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Heitor Villa-Lôbos

The Experience of Orpheonic Singing in Brazil

Abstract: This study aims to analyse the movement of orpheonic singing in Brazil in the thirties and forties, under the guidance of Heitor Villa-Lôbos. Although it was a successful movement in the beginning, the dissemination of musical culture through singing in Brazil stagnated and is virtually forgotten. This study shows that orpheonic singing followed the same principles which developed a successful teaching method in other countries like Hungary and aims to identify the particular causes of failure in Brazil. Thus the following aspects are discussed: political reasons/background, lack of adequate pedagogic capability, lack of a sufficiently structured teaching methodology.
Key Words: Musical education; collective singing; orpheonic singing; Heitor Villa-Lôbos and choral singing.


The most accepted educational theory in music is possibly the one which considers that "pupils are inheritors of a set of cultural values and practices, needing to master relevant skills and information in order to take part in musical affairs. Schools and colleges can be seen to be important agents in this process of transmission and the task of the music educator is primarily to initiate students into recognizable musical traditions" (Swanwick, 1988, p. 10).

The example of this theory is in the work of Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), an important Hungarian composer and musical educator. This composer dedicated a great part of his immense creative capacity to the formation of a musical education system which is broad-ranging and accessible to everyone. Kodály was primarily concerned about the musically literate amateur, and he wished to create an educational system in which people would learn music as equally as any other aspect to be developed in the human being, as part of their comprehensive learning. The method originated from this effort has been widely utilised in his home country and it emphasizes the use of the voice and of national folklore (in his case, Hungarian) elements.

Likewise, Villa-Lôbos (1887-1959) was a traditionalist and was concerned about the musical-artistic elevation of the Brazilian people. He believed that if everybody studied music at school that would contribute in turning it into an everyday practice, thus creating a public sensitised to artistic manifestations. This composer actively participated in the development process of orpheonic singing and his main objective was to help children's artistic development and to produce musically literate adults.

As opposed to what is often believed, neither of the two composers defined his own methodology. They limited themselves to expressing their ideas about the status of musical education in their respective countries and of its future possibilities. They shared objectives and, in some cases, solution proposals. In different places and situations, they established an education philosophy based on the following principles:

1. Music is every persons right.

Every people has the right to have, feel and appreciate their art, which originates from popular expression … (Villa-Lôbos, 1946, p.498)

In 1690 … the idea that everybody could learn to read and write their own language was as bold as the idea today that everybody should learn to read music. (Kodály, 1954, p.201)

2. Music education is necessary for the complete development of the human being.

I consider music, in principle, as a vital supply for human soul. Therefore it is an indispensable element and factor for young peoples education. (Villa-Lôbos, 1946, p.498)

No other subject can serve the child's welfare - physical and spiritual - as well as music. (Kodály, 1929, p. 121)

3. The sung voice is the best teaching instrument since it is accessible to everyone.

The teaching and practice of opheonic singing in schools imposes itself as a logical solution. (Villa-Lôbos, 1946, p. 504)

It is a long-accepted truth that singing provides the best start to music education. (Kodály, 1954, p.201)

4. High quality folk music should be utilised in musical teaching.

Today folklore is considered a fundamental subject for children's education and for a peoples culture. (Villa-Lôbos, 1946, p.530)

… folksongs are never to be omitted in study for practice - if for no other reason, for maintaining continuity, for keeping alive the sense of relationship between language and music. (Kodály, 1951, p.173)

5. Musical learning is more significant when performed in an experimental context.

Before the student is confused by rules, he should be familiarised with sounds. He should be taught to get to know the sounds, to listen to them, to appreciate their colours and individuality. (Villa-Lôbos, 1946, P.496)

Music must not be approached from its intellectual, rational side, nor should it be conveyed to the child as a system of algebraic symbols, or as the secret writing of a language with which he has no connection. The way should be paved for direct intuition. (Kodály, 1928, p.120)

6. Music teachers should be specially prepared for the hard task of musical education.

Where to find a body of specialised teachers, who are perfectly able to teach children music and orpheonic singing … ? (Villa-Lôbos, 1946, p.507)

It is much more important who the singing master at … is than who the director of the Opera House is, because a poor director will fail. But a bad teacher may kill off the love of music for thirty years from thirty classes of pupils. (Kodály, 1929, p.124)

Although the two composers shared the same basic principles, the two experiences of musical education developed differently and gave totally different results. Kodály's system was successful and spread widely, while Villa-Lôbos's stagnated and was virtually forgotten.

A retake of the values of the traditional theory of musical education in Brazil necessarily implies the identification of the factors that determined the end of choral singing in schools. A critical analysis of the system shows the presence of at least three factors which contributed to its failure: 1. political reasons/background; 2. lack of adequate pedagogic capability; 3. lack of a sufficiently structured teaching methodology.


The ideal of orpheonic singing has its roots in France. In the early nineteenth century, collective singing was an obligatory activity in the public schools of Paris and its development enabled the appearance of large orpheonic singing concentrations which caused general enthusiasm. At that time, the success of that enterprise was so that an orpheonic singing press was created.

Orpheonic singing has characteristics that distinguish it from the choral singing of classical groups. It is a collective practice in which heterogeneous sets of voices are organized and its size is quite variable. In these groups the musical knowledge and vocal training of its participants is not demanded. On the other hand, classical choral singing does not only demand vocal knowledge but also strictly distributes voices and requires a more elevated interpretative technical rigour.

Before Villa-Lôbos, however, the movement of orpheonic singing in Brazil had already been started by João Gomes Junior, at the beginning of the century, with orpheons composed of students from the Preparatory Teaching School of Sao Paulo, later Institute Caetano de Campos. He was followed by Fabiano Lozano, with girl-students from the Preparatory Teaching School in the town of Piracicaba, and by João Batista Julião, who played an important role in the movement with the creation of the Orpheon of the Model Prison of São Paulo.

From 1921 on, the attitude of the government of São Paulo was very favourable to music teaching in public schools. In the thirties, initiative spread throughout the country, and the movement for the implantation of orpheonic singing took a great impulse with the adhesion of Villa-Lôbos.

In 1931, this composer, who had just arrived in Brazil after a few years in Europe, was invited by the federal intervener João Alberto Lins de Barros to organise a civic orpheon; the event assembled more than 11.000 voices, in a totally new form for the country and with great popular participation and impact.

In 1932, Villa-Lôbos took over the direction of the Superintendency of Musical and Artistic Education (in portuguese, SEMA; Superintendência da Educação Musical e Artística) of the Public Schools of Rio de Janeiro, founded by the educator Anísio Teixeira. The SEMA, based on the reform which instituted the obligatory teaching of Orpheonic Singing in the city of Rio de Janeiro (Decree 19890 of April 18th, 1931), created the course of Guidance and Improvement of the Teaching of Music and Orpheonic Singing. The activities were subdivided into Rhythmic Declamation and Preparation for the teaching of Orpheonic Singing, destined for elementary school teachers. Two other courses were created: The Especialisation Course of Music and Orpheonic Singing and the Course of Orpheonic Singing Practice, in order to create specialised teachers.

The Specialisation Course of Music and Orpheonic Singing had the objective of studying music in its technical, social and artistic aspects, and the curriculum was very extensive: orpheonic singing, conducting, practical guidance, harmonic analysis, applied theory, sight-singing and dictation, rhythm, vocal technique and fisiology of voice. Other subjects were also added: history of music, music aesthetics and, for the first time in Brazil, ethnography and folklore. Simultaneously, the teachers orpheon was created, with approximately 250 voices, which stimulated the educative process and provided an important contribution to the cultural panorama through several highly qualified performances.

The success of the SEMA and the consequent activities resulted in the foundation of the National School of Orpheonic Singing, in 1942. It was a model institution, organised by the Ministry of Education and Health, with the purpose of creating a center of high level musical studies and educators. That school not only was responsible for training teachers, but also guiding and inspecting all the initiatives of orpheonic singing throughout the country.

That school, directed by Villa-Lôbos until his death in 1959, was composed of five curriculum sections: Didactics of Orpheonic Singing, Musical Education, Musical Aesthetics and Pedagogic Culture. During all those years not only the composer was concerned about creating and diffusing his own musical education methodology, but also he aimed at the formation of an adequate repertoire for Brazil, as well as promoting conditions for making up a capable and specialised teaching body.

The choice of the repertoire utilised in orpheonic singing was mainly based on national folklore and its basic goal was the preservation of peoples cultural values. In this sense, among the large work of Villa-Lôbos, the Practical Guide (in portuguese, Guia Prático) stands out, a short masterpiece containing 138 versions of children's popular tunes, edited for the first time in 1938.


The thirties and forties were marked by an intensive educational activity. At the same time, Villa-Lôbos promoted great orpheonic manifestations on civic dates, under the pretext of disseminating the method. Nevertheless the connection made with the totalitarian government became apparent due to the strong association made between music, discipline and civism. The musician himself manifests himself as follows:

It was necessary to put all our energy at the service of the country and the collectivity, using music as a means of moral, civic and artistic development and renewal. We felt it was necessary to direct this thinking to children and people. Then we decided to start a campaign for the popular teaching of singing in Brazil, believing that orpheonic singing today is a vitalising energy source and a powerful educational factor. With the help of the Government, that campaign took deep roots, grew, came to fruition and today presents incontestable aspects of solid achievement … But for that teaching to be advantageous and come to complete rather than disturb the natural evolution in which a child's natural upbringing should occur, it must be ministered simultaneously with the learning of national music. Facing thus the problem of children's musical education under this point of view, the teaching and practice of orpheonic singing in schools imposes itself as a logical solution not only to the formation of a national consciousness, but also as a factor of civism and collective social discipline. (Villa-Lôbos, 1946, pp. 502-504).

Under Getulio Vargas governments point of view it was an excellent means of propaganda, in which a legitimation was tried. The totalitarian regimes often have an accurate perception of the ravishing power of music over the masses. Therefore there is a frequent criticism that the pedagogic work of Villa-Lôbos was at the service of a political cause rather than of an educational one.

Arnaldo Contier, professor of Contemporary History in the University of São Paulo, exposes the question in a particularly strict manner:

Villa-Lôbos had been in Nazi Germany when he came from Praga in 1936. At that time he made a very clear connection between civism, propaganda and work. An attitude that was not ingenuous at all; on the contrary it was very conscious. Villa-Lôbos was deliberately supporting Getulios regime and he did that because he wanted to, never only for necessity. (in Torres, 1987, p.74).

Not everyone, however, agree with this point of view. Some think the composers commitment with the Vargas dictatorship was only a circumstance favourable to his musical objectives, and the propaganda and civic aspect did not deserve much attention.

This polemic is complex and there is no prospect of a consensus. Anyway the following quotation from Aldous Huxley is pertinent:

The goals cannot justify the means for the simple and obvious reason that means employed determine the nature of the goals obtained. (in Machado, 1983, p. 186).


Another determining aspect in the development of orpheonic singing was the need to promote an adequate teaching capability in a large scale. Therefore the Ministry of Education and Health determined in 1945, that the schools of the Federal District and of the capitals of the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo could not contract orpheonic singing teachers who had not specialised in the subject, whether in the National Music School or in an equivalent establishment. By doing so, the Federal Government intended to guarantee a minimum standard of quality to the teaching of orpheonic singing.

However this measure soon showed itself inadequate. To supply the increasing demand for teachers, emergency and holiday courses providing dubious qualifications were created, together with establishments "equivalent to the National Music School", who had never reached the intended levels. The problem was immense and has never been properly solved, considering the territorial dimensions of Brazil.


The musical teaching as proposed by Villa-Lôbos implies some methodological decisions which have not been observed. The emphasis on vocal reading and on the learning of musical elements requires a well defined strategy which allows a consistent learning. The definition and standardisation of specific teaching techniques is thus vital for the survival of any educational method or system.

Under this point of view, Kodálys method is very clarifying. The comparison, however, is limited since the Hungarian ethnic, socio-economic and cultural reality was and is totally different from the one in Brazil. Anyway, the adoption of very specific teaching techniques as the adoption of the relative (or movable) sight-singing system and of a careful presentation sequence of the pedagogic material were fundamental to the success of the method.

In the relative sight-singing the tonic of a tonality is always "do" in major and "la" in minor, regardless of the tonality. The advantages of this system in sight-singing teaching are obvious: the same basic song composed only of "so" and "mi" is the same in any tonality. From the moment the child learns only these two notes he or she is able to identify them in many positions of the stave.

Although the movable sight-singing system is proven to be effective in basic musical education, its application in Brazil involves greats complications. As opposed to in other countries, the same solmisation syllables utilised in the movable system are utilised to indicated fixed musical frequencies (pitches). In this case, a possible solution would be the adoption of a new set of syllables differentiated in order to indicate the functions and melodic degrees of the scale.

On the other hand, the presentation sequence of the musical material utilised in Hungary is extremely consistent and is based on experimentation, instead of on logic. Each musical element is treated in a very specific manner and the musical experience precedes symbolisation; the teaching order is always listening, singing, intuiting, writing, reading and creating; initially in concrete contexts, then in abstract contexts.

This aspect of the Hungarian system - of a methodology which considers the cognitive development of the child - undoubtedly had great importance in the success of this musical educational system. In Brazil, although Villa-Lôbos had manifested the importance of a teaching methodology that would take in consideration the learning particularities of the child, the initiatives in defining objectives and in adapting musical materials for the proposed goals have virtually been nonexistent.


Villa-Lôbos was a genius with a superlative intelligence and he emphasised the need for a new type of human being whose aesthetic dimension would be stimulated. This dimension, often neglected in an unbalanced educational process, contributes to the development of creative thinking and to the formation of a value scale in which emotions and feelings are meaningful.

The ability to think logically and to plan his actions enable mans survival in a hostile world; however it is the aspiration for something more than the mere existence that allows him to be called a human being. Music and arts in general are significant manifestations of the need we have for something more than existing biologically.

Despite any controversy, the importance of orpheonic singing in Brazil cannot be denied. Villa-Lôbos believed that schools should offer much more than elements for practical life. Therefore his educational work aimed at teaching to appreciate, understand and criticise in a discriminated manner the products of mind, voice and body which give man dignity and exalts the spirit.

The failure of his enterprise in the area of musical education is mainly due to operational problems rather than conceptual ones. Under this point of View, Adhemar Nóbrega, Brazilian musicologist and Villa-Lôbos friend, makes his defence and exposes the question as follows:

The creator visualises a system in general, attending more to the particularities of its mechanism. It is the task of posterity (or of the auxiliary implanters) to improve the created work, adapting it to the present reality and to their new application requirements. (…) In the case of Orpheonic Singing, this task of adaptation to the present reality, of updating, has many times been substituted purely and simply for the destructive criticism of certain vulnerable aspects of the system (in Senise, 1987, p.9).


Choksy, L. (1981) The Kodály Context: Creating an Environment for Musical Learning. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Kodály, Z. (1929) 'Children's Choirs', in F. Bonis (ed, 1974), The Selected Writings of Zoltán Kodály.London: Boosey and Hawkes.

Kodály, Z. (1951) 'Ancient Traditions - Today's Musical Life', in F. Bonis (ed, 1974), The Selected Writings of Zoltán Kodály. London: Boosey and Hawkes.

Kodály, Z. (1954) 'Preface do the Volume Musical Reading and Writing', in F. Bonis (ed, 1974), The Selected Writings of Zoltán Kodály. London: Boosey and Hawkes.

Machado, M.C. (1983) Heitor Villa-Lôbos. São Paulo: Brasiliense.

Senise, A.J. (1987) 'Villa-Lôbos e a Implantação do Canto Coletivo', Suplemento Cultural de O Estado de São Paulo, 8 de agosto.

Swanwick, K. (1988) Music, Mind and Education. London: Routledge.

Torres, J.B. (1987) 'Villa-Lôbos, Obra e Personalidade sempre Polêmicas', Shopping News, 8 de marco.

Villa-Lôbos, H. (1946) 'Educação Musical', Boletim Latino Americano de Música, abril.

Ricardo Goldemberg
Doctor in Educational Psychology
Assistant Professor of Music at the State University of Campinas, SP <>

Copyright © Ricardo Goldemberg, 1997.