March 2019 Composer of the Month - Heitor Villa-Lobos

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Composer of the month: Heitor Villa-Lobos

When March hits, it brings a mix of winter and spring, two seasons that couldn’t be any more different from one another. March is kind of like the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos--what could be more different than indigenous music and mechanical classical compositions? With that in mind, let’s explore our composer of the month.

Who was Heitor Villa Lobos?

You might not hear his name as often as you’ll hear about Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach, but Heitor Villa-Lobos was a monumental composer in his own right. Here a few key things you should know about this musical giant:

  • He is the most notable Brazilian composer of the 20th century

  • He remains the most significant composer of Brazilian music 

  • His musical influences range from minuets of Bach to beloved Brazilian folk music

  • His notable musical catchphrase features a unique combination of indigenous musical elements and standard classical music from the Western hemisphere

  • He established the Brazilian Academy of Music in 1945

An early love for music

Heitor Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janiero, Brazil on March 5, 1887. He was born into a family that celebrated music. His father was a librarian for employment, but he was an amateur musician for enjoyment. Heitor’s dad held weekly musical get-togethers, similar to jam sessions, and this collaborations interested young Heitor. When he was six years old, he learned to play cello by using a modified viola to make his music. Around the same time, he started listening to Bach thanks to A Well-Tempered Clavier, a gift from his aunt.

Traveling and training

Heitor was famous for saying “I learned music from a bird in the jungles of Brazil, not from academies.”  Unlike classically trained musicians, Heitor didn’t take formal music lessons. Instead, he continued training his ear and playing with other musicians. Even though he did spent a brief period of time at the National Institute of Music in Brazil, he was essentially self-taught.  

In 1905, Heitor began traveling throughout Brazil, performing in bars, clubs, and other venues. It was through his travels that he absorbed music influence from the ethnic groups of his country: the Portuguese, the Africans, and the native tribal groups. Heitor rejected his mother’s plea for him to become a doctor; instead, he learned to play the guitar and became a musical ‘vagabond’ of sorts. At the end of his journey, he started a serious study regarding the works of Bach, Wagner, and Puccini. Heitor began composing original music incorporating the concepts of classical music along with the sounds, chants, and rhythms he discovered in his travels.

The big break

Meeting Artur Rubinstein in 1919 proved to be a major moment in Heitor’s life. Rubinstein started performing Heitor’s music at all of his concerts--this was a global platform for the young composer. Within four short years, Heitor had composed solo pieces for guitar as well as pieces for trios, quartets, symphonies, and more. He chose Paris as his home during the 1920s, and it was during this decade that he published most of his work and grounded his reputation as an internationally-respected composer.

Later in life

For the remainder of his life, Heitor remained in demand as a composer, conductor, and musician.  Even though he had homes in New York and Paris, he stayed entrenched in the spirit and culture of Brazil, both in his heart and in his music. He wrote music for Hollywood films, orchestras, and concerti. Heitor also left a legacy of music education for his initiatives and work in Brazil’s public and private schools. When he died on November 17, 1959 in Rio, his state funeral was highly attended and was the last major public event in Rio before the capital transferred to Brasilia. 


Here are a few of Heitor’s most notable works:

  • Bachianas Basileiras performed by Kathleen Battle and Christopher Parkening

  • Dawn in a Tropical Forest

  • Prelude No. 1 performed by John Willaims

  • Momprecoce

  • Rudepoema

You don’t have to travel to the jungles of Brazil to find your own musical inspiration, but like Heitor Villa-Lobos, you can immerse yourself in your own culture and begin to study its unique rhythms, sounds, and voices.  If you’re not sure where to begin, no worries--we can help you develop your musical ear here at the California Conservatory of Music.  Call us today to see how we can help you tap into your own musical talent!