Heitor Villa-Lobos, also known as Hector Villa-Lobos, was born in Rio de Janeiro. He learned music from his father, who was a widely-read, highly-cultured amateur musician (and a librarian). By 1899, when his father died, Villa-Lobos had turned himself into a professional musician. He earned his living as a cafe musician, playing the cello.
In 1905 Villa-Lobos made the first of his trips to Brazil's north-eastern states, to collect folk music. He made many such trips and Villa-Lobos spun a web of mystery around them. His own testimony of adventures with the cannibal tribes of the North-East is not always trustworthy. Afterwards, he studied at the National Institute of Music in Rio de Janeiro, though his compositional style never conformed to any academic norms. His music remained always personal and idiosyncratic. As Villa-Lobos himself said many years later: 'My music is natural, like a waterfall.' Also: 'One foot in the academy and you are changed for the worst!'
After another ethno-musicological trip to the Amazonian interior in 1912, Villa-Lobos returned to Rio de Janeiro. There, on November 13, 1915, he turned the city on its ear with a concert of his new music. By 1923, he had attracted enough official favour to win a government grant to study in Paris. On his return in 1930, Villa-Lobos was made director of music education in Rio de Janeiro.
Thus began Villa-Lobos' glorious second career: pedagogue of music for his country. He designed a complete system of musical instruction for generations of Brazilians, based upon Brazil's rich musical culture, and rooted in a deep and always explicit patriotism. He composed choral music for huge choirs of school children, often adaptations of folk material. His legacy in the Brazil of today, even amongst new generations brought up with the samba-schools or MTV, is a strong feeling of pride and love, intertwined with similar feelings for their country. This is surprising, considering that this is a 'classical' composer dead now for more than 40 years; a North American parallel would be hard to find.
In 1944, Villa-Lobos made a trip to the United States to conduct his works, to critical and even some popular acclaim. Important new works were commissioned by American orchestras, and he even wrote a movie score for Hollywood, for the interesting 1945 film Green Mansions. The 1940s were a period of triumph on an international scale. As a composer and conductor of his own music, Villa-Lobos was lionized from Los Angeles to New York to Paris. In spite of his world travels, his home was always in Rio de Janeiro, where he died.