In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Heitor Villa-Lobos

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Villa-Lobos and Urban Popular Music
  • Villa-Lobos and Music Education
  • Villa-Lobos and the Piano
  • Villa Lobos and the Guitar
  • Critical Reception Abroad

Music Heitor Villa-Lobos
Manoel Corrêa do Lago, Flávia Camargo Toni, Camila Fresca
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0320


Born in Rio de Janeiro, Heitor Villa-Lobos (b. 1887–d. 1959) is unquestionably the dominant figure in Brazilian 20th-century music, and one of the most celebrated composers of his generation. Championed during his lifetime by noted performers such as Leopold Stokowski, Arthur Rubinstein, and Andrés Segovia, Villa-Lobos was best known for compositions imbued with strong “primitivist” traits, displayed in works such as Noneto, the series of fourteen Choros, Amazonas, and Uirapurú, and for correlating Brazilian music with Baroque stylistic features in his world-famous series of nine Bachianas Brasileiras. After his death, his compositions for guitar gained prominence, somewhat eclipsing the rest of a production encompassing all genres: opera, oratorio, symphonic and concertante works, choral, chamber, and pieces for solo instruments. Only in more recent years have his series of seventeen string quartets and the cycles of symphonies and concertante works returned to the concert hall and are systematically being studied. The striking originality of his music results from an unusual combination of experiences: a classical training developed alongside an early immersion into the world of popular music as an accomplished guitar player and as a noted improviser in Rio de Janeiro choro circles. Thus, in his formative years and unlike his European contemporaries, Villa-Lobos acquired a double fluency in the fields of classical and popular music. In his twenties, moreover, his travels across geographically distant regions of Brazil, notably the Amazon, would leave a lasting imprint on his imagination and would prompt him to declare, in later years, that “his first book was the map of Brazil.” Villa-Lobos’s early fascination with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier started at home, where he was also introduced to the cello by his father. He was a dedicated student of Vincent d’ Indy’s Traité de composition, and, though not formally enrolled in Rio’s Instituto Nacional de Música, he received regular advice from the institution’s most progressive faculty, notably Francisco Braga (b. 1868–d. 1945). In the latter’s orchestra, as a professional cellist, Villa-Lobos acquired familiarity with the symphonic repertoire and with orchestral resources. As with Schoenberg, who characterized himself as self-taught in an interview, a lack of formal training did not prevent Villa-Lobos from acquiring a solid though highly personal technique, as expressed upon arriving in Paris in 1923: “I have not come to study but to show my music.” Music education would remain one of his lifelong concerns, materialized in the 1930s and 1940s through the implementation of his “Orpheonic Singing” project in Brazilian public schools and in the confection of remarkable pedagogic materials, notably the Guia Prático. Villa Lobos died in Rio de Janeiro in 1959, having lived through the many transformations of a period spanning from the last years of the Empire of Brazil to those of the Bossa Nova and the presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek (1956–1961), marked by the foundation of the country’s new capital, Brasília, and by the ultimate triumph of a brand of Brazilian Modernismo of which Villa-Lobos had been one of the main early exponents.


Although many biographical notices appeared in dictionaries and surveys of modern music throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the first full-fledged biography of Villa-Lobos was not published until 1949. This was Vasco Mariz’s classic biographical account, which would undergo many updates and revisions until its 13th Brazilian edition in 2018 and would be translated into several languages, starting with the prestigious 1967 Seghers edition in French as Hector Villa-Lobos: L’homme et son œuvre, catalogue des œuvres, discographie, which coincided with the publication of Marcel Beaufils’s Villa-Lobos: Musicien et poète du Brésil. See Mariz 2018 and Beaufils 1967. The first biography in English was Peppercorn 1989, a translation of the original German published in 1972. By relying on primary sources, the work of the Swiss music librarian Lisa Peppercorn stands as a major contribution toward documenting the composer’s life and some of his works, however marred by an assortment of factual and chronological errors perpetuated in much of the subsequent literature. Three scholarly books published in English in the 1990s provide comprehensive views and attempt interpretations of the composer’s poetics: Wright 1992, Béhague 1994, and Tarasti 1995. Simon Wright’s Villa-Lobos (1992), Gérard Behague’s Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Search for Brazil’s Musical Soul (1994), and Eero Tarasti’s Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Life and Works 1887–1959 (1995), added to the English translation of Vasco Mariz’s pioneer study of 1949, published in 1970 by the Brazilian American Cultural Institute in Washington, DC, constitute the main book-length biographical sources on the composer. In Brazil, alongside subsequent editions of Mariz’s book, important biographical information surfaced in Guimarães 1972. This intimate account, written by the composer’s former brother-in-law, marked an important turning point in terms of documenting personal information between 1915 and 1935. Significant contributions include Horta 1987 and Guérios 2009, which represented a significant renewal in approach to Villa-Lobos’s biography. Published in Europe, Jacobs 2010 is a recent and valuable biography that falls short of avoiding some of the chronological and factual errors that have become commonplace in the literature.

  • Beaufils, Marcel. Villa-Lobos: Musicien et poète du Brésil. Paris: Institut des Hautes Études de l’Amérique Latine/IHEAL, 1967.

    With a poetical approach, reminiscent of his contemporaries Gaston Bachelard (b. 1884–d. 1962) and Vladimir Jankelevitch (b. 1903–d. 1985), Marcel Beaufils (b. 1899–d. 1985), a close friend of Villa-Lobos and professor of aesthetics at the Paris Conservatory, introduces French readers to aspects of Brazilian culture, which, according to him, are inextricably woven into the composer’s oeuvre. Eyewitness to the Paris premiere of Amazonas in 1929, Beaufils notably addresses Uirapurú, the Choros, Bachianas, and Genesis, with musical examples.

  • Béhague, Gerard. Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Search for Brazil’s Musical Soul. Austin: Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 1994.

    This text, intended as a preamble to a future critical biography of the composer, presents analyses of some of his major works and remains to date a landmark in Villa-Lobos studies. Consistent with the book’s purpose, as stated in its title, and while exploring the composer’s “nationalism,” Béhague highlights, through a wealth of musical examples, the popular sources that have nurtured Villa-Lobos’s music. Particularly remarkable is his analysis of the Noneto’s complex rhythmic structure.

  • Guérios, Paulo Renato. Heitor Villa-Lobos: O caminho sinuoso da predestinação. 2d ed. Curitiba, Brazil: Parabolé Educação e Cultura Publisher, 2009.

    A referential study originally published in 2003, the work of anthropologist Paulo Renato Guérios bred new life into research on Villa-Lobos. The author approaches his narrative from the idea of “predestination,” which the composer attributed to himself, focusing his attention on some key periods of Villa-Lobos’s career: the formative years in Brazil, the Paris avant-garde of the 1920s, and the years of Getúlio Vargas’s first presidency (1930–1945).

  • Guimarães, Luiz. Villa-Lobos visto da platéia e na intimidade (1912–1935). Rio de Janeiro: Editora do Autor, 1972.

    Villa-Lobos’s 1913 marriage to his first wife, the accomplished pianist Lucília Guimarães (b. 1886–d. 1986), marks the beginning of his public career as a composer. The first concerts dedicated to his music started in 1915, and by 1920 his image as a “plethoric” composer was already formed with the public and the Brazilian press. This indispensable testimony by Lucília’s brother reproduces programs of concerts at which Villa-Lobos’s music was performed between 1915 and 1935 and includes a selection of reviews.

  • Horta, Luiz Paulo. Heitor Villa-Lobos: Uma introdução. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editor, 1987.

    A short but insightful biography by the distinguished journalist and music critic Luiz Paulo Horta (b. 1943–d. 2013), written as part of the composer’s centennial celebrations. The biographical information is complemented by a condensed version of the catalogue’s second edition published by the Museu Villa-Lobos in 1972.

  • Jacobs, Remi. Heitor Villa-Lobos. Paris: Bleu nuit éditeur, 2010.

    The second biography by a French author emphasizes the connection with France during the Roaring Twenties and in the 1950s. Richly illustrated and in chronological order, it intersperses highlights in Villa-Lobos’s creative journey with comments on relevant works.

  • Mariz, Vasco. Heitor Villa-Lobos, compositor brasileiro. 13th ed. Rio de Janeiro: Francisco Alves—Academia Brasileira de Música, 2018.

    Based on interviews conducted during the 1940s with the composer, it remains, throughout successive revisions, the standard biography of Villa-Lobos. Its translations into Italian, Spanish, and Russian were based mostly on the prestigious French edition published in 1967 by Éditions Seghers in Paris. To the updated catalogue of works, discography, and detailed bibliography in the 1949 first edition, the 2018 version features a preface summarizing the main changes introduced along the book’s thirteen Brazilian editions.

  • Peppercorn, Lisa. Villa-Lobos. London: Omnibus Press, 1989.

    Originally published in German in 1972, Peppercorn’s influential biography is rich in illustrations of concert programs and photographs. Although contributing a relevant critical approach to contextualizing narratives about the composer, this study is also the source of inaccurate and unwarranted assertions regarding chronology and events, notably in regard to the genesis of the iconic ballets Amazonas and Uirapurú, and on the roles played by Rubinstein, Milhaud, and the Ballets Russes in the diffusion of Debussy’s and Stravinsky’s music in Brazil.

  • Tarasti, Eero. Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Life and Works (1887–1959). Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1995.

    Intended as an introduction to “the most important works of Villa-Lobos’s output,” Tarasti discusses Brazilian Modernism, public music education in Brazil in the 1930s, and provides a biographical sketch of the composer. Although it recycles a number of factual errors, mostly traceable to Peppercorn’s writings, it has the great merit of covering previously neglected works, such as symphonies, string quartets, and piano concertos. Noteworthy is his overall plan for the colossal Choros No. 11.

  • Wright, Simon. Heitor Villa-Lobos. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

    By contrast to Peppercorn’s subdivision of works according to medium, Wright’s book is organized in chronological order and intended as a “guide through those works which mark significant points in Villa-Lobos’s development as a composer,” wherein “biographical detail is incorporated when it enlightens the musical discourse.” Although the analyses remain at the descriptive level, Wright’s observations are often insightful and its numerous musical examples represent an important enrichment to the then existing literature on Villa-Lobos.

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