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About this Piece

Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos was part of a generation of Latin-American composers who delved deeply into their country's histories and folklores to find a specifically national musical voice. (Carlos Chávez, Alberto Ginastera, and, to a lesser extent, Silvestre Revueltas were also part of this cohort.) As a child, Villa-Lobos learned to play the cello and the clarinet from his father, an amateur musician who died when Heitor was eleven. Uninterested in pursuing a formal musical education, Villa-Lobos instead taught himself guitar and started playing in a street band in Rio de Janeiro. At 16, he joined a theater orchestra as a cellist and also played in a cinema orchestra, immersing himself in popular music and music theater for two years.

At 18, Villa-Lobos set out for Brazil's interior. He spent the next decade traveling extensively, exploring the Amazon and encountering the rich folk music traditions of his country. The five years that followed were a period of intense creativity and also witnessed the affirmation of Villa-Lobos’ reputation as Brazilian classical music’s leading new voice. Concerts of his music were met with scathing reviews from reactionary, old-guard critics, which only increased interest in his music. In 1923, after participating the year before as music's representative in Brazil’s “Week of Modern Art,” Villa-Lobos went to Paris with the help of several influential friends and a government stipend. There, he met Stravinsky, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Varèse and achieved a level of acclaim won by no other Latin-American composer in Europe before or since. When he returned for good to Brazil in 1930, he was Brazilian music's leading figure and a celebrity in international music circles.

Villa-Lobos never forgot his “musical education” – the Rio street bands, the trips to the Amazon, and the music of the movie halls and theaters of his teen-age years. He fused these diverse influences into a powerfully nationalist musical voice. One manifestation of this was the chôros, a genre of works created by Villa-Lobos that were inspired by the popular music of the urban instrumental ensemble. The name is simply a reference to these ensembles, which were called chôros. In his works that carry this designation, including the Quinteto em forma de chôros (Quintet in the form of a chôros), Villa-Lobos used the cosmopolitan, popular musical style of the street bands of Rio and São Paulo alongside simple folk melodies. The work was composed in Paris in 1928 and first performed there in 1930 as part of a concert that also included Varèse conducting his own music. Alongside its Brazilian elements, the Quinteto shares some traits in common with music of the European avant-garde of the ’20s, including its insistent ostinato rhythms, pungent dissonance (nowhere more so than in the final chords), and sometimes angular writing, especially for the flute. The score progresses episodically, presenting several contrasting passages - a bit of modernist music here, something reminiscent of Latin popular music there - over its ten-minute course.

– John Mangum