Music: Key to the National Psyche



THE MIXTURE of races and nationalities in Brazil has produced a creative, effervescent spirit peculiarly our own. Anyone who has seen our country at Carnival time cannot long remain in doubt on this point. Brazilian music today is the result of a long hybridization. In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries our musical achievements followed colonial patterns, some of our religious compositions were wellfashioned and moving, while in the Romantic Era salon pieces, reflecting European models and our popular dances, flourished. We developed a sentimental song, the modinha, akin in spirit to the Stephen Foster ballad, and we reveled in Italian opera. It is perhaps a significant fact that the hemisphere’s one lyrico-dramatic talent, Carlos Gomes, should have written operas to Italian libretti and come from a land with an Emperor Pedro II.

From 1900 on, serious Brazilian music began to take on a more distinctive flavor and from under the shadow of European operatic models local symphonic pieces and chamber music works emerged. Alberto Nepomuceno (1864-1920), with Brasílio Itiberê da Cunha and Alexandre Levy, did a great deal for the integration of our national spirit, and their songs, while still within the realm of art, have the colors and inflections of popular melody. Meanwhile, Brazil was swept by the nationalistic piano music of Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934). Partly folkloric and partly erudite, his rich and unmistakable temperament combined local and foreign dance patterns with his own highly original ideas. Brazilian dances began to spread beyond our borders and the maxixe became the rage in Paris, London, and New York. Heretofore, Portuguese New World music had been the result of an IberoArabic, Indian, and African fermentation. With the coming of the twentieth century, Spanish South American, Caribbean, and North American popular elements entered into the picture. People are inclined to ignore the interplay and reciprocal influences of dance music in the Americas; yet, it is a fascinating phenomenon of this age of rapid communication.

The best-known Brazilian composer of today, or any other day, is undoubtedly Heitor VillaLobos. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1887, he played the ‘cello and guitar as a youth, exploring both local and international paths, and then explosively asserted himself. From realism and impressionism he shaped his exuberant gifts with such originality and such strength that he was able, as happens occasionally in the arts, to impose new flavors and theories on a whole generation of musicians. He has taken themes from folk music, given them his personal stamp, and returned them to the people. His works, which are among the most numerous in the history of music, reflect the nature of Brazil and its many ethnological elements. Among other characteristics there is a powerful Carioca (the adjective usually applied to Rio de Janeiro) feeling relating him to Nnzareth and other of his “ popular ” creative compatriots. Highly instinctive, Villa-Lobos transmits a tireless, earthy impulse which has evoked a response unparalleled in the career of any other creative artist in this hemisphere with the exception of perhaps Poe, Whitman, or Gershwin. Everything that he writes, from little guitar pieces or filigree miniatures in the Guia Prático to his powerful massive Rude Poema and Chôros for orchestra, confirms his capacity for expansive, seemingly endless creation. Unlike our great novelist, Machado de Assis, Villa-Lobos does not need to create the legend that he was born on the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro. Beside the musician, the novelist seems almost aristocratic. Villa-Lobos is the one who has more directly absorbed the flavor o! the masses — changing it to his needs without submitting it, as did Machado, to a violent transmutation. It follows that the composer brings a universal contribution to his ethnic background whereas the novelist remains a decided individualist.

When Villa-Lobos was a boy, Carioca folk music had not been influenced by the rest of America; it was elegant, easy-flowing, and melodic, and the chôro, the seresta, and the marcha de rancho left an ineradicable mark on his spirit. Yet this composer transcends his surroundings and remains valid while many American contemporaries basing their style on more intellectual formulae fail to reach their goals.

The honors that Villa-Lobos has received bear witness to his genius. He is the only Brazilian member of the Institut de France, where he succeeded Manuel de Falla; the Conservatory of Montevideo bears his name; he has been the guest conductor of many of the world’s greatest orchestras in performances of his own music, and there is an extensive bibliography of his compositions both published and recorded, in addition to numerous critical studies.

Although he is interested in folklore and has used it consciously (“I do not arrange popular melodies,”he once said, “I atmosphere them.”) Villa-Lobos is a great admirer of the classics. Upon overhearing one of his students tell another that he should use folk tunes in his compositions, the master burst out: “What a ridiculous pronouncement. Why, one can write completely Brazilian music in the style of Bach,” and be proceeded to do so. His contrapuntal yet at the same time lyric Bachianas brasileiras are among the composer’s most successful works. They have range, power, melody, structure, and poignancy, and have been very frequently recorded. Brazil’s dynamic composer loves the unusual and enjoys being paradoxical; his imagination is constantly at work and he has even written a piece on the melodic contour of New York’s skyline. Throughout much of his music one finds the stamp of genius, sometimes primitive or violent, sometimes florid or tender, often great, but by and large unmistakably Brazilian. Of course, like all great men he has his weaknesses and his danger is a lack of self-criticism. Many of his pages could have been left unwritten; he has almost too many ideas. Taken at his best, however, VillaLobos is the most important composer of the New World in our time.


ONE OF the common characteristics of great musicians has been their ability to form schools and influence their contemporaries. Villa-Lobos has dominated Brazilian music for more than a generation and among his followers we must mention the neo-folklorists Luciano Gallet (1893-1931), Frutuoso Viana (born 1896), Jaime Oxalic (born 1894), and Brasílio Itiberê Jr. (born 1896), each of whom has enriched the scene with songs which emanate a peculiarly Brazilian atmosphere. Few countries in the twentieth century can match us in the lyric field, as singers all over the world have discovered to their delight.

The jongleur of the contemporary school is Francisco Mignone (born 1897), a virtuoso musician whose extraordinary fluency and variety of expression have given us songs and piano, chamber and orchestral works. He has produced several ballets on national themes which reflect the life and color of the country and his mastery of the orchestra makes one think of Respighi. Oscar Lorenzo Fernández (1897-1948), in spite of his Spanish heritage, has been an apostle of the Brazilian element in music. Besides songs and chamber works, he too has written symphonies, concertos, and operas — one of them on a tale by Graça Aranha, Malazarte. Both these men will be remembered for certain compositions rather than striking originality and marked personality, their contributions to the song literature of our country being especially felicitous.

The pioneering efforts of Villa-Lobos were matched in the field of folklore and enlightened scholarship by the brilliant writer and critic Mário de Andrade (1893-1945). A poet and essayist whose penetrating mind explored, illuminated, and helped to create Brazil’s aest hetic philosophy today, he also had a tremendous influence on music. It was really Andrade who led the composers to the contemporary poets who deserve so large a share of the credit for the flowering of Brazilian song. Poems by Manual Bandeira, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Mário de Andrade himself, and others have been sensitively interpreted by the men just mentioned. This synthesis of the arts is one of the chief characteristics of Brazilian culture.

Among the composers whose paths were thus opened, the two leading figures are Radamés Gnattali and Camargo Guarnieri. Radamés Gnattali (born 1896) is above all things a professional with an excellent métier. One of our outstanding pianists, he is an adroit and resourceful orchestrator and his palette is colored by daily contact with popular music which he elaborates and prepares for one of the large radio stations. Gnattali, whose symphonic music has already been applauded in England and the United States, has a feeling for chamber music and piano pieces as well. The solo part of his second piano concerto is perhaps the most complex and difficult written in Brazil.

Camargo Guarnieri (born 1897), a Paulista (that is, a native of São Paulo — and the name implies a type of twentieth-century individual comparable to a Texan or a Californian in the United States), was formed under the tutelage of Mário de Andrade, his friend and counselor for a dozen years. Guarnieri’s musical nature is one of the most gifted our country has produced. His sojourns in France and the United States have helped him to integrate his own personality and make him aware of his true potential. No one writes with greater precision than this Brazilian Ravel — a comparison he deserves, not because he owes anything musically to the French master, but because of the finish of his workmanship which is carried out to the last detail. His songs belong to the best in the contemporary field. They are peculiarly national without being consciously’ literal or improvised or without formal expression — a characteristic all too common with us. Of course he could only have come after Villa-Lobos. Guarnieri’s extended and moving symphonies, his concertos, and his variations for piano and orchestra — his polished keyboard pieces and beautiful songs — all honor Brazil and the American continent. He marks the extreme limit of the tendency which characterizes this phase of Brazilian music, and he is still developing.

The development of Villa-Lobos’ and Guarnieri’s nationalism aims at assimilating the technical advances of contemporary music without either eliminating flavor or using an abstract musical language separated from the essence of our music.


No ESSAY on contemporary Brazilian music can ignore the impact of various world movements on the aesthetic and ideology of Brazilian composers. Naturally the twelve-tone school has had its effect — even Villa-Lobos has written in it — and its chief advocate is the German composer-flutist Hans Joachim Koellreutter, now living in São Paulo. The Brazilian wing of this twentiethcentury movement travels under the name of Musica Viva. It sponsors concerts devoted to such world-known personalities as Schönberg, Weber, and Berg, Bartok and Hindemith. The leading Brazilian twelve-tone composer was Cláudio Santoro, whose early pieces had, in spite of a certain expressive density, an impressive, tragic sense. His symphonies and various chamber music works are impregnated with a serious, somewhat strange vitality. Several years ago, however, Santoro became imbued with socialist-realist theories and, leaving the severe “materialist ideology” which formerly guided his carefully thought out way of writing, he turned to tried-and-true patterns, too often, alas, banal rather than distinguished. The same path was followed by another twelve-toner, named Guerra-Peixe, an excellent musician and distinctly gifted composer though his achievements have never really captured the ear of the public.

The kaleidoscopic variety of popular Brazilian dances is truly startling and even today retains many traces of the past. Ernesto Nazareth’s lively spirit continues on in numerous adaptations and imitations and the elegant maxixeCarioca music par excellence — outlives the imported boleros and rumbas which are often vulgar and undistinguished.

The samba, of course, is one of our twentiethcentury trademarks. It is a lilting, swaying dance with a bounce and a shuffle step. No one can resist its gaiety; which has contributed glowingly to the spirit of Carnival. Jazz brought a certain complexity to our popular instrumental music and, though tending to eliminate national flavor, gave a technical standard, as well as color and counterpoint which have improved our radio broadcasts and stereotyped light music. Actually our early popular composers did not lack a virtuoso side. Nazareth when writing for the piano, or Calado, or the admirable Pixinguinha composing for the flute, demanded unusual dexterity as well as inborn rhythm and singing abilities; the same holds true for the guitar. If they are not present on the horizon today, we certainly will have successors to Nazareth and Chiquinha Gonzaga. It is unfortunate that Francisco Mignone with his melodic gifts has not gone further into the popular field because he might become the greatest of our light-opera composers.

And so we come to the end of this brief survey. Largely because our serious composers have accepted the same general aesthetic outlook and have had an outstanding creator to follow — we have a relatively homogeneous school. The leader, VillaLobos, and his younger contemporary, Camargo Guarnieri, have attained world stature. Both are familiar with our popular music and are abreast of what is going on elsewhere. It would be hard to imagine Brazil without its musicians — whether it be in Carnival time, a band doing a samba, or a symphony orchestra playing chôros, music is as much a part of our civilization as coffee.

Translated by Elisabeth Sprague Smith