The most significant figure in Brazilian art music of the 20th century, Villa-lobos successfully married the European tradition with the living folk music of Brazil. Internationally admired, his career has been the source of inspiration for generations of Brazilian composers. Among his most famous works are the set of Chôros and the nine Bachianas brasileiras, of which no. 5 is justifiably the most loved.
Born in Rio de Janeiro on 5 March 1887 to a middle-class family, Villa-lobos was taught the cello by his father. Captivated by the city's popular idioms, however, the young composer taught himself the guitar and, following the premature death of his father in 1899, became immersed in the life of Rio's street musicians.
After completing his schooling, Villa-lobos went to live with his aunt Zizinha, earning his living by playing cello in local hotels and at the cinema. Travels around Brazil introduced him to his national folk traditions and on his return to Rio, he met pianist Lucília Guimarães, marrying her in 1913. During this period the young composer worked fervently, and by 1917 he had composed around 100 works, including symphonies, string quartets and the first of his pieces for guitar (the Suite popular brasileira).
Villa-lobos' reputation as the enfant terrible of Brazilian music was further enhanced by his appearance at the Week of Modern Art in São Paulo in February 1922, as the representative of Brazilian modern music. Anxious to establish an international reputation he left for Europe in 1923, settling in Paris and meeting Ravel, d' Indy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, de Falla and Varèse.
Upon returning to Brazil in 1930, Villa-lobos set about improving the provision for musical education in the nation's schools and among the community at large. In the late 30s and 40s Villa-lobos' musical style became less experimental, and in 1936 he left his wife to begin an affair with Arminda Neves d'Almeida, who devoted herself to his music until her death in 1985.
Meanwhile, Villa-lobos' international career was strengthened by frequent trips to the USA where his music was broadcast across the CBS network. His last decade, however, was marked by a gradual deterioration in health. He continued to tour all over the world and for the last seven years of his life, moved back to Paris. 1957 was declared 'Villa-lobos year' in Brazil and in July 1959 he returned to Rio de Janeiro in poor health, dying a few months later. His funeral was attended by numerous dignitaries, including the Brazilian president.
As important in Brazil for his educational work as his music, Villa-lobos remains a national icon. The extent of his association with the far-right regime of 1937-45 (Estado Novo) has been a source of contention, but his status as an official composer did not essentially alter his creativity or his approach to music. A self-taught composer, his music speaks to all nationalities with its freshness and invention.