Brazil, Bach, and the Cello – Unknown Treasure for Cello and Piano by Heitor Villa-Lobos

Today I’m extremely excited to present to you a guest post from a good friend of mine. Dr. Lars Hoefs has been an annual guest at the Rio International Cello Encounters since 2004, and served as Assistant Principal Cellist of the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira in 2009. He has performed as soloist with orchestra and given masterclasses throughout Brazil.  His recording of Villa-Lobos’ cello/piano music is available from all major online distributors.  Lars lives in Los Angeles.
You can learn more about Dr. Hoefs at


Villa’s works for cello and piano are a collection of precious gems, a treasure trove of lyrical and charming miniatures. But unlike the emerald, amethyst, and cat’s eye aquamarine culled from Brazil’s mines and disseminated to the far corners of the globe, this cache of cellistic jewels remains a tropical secret, hidden by dense rainforests and spectacular mountains, secured by ranks of cold-blooded caiman and giant Amazonian trees standing guard over the untold bounty…

In addition to a substantial Cello Sonata #2 (#1 has yet to turn up), Villa-Lobos left nearly 60 minutes of remarkably beautiful music for cello and piano. With the exception of Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2 (1930) and Divagação (1946), these works belong to the years 1913-17, pre-dating Villa’s 30th birthday. These late-romantic, quasi-impressionist pieces present the composer’s wild gift already in full flower. Wherever pianist Rose Chen and I perform these outside Brazil, audiences are left astounded, asking, “does anyone know about these?”

At the age of 6 Villa first encountered what would always be his favorite instrument, the cello. His first lessons were on a converted viola and given by his father, respected author and assistant librarian of the Biblioteca Nacional, and amateur cellist as well. One year later he was improvising simple melodies based on the cantigas de roda, música sertaneja folk songs he’d absorbed in his family’s 6-month sojourn through the northeast countryside. (They were forced to flee Rio on account of his father’s polemical articles which antagonized the volatile vice-president, coupled with a misconstrued accusation of library book theft… a long and separate story in itself.)

Back in a forgiving Rio de Janeiro, every Saturday night, after his chess match, Villa-Lobos père opened his home to any instrument-wielding friends for a chamber music soiree that would go late into the night. The father was constantly testing the son, drilling him on any musical work he heard, even demanding any mundane noise be described in musical pitches whether it was a bird’s call or a train’s whistle; everything was music.

At the age of 8 Villa discovered the composer who would always be his favorite, J.S. Bach. He listened enraptured at his Aunt Zizinha’s feet as she played through the preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Instinctively, Villa drew an association between Bach and música caipira, the Brazilian folk music he’d been hearing all around him. (In his dissertation, David Chew demonstrates how Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 Prelude becomes a modinha by moving the barline over by one quarter-note!)

Villa always showed great interest in folk and popular music, but his father routinely discouraged it. With his death in 1899, Raúl Villa-Lobos continued to further his son’s musical education from beyond the grave, albeit in a direction he wouldn’t have chosen. Paternal prohibitions lifted (though similar maternal ones persisted), Villa was able to seek out his heroes of Rio’s nightly jam sessions, the chorinhos. These guys would improvise music all night, in between drinks. To ingratiate himself with the circle of virtuosic instrumentistas, Villa sold off his father’s prized personal library and used the cash to buy cachaça (sugar-based rum) for the serenaders, imbibing all he could from the nocturnal nonpareil professors.

One Response to Brazil, Bach, and the Cello – Unknown Treasure for Cello and Piano by Heitor Villa-Lobos

  1. Rogerio May 18, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    Legal Lars, parabéns pelo artigo!
    Thank you Hans, this is a great article. Villa-Lobos music is indeed not well known in the USA, very rich music though. Alberto Nepomuceno, one of the first Brazilian nationalist composers, is also a composer that is worth exploring.

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