The practical reason of criticism

Study brings an archeology of the origin of the debate about the arts in Brazil

Four years of intense research, funded by FAPESP, were needed for Luís Antônio Giron to arrive at a veritable archeology of his profession, musical criticism. Determined to fill in the bibliographic gap on the origin of criticism of the arts in Brazil, the journalist puts down the pen of his daily writing to pore over books, documents, and manuscripts from Brazilian and international archives and libraries. The work, carried out by the Musicology Department of the Communications and Arts School of the University of São Paulo (ECA/USP), has resulted in the recently launchedMinoridade crítica – A ópera e o teatro nos folhetins da corte [Critical minority – The opera and the theater in the feuilletons ] (415 pages, R$ 49.00, Ediouro and Edusp).

“I really burnt the midnight oil reading microfilms and newspapers from the times and transcribing rare documents whose reproduction was forbidden”, the researcher says about his involvement with the sources, which allowed him to make some surprising discoveries, like the one that criticism arose in Brazil in 1826. This date had remained unknown until then, as everyone believed that the activity started with Romanticism, around 1840.

Other good discoveries were the texts of musical and theater criticisms by some romantic bigwigs, like writers Gonçalves Dias, José de Alencar, Joaquim Manuel de Macedo, and even Machado de Assis. For many of them, the space in the papers served as a bridge to a literary career.By printing the origin and the evolution of musical criticism in the period of independent Brazil, Giron ended up portraying the court in Rio de Janeiro at a time of profound transformations, from Independence to the years of Dom Pedro II, whose coming of age was brought forward in 1840.

Through the portrait of the operatic and theatrical spectacles, an entertainment for the elite, and the criticisms published in papers like Espelho Diamantino [Diamantina Mirror] and O Espectador Brasileiro [The Brazilian Spectator] , the book makes it possible to glimpse the habits and customs of this palace society, besides the origin of some extremely strong cultural traits, like carnival and the formation of fan clubs.

The first musical criticism that one has note of is from the daily paper O Espectador Brasileiro, of June 19, 1826, the year of the inauguration of the Imperial Theater of São Pedro de Alcântara, whose opera season opened already breathing clearly the new airs of the recently emancipated empire. The anonymous critic discoursed on the role of criticism in a text entitled “Adelina’s Acting”.

It was not always like that, since many of the criticisms of this period were intended more for describing details of the scene, of the plot, and of the wings (fights amongst the impresarios, for example) than for fostering great esthetic or musical debates. “The dawn of criticism takes place in polemics between prima donnas, in the context of what literary critics regard as frivolous and columnistic literature”, Giron writes.The text reflected the tastes and attitudes of the public. It was how, in 1827, the arrival of the French soprano Elisa Barbieri brought about alterations in the theater and in the print shops.

Barbieri came to rival the castrato Fasciotti and his sister and disciple Maria Teresa Fasciotti, representatives of the “beautiful rococo singing” appreciated by the traditionalists and those nostalgic for the times of D. João VI. These traditionalists were opposed by those receptive to Parisian novelties, to the swift and unheard of interpretations of Rossini’s operas, and to revolutionary modulations. This rivalry was transformed into an esthetic clash between representatives of the colonial society and the incipient nationalist bourgeoisie and aristocracy, a situation portrayed in the criticisms in the newspapers. It was also one more example of a circumstance that contributed towards the emergence of the national habit of forming organized fan clubs.

When the divas of the opera, the theater, and the dance arrived, the romantic public from the imperial court would habitually watch the spectacles dividing themselves into veritable groups of rooters. “It was a European tradition, which came from the battles for this or the other castrato in Naples, at the beginning of the 18th century”, Giron says. “In Brazil, the parties would contend for the success of this artist or the other. This would happen like a sort of hoots, jeers, stamping of feet, and even battles with copper coins on the open stage. With the passage of time, the parties started to organize themselves according to the political colors (conservatives versus progressives)”, the critic explains.

Women played an important role in the emergence of criticism. They had enough time to busy themselves with the particularities of the presentations, which would happen once or twice a week. And as they often would not have enough money to be part of the audience, they would read everything in the papers. The first periodical devoted to them was the Espelho Diamantino (Diamond Mirror) , a fortnightly paper that also arose in 1826. According to its editor in chief, anonymous, the influence of the feminine public on public life was becoming so great that it was necessary to publish a magazine for them “to become informed about all the economic problems, business, and the fine arts as well”.

It did not take long for the women’s publications to proliferate, with ample cover of the city’s cultural events.The criticisms began to get scarce when the Italian company was dissolved, in 1829, with the deaths of the impresario Fernando José de Almeida and the bass Fabrício Piaccentini. Elisa Barbieri also went back to France, and, in 1831, with the popular revolt and the abdication and flight of D. Pedro I, the Saint Peter Theater was rebaptized as the Fluminense Constitutional theater, becoming a stage no longer for the lyrical scene, but for fights, disturbances, and political interference. Without a court and the country governed by the Regency, the capital abdicated its operas, which only returned in 1844, a good time after D. Pedro II came of age.

The return was marked by Romanticism, in which cultural criticism intended itself to be far more systematized and focused on theoretical debate, with the emergence of the first music treatises and dictionaries. The first signs appeared in Paris, in 1836, with the Revista Nitheroy [Nitheroy Magazine], in which Francisco de Salles Torres-Homem, Domingos José Gonçalves de Magalhães, Pereira da Silva, and Manuel de Araújo Porto-Alegre wanted to cultivate what was “just, holy, beautiful, and useful”. A sort of embryo of the supplements, Nitheroy devoted itself to the sciences, literature, and the arts. It had a clearly nativist tendency, as one perceives from its motto: “Everything by Brazil and for Brasil”.

In 1842, Rafael Coelho Machado, a critic of Portuguese origins, founded the first periodical with scores, O Ramalhete das Damas [The Ladies’ Posy], a monthly publication for singing and the piano. He also published a musical dictionary, a work to popularize knowledge and a pedagogical instrument. Machado was an example of an intellectual making criticism an object and constituting a method to take knowledge forward.

The systematization of these “thinkers” of music and culture, though, did not prevent cover of the operas, in the 1840’s, from returning to the parties and to the columnistic texts, now with new names. The scene was recorded in some literary works, such as O moço loiro [The Blond Young Man], by Joaquim Manuel de Macedo. The first chapter, “Teatro italiano” [Italian Theater], portrays the city’s heavy climate in August 1844, on the day of the presentation of Anne Boleyn. In the theater, the two theatrical parties confronted each other, the right versus the left, according to the position that their members occupied in the audience: the right, Candianist, against the opposite wing, Delmatrist – partisans of stars of the new Italian company, Candiani and Delmastro respectively.

Amongst the new names in the column were those of Martins Pena, Gonçalves Dias, José de Alencar, and, later on, Machado de Assis. While Martins Pena would alternate his musical criticisms with novels in the periodicals, Gonçalves Dias appeared to give to his criticisms an importance that literary criticism did not grant it later. In the National Library of Rio de Janeiro, two notebooks are to be found with copies of 20 of his criticisms, done in manuscript form, with titles and dates of publication very evident.

José de Alencar left Brazilian lyrical history the first original libretto written in Portuguese for the opera The Night of St. John, with music by Elias Álvares Lobo. The opera made its debut on December 14, 1860, the same year as his novels Cinco minutos [Five minutes] and A viuvinha [The little widow]. Machado de Assis was a columnist of the weekly magazine O Espelho [The Mirror], from September 1859 to January 1860, busying himself with theatrical chronicles. He revealed a preference for playwriting, without however neglecting his lyrical side.

Each one in his way, the columnists left their heritage of passion for the critics of the 20th and 21st centuries, according to Luís Antônio Giron. “I believe that nowadays we pay tribute to the passion and of the frivolity of the period addressed in the book. Literary journalism owes much to the columns”, he says. He points out, though, that the 20th century critics leant far more on positivist empiricism than on the romantic little books. “In terms of direct influence, current criticism is more positivist than romantic. It distills impressions, but manages to domesticate them, resorting to scientific method and analysis.” All that is needed is for the market society to give criticism the space it deserves.