Villa-Lobos and the Modernism of the First Republic

George Grosz, People in the Street (Menschen in der Strasse) from The First George Grosz Portfolio (Erste George Grosz-Mappe) 1915–16, published 1916–17


Considerations on the composer's performance in the years prior to the Modern Art Week of 1922

Rio de Janeiro and Carioca Modernism

Eminent intellectuals have already demonstrated some strangeness in relation to the imposition of the history of the movement initiated with the Modern Art Week of 1922 as the only true Modernism. What the national critic calls Modernism is conditioned by a event, that is, for something dated, public and clamorous, which imposed itself on our intelligence as a watershed: The Week of Modern Art, held in February 1922, in the city of São Paulo.

As the promoters of Week brought, in fact, original aesthetic ideas in relation to our latest literary currents, already in agony, Parnassianism and Symbolism, it seemed to historians of Brazilian culture that modernist was adjective enough to define the style of the new ones, and Modernism everything that was written under the sign of 22 (BOSI, 2013, p. 323).

Supported by studies in different areas, with emphasis on history and literature, many propose the existence of a First Modernism, comprising the years of the First Republic until 1922, with the city of Rio de Janeiro as a reference center, just as the Second Modernism will have, initially, the city of São Paulo as the center, later radiating to Minas Gerais, some states in the Northeast and Rio de Janeiro itself, capital of the Republic.

At the beginning of the 2003th century, a major urban reform was carried out in Rio de Janeiro, forcing the poorest population to withdraw from a central area of ​​the city that was completely reurbanized, taking as a model the city of Paris that had also previously passed. for similar reforms. Paris and France dominated the imagination of the city's economic and social elite, to the point where people greeted each other in French, at the beginning of the First World War (SEVCENKO, 51, p. 2-XNUMX). Since the previous century, with the immigration flow stimulated during the Empire, Rio de Janeiro has become an increasingly cosmopolitan city.

In the musical area, there was a lot of interest in concerts with European artists and repertoire. When it comes to the premiere of contemporary international works, a recent survey carried out, limited to that period, demonstrates that there was absolute supremacy of French music (CORRÊA do LAGO, 2010, p. 65-7). The most renowned Brazilian composers in activity lived in Rio de Janeiro and almost all of them studied in France, or had a strong connection with its music: Alberto Nepomuceno (1864-1920), Henrique Oswald (1852-1931), Leopoldo Miguez (1850-1902 ) and Francisco Braga (1868-1945). Among the new composers who emerged, the following stood out: Glauco Velasquez (1884-1914), Luciano Gallet (1893-1931) and Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959).

We must mention the main characteristics of the music produced, among others, by the mentioned composers who were part of what we call First Modernism in that period, as well as specificities of the context that made its existence possible, in addition to some possible comparisons with the Modernism of 1922. The most striking features were internationalism and updating with Europe, with France as a supreme reference. This meant limiting oneself to updating with French music, seeing music from other European countries through France, as happened with Wagnerism that did not come directly from Germany (VIDAL, 2011, p. 279).

However, both French and Wagnerian influences were equally found in the works of the aforementioned composers. In the same larger work both could be found, as in the opera Abul, by Alberto Nepomuceno, where Wagnerian conductor motifs are present, chromaticism that approaches Alban Berg, whole tone scales (GOLDBERG, 2007, p. 105-6), or even a wider range of influences: “[…] Nepomuceno performs in his opera a synthesis of stylistic elements absorbed from German, Italian and French schools” (SOUZA, 2014, p. 259).

In this internationalist universe, music that used Brazilian elements from popular culture was also excluded; it just wasn't one of her priorities. This is where Villa-Lobos and Gallet's first attempts at Brazilian music take place, which are not numerous. However, similar experiences of Alexandre Levy (1864-1892) and Alberto Nepomuceno, at the end of the 1956th century, the second in full European territory, must be credited to a late consequence of Romanticism, as several authors have already denounced (AZEVEDO, 21 , p. XNUMX).

As for the context that favored the existence of Modernism in Rio – it should be noted that it was not an isolated movement in the musical field, although this is the limit of our study – the center of reference was the National Institute of Music. There, all four names that head the list of mentioned composers acted as teachers. In addition to the cordial relationship they maintained with each other, they were part of a much broader environment, made up of music critics and numerous interpreters, instrumentalists and singers, all of them with a non-conservative profile towards contemporary music (CORRÊA do LAGO, 2010, p. 252) . The four composers enjoyed great acclaim, but they never stopped being receptive to the three young composers mentioned, stimulating them and opening the way for their musical achievements.

The Modernism of 1922 was marked by a founding event, the Modern Art Week, comprising only three nights of shows, on the 13th, 15th and 17th of February, characterized by polemics, scandals and controversial popular participation that added protesters against and in favor of the event. It was consolidated over the years through the enormous dissemination it received, including the bibliographic production of its participants and new followers, sympathizers of the same cause. In Early Modernism, on the contrary, there was no inaugural event, no scandals, and the controversy was left to some already widely known conservative music critics. The audience was the usual one at concerts and the repertoire did not contradict their expectations, making their immediate popular reach greater.

It also featured some major events, not specifically programmed by the movement, but directed by its leaders, such as Alberto Nepomuceno. The best example was the series of twenty-six symphonic concerts at the National Exhibition of 1908, at Praia Vermelha, performed over two months, presenting a broad contemporary international and national repertoire, hitherto unknown to the Brazilian public. References to the event, even without the bombastic grandeur of the Modern Art Week, can be found in our historiography: “It can be said that, in music, this was our official entry into the 1956th century” (AZEVEDO, 171, p. XNUMX).

As the Modernism of 1922 managed to impose itself, thanks to the conjunction of several cultural, political, social factors, and legitimize itself through the immense bibliographical production it generated, everything that we call First Modernism lost its place in history as Modernism, becoming if only a more or less deformed grouping of internationalizing artistic blooms, renamed according to the point of view of the only and “true” Modernism, generally with pastist connotations.

Consequences of the Modernism of 22 and Villa-Lobos

Several scholars of what became official Modernism claim that the first important change in direction of the movement came in 1924, ceasing to prioritize aesthetic renewal in favor of the search for the national character of artistic expressions. It became imperative to “[…]develop a national culture project in a broad sense” (MORAES, 1978, p. 73). In the following years, several works of our musical historiography appeared and their authors were committed to the new ideals of nationalist Modernism. His works began to evaluate composers who were part of the previous movement with new criteria, qualifying them according to their affinities with musical nationalism.

This is how Leopoldo Miguez and Henrique Oswald are considered “composers with a European heart” (AZEVEDO, 1956, p. 105)), at the same time as Alexandre Levy and Alberto Nepomuceno, who made incursions into music with native Brazilian elements under the influx of of European Romanticism, rise to the honorable position of “precursors” of Brazilian musical nationalism (ALMEIDA, 1926, p. 99,115). Luciano Gallet and Heitor Villa-Lobos, young supporting actors in the previous decade, acquire great importance. Gallet's promising career was interrupted by his premature death in 1931, and Villa-Lobos became the greatest representative of Brazilian nationalist Modernism.

José Miguel Wisnik, revealing the French influence

However, it took half a century for José Miguel Wisnik to more forcefully reveal the strong French influence on Villa-Lobos, discussing his musical production presented at the Modern Art Week, which was none other than that produced in the previous decade, under the influx of what we have already called First Modernism, a movement disregarded by our official historiography and, naturally, by the author of the work.

His text was “originally presented as a master's thesis to the University of São Paulo” (WISNIK, 1977, p. 4), in 1974, and published three years later: “The Week should not be understood as the quintessential example of modernism by Villa-Lobos but, crowning a phase of productions that included works from 1914 to 21, it presents the matrices of his immediately subsequent evolution, when the most particular traits effectively deepened, and the composer definitively left the debussysta orbit to intensify the liberation sound that his works made one expect” (WISNIK, 1977, p. 163).

The repercussion of the work was great and immediate, a subject we will deal with later on, but the bombastic revelation had already been mentioned, years before, by modernist authors with careful discretion, since none of them was interested in highlighting the composer's Francophile past, but praise his nationalist production. Mário de Andrade, in “Evolução Social da Música no Brasil”, from 1939, was one of the first to write: “A few years after the end of the war, and not without first having lived the raw experience of the Week of Modern Art, in São Paulo, Villa-Lobos consciously and systematically abandoned his French internationalism, to become the initiator and maximum figure of the Nationalist Phase we are in” (ANDRADE, 1991, p. 25).

Soon after, Renato Almeida referred to “[…] its first phase, still under the influence of the Impressionists, […]” (ALMEIDA, 1942, p. 454). There were even those who dared to deny it, although they were certainly aware of such references, preferring to emphasize their musical audacity, while also recognizing some modernist attitude before the Modern Art Week: “The works that he wrote at the time already had a flavor of wild modernism that had surpassed , considerably, the pale attempts of Glauco Velasquez. Debussy's impressionism, which he came to know only later, had no influence on his music; the refined atmosphere, the aristocratic abandonment of this art, had nothing in common with the direct and brutal expression of the young Brazilian composer, on which the Italian verismo, indeed, had come to print its mark in the period in which Villa-Lobos was still looking for find their own ways” (AZEVEDO, 1956, p. 254).

Previous modernist manifestations were totally discarded before the imposition of the Modernism of 1922. However, the reading of the History of Brazilian Modernism, by Mário da Silva Brito, especially its first part called “Antecedentes da Semana de Arte Moderna”, allows us to see that, before the Week, the modernists went in search of artists from different areas who could perhaps be “discovered”, aiming to recruit them for their group and thus give greater representation to the movement. This is what happened to the painter Anita Malfatti and the sculptor Victor Brecheret, among others; both already produced works that could be considered modernist, expanding the movement (BRITO, 1964, p. 114).

What happened to Villa-Lobos was no different. Even though the Week was clearly an event of São Paulo initiative, it was necessary to resort to musicians from Rio de Janeiro to represent this artistic activity. Inviting them meant that in that city there was a composer that could be considered modern and instrumentalists capable of performing their music, acclimatized to a musical practice that was developed there. It is the recognition that Rio de Janeiro had a representative musical movement, and what they will present in São Paulo was what they already performed in Rio, that is, music with a strong French influence! Although considering themselves, from then on, the only modernists, such an invitation demonstrated the existence of a previous Modernism.

Bruno Kiefer and the analysis of technical procedures

Shortly after the publication of Wisnik's work, the book Villa-Lobos and Modernism in Brazilian Music, in 1981, written by Bruno Kiefer (1923-1987), a German composer whose family emigrated to Brazil when he was only 11 years old, living in Rio Grande do Sul. The work focuses on Villa-Lobos' musical production prior to the Week of 22, configuring itself as a result of the repercussion of the author's text from São Paulo.

Kiefer performs a musical analysis of a few dozen compositions found in the composer's catalog of works, produced between 1910 and 1921. The beginning of the book is also dedicated to describing aspects of musical life in Rio de Janeiro during that period, highlighting the context in which which the works were created. Some information is common to our text, such as the great European influence and French hegemony that prevailed there.

When we analyze the synoptic table elaborated on the basis of recording various aspects of the examined compositions, one thing stands out: the deep and long influence exerted by French music, whether post-romantic or impressionist (Debussy). This influence was more powerful than any other. […] These influences occurred or were sought by Villa-Lobos, here in Brazil, especially in Rio, as the composer had never left the country before 1922 (a stay of a few days on the island of Barbados is of no significance ) (KIEFER, 1986, p. 34, 36).

In the author's analytical comments, the more frequent occurrence of some technical procedures used by the composer in his works stands out, especially the whole tone scale, which is not exclusive to the French, but its use becomes a characteristic aspect of Debussy (KIEFER, 1986, p. 33). Such a scale is present in numerous works by Villa-Lobos mentioned, including those in which he already approached future achievements of Brazilian music, such as the African Characteristic Dances (1914/15), a work that will be presented in the Week of 22, in transcription for instrumental octet.

The whole-tone scale is a technical resource that Villa-Lobos continued to use in the 1920s, now in the midst of Nationalist Modernism, but with less and less frequency. The other nationalist composers avoided its use or did it only occasionally, possibly because it connoted French music. It is also used by Villa-Lobos in the symphonic poem Amazonas, a daring and atonal work premiered in Paris, in 1929, which resulted from the complete reformulation of the symphonic poem myremis (1916). Mário de Andrade was very impressed with Amazonas, on the occasion of its debut in São Paulo, in 1930: “It is an entire orchestra that advances dragging itself heavily, breaking branches, knocking down trees and knocking over tonalities and compositional treatises” (ANDRADE, 1976 , p. 154,157, XNUMX).

The use of polytonality is less frequent, but it also occurs in some works, highlighting the Trio #3 (1918). Another author attributes such use to the influence of the young French composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) who was in Brazil, extending this influence to some other compositions of the same period, in which Villa-Lobos used a similar procedure (CORRÊA do LAGO, 2010, p. . 244). Finally, there are some works that Kiefer simply calls “impressionist”, such is the closeness they keep to their French namesakes. These are the cases of the song cycle Comic books (1920), in which poetic texts in French predominate, and the texts in Portuguese also bring the translation into that language, in addition to the piece for piano The Spinner (1921) (KIEFER, 1986, p. 39-41).

A significant part of the Brazilian musical historiography that emerged after the Modern Art Week preferred to see Villa-Lobos' first musical production, prior to 1922, through the eyes of the official Modernism that was installed from then on, emphasizing only its boldness and originality in the context Brazilian. At the end of the XNUMXth century, it was perceived that that music was permeated with French influence, a fact previously ignored because it contradicted the nationalist priorities of the dominant movement and was forgotten. However, the same music was indeed updated, in line with the thinking of another movement whose existence was erased from history: the Rio Modernism of the First Republic or, as we call it, First Brazilian Modernism.

* Luther Rodrigues, maestro, is a professor at the Department of Music at Unesp. author of Carlos Gomes – A theme in question: the modernist perspective and the vision of Mário de Andrade (Unesp).

Originally published on MagazineMusic, vol. 19, no. 2, December 2019.


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