In March of 2013 I wrote about the first two releases in Naxos’ project to recording the complete symphonies of Brazil’s best-known composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos. There are twelve of them; but the manuscript for the fifth (“The Peace”) has been lost. The first release, in September of 2012, presented the sixth (1944) and seventh (1945) symphonies; and this was followed in March of 2013 by a recording of the third (“War”) and fourth (“Victory”) symphonies, both composed after the end of the First World War in 1919. All performances are by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by the Brazilian Isaac Karabtchevsky.
The new recording, released a little over a month ago, consists of only a single symphony, the tenth. This was composed in 1952 for the 1954 celebration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of São Paulo. Villa-Lobos gave it two titles, “Sinfonia Ameríndia” and “Sumé Pater Patrium” (Sumé, father of fathers). Sumé is a pre-Colombian figure; but the Latin of the title refers to efforts by Catholic missionaries to convince the “natives” that Sumé was actually Saint Thomas the Apostle. Because the symphony is scored for tenor, baritone, bass, and mixed chorus, Villa-Lobos also referred to it as an oratorio. Since this is clearly a “nationalist” composition, it is worth recalling that the nine Bachianas Brasileiras pieces were composed by Villa-Lobos between 1930 and 1945.
It would be fair to call the tenth an “eclectic” symphony, drawing its inspiration from multiple sources of both music and text. The libretto begins with indigenous texts but concludes with verses from a Marian poem by José de Anchieta, the Jesuit priest who lived from 1534 to 1597 and is recognized as one of São Paulo’s founding fathers. Anchieta was canonized in 2014; so the release of this recording (which was made in February of 2013) may have been timed to commemorate that occasion.
On the musical side those familiar with the Bachianas Brasileiras compositions, particularly those for orchestra, are likely to find their memories triggered by this tenth symphony. However, there are also signs that some of the indigenous sources that inspired the “Ameríndia” nature of this symphony are not that different from those that influenced other Latin American composers, such as Carlos Chávez and Silvestre Revueltas. What is particularly distinguishing and appealing is the introduction of the vocal element, both through the São Paulo Symphony Choir (under chorus-master Naomi Munakata) and the vocal solos of baritone Leonardo Neiva and bass Saulo Javan. (The tenor solo part is sung by the entire tenor section of the Choir.) While Villa-Lobos composed nine operas between 1909 and 1955, the tenth symphony appears to be his primary effort to bring choral music into a symphonic settings; and the results make for engaging listening in ways not encountered in his other orchestral work.