The history of music is filled with the stories of women who fought tooth and nail to be there. Many musical women struggled with economic insecurity, the disapproval and dismissal of their society and families, and worse. But despite the difficulties, many still stubbornly found a way to make a life practicing the art they loved.
Composer, pianist, and conductor Chiquinha Gonzaga was one such woman. She overcame all the typical obstacles and more. Sadly, she paid a steep price for doing so: her pursuit of a career cost her not only her reputation, but her family. And yet despite her losses, she was convinced that a life in music would ultimately prove worthwhile. Music could be a tool to lead her – and others – to a kind of freedom and even (eventually) legitimacy.
Francisca Edwiges Neves Gonzaga was born in Rio de Janeiro on 17 October 1847. Her nineteen-year-old mother, Maria Rosa de Lima, was the unmarried daughter of a slave. (Slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888.) Gonzaga’s father was José Neves Gonzaga Basileu, a military officer from a wealthy noble family. Said family was horrified by his relationship and new daughter, but over their objections, he married Maria Rosa de Lima and acknowledged Francisca as his own.
Chiquinha, as the little girl became known, received a good education for a woman of the era; it was hoped this would attract a suitable husband and prepare her to serve the imperial family. A priest taught her the basics – reading, writing, arithmetic, and languages – while an uncle and a local conductor were in charge of her musical education. She had a great affinity for music; she composed her first piece at eleven.
But when she was sixteen, the purpose of her education was realized: her father had found Chiquinha a husband. The groom was Jacinto Ribeiro do Amaral, an officer of the Imperial Navy who was eight years her senior. This early marriage resulted in three children, the youngest arriving when Chiquinha was only twenty. Jacinto hated music and went so far as to forbid his new wife from playing guitar or the piano. Chiquinha did not take kindly to this. According to legend, after several years of friction, Jacinto finally demanded that his wife choose between him or music. She answered, “Well, sir, my husband, I do not understand life without harmony.” She then asked for a divorce.
The gutsiness – and some would argue insanity – of her decision cannot be overstated. Not only did she lose economic security and custody of her two youngest children, but her father declared Chiquinha “dead and of unpronounceable name.” The rift in their relationship proved permanent.
Abandoned and disowned by her family, Chiquinha sought affection elsewhere. She fell in love with a wealthy railroad engineer named João Batista de Carvalho, and in the mid-1870s she gave birth to a daughter named Maria Alice. However, their relationship faltered once Chiquinha discovered that João was cheating on her. Again she left, ceding custody of her daughter. Her reputation, already in tatters, disintegrated even further.
In 1876 Chiquinha was a 29-year-old divorcée, shunned by her family, responsible for a young son, and possessing little else besides musical talent and an iron will. She traveled to Rio de Janeiro, took up with the artistic scene there, and began to teach not just music, but math, history, Portuguese, and geography. In between giving lessons, she played piano in music stores, cabarets, and even pastry shops.
During these artistically formative years, she took inspiration from the culture and street music surrounding her. Chiquinha’s multiracial ancestry was common, and 1870s Rio was an alluring swirl of cultural diversity. Slavery had become an inescapable component of Brazilian life; roughly 40% of enslaved Africans sent to the Americas ended up in Brazil. These millions of slaves brought with them striking dance rhythms like the lundu and the batuque. A new genre of popular music influenced by these dances began flourishing in Rio in the late nineteenth century. It became known as choro, and it was fast, light-hearted, and uniquely Brazilian. Chiquinha helped bring the genre to life, synthesizing various African-inspired elements into her compositions and improvisations.
Her popularity as a performer began to grow. She was invited by well-known flutist Joaquim Antônio da Silva Callado to join his group Choro Carioca, which performed at events and parties. In 1877 she wrote the polka Atraente (“Attraction”), which began life as an improvisation at the home of composer Henrique Alves de Mesquita. It became a huge hit, and suddenly Chiquinha Gonzaga was famous.
But Chiquinha wasn’t going to stop with just one hit song under her belt. She built on her success, continued composing, and even began to perform in vaudeville. She saw the burgeoning popularity of musical theater and became determined to capture a part of the action herself, writing songs and even lyrics for the theater. In 1885 she composed the operetta “A Corte na Roça” and made her conducting debut, becoming the first woman in Brazil to ever conduct publicly. There was no word in Portuguese to describe her; the press was forced to resort to the Italian term maestrina. She continued writing and performing with superhuman prolificness, and scored another massive success in 1899 with Ó Abre Alas (“Oh open the Way”), which became an unofficial anthem of Carnival.
That same year she also entered into the most meaningful romantic relationship of her life…and the most scandalous. She was 52 and her lover, amateur musician João Batista Fernandes Lage, only 16. Returning from a trip to Portugal in 1901, Chiquinha announced to her friends that João Batista was her son. Only a few people knew the truth, which did not become widely known until after her death. Despite the age difference, it was the longest-lasting intimate relationship of Chiquinha’s life.
Fifty minutes of works by Chiquinha Gonzaga.
Not surprisingly, given her independent and headstrong nature, Chiquinha agitated for various social causes, including suffrage and republicanism. In the 1880s she became an activist for abolitionism, selling sheet music to raise money and even outright buying the freedom of a slave named Jose Flauta.
Her most famous and consequential political stance, however, came after the turn of the century. In 1900 she befriended a remarkable young woman named Nair de Tefé von Hoonholtz, a painter, singer, pianist, and cartoonist. In 1913, Nair married Hermes Rodrigues da Fonseca, the President of Brazil, and became the nation’s First Lady. The following year, the two women teamed up to present a provocative event at the presidential palace. Together, with Chiquinha on piano and Nair de Tefé on guitar, they performed Chiquinha’s “Corta Jaca.” The performance was scandalous: no one had ever played popular music with African dance roots at the palace before, especially not on guitar, which was widely regarded as an instrument for the poor and drunk. None of this mattered to the two women. Their fearless performance in the halls of power made not just a musical statement, but a political one about the worthiness and indeed importance of celebrating the culture of Brazil’s oppressed peoples.
A fab performance of Corta Jaca. If it sounds familiar to you, Darius Milhaud used this piece to great effect in his irrepressible surrealist 1920 ballet score Le Bœuf sur le toit. It took me fifteen years to realize this tune was actually written by a woman, but…so it goes. *sigh*
Chiquinha also began advocating for authors’ and composers’ rights to the copyrights of their works. In 1917 she founded the Sociedade Brasileira de Autores Teatrales (the Brazilian Society of Theater Authors). It was the first organization of its kind, and it sought to protect lyricists and composers from publisher exploitation.
Chiquinha Gonzaga continued composing until her death. In fact, she had her greatest creative success in 1911 with the musical Forrobodó, which ran for 1500 performances. Her last opera was Maria, written when she was 86. Over the course of her career, she wrote around 2000 pieces, including the music for no less than 77 plays. She died in 1935, João Batista Fernandes Lage at her side.
Depressingly, Chiquinha Gonzaga’s life story isn’t tremendously well-known outside of Brazil. That said, she became the inspiration for an eponymous 1999 TV show, which is more recognition than most women on this blog end up getting. I don’t speak Portuguese, but I enjoyed watching what I could find on Youtube anyway.
Nowadays you can access the scores to many of her works at this digital archive. So what are you waiting for? Play her work! Because Chiquinha Gonzaga’s legacy is about more than her two thousand charming, elegantly arresting dances. The sacrifices she made to compose them serve as a testament to her belief in the power of music and its ability to grant value to her own life, as well as to the lives of others who may have been marginalized, discounted, and forgotten.
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