide and heavy, in three attempts it swings up higher and higher until it finally breaks and leads into the B-part.

You can hear the first upswing at 0:12 – 0:38, then from 0:39 – 1:05 the theme takes on more depth and leads to its climax the third time around.

Typical for Villa-Lobos is the ever-recurring type of accompaniment, in which he simply shifts certain fingering patterns on the guitar. You can see and hear this well at 0:54 – 1:02 and at 1:13 – 1:20.
From 1:21 a transition with its own melody leads to the B-part, which begins at 1:42.

Now it sparkles in a joyous major. Villa-Lobos writes a simple chordal dissection and, in contrast to before, a simple melody in the upper voice. Twice it leads to the climax e”, the first time in major, the second time it clouds over and sounds in minor.


The whole part is repeated and at 2:54 the familiar melody of the beginning begins again. The third part dispenses with the transition and leads us directly to the end of this wonderful work.

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