Tuesday, May 12, 2009

State Music and Dictatorship

An international conference entitled "Musique d'Etat et Dictature / State Music and Dictatorship" deals with an issue that is central to the story of Villa-Lobos, but which is not at all well understood. The conference is presented by the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, from May 14-16, 2009.

Gabriel Ferraz, from the University of Florida, will make a presentation entitled "Heitor Villa-Lobos and Getúlio Vargas: Indoctrinating Children through Music Education." This sounds like a fascinating talk.

Here is my take on this. Villa-Lobos had an ambiguous relationship with Getúlio Vargas, who came to power in a bloodless coup on October 24, 1930. Vargas's long (though interrupted) reign started in reaction to the coffee oligarchs that held real power in Brazil. It was at first a liberal, populist revolution, though before the end it had turned into something closer to the contemporary fascism of Europe. When Villa took over his responsibilities in music education, he was perhaps more in tune with those liberal roots. This was all entwined with his own love of country, his deep commitment to music education, and his ideals of democracy.

In his book My Guitar & My World, Abel Carlevaro talks about how much this all meant to Villa-Lobos:
"It was his firm belief that musical education through group singing at primary level was the way to the establishment of a truly Brazilian musical conscience, and he enjoyed social and collective art of all types, particularly massive choral works involving huge choirs."
Carlevaro worships Villa-Lobos. His chapter on the composer is a long and heart-felt eulogy to Villa the man as well as Villa the musician. He doesn't go into Villa's relationship with a regime which moved fairly quickly to the dark side, coming to resemble those of Peron in Argentina, Salazar in Portugal, and Mussolini in Italy (if not quite Stalin or Hitler).

I've read few serious discussions of this issue, and I must admit that I've ducked it myself over the years. I suspect that Villa's ego was involved here: it must be hard to stand in front of forty-thousand singing children and not feel a sense of power. Villa's music often seems to be at least partly about Villa himself. Empowering children through music and building a nation from diverse races and classes is one side of the coin. Manipulating the masses through that same power, in aid of a repressive regime, is the other. It's instructive that Carlevaro ends his discussion of this period with a quote of Villa's: "My music is a reflection of sincerity." I don't know that I'm completely convinced.

In June of 1936 Villa-Lobos traveled to Prague for an International Conference on Music Education. In one of the 'Presença de Villa-Lobos' books of essays and reminiscences published by the Museu Villa-Lobos,
"...there is an anecdote of how Villa-Lobos was waiting with the other passengers in the departure lounge at Frankfurt when several officials entered, accompanying a man who had a small, black moustache. Everyone jumped to their feet and saluted - except for Villa-Lobos, who remained seated and unimpressed. The officials asked to see his passport, decided that this Brazilian national, who was described as a composer, was of no consequence to the Nazi party, and took the matter no further." [Thanks to Harold Lewis for bringing this great story to my attention.]
I love this story, but I wonder if Villa's courage in Frankfurt was a small stand against fascism in his own country, which he couldn't sustain when he got back home.


  1. Great information, i will try to attend the conference session to gain more knowledge.

  2. When I say that I've read few "serious discussions" of this issue, I'd forgotten about Simon Wright's 1992 book on Villa-Lobos - http://www.villalobos.ca/node/1528. Wright wrote his thesis on this subject in 1986: "Villa-Lobos and his position in Brazilian music after 1930." I'll be trying to track the thesis down, and in the meantime I'll be re-reading the 1992 book.

  3. "At Rio's Vasco da Gama Stadium - the largest in Brazil - forty thousand students in blue and white uniforms sang in one, two, or four voices, hymns about the fatherland, about the race, and about Vargas: 'We are little soldiers / Strong in the struggle to find / The conquests and destiny / That we offer to our fatherland / March little soldier, content and happy / Be guided on your journey by your love of your Nation.'"

    - from Jerry Dávila's book Diploma of whiteness: race and social policy in Brazil, 1917-1945. This book helps to provide the context for a deeper understanding of Villa's experience in the Vargas era.