Ernesto Nazareth: the incarnation of the Brazilian soul

One of the singular pleasures of sitting in the many street cafes and restaurants in Rio de Janeiro is to hear live instrumental music played by a small group of street musicians. Comprising a guitar (played with some mesmerising finger work), a flute, sometimes a clarinet and a cavaquinho (a small four-stringed guitar), with drums and/or maracas, the group will often play a style of popular music called choro (or chorinho); music which is gentle, intimate and by turns languid or playful, in marked contrast to the more boisterous samba for which Rio de Janeiro is famous.

If you are particularly fortunate, the musicians will play famous pieces from the early 20th century such as Odeon, Brejeiro and Apanhei-te, Cavaquinho! by Ernesto Nazareth, a composer whose seductive music evokes the urban sophistication of Rio de Janeiro’s  Belle Époque, so much so that Heitor Villa-Lobos once described him as “the true incarnation of the Brazilian soul … he admirably and spontaneously conveys the vivid emotions of a people”.

Ernesto Nazareth, 1926.
Ernesto Nazareth, 1926.

Ernesto Júlio de Nazareth (pronounced Nazaré; 1863 – 1934) was one of the first Brazilian composers to successfully integrate African-Brazilian rhythms into European genres such as waltzes, polkas, marches and quadrilles to produce an expressive, quintessentially Brazilian sound, full of bouncy syncopations, harmonic sophistication and technical ingenuity. Nazareth is credited with inventing the Brazilian tango, a more suave form of its earnest Argentinian counterpart (or its sequinned export). Like his idol Chopin, he wrote mostly for the piano and his music is almost without exception utterly charming and delightful to play.

Born in the Santo Cristo neighbourhood in the port area of Rio de Janeiro, Nazareth was the second of four children; his father was a customs broker and his mother was a keen amateur pianist who gave the young Ernesto his first lessons on the piano. In 1869 at the age of six, he met the American composer and piano virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) at the Theatro Lyrico Fluminense where a family friend was tuning pianos for one of the composer’s extravagant concerts for 31 pianists and two orchestras. Gottschalk, who died in Rio de Janeiro later the same year of yellow fever, is an often overlooked if uneven composer but he was a trailblazer in his own right, incorporating Creole melodies and syncopated African-Caribbean rhythms in his own compositions, anticipating later developments by decades.

Nazareth published his first composition Você Bem Sabe (1877), a polka-lundu, when he was fourteen. Dedicated to his father, the title is a message (literally ‘Well you know’); of course his father well knew that his passion was for music. His first success came with Não Caio n’Outra!!! (1881); reprinted several times, its proceeds allowed him to have ‘improvement’ lessons with a friend of Gottschalk’s, the American composer Charles Lucien Lambert who was based in Rio de Janeiro. Nazareth continued to publish and by the age of twenty he was well-known locally as a composer, performer and piano teacher.

Married and with a growing family, he published his first Brazilian tango Brejeiro in 1893 to instant acclaim and it remains to this day one of his most popular tangos. Around this time he started to work as a ‘pianist-demonstrator’ at the music publishers Casa Vieira Machado & Cia, principally to play music for sale but also to write and review musical scores. He would later do the same for other publishing houses, much to the delight of the public.

Heitor Villa-Lobos, 1922
Heitor Villa-Lobos, 1922.

In demand as a pianist, in 1909 he regularly played the piano in the waiting room of the luxurious Odeon cinema and such was his renown that people would flock to hear him rather than to watch the films. In the same year he accompanied the young Villa-Lobos in possibly his first public appearance, playing Saint Saëns Le Cygne. They would later play together in a small orchestra at the Odeon cinema. As a token of his high esteem, Villa-Lobos dedicated his first Choro for solo guitar to Nazareth who repaid the compliment with the dedication of concert study Improviso. Darius Milhaud, who worked at the French embassy in the period 1917-18, waxed lyrically about Nazareth’s playing at the Odeon cinema, writing “his fluid, intriguing and sad style helped me better understand the Brazilian soul”. Milhaud went on to borrow several of Nazareth’s melodies for his own Brazilian inspired compositions including Saudades do Brasil and the carnavalesque romp Le Boef sur le Toit.

Nazareth remained in Rio de Janeiro for most of his life although in 1926 he undertook a hugely successful 11-month tour of São Paulo (visiting also Campinas, Sorocaba and Tatuí) and composed the tango Pauliceia, como és formosa! as thanks for the warm reception he received.

His final years were unhappy ones. Troubled with increasing deafness and dogged with depression following the deaths of his wife and one of his daughters, he was hospitalised in 1933 at the Juliano Moreira asylum in Jacarepaguá. During a visit of his daughter Eulina the following year, he exclaimed to her “I’ve found a path to Laranjeiras [a neighbourhood in Rio] … I just have to go that way and I’ll make it back home!” Later the same day he gave the nurses the slip and set off. The local newspaper A Noite later reported “he was found dead in a forest close to the reservoir and near a waterfall, with arms outstretched, as if he were playing an invisible piano. Little attention was paid to his demise because the carnival was about to begin…” As Brazilians might say, Tudo acaba em samba (literally: everything ends in samba).

Dengozo, published 1914 in New YorkVilla-Lobos and Milhaud were not the first or last to note the warm humanity in Nazareth’s sublime music. With their suggestive, often humorous titles they represent a microcosm of Brazilian life or, more specifically, the life of the cariocas. For instance, with Fon-Fon! (Toot-toot!) there is the unmistakeable bustle and splutter of a motor car; with Apanhei-te, Cavaquinho! (Gotcha, cavaquinho!) the left hand imitates the strumming of the cavaquinho, the right hand playing the part of a flute; with Odeon, the left hand imitates a guitar. Other pieces suggest moods: Escorvado (cunning), Guerrereiro (warlike), Duvidoso (doubtful), Dengoso (bashful), Ranzinza (excited), Tenebroso (gloomy) and Travesso (naughty). There’s even a Topázio Líquido (liquid topaz) – the name of a type of beer (Nazareth dedicated the piece to a brewery).

One of Nazareth’s many fans at the Odeon cinema was the great Polish pianist Artur Rubinstein (1887 – 1982). Keen to make his acquaintance, Rubinstein once asked the maestro Henrique Oswald to arrange a meeting. Oswald happily obliged by inviting them both to dine at his house. At a certain point, Nazareth sat at the piano and asked Rubinstein which works (Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven) he would like to hear. Rubinstein smiled and politely replied that he also played those works; what he really wanted to hear was the music he played at the Odeon.

Kevin Painting

Published 16 August 2016 on primephonic

For more information, visit Ernesto Nazareth 100 anos, a site dedicated to the life and works of Ernesto Nazareth.