Heitor Villa-lobos’ Etudes for classical guitar have made their way to become some of the most important pedagogical pieces in the classical guitar repertoire.
Here, we’ll dive deeper into Villa-lobos’ Etude No. 5 with Gabriel Bianco and show you his best methods for approaching this piece from a technical and interpretive point of view.
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The Villa-Lobos etudes are monumental works in the guitar repertoire.
The word “study” (treated in this sense to be interchangeable with the word “etude”) has taken different meanings over the centuries.
Guitarists have the studies by Sor and Giuliani in mind - these are works that aren’t necessarily easy, but they are nowhere near as difficult as concert-level pieces, and they’re shorter, based on a specific technical idea.
In the 19th century, studies became a type of concert piece in their own right. They were written to be played musically. This is the category that the 12 Villa-Lobos etudes fall into. Every guitarist, professional or non-professional, should know them and have practiced at least half of them.
Studies 1-6 have one general idea without too much contrast. Studies 7-12 begin to have different parts with various characters. Study no. 5 works on dynamics.
It’s tricky to define the character; the melody and opening ostinato are both very gentle-sounding on their own, but when put together, they sound strange.
This is partly because the intervals generated by the two voices are mostly sevenths, which sound harmonically unstable.
Bianco gives the analogy of a clown; each part of a clown taken individually might make you laugh, but put together, clowns can be quite creepy.
Put together, the elements seem dissonant, even if they’re consonant on their own. The accompaniment is a regular four beats, but the melody constantly changes its duration. This creates a rhythmic instability that adds to the uneasy feeling.
Be careful with your touch and that you don’t put too much weight on the strings. Every note should be very soft.
When the melody enters, use a different touch in the right hand to create timbral contrast and bring this voice out by pressing more with that finger. This creates the sensation of counterpoint. It’s good practice to play this etude mostly tirando, though you can use apoyando on a few notes.
The entrance of the bass in m. 5 should be clear as if you were playing a fugue.
The position in m. 10 is not easy; be sure to find stability in the fourth finger. Bring the left arm horizontally to accommodate the crossover with the third finger without moving the fourth finger. Maintain the fourth finger as long as you can up to the end of the measure so that the melody sounds connected. Bianco prefers to use the first finger for the G, the second note of measure 11, and shift for the F. Bring out the bass line that starts in measure 12.
One mistake Bianco often hears in this piece is that we play a fingered melody note bright, but an open string less bright. The open Es starting in the melody of m. 17 must have the same sound quality and volume as the other notes. Always put a bit more intention on an open string.
Bianco prefers the fingering marked below:
Going from m. 19 into 20, shift the hand one fret downward, maintaining the same position. Open strings in the middle of this measure give us time to shift the hand back to the first position.
We are often taught to play first and second fingers with the wrist above the fingers. In some cases, like in m. 22, Bianco actually prefers to flip this and play with the wrist beneath the fingers. Try to bring out the E-D in the first beat of m. 23 in the right hand. His m finger is a bit further advanced so he can use more weight.
Bianco prefers to use the second finger for the low F-sharp in m. 25. He also uses his first finger for the grace note, D, at the beginning of m. 27.
Use the second finger for the first A in m. 31, so that the first finger can play the low A on beat 3. This way, the first finger is free for the B in m. 32.
Starting in m. 38, we get a repeated C, an element we haven’t had before. This ascends to the E in m. 42. This is an essential element in the piece, a bit less of a scary atmosphere.
Play these notes with more consistency. The climax of the phrase is this E chord at m. 42.
Poco meno, measure 46
This means “a bit slower.” Use a sound that’s a bit more tasto, perhaps with a bit more vibrato. It’s nice to contrast this section with the other sections as much as you can.
Take liberties with the chromatic ascent in m. 50. After that, we head back to the beginning material, this time with a C in the bass, making it more consonant.
The rhythmic element is so consistent and driving until m. 46, when the figure changes.
We can interpret this change with a bit more rubato. For the open E in m. 54, make sure the color doesn’t stand out too much.
Finish the piece with a softer character.
Now that we have the bass and the harmonies defined in C major, the mood is more relaxed. Take your time on the very last measure; you don’t have to rush to the harmonics. You have all the time in the world for a beautiful last chord to let it all sink in.
This study sounds easy when you listen to it, but you realize it isn’t when you practice it. Don’t rush the practicing process.
Remember that just because it’s called a study, there are beautiful moments; it’s a concert piece!
If you’d like to watch the full lesson on this topic by Gabriel Bianco for free, click here.
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