From the Summer 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY JOHN PATYKULA
Last year marked the 60th anniversary of the premiere of the Concerto for Guitar by the great Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959). For many, this work is the culmination of all of the composer’s contributions to the guitar’s repertoire. In this concerto, one can hear compositional elements found in Villa-Lobos’ technically demanding Etudes (1929) combined with the lyricism of his Preludes (1940). This piece, which is both an evolution and distillation of 30 years of Villa-Lobos’ ideas, resulted in one of the most important guitar concertos and one of the most memorable premieres.
The foundation of Villa-Lobos’ Concerto for Guitar was laid during the composer’s 1923–1930 stay in Paris, then the cultural center of Europe. Villa-Lobos had been awarded a grant from the Brazilian government to travel Paris and present concerts featuring his works and those of other Brazilian composers. In that magnificent city, Villa-Lobos came in contact with several well-known composers, conductors, instrumentalists, music critics, painters, poets, and writers. In his book, Heitor Villa-Lobos: A Life, David Appleby writes:
During their stay at Place St. Michel, Villa-Lobos and [his wife] Lucilla enjoyed entertaining guests on Sunday afternoon from 2:00 to 5:00. Lucilla frequently prepared a Brazilian bean dish called feijoada, but because their budget was limited, guests were often asked to bring a dish for a potluck. Guests included Florent Schmitt; Leopold Stokowski; painter Joaquin Roca, who painted a famous portrait of Villa-Lobos; Edgard Varèse; and various other friends and musicians.
It was in Paris that Villa-Lobos first met the Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia (1893–1987) and the Mexican composer Manuel M. Ponce (1882–1948). Ponce wrote to his wife about his first meeting with Villa-Lobos.
Villa-Lobos, in his curious trilingual dialect [French, Spanish, and Portuguese] tells me that his music comes directly from the Brazilian forests. It evokes his far-off Amazonas, the violence of the savage rhythms, negro melodies twisted in their bodies’ syncopations, in the frenzy of dances which the composer’s genius has managed to link together in the prodigious “choros,” one of which caused a scandal in the Pasdeloup concerts.
Segovia formed a great and lasting friendship with both Ponce and Villa-Lobos. In his desire to increase the instrument’s repertoire, Segovia asked both to compose for the guitar. He asked Villa-Lobos for an etude. Villa-Lobos, who played the guitar, obliged with not one, but 12 etudes, all dedicated to Segovia.
Another great musician who befriended Villa-Lobos during those Paris years was the flamboyant conductor Stokowski (1882–1977). Stokowski had gained great fame as the conductor of several important orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. He would later appear in several Hollywood films, including Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Stokowski was an international celebrity of his time.
Stokowski became a champion of Villa-Lobos’ music. Under his baton, the Philadelphia Orchestra performed Villa-Lobos’ Danças Características Africanas in Philadelphia and New York in November of 1928; these performances were the first time North American audiences had heard the music of Villa-Lobos. In 1945, Stokowski invited Villa-Lobos to guest-conduct two of his works with the New York City Symphony. In 1953, CBS radio hosted a series of six concerts titled “Twentieth-Century Music Hall”; these radio concerts, all conducted by Stokowski, included works by Villa-Lobos.
Villa-Lobos received many commissions towards the end of his life. Interestingly, three of the most important were for concertos for the harp, the harmonica, and the guitar. The guitar concerto, commissioned by Segovia, was initially titled Fantasia Concertante by the composer and was completed in Rio de Janeiro in 1951. As implied, the title Fantasia liberated Villa-Lobos from the constraints of the usual concerto form. Villa-Lobos wrote the following about this work:
The Fantasia Concertante was written for guitar and balanced orchestra, with a search for timbres in order not to nullify the sonority of the soloist. It includes three movements: “Allegro preciso,” “Andantino/Andante,” and “Allegro non troppo.” The first movement begins with the orchestra and shows a very energetic theme which will re-appear as much in the guitar as in the orchestra. In the second part [“Poco meno”] the theme is entirely original and belongs to a new episode. This theme recalls greatly the melodic atmosphere of certain popular songs of Northeast Brazil. The first theme is then restated with the rhythmic structure of the opening a minor-third higher; the development and “stretto” are reduced until the accelerated ending. In the “Andantino,” after a short orchestra introduction (with simultaneous scales in contrary motion), the principal theme reappears and is developed until the “Andante.” The “Andante” presents a new episode for a few measures (6/8), in the manner of the introduction, until the expressive melody played by the guitar. The return to the “Andantino” is made a fifth higher, and the “piú mosso,” with a melody different from the others in the whole thematic invention, represents a sort of “stretto” to conclude the movement. The “Allegro non troppo,” with an introduction of a few measures (syncopated melody and rhythm), presents an orchestral theme, soon taken over by the guitar. Up to the end of the Fantasia several modulations occur with the intent of exploring the virtuosity of the guitarist.
The fact that the Fantasia Concertante had no cadenza displeased Segovia. According to Simon Wright in his book Villa-Lobos:
Segovia refused to play the work for several years, his agitation coming to a head when he heard Villa-Lobos’ Harp Concerto [dedicated to the Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta], complete with cadenza. Villa-Lobos was persuaded that he had no option but to provide a cadenza (a separate unit between the second and third movements), and re-titled his work ‘Concerto.’
In 1955, Villa-Lobos’ old friend Stokowski became principal conductor of the Houston Symphony. For the 1955–56 season, Stokowski invited Villa-Lobos to conduct an entire concert of his works, including the premiere of his Concerto for Guitar with Segovia as the soloist. The concert took place on February 6, 1956 in the Houston Music Hall, a large venue where the Houston Symphony performed all of its classical concerts. The Music Hall, which had been renovated the year before, was described as “sumptuous and charming” with “excellent lighting [that] gave an intimate feeling to the stage.”
Hubert Roussel was the music critic for the Houston Post from 1933–1966. Following is an excerpt of his lengthy review of the February 6, 1956 concert.
Villa Lobos and Segovia with Symphony: a Night of Master Techniques
By Hubert Roussell
Heitor Villa-Lobos, one of the leading manufacturers of South America, conducted the Houston Symphony Orchestra Monday evening in what will probably prove to have been one of its historic events. Coffee and the music of Villa-Lobos have been the principal exports of Brazil for the past 35 years. They occur in about equal proportions. In Houston for the first time, Villa-Lobos, one of history’s most prolific and unfettered creators of music, conducted a program of his own works, including the premiere of a guitar concerto. This was written for, and had as soloist, the equally renowned Andrés Segovia, whose attractiveness undoubtedly did its part in producing an absolute sellout of the Music Hall.
Here, then, before an audience of 3,040 souls, was presented, in one sense, as impressive and significant a musical scene as the world of 1956 can afford. One saw two living masters of the art, Villa-Lobos, the Brazilian, is 68; Segovia, the Spaniard, 63. One of these men has made his bid for a place of importance in the history of creative music. The other has brought the art of performing on the classical guitar to a point beyond which nothing is left to achieve.
The audience received them both with displays of respect and admiration such as Houston does not often provide. The occasion was thoroughly sensed, make no mistake about that. One sat in an atmosphere which was, perhaps, the nearest thing this century can offer to the air of those 18th century occasions, now so warmly romanticized, in which the ripe musical talents of Germany and Austria stood up to present their art for estimate.
The tendency to indulge in fancies of this kind was encouraged by the physical aspects of the men—especially that of Villa-Lobos, who, as I have noted before, bears a striking resemblance to the contemporary sketches of the later Beethoven, and to certain descriptions of the conducting style of the Master of Bonn.
The program consisted of four numbers, of which this reviewer was able to hear three, the list having been extended by encores.
Two of the pieces were in forms devised by Villa-Lobos himself during the course of his torrential production of music. These items, for full orchestra, were his “Bachianas Brasileiras” Number 8, which opened the program, and his “Choros” Number 6, which closed it.
The other big work played was “Erosion,” a tone poem inspired by the Amazon River, commissioned two or three years ago by the Louisville Symphony Orchestra, I believe, and the guitar concerto, written in 1953.
The new composition, which returned Segovia to his public in Houston, is a delicate and shimmering thing. Like all of the chamber music of Villa-Lobos that I have been able to hear, it is beautiful, exquisite in its graces of theme, treatment and coloration, intensely lyric, rhythmically inventive, and in general a joy to the ear.
The scoring is for small orchestra—mostly strings, with oboe, flute, bassoon, and a suggestion of brass for the other coloration and weight. The solo instrument is kept in quiet voice, except for a point or two of moderate stress, and is given, between the second and final movements, an extended solo cadenza which deals richly in ornamentation and transmutation of the principal themes.
Segovia played it, and Villa-Lobos conducted the ensemble, in ways that were quite magic and always lovely to hear. The piece is expressive; it is beautiful. If there are faults in it, one of them is its very insistence upon reticence and comparative absence of climax; its preference of lyricism to stressful bravura.
After the success of the 1956 premiere, it is not known if Segovia ever performed this concerto again. However, since that premiere, many guitarists have performed and recorded this work. Perhaps the most famous recording was by Julian Bream with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by André Previn; this recording was awarded the 1972 Grammy Award for “Best Instrumental Soloist Performance with Orchestra.”
The Concerto for Guitar by Villa-Lobos, with its chamber-like qualities, is intimate, expressive, and yet full of the “intensity and the passionate restlessness” of its creator. Evolving from the Etudes composed in Paris and the Preludes composed in Rio de Janeiro, the concerto does honor to the guitar and is a tribute to Andrés Segovia, to whom it was dedicated. It remains a very important contribution to the repertoire of the classical guitar.
Sources for this article include
Appleby, David P. Heitor Villa-Lobos – A Life (1887–1959). Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002.
Bèhaque, Gerard. Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Search for Brazil’s Musical Soul. The Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 1994.
Chasins, Abram. Leopold Stokowski – A Profile. Hawthorne Books, Inc., 1979.
Otero, Corazon. Manuel M. Ponce Y La Guitarra.
Fondo Nacional para Actividades Sociales, 1981.
Patykula, John. “Villa-Lobos and the Choro,” Guitarra Magazine, 2006.[http://www.guitarramagazine.com/villaloboschoro]
Peppercorn, Lisa. Villa-Lobos. Omnibus Press
(a division of Book Sales Limited), 1989.
Roussel, Hubert. The Houston Symphony, 1913–1971. Austin & London, The University of Texas Press, 1972.
Wright, Simon. Villa-Lobos. Oxford University Press, 1992.
Special thanks to Terry Brown (volunteer archivist with the Houston Symphony), the Houston Public Library, and the Museu Villa-Lobos for their assistance in providing information for this article.
John Patykula is Assistant Chair and Area Coordinator of Guitar for the Department of Music at Virginia Commonwealth University.
As far as we can tell, there are no recordings of Segovia himself playing the Villa-Lobos Concerto. But if you’d like to hear a modern version of it, here’s Pablo Villegas ably performing it with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia in 2013.