Bachianas #5 will be performed in "Moonlight Serenade" and is recorded by Louise Howlett on her latest CD

Bachianas #5 will be performed in "Moonlight Serenade" and is recorded by Louise Howlett on her latest CD

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Louise Howlett and I will be performing the Bachianas Brasileiras #5 by Villa-Lobos in our new “Moonlight Serenade” programme. We have recently recorded this for release on our upcoming CD and spent a very intense few hours in the studio experimenting with different performing styles and “versions”. I am also preparing a performance of this work with Filipa von Eck for a concert in Mozambique which will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Villa-Lobos’s death. The work is so popular and well-known that I thought performing it would be relatively straight-forward. I knew it so well. Or at least, I thought I did.

Brazilian Heitor-Villa Lobos (1887-1959) is one of the most significant Latin Composers to date. He wrote works in many different styles: orchestral, instrumental, small chamber ensembles, songs and more. His music is influenced by Brazilian folk music, but he is  considered a composer of classical music. A set of 9 Bachianas Brasileiras aim to combine his love for the music of his country with homage to the work of J.S. Bach. Villa-Lobos is said to have found analogies between Bach’s works and the traditional music of Brazil.

Originally written for soprano and eight-part cello ensemble, the “Bachiana #5” is very often performed incomplete. The first section, the Aria (Cantilena) composed in 1938, is often performed on its own. Its hauntingly beautiful melody has made it extremely popular and the second part, Dança (Martelo) added in 1945 is often omitted. The Aria opens with pizzicato cellos, their plucking sounds reminiscent of a large, resonant guitar. The voice enters with a melody so exquisite and haunting that it stays with you forever. And no matter where you hear it, the reaction to its beauty is instant.

Its shape is simple: A long mellifluous melody flanks a more dramatic middle section, creating an A-B-A structure similar to a Braoque “Da Capo aria” that Bach might have written. If one accepts that melody is the essence of music, and that the essence of melody is song, then one can easily see the connection between the worlds of J.S. Bach and Heitor Villa-Lobos. Melody was always apparent in the works of Bach, and not a strict or rigid type of melody, but a fluid, rhapsodic and improvisatory kind – much like many types of folksong. And in the works of both composers, the feeling of the dance is never far away. The text to the middle section was written by Ruth Valadares Correa, and is a beautiful evocation of the beauty of the moon – therefore it was an obvious choice for our “Moonlight Serenade”. But the largest part of this work has no text. The singer just sings an exquisite melody without words, a vocalise to move the listener to their core.

The difficulties with performing this work appear when you try to do it without the orchestra of cellos. Most piano versions of music originally written for orchestra, are designed to make the music “performable” without an actual orchestra. Many tricks are used by editors to imitate the sounds one would expect to hear. Tremolos, runs up and down the piano to create washes of sound, or thundering chords held in the pedal, all in an attempt to delude the listener into forgetting that the eighty-piece orchestra has been replaced by ten fingers. The problem is that a piano creates vastly different sounds to seven plucking cellos.

Villa-Lobos himself created a piano version in 1948,  mainly to satisfy his publishers, who needed something they could sell easily. The work was an instant popular success and singers wanted to learn and perform it, but weren’t always in a position to provide the cello orchestra. I have searched high and low for a recording of this version, but the lack of recordings of this version bears out my impression that this was not a version for serious performance, but rather a transcription to assist a singer in learning it. Sensible and sturdy chords give no hint of the flutter of butterfly wings created by the cellos.

Villa-Lobos had also worked extensively with guitarist Andrés Segovia (1893-1987) who is considered to be the father of the modern classical guitar movement by most modern scholars. As Segovia traveled the world, he and the guitar became more and more popular. Composers such as Heitor Villa-Lobos began to compose original pieces specifically for the guitar. With their dark and melancholy mixture of dissonance and cello-like phrasing, Villa-Lobos’ compositions in particular, seem to fit the guitar perfectly. Segovia transcribed many of other composers’ works for the guitar, including a transcription of the “Bachianas #5” itself a re-working of Villa-Lobos’ 1947 guitar version.

Guitar arrangement by Villa-Lobos which forms the basis for transcriptions by Segovia and myself

Guitar arrangement by Villa-Lobos which forms the basis for transcriptions by Segovia and myself

This was the version I originally selected for my own performances on the piano. The thinned-out texture of the guitar version translated to the piano a lot better than I had expected. Louise and I performed this version, but the evolution was not yet complete. I would have to perform this work with other sopranos in other contexts, so I needed to adapt this into a performance version with which I felt comfortable. This guitar-version by Segovia was also “incomplete” in certain respects, not least because some of the solo cello lines were left out, or in some cases given to the soprano to sing.  This was an arrangement of an arrangement.

When Louise and I went into the studio, we recorded this adaptation at the original pitch, and it sounded very good. But we wanted to experiment further, especially since we had the advantage of a microphone and a superb sound-technician Duncan MacKay. We transposed it down into a lower key and tried again. The result was something original, which blended in with the other material on the CD.  Louise didn’t have to project so much to get her voice up into the high notes of the soprano range, and this created an ease of vocal production that allowed colouration that would not normally be possible. She could sing a lot softer, making the performance a lot more intimate than we had experienced before in our concerts and making it less “operatic” than most versions. This is in fact an appropriate style, since the work is written in the style of a “modinha” a sentimental love song “of uncertain origins” that evolved in Brazil and Portugal. It was a serenade of sung in the streets to guitar accompaniment, and the origins of the work are thus definitely not operatic.

Still, we can’t perform it in this intimate way in an acoustic concert. So as we come up to a series of very different performance settings, the final version has yet to emerge. At Villa Pascal’s in Durbanville, there will be a microphone for Louise, but which key will we use? The lower one that we discovered in the studio, which reveals the intimate, romantic side of her voice? Or the higher pitch at which it was written, exploiting the more operatic side of her voice? We are not yet sure.

When it comes to a purist approach to this work, classical music lovers are in difficult territory. It is true that the only “correct” version of this work is with the original cello orchestra. But the very fact that Villa-Lobos made, encouraged and sanctioned arrangements of his own works, makes it difficult to be dogmatic on this issue. A glance around at available recordings is enlightening: Click here to listen to a variety of different arrangements of “Bachianas #5” . The one omission from this list is the arrangement by Louise Howlett and Albert Combrink, but once our CD is released, we can rectify that…

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There are many different arrangements of the Bachianas Braisleiras in print and in recorded media. I here offer a few versions in different styles, genres and voice-types.

Bidu Sayão -The first soprano to record Villa-Lobos’s large-scale “Symphony Cantata” “Amazon”. Performed in the presence of the composer, her performances are regarded as authentic as one can claim. We also have her to thank for the very existence of the vocal version of the work. Villa-Lobos originally conceived the melodic line for a violin, and it was Mz. Sayão who suggested the Vocalise concept. She did not however sing the World Premiere. The lyricist of the Aria (Cantilena) Ruth Valadares Corrêa gave the first performance in 1938.

Barbara Hendricks – A modern recording of a beautiful soprano rendition with the original orchestration.

Galina Vishnevskaya (Original Orchestration with Mstislav Rostropovich playing the solo cello) – It might seem alarming that the dedicatee Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” and performer of Russian works such as Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District” would tackle this work, and yet it is deeply moving in its own right. The famous “Slavic Wobble” is absent, and the white vibrato-less sound for which her Tosca and Aida were criticised, seems to suit the ethereal cantilena. Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote “Listening to the singing” in 1961 after hearing this performance. Villa-Lobos himself played the cello, and it says something of the power of this piece that a great solo cellist such as Rostropovich would join a “cello-choir”.

Camile van Hulsen Organ transcription – A version which exploits the sustaining qualities of the organ.

SEBA – I think this version performed by a Crossover Jazz Ensemble would be more interesting if the performance was not so compromised.

Trio Arrangement for Soprano, Piano and Cello which attempts to combine the prominent elements of the Piano Arrangement with the textured movement of the cello part, reduced to one lone cello. There are successful elements at work here, but it is almost impossible to remain consistent throughout the work as the staccato passages are passed between the instruments.

Eva Marton and the New York Harp Ensemble – Mz Marton’s unsuitability to the vocal line apart, I felt the harps either too resonantly recorded or just not dry enough to capture the guitar-like texture. A useful experiment and a surprising failure.

Elena Garancia (Reorchestrated) – A Mezzo-soprano singing the soprano line magnificently. Yet while she sings in the traditional “operatic” voice, the accompaniment has been fleshed out. Perhaps as there is a certain discomfort in the original version, given that we are not used to listening to an orchestra made up of only baritonal cellos? A lovely version, but it definitely can not be called “authentic”. Is that a problem? Let the listener decide.

Victoria de los Angeles – The doyenne of Spanish singers is for many the ideal interpreter of this work. I personally find the cellist’s overindulgent rubatos too much to handle.

Machaca Ensemble (re-orchestrated with percussion) – An interesting orchestration including Xylopohone. An experiment that perhaps is not yet complete. The use of percussion can be further explored.

Martin Ostertag and Boris Björn Bagger both teach at the University of Music Karlsruhe and made an interesting version for Guitar and Cello only with the Cello replacing the voice. A lovely arrangement perhaps, but a rather dry-eyed performance. Sheetmusic available at

An audio clip is available on Amazon by Miles Davis protégé Wayne Shorter – as authentic and heartfelt a response to this work as one can hope to hear. Reinvented, original and beautiful.

Reinvented but much more baffling is a version by Jorge Aragao, a Samba artist who started performing in the 1970s. The carnival feel seems very far removed from the heartfelt cantilena of the “moon rising over the infinite beauty of transparent clouds”

John Williams & Nana Mouskouri – This rather baffling rendition has divided opinion for almost 40 years. Nana Mouskouri had an instantly recognisable voice ideally suited for folk music, aunique personal style which she applied to everything that she sang. She transposes the high notes down, making it a very strange listening experience. Yet it was hugely popular in its time and broadcast on BBC4.

Joan Baez – A folk singer with a voice similar to Nana Mouskouri, but a vastly more successful performance in its original orchestration. Even when it was first recorded, critics had little idea what to make of this version. It was not classical, it was not folk. And it deffinitely was not bad. No it is not “classical”. Some might say, “Thank God”.

Frida Boccara turns in a surprisingly successful version where the voice does not take centre-stage but rather melds with the cellos, at some points indistinct enough that it almost becomes one of the instruments of the orchestra.

Lance Bryant’s version is for SAXOPHONE and String Quartet – Perhaps with a world-class saxophonist this version has potential.

Bachianas goes Café del Mar: The Operatica rethink has left me undecided. New art or travesty?

And just when you think you have heard it all – I am afraid to comment on this choral version. Perhaps a successful choral version such as the “translation” of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” into a choral “Agnus Dei” still waits to happen for this work.

I include a version for Jazz Vibraphone and Harpsichord mainly for the dubious sake of completianism.

I leave the worst for last. Undoubtedly an amateur, Hayley Westenra here reveals all the virtues  and mysteries of her non-art. Breathing in the middle of phrases is the least of her flaws. An attempt at pretty singing simply falls flat. It is as meaningless a performance as one could have the misfortune to encounter. ANd Mz Westenra commits the ultimate Bachianas Crime: to bore the listener.

Useful links

A  list of recordings of works by Villa-Lobos currently in the catalogue

A list of scores and some archive recordings

Text and translation

Some published arrangements

The Aria (Cantilena) has also been arranged for:

Voice and Guitar as performed by Andrés Segovia

Voice and piano by Burle Marx

Concert Band by W. Herbert

Organ solo by Camil Van Hulse

Flute and Piano by James Galway

Viola and piano by William Primrose

Clarinet Choir by John Krance

Alto sax solo and sax quartet accompaniment by Frank Bongiorno

Solo Soprano Sax (C Instrument), 2 Alto Sax, Tenor Sax, Bass Sax all published by AMP (Hal Leonard)


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Bachianas Brasileiras #5 Aria (Cantilena) Text by Ruth Valadares Corrêa (who also sang its World Premiere in 1938)

Tarde uma nuvem rósea lenta e transparente.
Sobre o espaço, sonhadora e bela!
Surge no infinito a lua docemente,
Enfeitando a tarde, qual meiga donzela
Que se apresta e a linda sonhadoramente,
Em anseios d’alma para ficar bela
Grita ao céu e a terra toda a Natureza!
Cala a passarada aos seus tristes queixumes
E reflete o mar toda a Sua riqueza…
Suave a luz da lua desperta agora
A cruel saudade que ri e chora!
Tarde uma nuvem rósea lenta e transparente
Sobre o espaço, sonhadora e bela!

English translation:

Evening, a rosy, translucent cloud, slowly crosses the drowsy, beautiful firmament!

The moon gently rises into infinity, adorning the evening, like a sweet maiden dreamily getting ready, making herself beautiful, desiring her soul to be beautiful.

She calls to the heavens, the earth, to all of Nature.

She silences the birds’ melancholy laments, and the sea reflects all her treasures…

Softly the moon awakens, a cruel yearning which laughs and weeps!

Evening, a rosy, translucent cloud, slowly crosses the drowsy, beautiful firmament!

“Yes, I’m Brazilian—I’m very Brazilian. In my music, I let the rivers and seas of this great Brazil sing. I don’t put a gag on the tropical exuberance of her forests and skies, which I intuitively transpose to everything I write.”

Heitor Villa-Lobos (

Bachianas #5 is performed by Albert Combrink and Louise Howlett on their upcoming CD.