José Vieira Brandão
Brazilian composer and pianist
18 October 2002
It's a tough life being a composer in a country where a single towering figure epitomises its music both at home and abroad. Even now, Finnish composers still feel Sibelius looming over them (indeed, the late Einar Englund called his 1996 autobiography I skuggan av Sibelius – "In the Shadow of Sibelius"). For Brazilian musicians it is Heitor Villa-Lobos who hogs the limelight. But for José Vieira Brandão Villa-Lobos' pre-eminence presented an opportunity rather than a threat, and he became one of his closest musical companions.
Brandão's musical ability was evident in childhood, and at eight he moved south from Minas Gerais to Rio de Janeiro to continue his musical education, first studying piano privately and then at the Instituto Nacional de Música, graduating with a gold medal in 1929; three years later he was awarded the diploma of the Conservatório Nacional de Canto Orfeônico, and choral conducting was to become the other mainstay of his life as a practising musician.
His ability as a pianist was impressive enough for the French pianist Marguerite Long, on a visit to Brazil, to ask him to come to France to study with her, and he accepted. But it was not to be, as he later explained in an interview:
At that time I had met Villa-Lobos, when he started to introduce his ideas in musical education into the public schools in Brazil. My trip to France was already scheduled but I decided to stay here and work in his project.
His collaboration with Villa-Lobos was an almost permanent feature of his early life. As a youth he spent his afternoons at Villa-Lobos' house, playing his mentor's music on the piano, and was to give the premieres of many of his piano compositions; later, in 1942, he was the piano soloist in the first performances of the Chôros No 11 in Rio and the Bachianas Brasileiras No 3 in New York, both conducted by the composer.
He became Villa-Lobos' assistant in 1932, helping him in his ambitious reform programme for music education in Brazilian schools, later pushing the project forward himself. In 1934 he founded the Madrigal Vox do Conservatório Brasileiro de Música and led the group until 1943; in parallel he held positions as an assistant professor of music and then professor of arts, becoming a professor at the Conservatório de Canto Orfeônico in 1943, and remaining there until 1967. He was president of the Conservatório Brasileiro de Música from 1940 until his last years, and one of the founders of the Academia Brasileira de Música in 1945.
Vieira Brandão began to compose at the age of 15, but his composition didn't really pick up speed until after 1940; by the time of his death his catalogue contained some 100 works, written in a national-Romantic style. His choral music, the technique sharpened by years of practical experience, buzzes with Brazilian rhythms and forms an important contribution to the Brazilian choral tradition. Nor did he neglect his own instrument, the piano, and the musicologist and Vieira Brandão scholar Maria Teresa Madeira singles out the 4 Études, the two Serestas (1942) and the Fantasia Concertante for piano and orchestra (1937-59).
Thanks, Martin, for that beautiful tribute. It's our opportunity to learn more about this key figure in the Villa-Lobos world.
As I write this, I'm listening to the Brazilian String Quartet play Brandão's Miniatura. This lovely piece is the only work I've heard from what looks to be a significant body of music. It's on an excellent disc I received late last year, on the Albany label from New York. Entitled "Brazilian String Quartet", it includes music by Villa-Lobos and two other composers of the generations after Villa: Radames Gnattali and Cesar Guerra Peixe, performed by one of the premiere chamber ensembles of Brazil. I'm afraid it won't be easy for most of us to hear more of the music of Brandão, though. Amazon.com lists only the piece for String Quartet.
There is an opportunity to hear one of Brandão's chamber works coming up - I happened to mention it yesterday in a post to The Villa-Lobos Magazine. At 11:00 São Paulo time (10 a.m. EST) on February 5th, you can hear his Divertimento for flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet and bassoon on Cultura FM. Listen here on the Internet.
I'll be on the lookout for more of this music, from online vendors in Brazil and around the world. I'll report my findings here.