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Exploring musical traditions: the chôros of Heitor Villa-Lobos (part 1)

Hirono and I first stumbled across the musical genre ‘chôro’ as graduate students at the Eastman School of Music. I must confess that at that time, we likely didn’t have an explicit interest in learning about popular musical forms outside the Western Classical tradition-- we were simply on a quest to uncover ‘hidden gems’ in the duo literature. And while we found a large number of works for violin and cello from the 20th century that were outside the canon, and of unique interest, one work in particular titled Deux Chôros (bis) caught our eyes and ears immediately. Written by Heitor Villa-Lobos in 1929, it is a composition that at first comes across as a harsh and somewhat chaotic landscape. It is a demanding work, truly virtuosic on many levels, requiring both musicians to play extended passages in doublestops, explores the entire range of the instruments, and requires a mastery of modern extended techniques (artificial harmonics, complicated pizzicato techniques for both hands, unusual glissando patterns). Rhythmically, it is no less challenging, with frequent meter changes and the use of polyrhythms (the simultaneous use of at least two conflicting rhythms at a given moment). The use of ostinato (a repeated musical figure) gives the work an almost mechanized feel, however the fact that the parts don’t often ‘line up’ as a listener might expect, reveals an abstract and disjunct nature during a initial hearing.

After listening to Villa-Lobos’ 1929 chôro (bis), it is unlikely the average concert-goer today would assume the genre is one of the most prominent of all Brazilian music. However, despite its enormous popularity in Brazil the chôro remains largely unknown to the general public outside its native country. The chôro developed in the 19th century and quickly flourished in, and around, the city of Rio de Janiero. The word 'chôro' comes from the Portuguese word for 'cry' or 'lament', although in listening to the music, it often seems like a misnomer, due to the music being so uplifting, with fast driving rhythms and the pervasiveness of major tonalities. The title might also evoke images of a vocal tradition, but is indeed purely instrumental. The traditional ensemble included flute, guitar, and cavaquinho (a sort of Portuguese lute), although it evolved to include any number of brass, woodwind, and string instruments. And while the term chôro first was a descriptor for the particular ensemble playing, it came to encapsulate the genre which these varying ensembles created.

It is considered today to be the first characteristically Brazilian urban popular music genre and the enormous popularity of the chôro rose from informal groups of friends (blue-collar workers, from backgrounds as postal, railway, or telegraph workers) which played in streets, botecos, and at parties. The traditions which nurtured the chôro in Rio the late 1800’s are not unlike those that helped to develop the danzon in Cuba, and ragtime in the United States (both examples of countries that were beginning to develop their own styles of popular music and were also influenced by European and African idioms).

Its origins are complex, certainly influenced by traditions that came to South America from both Europe and Africa. From Europe, the polka, waltz and mazurka served as primary influences. Perhaps pointing to its European roots, the chôro has a form directly related to the five part rondo: AABBACCA, not unlike the classical waltz. At the same time, the lundu and batuque rhythms from African traditions injected the music with a remarkable and unique energy. The lundu was a cultural and stylized music that was imported with the African slave trade and while the lundu in the 18th century was regarded as a compliment to witchcraft, the subsequent sexualization of the dance inevitably led to a great gain in popularity, especially among the elites in Brazil. I suppose this highlights, when you are talking about popular arts, some things never change!

Villa Lobos, over the course of almost a decade (from 1920-1929), composed a series of chôro, 14 in total, excluding an introductory and concluding work. The first of these chôros, no 1, was written for solo guitar in 1920. In many ways it satisfies the conventions that were established in the popular genre; the form is exact, and the tonalities (while the A section is minor, all subsequent sections are major) are all as expected. We see the rhythms that are common, indeed in some ways identical, to lundu transcriptions from almost a hundred years earlier. These nine year in Villa-lobos’ life, that is the time over which he wrote the chôro series, proved transformative. Each chôro is scored differently, the first for solo guitar, the second for flute and clarinet duo, there is one for French horns and trombone, choir a cappella, symphony orchestra with piano, even a work for orchestra, band, and a choir. These works, so diverse in length, style, and instrumentation, were called by Villa-Lobos “brasilofonia”—meaning the singular intention that unifies the works was this pan-Brazilian synthesis of native folklore, both popular and traditional. Villa-Lobos himself said that the first chôro for guitar was "the essence, the embryo, the psychological model that will be developed technically in the conception of all the Chôros". Here's a video of Villa-Lobos' first chôro that we particularly enjoy.

(To be continued in part 2...)

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