A Look Inside Villa-Lobos’ Influential 1920s Choros
By John Patykula
For classical guitarists, the guitar music of Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959) provides an important and indispensable part of the repertoire. His Suite Popular Brasilienne, Etudes, Preludes, and Concerto achieve musical and technical possibilities that, until the time of their creation, had not been thought possible. This guitar music is uniquely original and truly a world unto its own, and it is a world almost always inspired by the music of Brazil. The word choro is associated with several of Villa-Lobos’ guitar works, so it is important to know its meaning and significance in the life of this great composer.
“Yes, I’m Brazilian—very Brazilian. In my music, I let the rivers and seas of this great Brazil sing. I don’t put a gag on the tropical exuberance of our forests and our skies, which I intuitively transpose to everything I write.”
Choro is derived from the Portuguese chorar (to “weep,” “lament,” or “cry”), and refers to a type of popular music—primarily instrumental—that first appeared in Rio de Janeiro in the latter part of the 19th century. This music was performed by chorões, which were serenading ensembles that always included guitars. The chorões would perform at night in the streets, cafes, theatres, and at social events. Their music was very spontaneous, with elements of improvisation and virtuosity. Some scholars have compared these chorões to early American jazz bands, although these choro groups appear before the beginnings of jazz.
In the early development of the choro, the popular Brazilian pianist Ernesto Nazareth (1863–1934) stands out as the important originator of this style of music. Like Villa-Lobos, Nazareth was primarily self-taught. And, like Villa-Lobos, Nazareth was very much a nationalistic composer—his works were inspired by the music and culture of his native country. To Villa-Lobos, Nazareth was “a true incarnation of the soul of musical Brazil.” The two composers became close friends. Influenced by the works of Chopin and other Romantic composers, Nazareth’s piano works fused European musical forms and elements of jazz and ragtime with syncopated Brazilian rhythms and, at times, guitar-like accompaniments. On first hearing, it is tempting to classify this music as “Brazilian ragtime music.”
In his youth, Villa-Lobos was attracted to the music of Nazareth and the chorões. Villa-Lobos’ experiences playing in these groups would provide an important and unique part of his musical education. These experiences would later be the inspiration for a series of fourteen compositions titled Choros, which would make him internationally famous.
We see the word choro first used by Villa-Lobos in his Suite Popular Brasilienne, most of which was composed between 1908–1912. The five “dances” in this suite include Mazurka-choro, Schottish-choro, Valsa-choro, Gavotta-choro, and Chorinho. The first four pieces show the influence of nationalism, which was sweeping Europe and Latin American at that time. The Chorinho is distinctly Brazilian in name and in thematic material.
Villa-Lobos would return to composing for the guitar in 1920 with his Choros No. 1 for solo guitar, which he dedicated to his friend Nazareth. This work, destined to be a favorite among classical guitarists, would become the inspiration for the Choros series. In his biography Heitor Villa-Lobos: A Life, the eminent musicologist David Appleby writes: “In the Choros series he sought to amplify the idea of providing a panoramic view of the improvisatory techniques of street musicians…” The 14 Choros, 13 of which were composed between 1924–29, are considered Villa-Lobos’ most original and innovative compositions. These works, composed when Villa-Lobos was in Paris, were inspired by the music of the chorões but utilizing the compositional language prevalent at that time in Europe, particularly in Paris. Paris was considered the artistic capital of the world, and its audiences were hungry for the sounds and rhythms from far-off exotic lands like Brazil. Villa-Lobos was quick to realize that he could make his fame with this type of music.
Villa-Lobos composed his Choros for a variety of performing media. Among these 14 works, several stand out for their uniqueness. Choros No. 2, for flute and clarinet, is a conversation between two virtuoso street musicians. A Brazilian Indian song is the inspiration for Choros No. 3; the song is sung in the Parecis Indian language by a male chorus accompanied by seven woodwind instruments. Choros No. 5 for solo piano, titled “Alma Brasileira” (Soul of Brazil), displays the expressive qualities of a serenade, with its pulsating and melancholic themes, perhaps inspired by the piano music of Nazareth. Considered to be one of his masterpieces (if not his greatest work), Choros No. 10 utilizes the forces of an orchestra augmented with native Brazilian instruments and chorus to create a monument of nationalistic Brazilian music. Choros No. 11 is an immense panorama of Brazil in the form of a piano concerto, utilizing some of Villa-Lobos’ most daring orchestration. It should be noted that the full scores for Choros No. 13 and No. 14 are presumed lost—these two works have never been performed.
From a historical perspective, Introduction to the Choros, composed in 1929, should be considered a groundbreaking work; it demonstrates that the guitar can be effective in an orchestral setting.
After completing the 14 Choros, Villa-Lobos composed Introduction to the Choros for guitar and orchestra, which incorporated many of the themes found in the Choros series. In this unique work, the guitar plays a very prominent role, with several extended solos. At the beginning of the printed score, Villa-Lobos lists the instrumentation, clearly specifying “guitar with microphone”—obviously Villa-Lobos realized that an unamplified guitar would not be heard over the full sound of an orchestra. From a historical perspective, Introduction to the Choros, composed in 1929, should be considered a groundbreaking work; it demonstrates that the guitar can be effective in an orchestral setting. It lays the foundation for the great guitar concertos of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Joaquìn Rodrigo, and Manuel M. Ponce, which would appear in the 1930s and 1940s. In addition, Introduction to the Choros sowed the seeds for Villa-Lobos’ Concerto for Guitar, completed in 1951, which many considered the culmination of all his works for guitar.
More than any of his other works, the Choros are considered Villa-Lobos’ most daring masterpieces. The series originated with a singular guitar work, Choros No. 1, and concluded with a large orchestral work, Introduction to the Choros, which featured the guitar in a most prominent role. In the Choros series, Villa-Lobos synthesized the popular music of Rio de Janeiro to create what has been described as “one of the most important manifestations of Brazilian musical folklore.” The eminent classical guitarist Jesùs Silva (1914–1996), who knew Villa-Lobos and played for him on two occasions, wrote: “The music of Heitor Villa-Lobos has revealed to me an unexpected dimension of life. It is clear that his music is that of a great composer; inspired and beautiful, very spontaneous. His wisdom and great musical technique are present, without effort, like that of the great masters of music.” Villa-Lobos’ Choros are magnificent creations, full of craftsmanship and emotion, from the mind and soul of one of the 20th century’s greatest and most original composers.
John Patykula is the Assistant Chair and Coordinator of the Guitar Program in the Department of Music at Virginia Commonwealth University.