Friday, August 14, 2009

Wilfrid Mellers on Villa-Lobos

You can't always tell what kind of article you're going to get when you look at a citation in a database:
Review: Letters from (South) America
Wilfrid Mellers
Reviewed work(s): The Villa-Lobos Letters by Lisa M. Peppercorn; Villa-Lobos
The Musical Times, Vol. 138, No. 1858 (Dec., 1997), pp. 18-20
Villa's letters often illuminate his life, and occasionally illuminate his music. Peppercorn's book presents this as well as can be expected, but in the end these are not Mozart's letters to his family.

But Mellers is a really good music critic, and a really good writer. I ended up getting an awful lot of pleasure from this three-page review article, and I learned about Villa-Lobos's music as well.
"Villa-Lobos countered Latin exuberance with Latin passivity, accepting the chaos of the contemporary scene since anything was grist to his voracious mill. He was even less self-critical than were Milhaud and Koechlin: which is why his music impresses most when it is most fortuitous."
Meller's insights are thick on the ground here. I start to quote them, and then I realize I'd need to include the whole three pages. The Musical Times might not appreciate that. But here's a good one:
"Villa-Lobos was a crossover artist long before the genre had been invented. As a lad in the streets of Rio he joined with his mates in jam-sessions wherein any number of performers, using any instruments that came to hand, improvised at random, with no more than a pulse, a metrical pattern, a chord sequence, or a snatch of half-remembered tune to keep them going, if not together."
and here is Mellers' virtuoso list of Villa's influences:
"...traces of Renaissance ecclesiastical polyphony (at which some Amerindians became oddly proficient), of Spanish zarzuela, Portuguese fado, Italian romantic opera and popular song, French vaudeville and cafe-concert, plus a few pockets of familiar Teutonic classics and a substratum of Victorian and Edwardian British salon music. Entangled with this European detritus was a Negroid strain precipitated from the slave trade, including the germs of jazz: which in turn linked up with the mechanised media culture of the United States. Whereas in the work of Europeans such as Janacek, Bartok, and Stravinsky primitivism was absorbed into civilised traditions, in Latin America the sundry layers coexisted, side by side. So Villa-Lobos's imagination teemed with musical images of the Brazilian jungle, of the lost Indian cities, of Portuguese and Spanish colonisations, and of the North American skyscraper and roadhouse."
Wilfrid Mellers was an extraordinary scholar; read the obituary that was printed in The Times Online after his death in 2005. I was struck by how widespread Mellers' interests were, both as a writer and a composer. The only book of his that I know is the 2001 Singing in the Wilderness: Music and the Ecology in the 20th Century, which includes a chapter on Villa-Lobos. I look forward to reading more Mellers. Just the titles are great enough:

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