An analysis of Choros No. 1 by Heitor Villa-Lobos is today’s topic. Because of copyright restrictions I am unable to publish the score, but I am able to publish a reduction analysis showing the harmonic functions as well as the voice-leading. Open the pdf below and follow along with your score.
Most of the piece consists of standard tonal harmonic progressions. There are a few instances where Villa-Lobos stretches things to the limit, particularly in the “B” section with a passage of non-functional harmony. Let’s first determine the form.
The piece is in rondo form with three distinct sections defined by authentic cadences as well as changes of key. The layout is as follows: A-B-A-C-A.
I have reduced the harmony to mainly three parts (some four) and analyzed the three sections separately as shown in the pdf. Let’s look at each one.
Section A (mm. 1-32)
A standard thirty-two bar section divided equally into two sixteen bar sections which I divided with a double bar. The first sixteen measures concludes with a half-cadence on the dominant (B7) and the second sixteen measures conclude with an authentic cadence on the tonic (Em) which is standard fare. The most interesting feature, included in both sections, is the fifth progression that begins in measure five and in measure twenty-one. I indicate the root movement by perfect fifth with the slurs. Notice how Villa-Lobos starts with standard secondary dominant relationships but by the end of the series he has moved far away from the original key of E minor. The goal of this progression in both cases is the Bb7 chord found in measures thirteen and twenty-seven.
In the first case this Bb7 chord functions as an enharmonic German Augmented Sixth chord resolving to A minor (iv) as shown. Here is an example of an augmented sixth chord resolving to something other than the dominant or tonic six/four chord as is most common in earlier tonal music. This is exactly the same way the tritone substitution concept works in jazz harmony where we find a dominant seventh chord resolving down by half-step rather than by perfect fifth. Please refer to my article on tritone substitution for a more complete explanation.
In the second case the Bb7 chord is converted into a conventional German Augmented Sixth by gradually lowering the inner voices chromatically in measures twenty-seven through twenty-nine. This then resolves to the tonic six/four chord setting up the final cadential formula with the insertion of the V/V for color.
Section B (mm. 33-56)
This is the most interesting section harmonically. We have the change of key to C major and start off with a conventional series of secondary dominants that Villa-Lobos seems particularly fond of using.
The material in measures thirty-three through thirty-eight start and end this section with the additional two measures at the end to officially close it off with the authentic cadence in the new key of C major. It’s the harmony of the middle measures (mm. 39-48) that were problematic for me. It seems the best explanation for why it works is a combination of functional and non-functional harmony and modal mixture.
You can see that the chords in measures thirty-nine through forty-one make sense functionally but what happens after that? How does C- B7-D7-Bb7 work? The harmony does not resolve in the usual way. This passage is an example of non-functional harmony. What makes this work is the way in which the voices connect step-wise from one chord to the next. For example notice how the B7 chord in measure forty-two is converted to D7 by moving the D# down a half-step to D-natural and bringing the B up to C (full score). The A and F# are common tones. This of course is not what we expect. We are used to hearing the B7 resolving to E minor in this key (V/iii) but Villa-Lobos is giving us the unexpected. A similar thing happens when the D7 moves to Bb7 (mm. 43-44). This time the bass descends in whole-steps (D-C-Bb), the A moves to Ab, the F# to F-natural and the D remains as a common tone. The Bb7 (bVII) chord can be considered a borrowed chord from the parallel minor key of C minor, same with the Ab (bVI) chord in measure forty-five. Again Villa-Lobos is stretching us to the limit harmonically. In summary, the descending step-wise motion of the bass line supporting the thirds (tenths) as shown in the figured bass tie this passage together.
The interval pattern is broken in measure forty-five where we return to conventional functional harmony with the exception of the chord in measure forty-eight. How does this Em7b5 chord fit in? I am going to say that this functions as vii/IV in C major or if you prefer a rootless C9 (V/IV), but does not continue the expected cycle and resolve to F. Instead Villa-Lobos returns to the dominant and brings back the opening material of this section. The effect is to keep us moving, never resolving, until the final cadence in measure fifty-six.
Section C (mm. 57-72)
This is the most straight forward section harmonically. The key is now E major. Everything is functional and is labeled accordingly. There are two most interesting features:
1) The use of the augmented triad in measures sixty and sixty-eight. With its inherent ambiguity (any of its notes can be considered a root due to its symmetrical structure of consecutive major thirds) the chord can be heard in different ways depending on the context. In its first hearing (m. 60) it functions as a G# augmented (V/vi) and in the second (m. 68) it functions as an E augmented (V/IV).
2) The move from the F#9 chord (rootless) to the German Augmented Sixth chord (m. 71) preceding the final cadence. I completely missed this subtle change and most likely have been playing it wrong for years.
The pdf below shows the voice-leading in a reduced way that can be easily played on guitar and still convey the essential harmony. The goal is to show how the harmonies connect, mainly step-wise, while adhering to traditional contrapuntal principles. Please enjoy responsibly.