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The heavy burden of being a national symbol

Biography shows that celebrating Carlos Gomes actually jeopardized the composer

reproduction of the book carlos gomes - uma obra em focoFor a number of years, he was a nuisance for many Brazilians; he became a synonym for turning off the radio when the first notes of his best-known work, the opera “O Guarani,” were played to announce the detested Hora do Brasil radio program broadcast by the federal government ever since the Getulio Vargas era. (Nowadays, the music is still being played, albeit in a more “contemporary” version.) A nation that needs heroes is an unhappy nation; an even unhappier nation is a nation that does not know what to do with its heroes: “our” Carlos Gomes (1836-1896) was the first Brazilian classical musician to gain the approval of international audiences; he was also the composer of Italian-style operas with the second-highest number of operas (after Verdi) performed at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, from 1870 and 1879. His close friendship with Emperor Dom Pedro II, meant he was ostracized by the Republic; he was retrieved from this limbo by Vargas and, poor man, elevated to a national symbol in the 1970’s.

It cannot be denied that Brazil likes to remember him from time to time, but, unlike Villa-Lobos (a notorious collaborator of Getulio Varga’s dictatorial regime), our “greatest maestro” Carlos Gomes is, as pointed out by music history professor Lorenzo Mammì from the University of São Paulo’s College of Arts and Communications/ECA, the composer of “very famous, yet almost unknown music.” In the cultural environment of the Old Republic, he was a symbol of the nostalgia of the former regime and  the “poor taste” of the petite bourgeoisie consisting of recently immigrated Italians, referred to derogatorily as “carcamanos”. For the modernists of 1922, Gomes was an example of the decadence of traditional art, in direct opposition to the music composed by Villa Lobos. Even though Mario de Andrade praised Carlos Gomes, at the same time he stated that “performing a piece by Gomes is the same as proclaiming an esthetic feeling with a yawn.” Lenita Waldiges Nogueira, a professor of music at the Art Institute of Unicamp, decided to rescue the Campinas-born composer from the ambiguous category of “illustrious nonentity,” as she was concerned about the disregard that undermined the composer’s reputation. “The work of Carlos Gomes was left on the sidelines because of the public image created around him  to which he certainly did not collaborate, and not because of his musical talent,” explains the researcher. She has just launched “Nhô Tonico e o burrico de pau: a história de Carlos Gomes por ele mesmo”, a book which, she says, was written “by four hands.”

In short, with the idea of avoiding a traditional biography, the professor chose to portray the composer of the opera Fosca by  using the correspondence he exchanged with his relatives, friends, colleagues, and publishers, among others. She says that in these letters “he reveals several aspects of his life, simplifying and humanizing the musician.” The first edition of the book, published under the sponsorship of the Campinas City Government, will be distributed to schools, museums and universities. The book portrays Carlos Gomes by describing his daily struggles in his never-ending search for money to pay off his increasing debts; the depressive personality making him feel misunderstood by the Europeans and even more misunderstood by his fellow Brazilians; Carlos Gomes loved his native country, to such an extent that he spent a fortune to build a villa, the Villa Brasilia, on the outskirts of Milan; the villa was embellished with Brazil’s colors and symbols. There are some touching details, such as the letter sent in 1860 to his father, Maneco Gomes, who was also a musician. In this letter, Carlos Gomes seeks forgiveness from his father by referring to his initial success: “My dear father, I’m writing to tell you some recent news. I finally have the musical score, A noite do castelo, and today I will start working on the opera. Please make plans to come to Rio. I miss my brothers and my sisters, bless me as your son, for which I am very grateful. Carlos”.

The original document of this musical score, the first opera composed by Carlos Gomes, was retrieved by USP in 1999, with the support of FAPESP. In 2003, FAPESP also provided funds for the publication of a paper on another opera composed by Gomes, Joana de Flandres, written by Lenita Waldiges. “A lot is said about him, but very little of what he composed is being performed. His rehabilitation as a national hero caused more damage than good to his image,” the researcher adds. “The misleading information contained in the biography of Carlos Gomes is as revealing as the facts,” Mammì agrees. Gomes’ dark coloring always led him to believe that he descended from native Brazilians; he did not consider himself a mulatto. In Villa Brasília, he surrounded himself with native artifacts, claiming that these artifacts belonged to the tribes of his ancestors. This was a strange mania that was mimicked, in another context and in another era, by Villa Lobos, who loved to say, in Paris, that he had been imprisoned by native cannibals  and they had taught him the primal sounds of Brazil. “In the case of Carlos Gomes, this went beyond a timely disguise, because it includes  profound identification. ‘I come from a barbarian race, yet recognized until death by those who know how to appreciate it,’ he once wrote in a letter. Peri would not have said his better,” Mammì points out.

After the success of “A Noite do castelo”, the opening night of which was held on the wedding anniversary of the Emperor, the musician moved to Milan, with a scholarship earned through his own merit and, unlike the legend, had not been granted by Emperor Dom Pedro II, but by Dom José Amat, the creator of the Ópera Nacional, a project to promote singing in the Portuguese language. Nor, contrary to popular belief, was he a regular student at the Milan Conservatorium, given his age. However, he did take private classes as “a composer under improvement.” He arrived in Italy at a critical moment; at that time, Italian-style melodrama was being attacked by the young intelligentsia who talked about “washing the altar of art, dirty as a wall of lupanar”, as pointed out by music expert Marcus Góes in “A força indômita”, the definitive study on Carlos Gomes. “‘O Guarani’ opened at the Scala in 1870 and caused great astonishment. The intellectuals and all the musicians wanted something new, and here, suddenly, a foreigner comes on stage with a work that had, albeit in a rudimentary form, everything that everybody wanted: more dramatic cohesion, continuity of the musical discourse, music in line with the scene, new rhythms and bold harmony,” Góes points out.

Having achieved the biggest operatic success on the Italian stage ever since Verdi’s “Il trovatore”, Carlos Gomes saw his project turning upside down: “He was no longer the young graduate in charge of importing European musical language to the Brazilian theater. He became, much earlier than expected, the Brazilian representative in a group of nations leading cultural productions in Europe,” Mammì points out. Instead of the “showing-off” of Villa Lobos, who loved to say that he had gone to Europe not to learn but to teach, Carlos Gomes actually became a celebrity in the international music scenario of his time, and, at the same time in his own country. “The Second Reign is characterized by the attempt to build up a national cultural profile, cementing local traits with an international language; so it can be stated that the ‘O Guarani’ is the most successful artistic production of that time,” adds the researcher.

reproduction of the book carlos gomes - uma obra em focoCarlos Gomes (center), among the main performers of the Fosca cast, at the Scala theatre in Milanreproduction of the book carlos gomes - uma obra em foco

This, however, did not benefit the composer. On November 15, 1889 he was visiting Campinas, even though he still lived in Milan. “The shock that affected my heart which was so devoted to the Royal Family was so great that I still haven’t fully recovered. My health was seriously affected, and my body is still out of shape. God forgive the perpetrators of this brutal act and protect the Brazilian land and its people,” he wrote on November 20 to a friend. “Even before the fall of the Empire, in 1888, Carlos Gomes had had problems with the performance of the opera ‘O escravo’, the opening night of which, held in Rio de Janeiro, caused a lot of controversy in abolitionist groups because the slaves in the original text written by Taunay were transformed into natives; the opera was dedicated to Princess Isabel, a representative of a crumbling regime,” says Lenita. The researcher points out that the composer does not touch upon or idealize the monarchy issue in any of his letters. “He was not politically engaged; he was grateful to and felt a deep friendship for the royal family. He never manifested his feelings for the regime.”

Carlos Gomes described his political beliefs in a letter: “Everybody knows that I have no political beliefs, that I don’t meddle in any kind of noise (with the exception of music). But as a patriotic Brazilian, I have the right to disagree with or applaud the acts and procedures of those who govern our land, just like any lover of music has the right to like or dislike my music. I’m convinced that art and artists, all together, are not worth anything, in comparison to one single politician.” Problems arose on the horizon. Financial and personal crises the composer was going through in Italy were added to this. “In spite of the success of Condor, in 1891, the musician started feeling uncomfortable in Milan, because he was a foreigner and the Italian composers resented him; they did not want a dark-skinned savage taking up their space,” says the professor . Lorenzo Mammì points out that in those days the composer was divided between two worlds: on one hand, Italy, which meant professional glory and emotional and physical wear-and-tear as well as increasing competition. On the other hand there was Brazil, where the perspectives were limited and he thought he would be treated as a hero with no rivals. He was totally wrong.

“The coldness of a response of this magnitude is the same as interrupting a firecracker during a celebration! How can a YOUNG MAN like myself have time to wait? Until when? Until the sloth or the tamanduá goes up the tree until it reaches the embaúva stem?”, he wrote in 1893, after an unsuccessful attempt to establish a music school in Campinas. He was sidelined in favor of Leopoldo Miguez, who was connected to the anti-monarchists, and was a director of the Conservatório do Rio de Janeiro music school: “They don’t even want me as a doorman over there,” the composer lamented; his debts were increasing; he had aged; he had a serious tongue disease, he was unemployed and his son had tuberculosis. In 1895, towards the end of his life, he was invited to run the Conservatório de Belém do Pará music school; he died in Belem in 1896. “A monument in his honor was unveiled in downtown Campinas in 1905 at an event attended by government dignitaries. The Republican regime was consolidated and there was no reason for Carlos Gomes to be rejected. On the contrary, he was the foremost example of a humble Brazilian who had succeeded abroad,” Lenita points out. During the Vargas regime the human being (not the musician) became a national hero. “The Carlos Gomes Museum in Campinas has photographs of government authorities and politicians paying homage to him at his grave. One of the most interesting one is of a group of Brazilian fascists standing in line, next to the elderly Anna Gomes, the composer’s sister, with his statue in the background.” Finally, Carlos Gomes came on to the radio, taken by the Vargas dictatorship, a practice which continued during the military regime.

“The absence in his life was that he was unable to connect with the true nature of his nation. Indeed, he was inevitably linked to his nation, its historical context and its limits,” Mammì points out. It is no wonder, says Lenita, that once again Nhô Tonico writes a letter in which he describes his childhood, his longing for the flowering trees and the games played on the streets of his hometown, where he followed processions and played pranks with his friends or flew kites in the skies of Campinas. He never dreamed of being a hero.