Villa-Lobos: The Clown Turned Devout | R. J. Stove | CWR
One of 20th-century music’s most industrious enfants-terribles understood, in his sacred works, Dr. Johnson’s advice: “time to be in earnest.”
On the morning of August 25, 1954, New York Times readers found much of Page One devoted to the news that Brazil’s president Getúlio Vargas – who had dominated his nation’s politics for a quarter of a century even when in short-term eclipse – had killed himself. The man so cryptic that historian Richard Bourne called him “the Sphinx of the Pampas” had sprung one last surprise on his foes.
Nobody accused Vargas of undue charm-offensives. In fact, through his diminutive physique (a mere five feet two inches tall), through his bespectacled face, and through his temperament, he made Gerald Ford look like Justin Bieber. Having achieved absolute office in a 1930 coup, Vargas first used his unbridled strength to smash Brazil’s hitherto influential Communist Party; then, when national fascist elements thought they had a faithful patron in him, he shunted them to the sidelines. Having bestowed upon the Third Reich’s representatives enough honeyed words to suggest that he would join the Axis, he proceeded to hurl the considerable weight of Brazil’s army on the side of the Allies. Brazilian troops saw particularly severe fighting against Mussolini’s Salò Republic. Forced to resign six months after Nazi rule collapsed, Vargas vegetated within the federal senate before returning to the presidential palace in a 1951 election that even his enemies admitted to be fair. But that same army which he had sent to oppose the Führer and the Duce increasingly gave up on him, as inflation approached Weimar Republic levels. Rather than aggravating what had already become a low-level civil war in the streets of Rio (the capital would not move to Brasilia for another six years), Vargas entered one of the palace bedrooms and there committed suicide. The pyjamas which he wore while doing the deed, and the revolver with which he did it, have been on museum display ever since.
Vargas would not require more than a footnote to cultural history if he had not done the arts a turn so good as to compel our gratitude long after his economic and administrative policies – the policies in which he took the greatest pride – had ceased to interest anyone save specialists. That good turn consisted of supporting Heitor Villa-Lobos, by every possible and many an impossible measure the most musically talented man that South America has ever produced.
In 1930 Villa-Lobos, having turned 43, could not forever continue brandishing the flag of enfant-terribilisme. He had eagerly waved that flag for as long as he could, and perhaps longer than was prudent. For example, he rewrote his own résumé with a frantic imaginativeness that might have made Lawrence of Arabia blanch. Like Lawrence, he showed such flair at having blended spin-doctoring with equivocations, half-truths, and periodic outright lies that the resultant heady postmodernist brew frustrated genuine scholarship for decades ahead.