Michael McCooe – Composer: Villa-Lobos

Heitor Villa-Lobos (March 5, 1887 – November 17, 1959) was a Brazilian composer who some describe as the most significant creative figure in 20th Century Brazilian art music.

The most well-known Latin-American composer to date, Villa-Lobos wrote numerous orchestral, chamber, instrumental and vocal works, totalling over 2,000 before his death. His musical style was influenced by both Brazilian folk music and stylistic elements from European classical tradition. This mix is perfectly exemplified by his Bachianas Brasileiras. His preludes for guitar, written in 1940, are also integral parts of the classical guitar repertory today.

Early life

Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro when Brazil was undergoing significant changes during the late 1880s. Abolishing slavery and overthrowing the Empire of Brazil in 1888 and 1889 respectively, Brazil’s music had been dominated by European influence but Villa-Lobos initially rejected such influence and taught himself to play cello, guitar and clarinet.

His skills enabled him to provide for his family from 1899 when his father died suddenly, by performing in local cinemas and theatres. He became a professional cellist and his early compositions include attempts at grand opera.

Becoming a professional musician

villa lobos michael mccooe

In 1912, Villa-Lobos married the pianist Lucília Guimarães, while simultaneously beginning his career as a musician. His music began to be published just a year later, and he introduced some of his compositions into a series of occasional chamber concerts (later also orchestral concerts) from 1915–1921, mainly in Rio de Janeiro’s Salão Nobre do Jornal do Comércio.

In 1918, he also met the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who became a lifelong friend and champion. This meeting prompted Villa-Lobos to write more piano music as he took influence from European composition.

On Rubinstein’s advice, Villa-Lobos began touring, starting in Paris in 1923. Shortly after he returned to Brazil, where he would remain until 1945 after the Second World War had ended. He made various trips to the US, Britain and Israel, receiving a huge number of commissions which he was able to complete despite battling various illnesses throughout the last period of his life.

Later life

He composed concertos for piano, cello, classical guitar, harp and harmonica with a prolific output for the final decade before his death. Villa-Lobos’ final composition was the soundtrack to the film Green Mansions, starring Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins in 1958, earning $25,000 – thought to be over £200,000 in today’s money – before he passed away a year later in his native Brazil.

You can listen to some of my favourite classical pieces on my Michael McCooe SoundCloud profile, which is updated regularly.