Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos was the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music. He created unique compositional styles in which contemporary European techniques and reinterpreted elements of national music are combined.
Born in 1887, Villa-Lobos immersed himself, at first as a guitarist, in the life of Rio’s street musicians by 1899. The music of the chorões especially fascinated him, and the impressions of this vigorous experience were of such importance that he later gave the generic designation of choros to his portrayal, in the 1920s, of a variety of Brazilian musical styles. In his later teenage years he earned a living mainly by playing the cello in the Teatro Recreio, in hotels, and in the Odeon cinema, where he met some of the most celebrated personalities of popular music of the time, including Ernesto Nazareth, Eduardo das Neves and Anacleto de Medeiros.
Villa-Lobos assembled, arranged and adapted 137 folksong melodies in his didactic Guia prático of 1932.
Compositionally, the period 1912–17 was one of intense activity and marked the maturation of Villa-Lobos’s creative personality. By 1917 he had produced some 100 works, including his first guitar pieces (e.g. the Suite popular brasileira), four string quartets and other chamber music, two symphonies, and the ballets Amazonas and Uirapuru. The first official concert fully dedicated to his work took place in 1915 and established him at once as an enfant terrible of new Brazilian art music. The works performed at the concert (such as the First Piano Trio, op.25, and the Sonata fantasia no.2, op.29) challenged the then current state of composition in Brazil. Between 1917 and 1919 additional major concerts of his music were organized, presenting some of his main orchestral works of the period. These concerts helped to establish Villa-Lobos in a very short time as the controversial, anti-establishment figure par excellence.
Villa-Lobos assimilated spontaneously a number of important influences. His friendship with Milhaud (who lived in Rio from 1917 to 1918) and Artur Rubinstein (whom he met in 1918) probably also resulted in his acquaintance with the latest French music and with Stravinsky. During the next few years Rubinstein promoted Villa-Lobos and his music throughout the world.
Although the last decade of Villa-Lobos’s life was marked by a gradual deterioration in health, he remained for the most part remarkably active: in 1949 he made a series of tours in Europe, the USA and Japan. However, by the time he returned to Rio de Janeiro in July 1959 his health had worsened considerably, and he died a few months later.
New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition
Oxford Music Online