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Between two hearts and worlds

A book analyzes the work of the composer Nazareth, author of "Brejeiro", who joined the erudite and the popular at the turn of the 20th century

The progressive political discourse of the New Republican Regime, which marked the first three decades at the turn of the 20th century, preached the condemnation of habits and customs linked by memory to traditional society and the denial of all and any form of popular culture that could dishonor the civilized image of the elite, as the historian Nicolau Sevcenko observed. Thus there was established, with rigor, a policy of the expulsion of popular groups from the central area of the city, isolated by force for the enjoyment of a minority. At the same time, an aggressive cosmopolitanism, much identified with the Parisian way of life, was adopted.

In the context marked by the popular cultural effervescence of the samba and various other forms of dance, the music of the Rio de Janeiro composer Ernesto Julio Nazareth (1863-1934) would become sacred. His music would be the axis that would divide these two worlds. A talented pianist, with an erudite background, he would give lessons and play sheet music for clients interested in classical music. He had, nevertheless, “a foot in the kitchen.” In 1893 he composed the tango “Brejeiro“, whose rights he sold because of financial problems. Almost fifteen years later, as a cinema pianist, he wrote the tango ‘Odeon”, his most famous piece of music. During the decade of the 1920’s he took up “fashionable” rhythms such as foxtrots, sambas and carnival marches. In 1930 he launched the polka entitled, “Apanhei-te, cavaquinho“. Shortly afterwards, deaf and with mental problems, he was found dead from drowning in a lake. From then onwards, his compositions became obligatory in everything related to “choro” popular music that was composed in Brazil over the next seventy years.

Besides the recent acquisition of a representative archive by the composer, the Moreira Salles Institute, in São Paulo, will send to the bookshops in May of next year the book entitled, O enigma do homem sério – Ambição e vocação de Ernesto Nazareth [The enigma of the serious man – the ambition and vocation of Ernesto Nazareth], by the professional musician and historian Cacá Machado. The work is the result of his doctorate thesis in Brazilian literature, from the Classical Arts and Human Sciences Department of the University of Sao Paulo (USP), defended in 2004, under the supervision of professor and composer José Miguel Wisnik. The author analyzes the work of Nazareth without moving away from his life’s trajectory and ends up painting a rich picture of Brazilian musical life of that era, with its ruptures and its historic continuities.

Cacá Machado relates that his interest for the composer came from his childhood. As well as having a grandmother who was a piano teacher – who made a point of including Nazareth in the repertoire for every piano pupil – when he began his musical studies, his mother played compositions by the author of “Odeon” on her record player, interpreted by Arthur Moreira Lima. And so his interest only increased in his later lifetime.
When coming in contact with musical theory, he discovered that the composer had also freer sonority when played by the regional “choro” musicians. His taste for Pixinguinha and popular Brazilian music was also fostered. The guitar took the place of the piano, but Nazareth remained. He became the most adequate and stimulating theme to develop his graduation work concerning “choro” popular musician not just because he had rich and voluminous works.

The research
that begun with an individual Scientific Initiation project from 1993 until 1995, financed through a FAPESP grant – started to gain density and at one determined moment he and Wisnik believed that the work could be a directed to a doctorate thesis. For a long time the title of the thesis was: “O enigma do homem célebre: biografia musical de Ernesto Nazareth” [The enigma of the famous man: a musical biography of Ernesto Nazareth]. The author had started from a defined focal point that would be the musical analysis of the composer’s works.

In order not to create expectations of a historical or journalistic biography, however, he opted to change to “O enigma do homem célebre: ambição e vocação de Ernesto Nazareth” [The enigma of the famous man: the ambition and vocation of Ernesto Nazareth]. “My goal was always that of the work and of its critical interpretation. But we can’t, evidently, dissociate the production from its author.” In this manner the biographical and historical elements went on to make up part of a “hermeneutic circle”, in which the “part” and the “whole” superimposed themselves in layers of interpretation.

During the search and collection of data, the fact that in 1964, in order to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Nazareth, the National Library of Rio de Janeiro organized an exhibition about the composer, helped. This resulted in the creation of an archive with various documents – score sheet music, photographs, manuscripts, newspaper articles – concerning the composer, which belonged to his daughter, Eulina de Nazareth, and to the musicologist Andrade Muricy, among others. “This archive serves as the basis of any research concerning the composer and is concentrated in a single location, which considerably facilitates the work.”

Cacá Machado also discovered Luiz Antônio de Almeida, who had also become impassioned at the start of the decade of the 1980’s with the figure of Nazareth and had decided to write a biography. He interviewed the last of the generation who had had contact with the composer and gained from the composer’s granddaughter what remained of the more personal documents that had not been put into the National Library archive. Luiz Antonio became Nazareth’s official biographer and placed his collection at the disposal of the São Paulo researcher. Last year, at the suggestion of the latter, the archive was purchased by the Moreira Salles Institute.

Cacá Machado’s thesis is extremely careful as to the contextualizing of popular music at the start of the 20th century. The text is fluent and brings, with fidelity, the years that anteceded the era of records. During its production, he worked on three fronts and fields of knowledge: music, literature and history. “I dealt with the score music as a primary source, in the same way as with the literature of Machado de Assis and the chroniclers and memoirists of the period.”

In the same manner that for a literary critic, the text of a poem or a tale is considered a primary source, in his perspective as a culture historian, he explained that score sheet music must also be the same. “In the same way as the literary critic must dominate the technical discourse over the literary theory, or the figures of speech, for example, as a  musician and a historian, I also needed to deepen my knowledge in the technical-musical discourse.” Distant from traditional musicology, nonetheless, his interpretation of a primary source, in this case the score sheet music, is always sewn up by history, up to the point where this is possible. ‘It’s, in reality, a very subtle and fragile process.”

The study defends a unique musical style from Nazareth, who composed classics in the typical popular genre (and,) which, at the same time, were unique. For him the pianist always composes within a defined genre – the syncopations of the start of the 20th century, such as choro, the tango, etc. – just like other composers… “He wrote dance music, music to dance with, but differently from other composers, he imprinted his own particular style.” In this, in reality, elements of the language of the romantic piano repertoire appear “delightfully syncopated and ‘re-contextualized’ within a form – musical genre –  widely spread and recurring”. It brought, however, singularity to the genre which continued to be a genre.

Although the subtitle of the book relates to “music, history and literature”, the author says that a direct relationship between Nazareth and the world of books did not exist, in the sense that, as with other composers, literature could well be a field of stimulating artistic creation or “an inspiration” for musical creation. “Nazareth was far from being interested and far from the literary circle. Here the contrary occurs, Machado de Assis demonstrated a very perceptive eye concerning the music of the period. Like nobody else, he captured and commented, among other things, the historical process of the formation of urban popular music genres under the sign of the rhythmic figure of syncopated music in some of his chronicles.”

The writer had also touched on the theme of Brazilian musical singularity in transiting through the so called spaces of “erudite” and “popular”, when he dramatized in the story “Um homem célebre” (the Famous man) the anxiety of a composer of popular success who wanted the recognition of the erudite universe. Cacá Machado observes that, in the same way as Pestana, the tale’s character, Nazareth lived this dilemma as a personal anguish and as a musical realization in his tangos. “In this way, it was the literature that gave the interpreting key of a musical and historical question: the formation of urban musical genres and the musical and esthetic questions involved in this.”

Another important aspect dealt with by this thesis was the fact that the composer visited the erudite and the popular, which caused prejudice from both sides to give him due credit – in spite of the recognition when he was still alive, at different moments. For example, Cacá Machado cites the episode that occurred in 1922, when during a recital by students of the National Musical Institute a protest occurred because pieces by Nazareth were included, and these were considered of lesser value and merely popular pieces.

Episodes such as this, biographies about determined aspects, have allowed the historian to reach a psychological profile and to understand his behavior. Nazareth was melancholic, a man who always lived with the anxiety of wishing to become a concert pianist. “Perhaps with a nostalgia of an experience almost lived, since at the start of his musical life he stood out as a talented instrumentalist, but his family did not manage the resources to perfect his talent in Europe…” then the common pathway for the formation of piano players in Imperial Brazil.

So much so that two years before his death, when he had shown signs of neurological disorder caused by syphilis, Nazareth left in the middle of a performance by the pianist Guiomar Novaes, in the Municipal Theatre of Rio de Janeiro, saying for those who could hear him: “Why didn’t I go to study in Europe, I wanted to be like Guiomar Novaes!”. His vocation for composing polkas and tangos, on the other hand, made of him one of the matrixes of Brazilian music, whether it be popular or erudite, which influenced Villa-Lobos and Tom Jobim.

However, he had a very sad end of life. “It was at a time in which the rapid transformations of culture for the masses, principally with the radio and phonogram, did not leave space for sensitive people such as Nazareth.” Then the urban music had changed with the sambas and the first samba schools, which brought a more colloquial and expressive manner of making music, mainly through songs. “In the middle of the decade of the 1930’s, Nazareth’s music was no longer so popular and sounded ancient in comparison with the sambas of Noel Rosa and Ismael Silva, for example.” But, says the  Cacá Machado, Nazareth always set off interest in the composers of national erudite music because of his sophisticated lyrics and original rhythms.

In this manner the popular “king of tangos” of the decade of the 1910’s lost his reign in the decade of the 1930’s. At the same time, erudite composers of the so-called “nationalist” generation praised his music as a reference of national originality. “In the end, all of this, added to the desire to have been a concert pianist, imprinted on Ernesto Nazareth a melancholic personality, somewhat distant to the happenings around him and profoundly original.” And time is stubborn in proving that he chose the correct pathway. He became a celebrated man.