It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!
Heitor Villa-Lobos is often thought of as Brazil's first great nationalist composer and credited with bringing the sounds of Brazilian folk music to the concert hall. Far less well known is the man responsible in many ways for making Villa-Lobos's career possible, the conductor and composer Alberto Nepomuceno (1864-1920).
The 19th century Brazilian musical establishment was extremely conservative. Rio de Janeiro was the musical center of the Americas at the time, ever since the Portuguese royal family arrived in 1808 and brought the court orchestra along. But European musicians, both composers and performers, predominated in Brazilian art music for most of the century; even native-born composers looked mainly to Europe and tended to be surprisingly insulated from the folk and popular music heard around them. Antônio Carlos Gomes became the first composer from the New World to achieve success in Europe, and was considered the equal of Verdi during his lifetime -- but while he drew on Brazilian literature for his operas, the operas were sung in Italian and the music was entirely within the Italian tradition.
Enter Alberto Nepomuceno, one of the earliest iconoclasts in Brazilian music. He spent the first 21 years of his life in the northern cities of Fortaleza and Recife, far from the urban centers of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In 1885, he made his first visit to Rio de Janeiro, performing as a pianist and presenting his compositions for the first time; these compositions included a set of art songs with lyrics in Portuguese. Despite the trend in Europe toward vocal music sung in the composer's own language, Nepomuceno's choice to compose Portuguese-language vocal music was seen as verging on scandalous. Nonetheless, he won recognition as a virtuoso pianist, and with the help of friends in Rio de Janeiro, he departed for Europe in 1887 to study composition and conducting, first in Rome and then in Leipzig and Vienna. While in Vienna, he met and married a Norwegian pianist who had been both a student and a family friend of Edvard Grieg; after the wedding they moved to Bergen and lived in Grieg's house for several months. Grieg, a leading proponent of musical nationalism, encouraged Nepomuceno to draw inspiration from his own country's folk music.
Returning to Brazil in 1895, Nepomuceno quickly became one of the country's leading conductors. But as a composer, he continued to face criticism for bringing elements of folk and popular music into his own music. He was attacked by other classical musicians for continuing to write Portuguese-language vocal music, for borrowing percussion instruments from Brazilian popular music, and even for associating with popular singers and songwriters. He stood firm in his convictions, insisting in a letter published in one major newspaper that "a people that does not sing in its own tongue has no mother country." His reputation suffered; although he was occasionally able to program his own music in his concerts as a conductor, very little of his work was published during his lifetime. None of his orchestral music was programmed by a conductor other than himself until the last few months of his life, when Richard Strauss conducted one of his opera overtures during a South American tour. Still, he gained some adherents, and began the process of bringing the sounds of Brazilian folk and popular music into the concert hall. And in 1913, despite publishers' resistance to printing his own music, Nepomuceno was able to convince one Rio de Janeiro publisher to accept some piano pieces by a then-controversial student composer. That student was Heitor Villa-Lobos, and those piano pieces were his first published music.
This week's piece, Alberto Nepomuceno's Serie Brasileira
, is a suite of four descriptively-titled movements depicting various aspects of Brazilian life. It was composed during his time in Norway and premiered in Rio de Janeiro in 1897; but despite Nepomuceno's stature as a conductor, the piece would not be published until 1959, almost 40 years after his death. When the piece premiered, it was savaged mercilessly by conservative critics, who were especially shocked by the use of the güiro and other folk percussion instruments in the last movement. The first movement "Alvorada na serra" (Dawn on the Mountain) uses part of the northeastern Brazilian folk song "Sapo Jururu" as its main theme, though played in a much slower tempo than the song is normally heard. The second movement, "Intermédio," is a maxixe, a Brazilian dance distantly related to the Argentine tango and the direct ancestor of the samba. The third movement "A sesta na rede" (The Siesta in the Hammock) and the fourth movement "Batuque" draw heavily on Afro-Brazilian music. "Batuque" is sometimes performed as a stand-alone piece; its title refers to a dance of Cape Verdean origin as well as to a Brazilian martial art that was a forerunner to the modern capoeira.
I. Alvorada na serra
II. Intermédio (8:49)
III. A sesta na rede (15:05)
IV. Batuque (19:43)