A guide to Villa-Lobos’s style

Whether echoing the Amazonian forest or tripping along to local songs and dances, Heitor Villa-Lobos's music portrays his homeland's spirit like no other composer's...


Here's a short guide to Heitor Villa-Lobos's style…


'Tudo Brasil' (Everything Brazil)

Villa-Lobos draws from Brazilian legends and folklore, native, folk and popular music, plus local instruments to encompass his country’s varied landscapes, cultural diversity and unknown, exotic nature.


An instrumental voice

The human voice is used as an instrument for special or percussive effects in Villa-Lobos’s works. In Chôros No. 4, the male chorus sings ‘Pica-Pau’ (woodpecker) in an onomatopoeic rhythm. Polyrhythms, vocal glissandos, sighs and syllables are techniques employed in the a cappella version of Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9, in the exotic world of Chôros No. 10 and the fourth suite of Descobrimento do Brasil. (Discovery of Brazil).

Lush orchestration

Villa-Lobos’s orchestral work often employs enormous forces, particularly Brazilian percussion, and syncopated rhythms. Use of chirping woodwinds over singing, lyrical strings, full brass and percussion create both mystery and majesty. His polyphonic writing inspired Messiaen, who saw him as the mid-20th century’s greatest orchestrator.

Rhapsodic style

Villa-Lobos wrote descriptive, not musicological, directions on his scores. His pieces tend to be a succession of short motifs or phrases, often superimposed in a changing lyrical, rhapsodic manner. Modulations and variations heighten the colour of his work. He wrote intuitively, bringing together Brazilian music styles with European art music.


Original text by Janet Crane