When we think of Brazilian music, typically samba, bossa nova, tropicalia and other widely appreciated styles of jazz immediately come to mind.

However, Brazilian classical music is an immense and incredibly rich undiscovered treasure, with symphonies, concertos, overtures and other classical music forms.

This iconic country has deep, multi-cultural influences with European classical music seasoned with innumerable indigenous and African flavours. Here are 6 Brazilian works that everyone should know.

Best Brazilian classical music

Overture Concertante by Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993)

Composer Camargo Guarnieri (main picture) was in fact curiously named "Mozart Camargo Guarnieri". Despite being uncomfortable with this pretentious name his Italian parents gave him, he went on to become one of the great names in Brazilian music.

Amongst the various works he composed, this overture is one of the most ingenious and exciting overtures I know. It was written in a neoclassical style for a Mozartean-sized classical orchestra, and grants the timpanist a privileged role. Guarnieri builds this overture, creating a rhythmically strong first theme that contrasts with a lyrically seductive second theme. A delicious concert opening!

Sonata in D "wooden donkey" for Strings Orchestra by Antonio Carlos Gomes (1836-1896)

The Brazilian repertoire has an infinity of works for strings orchestra. The Sonata em Re, which is a work in four movements, is perhaps the best of them.

It is an extremely well-constructed and captivating work that seems somehow related to Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. The Sonata’s last movement is known as "wooden donkey": Gomes builds onomatopoeic effects with the strings, imitating a child playing with his wooden donkey, until little by little through the "battuto à la corda" effects, this donkey comes to life and takes the child for a gallop! Whilst Carlos Gomes was mostly praised for being a composer of Operas, this work is a jewel worth discovering.

Symphony No. 2 "Uirapuru" by Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993)

In 1945, Guarnieri wrote his second symphony, subtitled “Uirapuru”, which was dedicated to Villa-Lobos in reference to Villa-Lobos's 1917 ballet of the self-same name. Legend has it that Uirapuru was an Amazon bird, a God of love, that transformed into a beautiful indigenous Amazonian man and whom the indigenous Amazonian women argued over.

The symphony has 3 movements (I. energetic II. tender III. festive), and each carries great orchestral brilliance. His lyrical and virtuous musical language is reminiscent of Shostakovich.

Heitor Villa-Lobos - Bachianas Brasileiras 4 (1887-1959)

Bachianas Brasileiras is a series of 9 orchestral suite compositions that pay tribute to Bach. It is important to bear in mind that at the start of the twentieth century, Villa-Lobos' Bach was "romantic and epic" in style, taking after Leopold Stokowski’s concept of the composer.

The best known Bachianas suite is No. 5, though they are all simply amazing. My special highlight is No. 4, which was composed for symphonic orchestra. It is introduced by a beautiful prelude for strings, in an adagio that evokes Barber. This Prelude is a collective song imbued with nostalgia, probably inspired by Bach’s Air on the G string. A gathering of people express their extreme existential pain but, beyond suffering, also sing their hope and their deep thirst for life.

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Marlos Nobre, Kabbalah for Orchestra (1939 - current)

Marlos Nobre is a contemporary composer influenced by his masters: Alberto Ginastera, Olivier Messiaen, Aaron Copland, and Luigi Dallapiccola. Marlos Nobre conceived his impressive Kabbalah as an overture in two connected parts representing light and energy.

The first part is rigorously mathematical in organising the micro and the macro structure, whilst the second part was composed in a totally free form of intuition as spontaneous inspiration. Nobre uses almost an entire song from the Xingu peoples, and creates a frantic and dense pace that illustrates tribal movement.

Heitor Villa-Lobos - Amazon Rainforest (1887-1959)

Villa-Lobos said that his work were letters to posterity, and his work Amazon Rainforest undoubtedly is. Villa-Lobos’ orchestration was always sophisticated, luxuriant and exuberant. In fact, Messiaen once said that Turangalila was inspired by Villa-Lobos’ symphonic orchestration style.

The music has a primitivist and complex rhythm akin to Stravinsky’s, a deep tragic lyricism like Shostakovich’s work and an epic character that is reminiscent of Carmina Burana.

The work was commissioned by Hollywood for the film Green Mansions, but it was not used in the way he conceived it. So, he took the music and created it into a symphonic piece. One of the great treasures of this suite is 4 songs with soprano and grand orchestra.


Orchestraçoes de Klaus Ogerman das musicas de Tom Jobim!

... And as an encore, why not explore Antonio Carlos Jobim’s (Tom Jobim) music with orchestration by Klaus Ogerman? Many of the father of Bossa Nova, Tom Jobim’s, rich harmonic songs were orchestrated by the great maestro Ogerman.

Main image: Camargo Guarnieri © Brazilian National Archives, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Freya ParrDigital Editor and Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.