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Composed: 1926

Length: c. 12 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, alto saxophone, 3 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion (grand tambourin de Provence, bass drum, caxambu [Brazilian tom-tom], 2 puita [friction drums], reco-reco [scratcher, small and large], caisse-claire, tambour, large tam-tam, woodblocks, wood shaker, metal shaker), harp, piano, chorus, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 23, 1997, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting

About this Piece

The modern orchestra, as the cumulative achievement of Western music (its instrumentation, idioms, and equal temperament), provided numerous non-Europeans with a generous inheritance, a brand-new vehicle for national expression in our century. Much like Janáček in Bohemia, Brazil’s Heitor Villa-Lobos made vibrant use of his native musical elements within the European instrumental context, so idiomatically conceived and brilliantly designed for the orchestra are his works.

Nationalistic composers have always walked a thin line between the preservation of cultural identity on the one hand (in their attempts either to emulate the authentic or to represent faithfully an unnotated musical language), and Western integrity, complexity, and idiom on the other, by writing works that employ larger structures and more sophisticated harmonies, and that make extensive technical demands on the performers; the pitfalls of the former result in music that sounds awkward and unnatural in its foreign medium, while the cost of the latter may be the selling-out of nationalistic intentions. Villa-Lobos sidestepped the dilemma altogether, fashioning a music that relied on native elements, but in a less emulative way, one that sought to capture the greater essence rather than the actual reality of Brazilian folklore.

Two prominent sets of works stand out in Villa-Lobos’ output, both of which range in scale and scope from intimate miniatures for small combinations to orchestral tone poems of symphonic dimensions: the Bachianas Brasileiras and the Chôros. Both collections make use of indigenous Brazilian popular and folk elements, mixed with the European tradition. In the more explicitly titled Bachianas Brasileiras, Villa-Lobos ponders the possibility of Johann Sebastian Bach as a 20th-century Brazilian composer (much as Prokofiev imagined Haydn or Mozart living and writing in the modern age in his “Classical” Symphony). The Chôros series, too, unites European formal and instrumental elements with instruments and materials native to Brazil.

The title Chôros does not allude to European music at all, but refers instead to Brazil’s urban street musicians. Chôros No. 10 is regarded by many as the masterpiece of the series; it calls not only for full orchestra, but also for a large chorus and a supplemental battery of Brazilian percussion instruments. The work’s subtitle, “Rasga o coração” (“Rend the Heart”), is derived from the last line of the poem by Catulo da Paixão Cearense that serves as the optional text. The composer specifies, “One may also vocalize on Ah! in place of the Portuguese text.” The words that are actually sung (at the chant-like entry of the chorus), Ja-ka-tá ka-ma-ra-já, do not appear in Cearense’s poem at all, but were chosen by the composer for their purely sonorous effect. The lyrical melody that soon emerges on Ah! is by Villa-Lobos’ older contemporary, the Brazilian composer Anacleto Augusto de Medeiros (1866-1907).

Villa-Lobos draws upon both the music of Brazil’s large international cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and that of the far-removed world of the Brazilian interior. (In his possibly exaggerated accounts of youthful adventure, the composer reported having traveled in the Amazon rainforests as early as his late teen years.) These culturally disparate elements (urban dance rhythms and Villa-Lobos’ fanciful version of indigenous chant) are synthesized on a massive symphonic scale, magnified far beyond the local scale of their respective social contexts. Whereas European nationalism necessarily gravitated away from city life, where art music thrived, Latin America’s European-style cities afforded concert composers a vital wealth of musical resources that had long remained untapped.

Completed in Rio in 1926 (after Villa-Lobos had returned from Europe), Chôros No. 10 subtly betrays the influence of the European scene: the primitive surface and immediacy of fauvism, the clean-cut textures of Stravinskyan neoclassicism, and even the motoric, mechanistic features of Italian futurism. The net result of the work is wholly unique, however. Most notable in its freshness is the hypnotically vigorous second half, in which a driving rhythmic foundation (the crisp and deliberate patterns of Brazilian dance) underlies the soaring lyricism of the chorus (as it impersonates the spirit of indigenous chant). Through the clear delineation (or stratification) of melody and rhythm, the dichotomous worlds of song and dance, the rainforest and the city, primitive spirituality, and sophisticated decadence all mutually coexist in a meaningful way. This type of abstract (less emulative) treatment of borrowed materials foreshadows Messiaen’s highly eclectic and synthetic style. Through such a synthesis, Villa-Lobos succeeds in faithfully maintaining the spirit of Brazilian music in a truly symphonic manner, as well as in inventing a distinctly individual musical space. —David Fick