A TALK WITH ALEXANDRE DIAS
Alexandre Dias is a classical pianist, researcher and collector of Brazilian Popular music, and co-founder of Arcevo, the digital archive of Chiquinha Gonzaga’s work.
MLB: How did you discover Chiquinha’s music?
AD: In 1999, thanks to a TV series that made her work very popular in Brazil. Suddenly, many pianists recorded Chiquinha’s music, including Maria Teresa Madeira, who also recorded Ernesto Nazareth’s work. Ernesto Nazareth and Chiquinha Gonzaga have a lot in common. They both composed the same musical forms including polka, quadrilha, tango and they both used the same publishing company in Rio de Janeiro (Arthur Napoleão). As researcher of Brazilian Popular Music and recording collector, I also have an interest in ‘choro’ music and Chiquinha’s name is very much connected to that style.
MLB: I know Chiquinha is considered the mother of choro. Can you please explain why?
AD: Chiquinha was born in 1847, one year before Antonio da Silva Callado, a flutist considered the father of choro, born in 1848. Antonio and Chiquinha were friends and they played together a lot. Callado is credited as having the first Choro group in history, which was called ‘O Choro do Callado’. Back then choro wasn’t a genre but a group of musicians or a way to play music. At that time we didn’t have ‘Brazilian music’ as it is known nowadays. We had European music and Brazilian composers were writing in that style. Eventually the ‘Batuque’ meaning the African rhythms imported by the African slaves, enriched Brazilian music enormously. Brazilian composers started introducing these rhythms in their compositions, mixing syncopations with European musical forms. Chiquinha played piano in a choro group for the first time in history. Choro groups usually don’t have piano and the ensemble is composed by a soloist (either a flute, mandolin or clarinet), a bass and usually two guitars (6 and 7 strings). Before introducing the 7 strings guitar, the ‘bombardino’ (the euphonium) was playing the bass line. In 1900 century the choro group was mostly a Trio, including guitar, ‘cavaquinho’ (the ukulele) and flute.
MLB: In addition of being an amazing composer and pianist, Chiquinha was also a very strong woman, impacting Brazilian society and culture. Let’s talk about the connection between her personal life and music.
AD: Chiquinha was born in a rich family and her father had an important status, he was a military. Her grandmother (from mother’s side) was a slave, and at that time in Brazil, the descendents of slaves were considered ‘bastards.’ Chiquinha instead was lucky enough to have the father recognizing her as his daughter and she received the best education in Rio de Janiero, learning French, Latin, Geography, Mathematic and Music. She wrote her first composition (called the ‘Cansao dos Pastores’) when she was 11 years old. When she was 16 the father arranged her to marry Jacinto do Amaral, who was a military as well. Jacinto prohibited Chiquinha to study piano and she divorced him. Chiquinha was the first woman in Brazil to get a divorce, exactly 100 years before the divorce became legal. Chiquinha was excommunicated and shortly after the divorce, she started publishing some of her compositions, including ‘Atraente’, the famous polka. Legend says that this piece was born in a choro session at Henrique Alves de Mesquita’s house, another important Brazilian composer. In 1880’s she also started writing music for theater, becoming the most prolific composer for theater in Brazil. Writing music for theater was a good source of income and to make a living she also taught Music, French, Geography, etc. She lived up to 85 years old, covering an important span of Brazilian history from the Empire till Vargas dictatorship. She was an abolitionist and a republican as well. Throughout all her life Chiquinha wrote about 300 compositions and after being repeatedly victim of copyright infringements, she contributed to the creation of 'Sociedade Brasileira de Autores Teatrais' (the Brazilian Copyright Society of Authors), serving as a board of directors. Last year, a 78 LP that features Chiquinha Gonzaga on piano was discovered. It is dated 1920 and you can hear her voice announcing the recording. This makes her the oldest musician who have had recorded in Brazil.
MLB: Understanding the influence of Folk and popular music* in the Classical tradition is an important part of my musical research. F. Chopin and B. Bartok are only few examples and your career as classical pianist as well as researcher of Brazilian Popular music also shows how much these two fields are often complementary and inseparable. Can you talk more about the connection between folk, popular and classical music in Brazil?
AD: Villa-Lobos who is considered the most important classical composer started playing guitar in choro groups, having his roots in folk and popular music. The difference between Villa-Lobos and Chopin or Bartok is very subtle and important at the same time. Even though the European composers were interested in folk or popular music they were not popular musicians. In Brazil, classical composers are also popular musicians, there is a continuum between the two styles and the distinction of genres is found in the social contextualization. For instance, Henrique Alves de Mesquita is an important Brazilian composer who studied at the conservatory in France, mastering the classical composition forms like symphonies, operas and such, but he would also write Popular musical forms. He was the first composer of Brazilian Tangos, mixing European forms with the African syncopated rhythms. His composition 'Ali Baba' is the first Brazilian Tango in history. Camargo Guarnieri who is considered the most important composer after Villa-Lobos, composed many symphonies, sonatas, and other classical forms, but he started as cinema musician, playing for silent movies, same as Francisco Mignone who was also playing flute in ‘serestas’ (serenades). Composer and violin player Cesar Guerra-Peixe wrote violin concertos and piano sonatas but he has also arranged a lot of popular music. As composers, their classical works were performed in theaters, but as folk and popular musicians they were playing in choro groups as well. The dichotomy between folk and classical was inherited from Europe and it developed due to the lack of philosophy of music (studies) that could have helped articulating these concepts and terms, avoiding such a defined distinction between the two genres.
*A distinction between folk and popular music needs to be made.
Folk music is anonymous and collective music, based on folkloric traditions. Folk melodies were transmitted orally, consolidated with time and becoming well known and recognizable. Popular music instead, is associated to specific composers and is based on specific forms, rhythms and musical idioms. Often it is notated on traditional scores used as musical reference.
MLB: Let’s talk about Chiquinha’s music. Her work is very vast and diverse.
AD: The music of Chiquinha always involves the piano to some extend. Sometimes is piano solo, piano with lyrics, or piano as part of a small orchestra. Waltzes, Brazilian Tangos and Polkas are the most explored forms but she also wrote few sacred works (a total of 6) and a lot of theater music. She wrote 48 Waltzes, some more popular oriented, some with a more classical taste. For instance, the composition ‘Yara’ has a lot of embellishments and grace notes that refer to the European classical tradition, specifically to the romantic pianistic idioms. ‘Plangente’ instead, is a valsa sentimentale. The melody is very recognizable, easy enough to be sang and it has the ‘belle époque music’ taste, (meaning the music played in cafes’ and social gatherings.) Chiquinha is a great melodist, leaving the harmonic aspect of the music very simple and rooted in tonality. Therefore, the left hand is generally playing basic rhythmical patterns and voicings to support the melody. She shared the interest in melody development with the classical romantic tradition, re-conductible to the Bel canto style. Chiquinha was the first female conductor in Brazil. Till then, there was no name indicating a female conductor and the term ‘Maestra’ or ‘Maestrina’ was created specifically for her. Up till now female conductors are referred as ‘maestrinas’. Chiquinha would conduct small orchestras, (including guitar orchestras) and perform her orchestral works in theaters, which was pretty unique for a woman. The orchestral piece ‘Uma pagina triste’, was totally unknown before we rescued it. It is very classical oriented, with a lyrical melody in D minor and no Brazilian rhythmical references. The piece ‘Estrella’ is also very much influenced by the classical European tradition, same as ‘Nao sonhes’, a romance for harp, piano and soprano. We just started collecting and studying Chiquinha’s theatrical pieces. Sometimes she would write the music for the whole opera (called ‘teatro de rivista’ which is basically a musical), other times only a few songs or even just one. In that case, several composers would collaborate in the creation of the music and Chiquinha’s name would be paired to others. The ‘comical’ aspect is very much connected to this list of works, in which she also explored the popularesco style (different from popular), indicating a more ‘low class’ taste. The theatrical works include also fantastical pieces based on magical realism, operettas, burlettas and dances. She wrote Polkas, Brazilian tangos, Brazilian Cancones, Fados, Romances and Abanheras (abanheras, polkas, lundu’ and batuques are considered the foundation of Brazilian music.) She also wrote a lot of Maxixes and the most famous is 'Gaucho Corta Jaca' in D minor. We include the name 'Corta Jaca' because the dancers would drag their feet on the floor, as if they were cutting a fruit, called jaca. Maxixe is a popular dance similar to Brazilian Tango, with a very vivid rhythm, The dance is very sensual way and for this reason it is considered not appropriate..
MLB: Can you explain the differences between Brazilian Tango and Maxixe?
AD: It’s hard to define the differences between Brazilian tango and maxixe. They both come from the same musical source, however tangos can be just heard and appreciated as performance music, maxixe needs to be danced. The rhythmic patterns are different, the tangos have 2/4 subdivided as sixteenth/eight/ sixteenth, eight, eight. Maxixe instead dotted eight/dotted eight, eight (3,3,2 feel, called the tresillo, which is an important pattern in Brazilian Popular music.) Maxixe sometimes has lyrics, Tango is more instrumental. Generally, she would write a maxixe at the end of a theatrical piece. The maxixe would conclude the musical with a lively upbeat and a sensual connotation. Nowadays, nobody composes maxixas or tangos anymore. These genres were assimilated by ‘choro’. We can consider tangos and maxixac as ancestor’s species evolved into choro, the musical style that absorbed these rhythms, fusing European musical forms with African Rhythms.