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Music to evoke the style of Johann Sebastian Bach using the folklore of Brazil does not at first blush seem a legitimate venture of a serious composer. Yet that is just what Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) set out to do when he wrote the variously scored nine compositions he called Bachianas Brasileiras. The partnership of Bach and Villa-Lobos seems a curious one indeed, but not in the estimation of the composer.

Not given to modesty, Villa-Lobos declared that the only two great composers in the world are “Bach and I.” The eighteenth-century German he believed to be like himself in drawing inspiration from folk impulses, a [strange] conviction which he felt aligned him spiritually to the Baroque master. In addition to the Bachian source, Villa-Lobos drew upon musical impulses bast counting, from Brazilian music with its roots in African and Indian music, to the wide range of the European product, and on to American jazz. For years before going to Paris in 1923, he played guitar, then cello, with the small instrumental groups that performed at parties, weddings, etc. Although he studied composition formally for only a brief period, he began early on a portfolio of works that eventually numbered in the thousands, works which, in the words of his biographer Vasco Mariz, “surpassed the stages of national music and explored the spiritual depths of Brazilian character.”

The present work, composed in 1939, has two movements, both with titles relating to the period of Bach: 1) Aria (a choros, described by the composer as “a new form of musical composition in which a synthesis is made of different types of Brazilian music, Indian and popular, reflecting in its fundamental elements the rhythm and characteristic melodies of the people,” and 2) Fantasia. Villa-Lobos has written as follows about Bachianas No. 6: “This suite … is the only one composed in the form of chamber music. I chose the combination of these two instruments to suggest the old Brazilian serenade for two instruments, and I substituted the ophicleide with the bassoon because this instrument is nearer to the spirit of Bach and I wanted to give the impression of improvisation as in serenade singing. This suite is more Bachian in form than Brazilian.”

The writing for both instruments is extremely demanding, particularly so for the flute. The first movement hews to a perceptibly contrapuntal texture, with melodies and countermelodies strongly delineated – thus the relationship to Bach. The Fantasia movement is the one that gives the impression, as the composer describes it, of serenade singing. The bassoon, not earthbound by any means, is still asked to function as controlling force for the flute, a role in which it fails until the very end of the piece, however, for the high wind is not to be detained from taking many wild, impulsive flights of fancy.

-- Orrin Howard annotated programs for more than 20 years while serving as the Philharmonic’s Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.