Heitor Villa-Lobos

Heitor Villa-Lobos once described the sheer quantity of his compositional output – nearly one thousand works including operas, orchestral, choral and chamber compositions – as “the fruits of an extensive, generous, and warm land.”  This land was Brazil, where Villa-Lobos grew up in the city of Rio de Janeiro.  Long stretches of white sandy beaches, the deep blue Atlantic Ocean, flowers of a thousand varieties, the clear bay of Rio de Janeiro, and wide warm streets lined with open-air markets formed the backdrop for Villa-Lobos’s childhood.  Villa-Lobos took his inspiration from this land and its diverse cultural and musical influences, created a national style of composition, and went on to become the most celebrated composer in Brazil.

Villa-Lobos’s Youth and Amazon Travels

Heitor Villa-Lobos was born on March 5, 1887, in the city of Rio de Janeiro.  He was raised in a middle-class family of eight children, of which four survived. His father, Raúl, worked for the National Library.  An amateur musician, Raúl saw to it that Villa-Lobos received a good musical education, taking him to concerts and operas, giving him clarinet lessons, and drilling him on the names, genres, origins, and styles of classical works.

From his father Villa-Lobos also learned the cello and it became his favorite instrument. His father died a premature death from malaria in 1899, when Villa-Lobos was only twelve, and since his mother was living on a small widow’s pension and earning low wages washing clothes, the twelve-year-old Heitor helped to support the family by playing cello in cinemas, hotels, and cafes. It was in these settings that he mingled with some of the most talented and celebrated Brazilian musicians, including Ernesto Nazareth, the great Brazilian pianist and composer.

Villa-Lobos was drawn to the rhythms of the street musicians in Rio de Janeiro. When he was younger his father had disapproved of his interest in this music, so Villa-Lobos had stolen moments to listen to the music and learned the guitar secretly; at the time the guitar was associated with a seedier social set.  After his father’s death, Villa-Lobos was able to fully immerse himself in Rio de Janeiro’s street music and to become adept at guitar.  The Choros especially fascinated him, which was apparent from his later composition Chôros no. 10.

Although self-taught, in his late teens Villa-Lobos sought the advice of a professor of music, Agnello França, at the Instituto Nacional de Música in Rio de Janeiro.  França advised Villa-Lobos to seek formal musical training, which he did.  At first, he failed the entrance exam to the Instituto, but was admitted to the Conservatório Imperial de Música. Villa-Lobos never liked conventions or formality, and thus he only stayed at the conservatory for a brief period. Later in his life he was quoted as saying: “One foot in the academy and you are changed for the worst.”

In his early twenties, Villa-Lobos embarked on a series of wildly adventurous travels around rarely explored areas of Brazil.  It is unclear what exactly happened during this time in Villa-Lobos’s life because when he was an old man he loved to talk about his days as a young man and to embellish the truth.  He told colorful, far-fetched stories of voyages up and down the tributaries of the Amazon in nothing more than a small homemade boat. 

What we do know, however, is that Villa-Lobos derived much pleasure from what he saw of his country during his travels, and the nationalism found in his music may have developed initially during this time.  It seems likely that one of the reasons for these travels was to collect folk melodies.  He was young, sensitive, inquisitive, and seeking new experiences, sounds, and sights.  The screams of monkeys attacked by boa constrictors, the cries of jungle creatures, the feeling of solitude, the raw ferocity of the Amazon river, and the dark impenetrable forest left a deep impression on him.  He also heard the songs of the indigenous peoples and observed their dances.

Creative Abundance

In 1913, at the age of twenty-six, Villa-Lobos’s life changed quite dramatically when he married Lucília Guimarães.  She was a pianist and teacher, and together they lived with her mother and her six siblings in Rio de Janeiro.  Lucília encouraged Villa-Lobos to channel his creativity toward composing serious rather than popular music.  He began to write for piano and small chamber ensembles, and Lucília debuted several of his piano pieces.
The next five years, 1913-1918, were a period of intense creative activity: Villa-Lobos produced one hundred works, including his first guitar pieces Suite Popular Brasileira, four string quartets, two symphonies, and two ballets (Amazonas and Uirapuru).  His style emerged  as a blend of early twentieth-century western art music and the popular rhythms of the Brazilian street musicians.  Unfortunately, the composer was disparaged by the critics.

The first official concert of Villa-Lobos’ works took place on November 13, 1915, and included the First Piano Trio, op.25, and the Sonata Fantasia no.2, op.29.  His music again received intense criticism.  Between 1917 and 1919, particularly as a result of the premieres of a number of his orchestral works, which were considered new Brazilian art music and anti-establishment in terms of their musical language, Villa-Lobos became well-known as a controversial artist who challenged the traditional Romantic compositions of the time.

Success in São Paulo and Paris

To celebrate the centenary of Brazilian independence, a group of artists and intellectuals organized a Week of Modern Art in Sao Paulo in February 1922 and invited Villa-Lobos to represent modern Brazilian music.  His piano work, Danças Características Africanas, was re-set as a chamber piece for five strings, clarinet, flute and piano and was performed.  As a result, Villa-Lobos was praised as an almost mythical figure, a living symbol of Brazilian musical nationalism.
In 1923, aided by a government stipend, which Villa-Lobos had worked hard for more than a year to secure, and with the support of wealthy friends, Villa-Lobos left for Europe at the age of thirty-six, seeking to promote his works internationally.  He settled in Paris where he stayed for seven years.  Concerts of his music during this period achieved great success and French music critics loved him.  Subsequently, his music was published by influential Parisian music publisher Max Esching, and he became the most acclaimed Latin American composer in Europe.

Bringing Music to the Masses in Brazil

After Villa-Lobos returned to live in Brazil in 1930, he energetically threw himself into a music campaign to improve music education throughout schools in Brazil.  Whether or not he shared the far-right values of the new government under Getulio Vargas, which was often connected with fascist European regimes, is a point of controversy, but one thing is clear: Villa-Lobos received strong backing from Vargas and this boosted his musical career.

In 1931 a post was created especially for Villa-Lobos: the Superintendent of Musical and Artistic Education in Rio de Janeiro.  With this post he forwarded a program to include music education in the public schools and the creation of massive civic choirs that focused on Brazilian music. Though inexperienced at administrative and educational work, Villa-Lobos achieved remarkable results.  His choir in 1935 had thirty thousand voices and one thousand instrumentalists and later choirs in 1940 and 1943 had close to forty thousand singers.  His success was such that a bust of Villa-Lobos made by Argentine sculptor Luís Perlotti was unveiled at Rio’s Municipal Theatre in 1936.  Also that year, at the age of forty-nine, Villa-Lobos left his wife, and became involved with Arminda Neves d’Almeida.  In 1942 Villa-Lobos’s success continued when he became director of the newly founded National Conservatory of Orpheonic Singing.

Fame in the United States

Throughout his life, Villa-Lobos fought hard to have his music performed.  Finally, after the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, and during World War II, interest in Latin American culture began to grow in the United States, and suddenly Villa-Lobos was receiving numerous invitations to visit the United States and to conduct his works.  Between 1944 and 1946, he conducted his works with many of the most prestigious orchestras in the United States and around the world, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which performed a concert devoted entirely to his works in 1945.  In New York City, he gave a concert of his chamber music, and met many famous musicians such as Aaron Copland, Yehudi Menuhin, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman.

Touring the World

In 1948, at the age of sixty-one, Villa-Lobos was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder.  For the last eleven years of his life, he underwent rigorous medical treatment, and yet he remained very active; in fact, during his last years, he was able to fulfill his dream of composing and conducting his works full-time all over the world. 

He toured Japan, Europe, and the United States in 1949. In 1952, he moved to Paris.  His works Symphony no.4 ‘A vitória’ and Descombrimento do Brasil, though composed earlier in his life, were premièred in Paris in 1952 to great success.  In 1954, he toured Israel.  The Ministry of Education and Culture in Brazil named 1957 the “Villa-Lobos Year.”  In 1958 he was asked by MGM to write the film score for Green Mansions, and that same year, his sacred work, Bendita Sabedoria, was performed at New York University on the occasion of his honorary doctorate.

He returned to Brazil in 1959.  His health was suffering, but he nonetheless directed the Brazilian Academy of Music (which he had formed in 1945) for a few months.  He died in November of that year.  Days before his death, he was still active, attending a performance of his work, and receiving an enthusiastic ovation.  On the day he died the New York Times radio station broadcasted a memorial program instead of its regular programming.  His funeral was attended by the President of Brazil.  In February of the following year, the New York Public Library organized an exhibition devoted to his life. And that same year the Museu Villa-Lobos in Rio de Janeiro was founded.


Peppercorn, Lisa M.  The World of Villa-Lobos in Pictures and Documents.  Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 1996.
Villa-Lobos Museum.  Museu Villa-Lobos.  Accessed 1 November 2005 <http//:www.museuvillalobos.org.br >.