Then there's the next layer down: nearly all the rest of the Bachianas, which are very popular on disc and in performance. The string quartets are all awesome; it's so great that quartets around the world are following the Cuarteto Latinoamericano's lead and programming them. Choros no. 10 at The Last Night of the Proms a few years ago knocked everybody's socks off. The piano music has a big discography, though I'd love to see more in performance, from Prole do Bebe encores up to the scary Rudepoema (though only for pianists with very high self-esteem). Even the Symphonies are becoming appreciated, thanks to a great new Naxos series of recordings from Sao Paulo.
But what about unknown Villa-Lobos in the layers below? Are there great works hidden down there where only Villa-Lobos fanatics with lighted coal-miners' helmets go? Yes! I'll be your guide in a series of posts exposing the pre-Cambrian layer of great Villa-Lobos music that everyone should know, but only the Villa-Lobos illuminati appreciate.
Exhibit A: the Nonetto. This work was begun in Rio in 1923, and finished in Paris in 1924. It's subtitled "Impressão rapida de todo o Brasil" - "Rapid Impression of Brazil", and was designed to show off Villa's awesomeness as a complete package: exoticism plus leading-edge modernism. Villa-Lobos was a master of self-promotion; to the Paris musical press he described the Nonetto as "Nova forma de composicao que exprime o ambiente sonoro e os ritmos mais originais do Brasil." (A new form of composition which expresses the noise environment and the most original rhythms of Brazil). This sentence packs some audacious claims: "A new form" puts him firmly in the modernist camp; "the noise environment" implies a radical naturalism; and "the most original rhythms of Brazil" sets in motion a lifelong claim where Villa-Lobos himself is the true representative of the country of Brazil, not just musically, but somehow the soul of the country itself. Here is a very self-assured young composer!
Does Villa-Lobos deliver? If he does in any piece, it's in the Nonetto. This is a large-scale work pushing out from a chamber-music frame. There are nine players in theory: flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone (actually saxophones; the player alternates between an alto and baritone saxes), bassoon, celesta, harp, piano and percussion (which actually requires 3 people). Plus a mixed choir. It fills a large stage! Here's what it looks like on the page:
On the front page of the score, the Max Eschig editors invite interested parties to come to their offices at 48 rue du Rome in Paris to check out "les instruments de percussion et de batterie qui ne sont pas d'un usage courant dans les orchestres." It's all part of the marketing of the exotic in the arts, which was big in Paris, from Japanese painting and African sculpure to African percussion and the sounds of the Balinese gamelan. Villa-Lobos jumped head-first into the mix, beginning with his tall tales of travels in the jungle, encounters with Indians and strange animals and plants (man-eating plants!). The Nonetto, which was premiered at a famous concert in May 1924, was an important milestone in Villa's acceptance as a composer.
Here is the roll call of the batterie:
But this is a 'rapid impression' of all Brazil: there's the urban life of the choroes here as well as the jungle. Villa had brought this sound to his music in such works as the Suite populaire bresilienne of 1912, the First String Quartet of 1915, and the Choros no.1 of 1920, dedicated to Ernesto Nazareth. It would play a key role in the whole series of Choros, the bulk of which were written in the 1920s. Indeed, you could call the Nonetto an honorary Choros.
In some ways Nonetto is a dress rehearsal for Choros no. 10 of 1926, which adds a full orchestra (and an extra harp) to the chorus, piano, celesta, harp, and huge percussion complement of the earlier work. But whereas Villa-Lobos brings actual Indian motifs to bear in Choros 10, in Nonetto, there are African and Portuguese elements but no aboriginal ones. "Zango! Zizambango! Dangozangorangotango!" sings the Nonetto choir, in a made-up African language, to the beat of the Brazilian Batuque dance that originated in Cape Verde.
So what does it all sound like? Listen to this important 1954 Capitol release featuring Roger Wagner's Chorale & Concert Arts Ensemble. In a review in The Musical Quarterly, critic Richard Goldman said "The Nonetto is sub-titled 'Quick Impression of All Brazil,' a country apparently settled by Stravinsky and the random survivors of an orchestral shipwreck some time after 1920." The conductor Ricardo Rocha said "The Nonetto I call ‘a musical Guernica, but with humor…"
What do you think?