Music Monday: Villa-Lobos: Quintette en Forme de Chôros

Very few standard chamber groups are as heterogeneous as the wind quintet. From the brassy outbursts of the horn to the breathy whispers of the flute at the bottom of its range, the ensemble covers a broad timbral range, and one that is not easily unified — even in the most perfectly balanced performances it’s still immediately obvious which instrument is carrying which line. If the string quartet presents a seamless façade of timbral similarity, the wind quintet is more of a menagerie, bursting with brilliant, uncompromising colors. Some people see this as a defect, others as a delight.

I’m firmly in the latter camp, but Heitor Villa-Lobos seems to have been a little on the fence. Born in Rio de Janeiro on 5 March 1887, Villa-Lobos’s early musical training was haphazard at best. He had a few rudimentary harmony lessons, but for the most part he learned by observation, gradually picking up the clarinet, cello, and guitar, each of which he played at various times in street bands and in pit orchestras for plays and movies. His earliest compositions grew out of his life as a performer — many of his early works are essentially transcriptions of improvisations on guitar.

Like many nationalist composers, Villa-Lobos was interested in exploring his country’s indigenous musical heritage, and he made several trips in the early 1900s to remote areas of the Brazilian interior to collect musical material. He told many stories about these trips, but the general consensus is that most of these stories are wild exaggerations or exoticizing fabrications — one scholar concludes that “it is not impossible that he undertook at least part of these trips”, which is . . . hardly a ringing endorsement of their veracity.

Later, in the 1920s, he would make a few trips to Paris, where he rubbed shoulders with many of the giants of 20th–Century American and European composition; recent performances of his works in Brazil had been poorly received, but they went over rather better in the urbane and experimental atmosphere of the French capital. Nevertheless, Villa-Lobos had no desire to remain in Paris indefinitely, and always returned to Brazil where, in the 1930s, he became the director of the Superintendência de Educação Musical e Artística under the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas. Most of Villa-Lobos’s works from this period are populist and intensely nationalistic (with some even edging into propaganda), and some segments of the Brazilian musical community felt that Villa-Lobos had become little more than a shill for the regime.

After Vargas ceded power in 1945, Villa-Lobos was able to travel abroad again, and his popularity and prominence exploded on the international stage. He was swamped with commissions and churned out a truly staggering number of works, leading some critics to accuse him of derivative banality. Even so, many of the works from this period remain in the repertoire, and it was this part of his career that secured his position as one of the most internationally prominent Brazilian composers of the 20th Century. He died in Rio in 1959, and his state funeral was the last major civic event before the capital moved to Brasília the following year.

Like many of his chamber works, the Quintette en Forme de Chôros (1928) is unusually scored. It’s almost a regular wind quintet, but in place of the horn Villa-Lobos substitutes an english horn, making this, to my knowledge, the only piece scored for that combination (ie flute, oboe, english horn, clarinet, and bassoon). As such, the piece is seldom performed in its original instrumentation — most groups swap out the english horn for the more usual brass one, even tho this results in a preposterously difficult horn part. There’s something to be said for both versions: The one with english horn is lighter and more transparent, more like a specter or a vision of another world; the other version feels more present, and has more of the street band lurking around the edges.

One might reasonably wonder, given the title of “quintet in the form of a chôros”, what form, exactly, a chôros has, but that line of inquiry only leads to frustration. Brazilian street bands called chorões play things called chôros, but they’re freewheeling, improvisatory affairs with no set structure. From 1920–29, Villa-Lobos wrote a series of twelve pieces titled Chôros, but they vary wildly in terms of form, duration, instrumentation, and musical content. The title, then, is probably best understood to signal less that the work follows a specific compositional flightplan and more that it channels the spirit of uninhibited, idiosyncratic freedom that the chorões display.

Bassoon and clarinet start the piece off with a glowering rhythmic unison echoed in the other parts. (Here is a version that uses horn in place of english horn.) An outburst of virtuosic displays leads to a more tender lyrical section, which could almost be a lullaby. With a lurch, however, the mood is broken, and a rhythmic ostinato launches a faster section. The bassoon accelerates things further, with a plaintive line that wants to be a waltz, but rhythmic distortions pile up, and the music soon breaks into a bewildering duet between the oboe and english horn. The other instruments filter in again, faster still now, and a rough-hewn bassoon theme gradually filters up thru the other instruments in the ensemble.

Once it reaches the flute, the accompaniment begins to break down, with metrically irregular chunks erupting and then stopping abruptly, leaving long lines floating in the flute and oboe with little clear rhythmic sense. An extended flute solo leads to another slow section, one that seems redolent with the spirit of a drowsy afternoon in the tropics. The clarinet tries to disrupt this languid atmosphere, but it’s a while yet before the dance rhythms return, and they don’t last long once they do. A florid interlude for oboe and then flute suspends the action further, but soon the music shakes off its sleepiness and springs back to life with unsettled, scampering lines that dart between the instruments with reckless abandon. Echoes and fragments of the earlier lyrical music abound, but never without the presence of rapid pulsing notes, which soon come to dominate the texture. These quivering notes take over the entire texture until the piece runs aground on a biting dissonance and a searing final scream. In a way, this is another nod to the title: In Portuguese, a “choros” is a cry of grief.