Tuesday, October 25, 2016


There are many stories of Villa-Lobos's multi-tasking, and his phenomenal ability to focus on his music in spite of many distractions. Here's a typical one, from the Presenca Villa-Lobos no. 10, in the Museu Villa-Lobos. The translation is by Harold Lewis.
In the text of a radio talk given in August 1975, Walter Burle Marx recalled that Villa-Lobos had offered to produce a piece for one of the young persons' concerts he (Burle Marx) was organising.  Two days before the concert, in November 1932, he visited Villa-Lobos in his little apartment in the centre of Rio.  The composer had just finished dinner and was clearing the table.
"I'll work on it tonight, and should finish it at 4 a.m."
 "Villa-Lobos," he inquired, "how far have you got with the work you've promised?"    "I'll work on it tonight, and should finish it at 4 a.m."
"And the parts?"
"I'll do them myself and some friends are coming to help me later."
"Then I'll let you get on with it and not disturb you." 
"You're not disturbing me at all," said Villa-Lobos, insisting that Burle Marx stayed.
After sorting the manuscripts on the table, Villa-Lobos went on working on the orchestration while talking to his visitor.  At the same time, in another room of the apartment, the pianist Jose Brandão was playing the transcription of the symphonic poem 'Amazonas', and from time to time, Villa-Lobos, hearing something that wasn't right, called out to Brandao, "No, no, it's G flat in the bass," and so forth. The fact was that next day at 9 a.m., the young musicians received the score of the Caixinha de Boas Festas, with all the parts written out.
Here's another: Lisa Peppercorn reminisces about her visit with Villa-Lobos while he and John Sebastian worked on the Harmonica Concerto.
It was one of my joys to work with John and Villa-Lobos during the writing of the Concerto. The composer sat at the huge semi-circular desk with a pot of black thick coffee, several cigars and ashtrays all around working on several compositions at once, while watching a TV at intervals. All the time wearing a hat...
These are examples of Digression or Divigation (Divagação in Portuguese), and I expect this is a common enough trait of great artists. The big, the very big, picture emerges in the mind of the genius, and he or she pokes around it, taking different paths, sometimes at once, to bring it to the rest of us. In the words of Italo Calvino, "Divagation or digression is a way to postpone the ending," and it's in story-telling that we see it most often. According to Lawrence Sterne, "Digression is the sunshine of narrative".  It reminds me of the tall tales Villa told during his first trip to Paris, most notably the one about the man-eating plant in the Brazilian jungle that swallowed a companion whole, but that spit him out unharmed when Villa played a tune on a flute. And this in answer to the banal question "where do you get your ideas?" The music itself is often full of musical digressions, with development sloughed off in favour of another theme, or two or three. Symphonies become suites, and suites are hidden as "Choros" with touches of samba or other urban serenades. In a way these stories and his huge body of work (which he turned into another tall tale, since it's nowhere near as large as he made out) are digressions, to postpone the ending.

Paul Holdengraber from the New York Public Library has been talking for a while about Digression. He quotes the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips: “Digression is secular revelation,” and explains more fully:
When we talk about digression, we’re talking about getting lost, about taking the side roads, or the road just behind the road we thought we were taking. What doesn’t quite fit, what might be dismissed, but isn’t, becomes the road to revelation.
Just a personal aside (ha!), my whole Villa-Lobos life on the web, which is coming up to 25 years pretty soon, is a series of hyper-text digressions to reveal some of the facets of the amazing person who was Heitor Villa-Lobos.

All this complex narrative, and I finally get around to what I wanted to post today, which is this very good performance of Villa's little piece for cello and piano which he wrote in 1946, entitled Divagação. Notice how the composer (a professional cellist himself) digresses with some ad libitum cello-drumming before he begins the actual cello part!

Thanks to @Holdengraber for his amazing Twitter feed, and for the great work he's doing at NYPL.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice writing. Joyce Moreno wrote a song titled "Na Casa do Villa" (In the house of Villa) with lyrics about how Villa-Lobos could write music with so many distractions (radio on, conversations) going on in the house. You can see her sing the song with guitarist Nelson Faria at
    Skip to about 9:30 in the video to see the song