Heitor Villa-Lobos: String Quartet No.3

‘The Popcorn Quartet’


Composed whilst Heitor Villa-Lobos visited Rio de Janeiro in 1916, the Third String Quartet was not premiered some years later in 1919. It wasn’t until many years later in 1933 that this quartet premiered in North America, with just one year later receiving its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall in London. The third of seventeen (and a bit!) string quartets composed by Villa-Lobos, the Third received mixed reviews. Subtitled ‘Quarteto de pipoca’ (The Popcorn Quartet) due to the insistent pizzicato sequences in the second movement, this memorable subtitle has stood the test of time. 


The Music

Set into the traditional four-movement framework, Villa-Lobos explores a range of different timbres and textures to create a thrilling string quartet.


Movement I – Allegro non troppo

The opening unison figure is the first glimpse of the main overarching theme of this quartet. The melancholy character paired with Villa-Lobos’ rich textures creates an intriguing atmosphere for the opening movement. Villa-Lobos relies on pentatonic harmonic movement to support the main melody. The cello ostinato during the second half of this movement gives way for a slightly more lively representation of the theme. Overall, this opening movement is mysterious and has been likened to the chamber works of Sergei Prokofiev and Maurice Ravel. 


Movement II – Molto vivo

The scherzo second movement, for which the quartet is nicknamed, starts with the whole ensemble playing pizzicato. Similarly to the first movement, the music relies on driving ostinatos to keep the music moving forward. The bouncy main theme is vivacious and full of energy. Moving on from using the pentatonic scale in the first movement, Villa-Lobos experiments with the whole tone scale in the second. The bowed solo violin soars above the pizzicato ensemble as they work together to create a memorable scherzo movement. 


Movement III – Molto Adagio

The opening violin solo is a variation of the first movement theme. The other strings stagger their entries as the music is full of space to let the sound of the melody ring around the ensemble. More pizzicato phrasing is used in this movement, as well as delicate unison work between the whole ensemble. So far, this movement is perhaps the most expressive, with Villa-Lobos’ melodic writing and handling of textures shining through. Each instrument in the ensemble plays a solo line at least once throughout the duration of this movement, which shows the importance of the opening melody. As the dynamics of the piece begin to rise, small swells of music flourish, until the movement concludes quietly. 


Movement IV – Allegro con fuoco

The fiery finale takes melodies from the previous three movements to create a chain of interlocking sections. This creates a cyclic form for the quartet. Although there is development throughout this movement, critics have commented that he could have gone further with this. The drive and energy in this movement is unchallenged by the other movements, perhaps except the second. The mix of more emotional unison writing to represent the third movement, with the fast bowing to show the development of previous themes creates a multi-dimensional finale. As the intensity rises due to the dynamics and texture changes, the quartet finishes suddenly with a bold cello bow. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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