Classical Music in Brazil

When it comes to Brazilian music, images of the sandy beaches of Bahia and cafes of São Paulo blend with the tunes of samba and bossa nova. Despite both music genres inextricably linked to the nation’s cultural identity, Brazil has a longstanding history with classical music going back many centuries. The role of classical music reinforced the country’s unique history and character. 

Claimed by the Portuguese in the early 1500s, Jesuits began arriving in droves at the start of the following century to convert indigenous people to the Catholic faith. The cultural phenomenon originated as a reaction to the social and religious upheaval of the Reformation. From painting to poetry, Baroque reinforced excessive and dynamism. It also became a ‘soft’ tool for Europe’s landed elites, who commissioned grand palaces and began maintaining personal orchestras. But the lack of a royal court, and elites more concerned with profit rather than prestige, the Brazilian Baroque retained its religious core. Sacred art remained the epitome of the Brazilian style. 

Interior of Church and Convent of São Francisco, Salvador (Creative Commons:  fernando_dallacqua )

Brazilian Baroque was also aided by the development of indigenous styles, similar to those seen in Spanish American colonies, and supported by the talents of black and mixed free persons. Unlike the rigid social hierarchy of Spain’s colonies, Brazilian society was less stringent with racial standings & intermarriages. In the 1770s, citizens of the mining city of Vila Rica could attend the Casa de Ópera and watch Afro-Brazilian perform in Italian operas. Indeed, the two most famous artists of the 1700s Brazil were both of mixed race: the sculptor Antonio Franciso Lisboa, and musician José Mauricio Nunes Garcia. 

José Mauricio Nunes Garcia, 1767-1830.
(Public domain.)

A contemporary of Mozart, Nunes Garcia is considered the father of Brazilian Baroque music. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1767, his mother took notice of his musical skills at a young age and encouraged him in his studies. Despite church rules which prevented mixed or non-white men from becoming priests, José took the examinations in 1791 and was ordained a year later. In 1798, José was appointed chapel master of the (Old) Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro. Nunes Garcia would then serve as Master of Music for the Royal Chapel in 1808 when the Portuguese royal court fled Lisbon for Rio. When he died in 1830, Nunes Garcia had composed more than 300 pieces of music, of which 240 survive.

Heitor Villa-Lopos, 1887-1959. (Public domain.)

 Born in 1887, Heitor Villa-Lobos remains one of the greatest Brazilian classical composers of the 20th century. He grew up at a time when Brazil itself was coming of age. An abolition campaign, championed by Emperor Pedro II, resulted in the emancipation of slaves in 1887. A year later, the emperor was forced to abdicate following a coup. Freed persons were now able to settle in other parts of Brazil, bringing along their artistic culture and tastes. Originally trained as a musician at the Conservatorio, Villa-Lobos was also attracted to South America’s multicultural music scene. Though still influenced by the likes of Debussy and Stravinsky, Villa-Lobos drew from Brazilian “folk” music – a combination of African, indigenous, and European styles. The amalgamation of styles is heard in Bachianas Brasileiras, a series of musical compositions written for instrument and voice. By the time of his death in 1959, Villa-Lobos had written over 2,000 works. 

Mozart Camargo Guarnieri, 1907-1993. (Public domain/Brazilian National Archives.)

Regarded as one of the most influential composers in post-modern Brazil, Mozart Camargo Guarnieri was born near São Paolo in 1907. His father, an Italian immigrant, named him and his siblings after classical composers. But Mozart chose He chose to use Camargo – his mother’s maiden name – as his professional first name. Later studying at São Paulo’s Musical and Dramatic Conservatory, Guarnieri went on a similar path as Villa-Lobos and blended classical and folk traditions. The dynamism can is prominent in his most recognized piece, Dansa Brasileira (Brazilian Dance).

Working for the city’s Department of Culture, Guarnieri accepted a fellowship in 1938 to study music in Paris. During this time, he learned from some of the greatest classical artists: Charles Koechlin, François Ruhlmann, and Nadia Boulanger. Camargo’s training was cut short with the German invasion of France in 1940. Guarnieri relocated to the United States on the invitation of the Pan-American Union, where he participated in and won several competitions in New York and Philadelphia. Returning to Brazil after the war, he continued playing a significant role in orchestral and choral institutions until his death in 1993. 

Camargo Guarnieri’s legacy, as well as that of his musical forebears, continues to influence the classical scene – and identity – of Brazilian culture. 

Sunday, November 17, 2 PM
Hochstein Performance Hall 

Tickets can be purchased here, by phone at 454-2100, or in person at our new Patron Services Center at 255 East Avenue in the back of the building. Free parking in the adjacent garage off of Union Street, between East Ave & Broad Street.

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