Heitor Villa Lobos (1887-1959)
Piano Trio No. 3 (1913)
Heitor Villa-Lobos’s originality is evident in the way he lived his life. He didn’t bother to earn a living according to any prevailing standard, preferring instead to get what money he could when and where he could—usually playing the ’cello in cafés. He also traveled far and wide in his native Brazil, and as he did so, he collected themes, which he would later employ in his compositions. He wasn’t able to successfully submit to the discipline of study at the National Music Institute although his teachers recognized his talent. Instead, he studied the scores of the masters and the composition treatise of Vincent d’Indy.
The first formal concert of his music was held in November 1915 and was followed periodically by other such concerts. The public came to know him in this way with some critics praising him and others damning him. He was commissioned to write music on the subject of World War I, and he responded by producing a symphony trilogy. By 1923 he was well-enough appreciated that he could afford to go to Paris, where he lived until 1930. There he created a sensation and was enormously successful. Upon his return to Brazil, Villa-Lobos became an “official” musician of the nationalist government, advising them in all musical matters and organizing music education on a national scale. He wrote a great deal of music using the folk themes he was continuously collecting, incorporating them particularly into children’s songs and choral pieces.
Villa-Lobos conducted concerts of his own music on his first trip to the United States in 1944, appearing in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and New York. He returned for visits to Europe at the end of World War II and savored his popularity in Paris and Rome. When he returned to Brazil, he founded the National Academy of Music, of which he was the president until his death in 1959. His funeral was attended by Brazil’s leaders, and this one-time café musician, who had been awarded the Brazilian Order of Merit and French Légion d’honneur, had a Villa-Lobos Museum established in Rio de Janeiro in his honor.
The Trio No. 3, written in 1918, was not premiered until October 21, 1921 in Rio de Janeiro at the Salao Nobre. It is listed in the catalogue of his works as number 142. His penchant for giving long, rhapsodic flourishes to each instrument is wonderfully evident here. One has the sense that he would have wanted to play all three parts at once were it possible because his spirited scale reaches out so freely for expression in the arches of his melodic lines. At the same time Villa-Lobos has a way of carrying us along on the motoric dance rhythms and then pausing, ever so confidently to turn round and survey what has just been done. His ability to meld “social” music and “native” energy is all the more enthralling given the fact that this Brazilian is so close to his country’s exotic heritage and such an inspired purveyor of it.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Chansons de Bilitis (1897-98)
First published in Paris in 1894, the 143 texts, from which Debussy selected these three songs, purport to be translations of poems by a woman named Bilitis, a contemporary and acquaintance of Sappho. They caused a sensation, not only because finding an intact cache of poems from a completely unknown Greek poet circa 600 B.C. was such an unlikely discovery, but because of its open and sensitive exploration of lesbian eroticism. In fact Bilitis never existed. The poems were a clever forgery by Pierre Louÿs—the "translator." To lend weight to the claim of authenticity, he included a bibliography with bogus supporting works. Louÿs had a good command of the classics, and he salted Bilitis with a number of quotations from real poets, including Sappho, to make it even more convincing. Although these texts are fake, their literary value is significant. And even though they were written by a man, they acquired cultural significance for lesbians. In fact, one of the earliest organizations of lesbians in the United States was called the Daughters of Bilitis. This may have been because it was a reference that would elude most people.
Prior to the 1960s, in the U.S., English translations of Bilitis were considered risqué enough to warrant lavish privately printed limited editions, a dodge to circumvent now-defunct censorship laws. The text of these translations is based on a 1926 edition, which is accompanied by sensual, witty Art Deco illustrations by Willy Pogany. (The preceding is based on a note by J. B. Hare.)
Pierre Louÿs was a close friend of Debussy. Each of his poems consists of four prose stanzas of similar length. Louÿs's use of language makes his prose verge on poetry, and its sensuality and eroticism appealed to Debussy. The composer lived a life of controversy, both personally and musically. This composition and the subject of the “poems” reflect the composer’s belief that the artist must be free to please only himself. In a letter of 1911 he writes “how much one has first to find and then suppress to reach the naked flesh of emotion.” That he achieved the freedom he sought is beyond dispute. His influence on his contemporaries, except for Arnold Schoenberg, is vast. His predecessors lined up to praise or condemn him, and in the last analysis, his music strips his critics of any cause, for or against him, for it has achieved universality.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Seven Romances on Poems by A. Blok, Op. 127 (1967)
This music was written for the 50th Anniversary of the Russian “October Revolution.” The composer dedicated it to the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, who sang the premiere together with her husband, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, violinist David Oistrach, and pianist Moisey Vainberg. This dedication was swept out of reference books after 1978 when Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich were stripped of their Soviet citizenship.
Banning ideas and their authors was an ongoing practice in Soviet Russia. Shakespeare was English and dead. But his works could and would be banned. However, the censors slipped up, when they let pass Ophelia’s Song, from Hamlet. With such practices as these, Soviet artists were able to express the soulful resistance to their continuous oppression by authorities whose sole purpose was to be sure agreement with the leadership was in every picture, on every stage and in every song. So too, did Alexander Blok (1880-1920), the “Father of Symbolism” in Russia, become a vehicle for expression of social feelings. Even the title of these songs voices opposition, if one takes the Webster Dictionary definition of “Romanticism”: “...a reaction against the principle associated with neo-classicism by insisting upon greater creative freedom and wider range of subjects open to artistic and literary treatment.” (The preceding is based on spoken notes by Marni Nixon.)
In February 1967, Shostakovich, starting to recover from a long illness, responded to the request of his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, for a piece Rostropovich could perform with his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. The composer selected seven early poems by the Russian poet Alexander Blok. He realized immediately that ’cello and voice alone was too limiting, so he added violin and piano. The first six-songs combination combine the instruments singly and in pairs with the voice, bringing them all together for the seventh, untitled by Blok. Shostakovich gave it the title “Music.”
The cycle begins with innocent Ophelia’s lonely vigil, awaiting Hamlet’s return. The “Bird of Prophecy,” inspired by a terrifying painting of the flightless bird Gamajun, depicts the face of a beautiful woman, whose anguished countenance reveals a mouth that cries out, caked with dried blood. The remembrance of the first awakening of beautiful love is evoked by the violin in the third song, then the sadness of loss; the fourth depicts a storm and compassion for those without shelter. The solo ’cello returns for two of the four verses of “The Secret Signs” and is joined in the last two by the violin, carrying the ethereal secret signs and premonitions of dreams. Finally, all four performers give voice to the quiet, passionate rapture, and ultimately blissful offering to the supreme goddess of Music.
© A. Robert Johnson 2005