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Hyperion Records

CDH55470 - Villa-Lobos: Missa São Sebastião & other sacred music
Saint Sébastien by Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)
(Originally issued on CDA66638)

Recording details: January 1993
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: June 2014
DISCID: 26121814
Total duration: 77 minutes 2 seconds

'The whole disc is a bright feather in the Corydon cap' (Organists' Review)

'Une qualité d'interprétation en tous points remarquable … ceux qui aiment la musique chorale seront tout simplement comblés' (Diapason, France)

Missa São Sebastião & other sacred music

Sacred choral music by Brazil’s most famous composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, performed by one of Hyperion’s best-loved recording groups.

These works were written as part of Villa-Lobos’s grand plan to revitalize music education in his native country. The human voice, an instrument acquired free of charge by every person in the nation, was seen by Villa-Lobos as the principal performing medium, particularly in massed choral form. Canto orfeônico (choral singing) became the order of the day. Among the performances Villa-Lobos directed was the Brazilian premiere of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli. This led to him to write his own a cappella Mass, Missa São Sebastião, St Sebastian being the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro, the major work on this album.

In fact the Missa São Sebastião had not been a sudden isolated instance of sacred composition from Villa-Lobos. From his earliest years as a serious composer he had written many motets. The Corydon Singers perform a rich selection of these.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
On 22 November 1939, a spoken prayer to St Cecilia, patron saint of music, especially written by Heitor Villa-Lobos, was broadcast over the national Brazilian radio network at prime listening time. In reality it was not a prayer at all, but a thinly disguised piece of impassioned propaganda for Getúlio Vargas’s dictatorial, totalitarian government. It appealed to a largely illiterate, rural population for the use of music as a means of stimulating civic order, national pride, brotherhood, unity, and other admirable sentiments. The prayer’s tone and content succinctly encapsulate the national mood and flavour of the time:

St Cecilia! Divine Protector of Music. You have given to Brazil the privilege of love for music; you, who have brought together the birds, the rivers, the waterfalls, the seas, the winds, and the peoples of this land in an incomparable symphony, whose melodies and harmonies have contributed to the formation of the Brazilian soul and sense of goodwill, spiritually aiding the collective discipline of youth and of men to undertake the useful and essential functions of human society, enlighten those who confuse popular native manifestations, good but uncultured, with the expression of cultivated art. Gladden those who imagine that one day music will be the ‘Sonorous Flag of Universal Peace’. Guide Youth through the Art of Sound.

And so through to a passionate plea for the good Saint to hear the ‘ardent prayers, full of Soul and Faith, of the musical artists of Brazil’.

Nine years earlier, upon his return as a successfully established composer from a period of residence in Paris, Villa-Lobos found the state of national music-making in his own country dismal in the extreme. Musical life, one eminent Brazilian musicologist observed, was at the thermometer point of zero. Journeying to São Paulo in July 1930, with memories of Paris still fresh (a city where ‘early music’ pioneers such as Landowska and Boulanger rubbed shoulders with Milhaud and Varèse), Villa-Lobos was shocked by the mediocrity that he saw in public music around him, particularly in the cinema (where music was still performed ‘live’) and in education.

The energetic Villa-Lobos immediately formulated a plan for the renovation of musical education, but the administration promising to activtate it was overthrown in the dramatic coup of 1930 which brought Getúlio Vargas to power. The setback was temporary, for the new government soon realized that Villa-Lobos’s plan, together with his dynamic personality and his skills as a composer and conductor, could be used for its own ends. Villa-Lobos, in 1932, received an official position, a salary, and a brief to renew musical education in Rio de Janeiro (and selectively elsewhere) in tandem with the highly charged and bureaucratic nationalistic fervour of the day.

Complicated music courses were designed and implemented; text books and guides were issued; public ‘educational concerts’ were given by a specially formed orchestra under Villa-Lobos. Folk song and the exaltation of Brazil’s natural beauty were harnessed both musically and politically. Music was everywhere in the air.

The human voice, an instrument acquired free of charge by every person in the nation, was seen by Villa-Lobos as the principal performing medium, particularly in massed choral form. Canto orfeônico (choral singing) became the order of the day. Every school child was taught to sing (patriotic songs, of course), and during the 1930s and early 1940s in Rio de Janeiro important civic and national holidays (7 September—Independence Day, for example) were marked for thousands of children by being herded into the city’s football stadia to sing, en masse, hymns of praise to Brazil and its government. The sentiments of the St Cecilia prayer were realized live under the blazing heat of a tropical sun, before President Vargas (who disliked music) directed by the charismatic baton of Villa-Lobos himself.

When Villa-Lobos realized the potential of choral singing in his education programme he formed, in 1932, a special choir from the music staff of the city’s schools: the Orfeão de Professores. It was the task of this choir to ‘raise Brazilian artistic standards’ and to ‘support the official moves to use serious music as an educational medium’. Its repertoire ranged from arrangements by Villa-Lobos of Bach Preludes and Fugues to Brazilian folk melodies in choral settings. The ambience was already potent for the creation of the now-famous Bachianas brasileiras, Villa-Lobos’s personal fusion of ‘Bach’ with ‘Brazil’, and it is noteworthy that the period of Vargas’s various administrations (1930–1945) coincides exactly with that of the composition of those nine works.

In April 1933 the Orfeão joined forces with the Orquestra Villa-Lobos to give the Brazilian premiere of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. A few days later the choir gave the first Brazilian performance of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli at Rio’s exquisite Candelária Church as part of the celebrations marking Holy Week. The Mass was the centrepiece of a recital which included an Amerindian folk song, a Gregorian chant (‘text attr. Jesus Christ’), Bach, and Verdi. Such was the unordered eclecticism of Villa-Lobos that he saw no objection to garnering all these disparate elements as viable vehicles for praise to a trinity comprising God, Government, and Nation. Just weeks after that concert a now-faded photograph of the Orfeão was taken: ranks of timelessly smiling women in the hats and pencil-thin dresses of the day surround Villa-Lobos’s soon-to-be-estranged wife Lucília, who sits at the centre with a huge bouquet of flowers. On her right sits Dona Noêmia Villa-Lobos, his mother. The Orfeão was not only a manifestation of nationalism, but also an intensely personal project for Villa-Lobos. Its creation and functioning reflect a precise moment in both Brazilian history and Villa-Lobos’s own life.

Villa-Lobos spent the last months of 1936 researching Amerindian and early Hispanic music, in preparation for composing the incidental score for a feature film, The Discovery of Brazil. This was one of many motion pictures made by government institutions at the time, glorifying the cultural and historic heritage of Brazil. This particular film told in just one hour of the Portuguese expedition under Cabral in 1500, the discovery of a beautiful new land, and of the first contact with the natives. Villa-Lobos went to considerable trouble with musical authenticity (as far as the erratic state of Brazilian musicology at the time would allow him), constructing his own melodies in similar vein to the chants of Brazilian indians, and imitating ancient Portuguese and Spanish secular and ecclesiastical music. The film’s musical and visual climax was the ‘First Mass in Brazil’, an impressive tableau in which the Portuguese sailors and crew cleverly sing Mass against the frighteningly juxtaposed incantations of the newly found Amerindians: a true clash and coming together of cultures, emphasizing the multi-racial traits which characterize Brazil even today, and which the Vargas government took great pains to harness as a symbolic means of national unity. Villa-Lobos’s ‘discovery’ of Papae Marcelli, and the evocation of a sixteenth-century Mass in a new, Brazilian context in this film score prompted him almost simultaneously to write his own a cappella Mass between December 1936 and January 1937, specifically for the Orfeão de Professores. It was entitled Missa São Sebastião, St Sebastian being the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro. An augmented Orfeão de Professores gave the first performance at Rio’s Teatro Municipal on 13 November 1937, in a grand concert held to mark the close of the secondary school academic year.

Amongst Villa-Lobos’s papers there exists a manuscript of several recitative fragments headed ‘Introits da missa São Sebastião’. It is not quite clear how these were intended to be used, and they are omitted in the present recording, but their texts provide important subtitles for each section of the Mass. Just as movements in the Bachianas brasileiras mostly take dual titles, one ‘Bachian’, the other ‘Brazilian’, so the Mass movements are given patriotic identities in addition to their liturgical ones: ‘Kyrie—Sebastian! The Virtuous’, ‘Gloria—Sebastian! The Roman Soldier’, ‘Credo—Sebastian! Defender of the Church’, ‘Sanctus—Sebastian! The Martyr’, ‘Benedictus—Sebastian! The Saint’, ‘Agnus Dei—Sebastian! Protector of Brazil’.

The Mass is composed for three voices a cappella, but Villa-Lobos gives a seasoned and practical musician’s variety of performing options: women’s voices, boys’ voices, or men’s voices, with each possibly doubled at the octave. In the Corydon Singers’ performance the first option is chosen. The self-consciously archaic three-part polyphony (which emulates Palestrina and Victoria), the modal inflexions of the vocal lines, and the austere simplicity of the whole work stand in stark contrast to the opulent style usually thought typical of Villa-Lobos, as demonstrated in the huge orchestral and choral frescos of jungle and city life, the Choros, which he wrote during the 1920s. In the Mass, raw nationalism gives way to an idealized and serene view of the powerful Catholic heritage of his country. Subtle glances at the chants of macumba (as at ‘et sepultus est’ in the Credo) are, however, reminders that in Brazil even the rites of Roman Catholicism have been (and still are) tinged with elements from the magical beliefs transported to Brazil by the millions of black slaves brought over the Atlantic by the colonists so many centuries ago. With Portuguese respectability came also African magic, and as food offerings to the old African gods of macumba and other cults are left alongside statuettes of St Mary and St George in Brazilian roadside shrines or in rocky clefts on the beach, so St Cecilia and St Sebastian embrace the whole of Villa-Lobos’s vision of multi-cultural Brazil, in the form of oration and liturgy. The Missa São Sebastião stands unique and radiantly beautiful in Villa-Lobos’s huge output.

Villa-Lobos’s education programme required the production of large numbers of choral anthologies containing material suitable for performance in schools, concerts, civic events, worship, and for vocal rehearsal. The composer’s own administrative department (the ‘Superintendência de Educação Musical e Artistica’) issued these volumes under its own imprint, and the music was engraved mainly by students on the publishing and engraving course at the conservatory which Villa-Lobos had founded in 1942. The range of anthologies included: Canto orfeônico (two volumes of patriotic hymns, songs, and anthems, 1940, 1950); Guia prático (folk-song settings, 1932); Solfejos (vocalise and exercises, two volumes, 1938, 1945); Música sacra (motets and religious pieces, 1952).

The Missa São Sebastião had not been a sudden isolated instance of sacred composition from Villa-Lobos. From his earliest years as a serious composer he had written many motets, and in 1919 came a full-scale Mass with orchestra entitled Vidapura (‘Pure Life’). This music all tended towards a heady, post-romantic language. Música sacra, the final volume in the choral anthology series, collected together further sacred pieces, written between the years 1937 and 1952 and which on the whole concentrate on the same clean polyphonic style established in the Missa São Sebastião. All the items are a cappella, though voice division in much of the music results in rich textures not found in the Mass. The Corydon Singers’ selection includes a four-part Pater noster written in 1950; an Avé Maria in five parts from 1938 (in Portuguese), and a second setting (in Latin) in six parts, written in 1948 while hospitalized in New York; a four-part Sub tuum praesidium (1952); Praesepe (1952), in which a mezzo solo chants verses from the poem ‘Beata Virgine’ (1563) by Padre José de Achieta, against the wordless vocalise of the choir; a four-part Panis angelicus (1950); and Cor dulce, cor amabile (1952).

After the removal from office of Vargas in 1945, and the ending of the War (in which Brazil had taken part on the Allied side), Villa-Lobos began to travel extensively once more as a conductor of his own music, spending large portions of each year in Europe and the USA. Consequently his activities in Brazil as choral conductor, composer and educationalist diminished considerably. The requirement for patriotic choral works in any case ceased, and Villa-Lobos turned his compositional energies to operas and orchestral music.

At the end of his life, however, two commissions resulted in further sacred choral works, and in these Villa-Lobos literally bid farewell to the world. A request from Pope Pius XII himself, via the Italian Association of St Cecilia, to celebrate ‘Lourdes Year’, resulted in a fine Magnificat-Alleluia for mezzo-soprano (or contralto), chorus, and orchestra, which was first performed at the Teatro Municipal, Rio de Janeiro, on 8 November 1958, conducted by Edoardo di Guarnieri. A further performance was given the following September. The terminally ill composer, recently discharged from hospital, attended, and was visibly moved by his own music. The audience gave him a spontaneous and generous ovation, and he waved feebly from his seat. This was the last concert he ever attended, and weeks later he was dead.

Magnificat-Alleluia alternates the text of the Magnificat (contralto solo) with blocks of ‘Alleluia’, sung by the whole chorus. The intricate polyphony of São Sebastião or of the huge choral tour de force Bachianas brasileiras No 9, is eschewed. The choral writing of the ‘Alleluias’ is Gabrieli-like in its resounding antiphonies from voice to voice, and in its melismatic cadences; melismatic or chant-like too is the setting of the Magnificat text. Singer and chorus eventually unite in a surging, climactic ‘Amen’.

A few weeks after the first performance in Rio de Janeiro of Magnificat-Alleluia, the College Chorus of New York University under Maurice Paress gave the premiere of Villa-Lobos’s very last a cappella choral work, Bendita Sabedoria (‘Blessed Wisdom’), which was dedicated to the University and written at the suggestion of Carleton Sprague Smith. Villa-Lobos, traveller in sound across the Brazilian landscape and great teller of myths and tales, finally confronts God in six chorales which set short Latin texts of Biblical wisdom. The music is spare, ritualistic, and static, and the simplicity of the Missa São Sebastião is recalled in gentle triadic harmonies; the arching, carefully controlled vocal lines highlight and reveal rather than obscure or decorate the eternal truths of the imposing Latin dictums. Wisdom, peace, and an acceptance of the life hereafter were eventually achieved by Villa-Lobos at an altar far removed from the festivities of his Brazilian Indians, or the edifices of his Choros compositions. Like his final String Quartet (No 17) of 1957, the textual economy of Bendita Sabedoria is astonishing, and the piece closes Villa-Lobos’s vast choral output with music of touching simplicity and grace.

Simon Wright © 1993
Simon Wright is the author of Villa-Lobos, published by Oxford University Press (1992)

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