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Camargo Guarnieri: Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 2, and 3

Program Notes by  James Melo

Mozart Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993) is universally recognized as the most important Brazilian composer after Villa-Lobos. His impact on the musical life of Brazil as a composer, teacher, and conductor can hardly be overestimated. Guarnieri influenced a new generation of nationalist composers for whom the use of folk material was not so much a compositional premise, as it had been earlier in the century, but rather one additional source of material that could be freely combined with elements derived from other musical traditions. This new approach lent their work an aura of universality colored by regionalism, which remains highly appealing to a foreign audience. No one combined and balanced these materials with greater sensitivity, inspiration, and compositional virtuosity than Guarnieri, and yet the most astonishing aspect of his aesthetic approach to nationalism is that he shied away from quoting any traditional melody (as Villa-Lobos and many of Guarnieri’s contemporaries did), preferring instead to evoke the particular rhythms, melodies, and sonorities that characterize Brazilian music through completely invented material. Guarnieri’s nationalism is best understood within the broader context of the aesthetic pluralism that characterized the second half of the twentieth century, when nationalism was no longer an expedient for labeling some musical cultures as peripheral or exotic. Guarnieri’s nationalism was of the same kind that made possible the highly inventive music of composers as diverse as Stravinsky, Bartók, Ginastera, and Copland.

Guarnieri’s musical personality makes an immediate impression, as Copland himself had an opportunity to experience. In 1941, following an extended trip through South America, Copland reflected on his experiences and his exposure to the musical trends then in vogue in the continent. He was particularly struck with the diversity of musical traditions in Brazil, and his discovery of a thriving art music culture was undoubtedly surprising to him. Among the composers he met was Guarnieri, whom he assessed in highly complimentary terms:

Guarnieri is the most exciting talent among Latin American composers. He possesses all the necessary credentials, as well as an impeccable compositional technique, a fertile imagination, and an uncommon personality... His works are more organically integrated than those of Villa-Lobos, without being any less reflective of Brazilian traditions. But what I like best about his music is its healthy emotional expression. He is the most authentic musician of the continent.

The same authenticity that was pointed out by Copland has often been invoked by several scholars and critics who praise Guarnieri as one of the finest and most sophisticated interpreters of the Brazilian soul.

When he was at the height of his career, Guarnieri addressed an impassioned letter to the musical community of Brazil, in which he urged the younger generation of composers to seek inspiration in the rich folk tradition of the country. His Open Letter to Brazilian Musicians and Critics, published in the periodical O Estado de São Paulo on November 7, 1950, was motivated by his perception of an imminent threat to the integrity of Brazil’s musical culture, which he linked to composers’ neglect of traditional roots. The militant tone of the document had a strong impact on its audience and still affects the modern reader with the same forcefulness:

In this document, I want to alert you of the great threats to the musical culture of Brazil, due to our young composers’ infatuation with progressive theories of music that are inimical to the true interests of Brazilian music... These composers preferred to ignore the rich musical traditions of Brazil and produce music according to false and sterile aesthetic principles… that favor improvisation and charlatanism, pseudo-science instead of original research, and scorn talent, culture, and the exploration of the rich experiences of the past, which are the bases of the true work of art.

Guarnieri was undoubtedly aware of the personal nature of his letter, which he ended by highlighting its patriotic intent and by pleading with others to join in his battle against the intrusion of alienating artistic influences, and in defense of nationalism.

Guarnieri’s six concertos for piano and orchestra hold an important place in his stylistic evolution. They were composed over a period of 40 years, and Guarnieri’s very first approach to orchestral composition was his first piano concerto. Unlike Villa-Lobos, whose main instrument was the cello, Guarnieri developed a lifelong familiarity with the piano, and his intimate knowledge of its technical and expressive resources is evident in the stunning variety of sound- effects displayed throughout the concertos. In general the three-movement layout of the concertos follows a similar pattern: the first movement is a innovative approach to classical forms, the second movement displays the astonishingly beautiful and lyrical themes for which Guarnieri was renowned, and the third movement makes reference to some of the traditional dance genres of Brazil (for example, the embolada in the first concerto, the frevo in the second concerto, and the marcha-rancho combined with ciranda in the third concerto). A remarkable feature of Guarnieri’s musical language, which comes across in the dazzling sonorities of the piano concertos, is his penchant for creating rhythmic polyphony. Often, through a process of individualization and juxtaposition, the different instrumental parts create a multi-layered rhythmic texture that is a source of continual interest and dynamic thrust in the concertos.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 (1931), which receives here its world première recording, is the most distinctly Brazilian of the set. Its thematic and rhythmic materials evoke recognizable genres of Brazil’s traditional music, mostly from the northeastern region of the country, while its sonorities refer to important urban traditions. The use of traditional instruments commonly used in the Carnival, the cuíca (a friction drum), the chocalho (a rattle) and the reco-reco (a scraper), adds to the luxuriant sonorities that pervade the concerto. Its score is lost, and had to be reconstructed for this recording from the instrumental parts. Textual problems were compounded by the existence of two piano reductions with two different endings, one of which can be heard in a homemade recording of this concerto with Guarnieri himself conducting; this ending has been chosen for this recording. In addition, two sections of the piano solo were rewritten by Guarnieri in the 1960s, lending a more brilliant and virtuosic character to the piano part. These revisions, which exist only in manuscript, have been incorporated here as the composer undoubtedly wanted them to be.

The vibrant and exciting Piano Concerto No. 2 (1946) has a more exposed and brilliant piano part owing to the continuous dialogue between soloist and orchestra. The relative sparseness of the orchestral part, however, is deliberate. It allows Guarnieri to establish a careful equilibrium of sonorities between the soloist and the orchestra, which are brought together in a continuous struggle for supremacy. The concerto is pervaded by a relentless dynamism, culminating in the rhythmic apotheosis of the finale. The work won the prestigious Alexandre Levy Award granted by the City of São Paulo.

The balance between soloist and orchestra is brought to a new height in the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1964), which can justly be considered a sinfonia concertante for piano and orchestra. The orchestral part, the most developed and technically accomplished among the three concertos, is enriched by an inventive use of instrumental colors coupled with a constantly inflected dynamic palette. The extended oboe solo in the second movement recalls the languor and melancholy of the Brazilian modinha, a type of salon song that was much in vogue during the nineteenth century. The third movement owes much of its exhilarating character to the vitality of its dance rhythms. Each of its three main themes incorporates rhythmic patterns that can be traced to rural and urban dance genres. As the movement unfolds these patterns are fragmented and recombined in ingenuous ways, demonstrating once again Guarnieri’s inventive rhythmic polyphony.

Shortly before his death in 1993, Guarnieri was awarded the Gabriela Mistral Prize by the Organization of American States (OAE) as the greatest contemporary composer of the Americas. Anyone who listens to Guarnieri’s wonderfully imaginative and superbly crafted music will have no trouble understanding the appropriateness of the award.


James Melo, musicologist, is the author of numerous articles about Brazilian composers and their music. He has written program notes for over 50 CDs, including Naxos’s recordings of complete piano music of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

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