The greatest source of inspiration to Villa was always Brazil. The young man’s odysseys took him throughout the gigantic nation, from his home in the cidade maravilhosa (marvelous city) of Rio de Janeiro to the German- and Italian-colonized south, up to the radial point of the country’s African Diaspora in the northeast and on into the interior, through the dusty sertão backlands and finally among only the indigenous Indians in the heart of the Amazon jungle, revealing to him his homeland’s enormous wealth and diversity manifest in its folk music and culture. He played many of his cello pieces with his first wife Lucilia at the piano on some of these tours, including O Trensinho do Caipira, inspired by the little country trains they rode. He sought in his quests freedom, new discoveries, and his own musical identity as a Brazilian. The largely self-taught composer was later fond of saying “The map of Brazil was my harmony textbook.”
As he had connected Bach with Brazilian music, Villa also conflated Bach with the cello. He arranged a number of preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier for cello and piano, and even more for cello orchestra (orquestra de violoncelos). An early expression of this fusion is the Pequena Suite, exhibiting the 6-movement suite form of Bach’s Cello Suites, and specifically two baroque-referencing movements, Fugato all’antica and Gavotte-Scherzo.
The Brazil/Bach/Cello trinity would reach maturity in Villa’s remarkable synthesis, the Bachianas Brasileiras (untranslatably, ‘Bachian Brazilians’). A genre of his own invention, consisting of 9 suites, this unique amalgamation joins aspects of Brazilian traditional and popular music with elements of Bach’s musical language such as harmony, ornamentation, sequence, and counterpoint. Dedicated to Pablo Casals, that cello champion of Bach, Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 started the series off with a bang as the first work in the history of music for cello ensemble. Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 for cello orchestra and soprano would become his most celebrated work, in particular the Aria (Cantilena). While most of the suites were scored for large ensembles, two of them are chamber works. Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6 is a duo for flute and bassoon, but in my obsession for Villa, and in what I fancy to be an extrapolation of his own penchant for cello arrangements, I detuned my C-string down to reach the bassoon’s B-flat and was the first to perform and record No. 6 on the cello, with the excellent flautista Claudia Ribeiro do Nascimento. The other chamber Bachianas is No. 2.
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2 exists in two versions, one orchestral and one for cello and piano; scholars can’t agree on which came first. In all nine Bachianas each movement has two titles, one baroque and one Brazilian – Villa’s own brand of binomial nomenclature. Bachianas Brasileiras No. 2 begins with a Prelude also titled O Canto do Capadócio (Song of the Scoundrel). The scoundrel evoked here is characterized by a lingering, deceptive laziness (illustrated with numerous glissandi), traits of the homeless urbanite from Villa’s epoch who does what he can to survive. In the middle we get a genuine samba, the piano instigating the irresistible rhythm that the capadócio might shake on a box of matches, friends forming an impromptu circle, singing and dancing their miseries away. Bach elements are most pronounced in the 2nd movement, Aria: O Canto da Nossa Terra (The Song of our Land), with the chorinho’s guitar still prevalent in the left hand of the piano. The middle section of this song transports us to the blood-drinking, trance-inducing ceremonies of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian animist religious cult involving violent drumming that calls the gods (orishas) to enter the bodies of the soon-to-be-possessed dancers. A Toccata brings the work to a close, O Trensinho do Caipira (The Little Country Train), one of Villa’s best-recognized melodies. The locomotive takes a while to get going, but eventually achieves a happy chugging (with a steep hill in the middle!). A gradual deceleration is brought to a halt by warning whistles, screeching brakes (highly unconventional cello techniques), and finally a good thud.
O Canto do Cisne Negro (Song of the Black Swan), Villa’s most celebrated solo cello tune, is in fact the excerpted ending from his ballet-pantomime O Naufrágio de Klionikos (The Sinking of the Klionikos). A turbulent orchestral score depicts a tempest and the vessel’s undoing, and after the shipwreck all that remains is a mysterious calm, the tragedy hidden from the world, like a black swan gliding over still water, the serene song of the cello, offering no clue as to what lies hidden beneath…
Astonishingly prolific, Villa considered composition a “biological necessity.” His catalog comprises more than 800 works, though evidence suggests there could have been as many as a few hundred more – some completed and lost (as in the Trio for flute, cello and piano), others perhaps conceived but never realized. His treatment of form couldn’t be further removed from the motivic-cell-development model perfected by the 19th century German masters. Like other great Latin American composers of his era (Chávez and Revueltas in Mexico, Ginastera in Argentina), Villa abandoned the German model in search of a simultaneously personal and national voice (though fin de siècle French music certainly left an ‘impression!’). In Villa’s music, there is very little development of material in the German sense, priority given instead to spontaneous invention, flashes of inspiration. His music reflects his own personal wanderlust and the improvisational nature at the heart of the folk and popular music he loved, and is evidenced in the titles themselves: Divagação (Wandering), Sonhar (Dreaming), Capriccio, and Improviso #7 (originally for violin and piano, but I play it on the cello an octave lower). Above all, this collection of early works highlights Villa’s gift for melody. The only possible answer as to why these pieces remain unknown in the USA must be the unfortunate unavailability of many of the scores outside Brazil.
And let’s not forget his achingly beautiful Berceuse (Lullaby). While a lullaby is usually sung mother to child, Villa naturally stands the model on its head and dedicates the piece á minha mãe (to my mother). Similarly, I would like to dedicate my album of these works to my own mother, who started me on the cello at the age of 4 and always accompanied me on the piano. Armed with these hidden gems, through a cloud of rosin-dust and a flurry of horse-hair, I polish them to a gleaming shine and offer up these soaring melodies to meet her spirit above the dense forests and spectacular mountains of nossa terra… á minha mãe, à ma mère, für meine Mutter, to my mother…