Heitor learned to play the cello, guitar and clarinet and played with bands of street musicians. His early compositions were based on improvisations on his guitar. He was also a cellist in a Brazilian opera orchestra for a time. After much practical experience as a performer he decided to compose seriously.
He wrote a tremendous amount of music in many forms. One of his first masterpieces was a set of pieces titled Chôros, which is a Portugese word that means weeping. The term came to be used for the music played by bands of street musicians in Brazil that improvised their music on Brazilian and African instruments. Villa-Lobos uses many types of Brazilian music for his Chôros in many different combinations. Originally there were 14 Chôros, but the scores for the last two are lost. Villa-Lobos also composed an Introduction for the set for guitar and orchestra, and a final two for violin and cello duet.
Villa-Lobos spent time in Paris and most of the Chôros were composed there. The Mexican composer Manuel Ponce was in Paris at the same time and met Villa-Lobos. He had this to say about him:
"Villa-Lobos, in his curious trilingual dialect (French, Spanish, Portuguese) tells me that his music comes directly from the Brazilian forests. It evokes his far-off Amazonas, the violence of the savage rhythms, negro melodies twisted in their bodies’ syncopations, in the frenzy of dances which the composer’s genius has managed to link together in the prodigious ‘choros’, one of which caused a scandal in the Pasdeloup concerts."Chôros Number One was the first to be written in 1920 and is for solo guitar. The guitar is a unique instrument in many ways. To write well for the classical guitar, the composer usually has to be a good guitarist themselves, which Villa-Lobos was. The piece is short, and full of the rhythms and sounds of Brazil combined with a European feel for structure.