Considered by many key musicians, reviewers and specialists in Brazil and in the world as the greatest Brazilian tango composer and one of the leading Choro exponents, Ernesto Nazareth found his inspiration in the groups of chorões to create compositions of remarkable rhythmic uniqueness.
Although this fact was not totally accepted by Ernesto Nazareth, the maxixe, the lundu and other African dance beats also influenced his work. A classically-educated musician, the author refused the maxixe “popular” designation for his songs, and would rather adopt the name “Brazilian tango." In time, the tangos became the composer’s most important speciality, with Odeon and Brejeiro leading the rank of the most famous.
"The work composed by Ernesto Nazareth is excellent music. To a certain extent we could say that his style is much more classical than popular, for the richness of his melodies, for his harmonic findings, and the perfect form of his compositions," says Eudóxia de Barros, one of the greatest pianists and interpreters of Nazareth of all times, responsible for his revival through the recording of memorable LPs in the 60s and acclaimed concert performances throughout her life.
“Nazareth composed classical music, classics that are still present today. Some songs were written more than 100 years ago, and are still played today," says Luiz Antonio de Almeida, the composer’s major biographer. “The music composed by Nazareth is classical, but has a popular set of themes," adds the biographer.
“Ernesto Júlio de Nazareth was more than a dance and evening concert pianist of the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. He was the person who found the most efficient way of reproducing a choro ensemble on the keyboard, thus creating an unmatched style. Today he is known worldwide for his songs, which are recorded by piano players from all over the world, from Japan to Brazil, and he is acclaimed with special affection by Choro ensembles of all types and formations," says Alexandre Dias, a pianist and researcher of Nazareth’s discography.
A Chopin enthusiast, his work was decisively influenced by the Polish composer, but his major inspiration was the simplicity and originality of both Brazilian and popular themes.
According to the 95-year-old pianist and musicologist Aloysio de Alencar Pinto, who met the composer personally, “Nazareth was the greatest Brazilian popular music composer of his time, having achieved classical music standards. It is the kind of music most played by Choro ensembles. The music he created has endured throughout time. He was a composer comparable to the greatest musicians in the world,” points out Aloysio.
His piano repertoire is part of both classical and popular educational programs, since the composer acted within the boundaries of these two universes.
What is his importance?
Whenever inquired about the importance of Ernesto Nazareth to Brazilian Music, I would sometimes get all mixed-up trying to improvise an answer that would show my expertise in the subject, and some other times I would just repeat quotations from renowned authors that would ratify my own conclusions, thus releasing me from making those typical exaggerated remarks of a fervent admirer.
What follows, therefore, is an attempt to put on the paper in a simple manner - even if longish - a very well documented discussion about so interesting a theme.
The relevance of an artistic manifestation will always be subject to the reaction, whether positive or negative, that will follow thereafter. That is to say: as from the moment in which somebody, or a movement, enduringly interferes in structures already established, then we’ll have something truly significant.
When Ernest Nazareth appeared, in the late 1870s, we didn’t have a “genuinely Brazilian” music, but rather something “made in Brazil.” Most composers of the time didn’t even consider the possibility of expressing themselves through an essentially national language. Just a few of them, in fact, developed something in this respect, each in his own way, which leads us to acknowledge the following names (in chronological order) as a generation of settlers: Henrique Alves de Mesquita, Antonio Carlos Gomes, Brasílio Itiberê da Cunha, Francisca Edwiges Neves Gonzaga, Joaquim Antonio da Silva Callado Júnior, Ernesto Nazareth, Alexandre Lévy, and Alberto Nepomuceno.
It seems, though, that among those names it was Nazareth who achieved the best results in terms of systemizing the Brazilian music.
With incomparable lucidity, he synchronized European dances with some Brazilian choreographic forms, and gave them new colors by adapting and adjusting the rhythmic-melodic material. This tropical approach of adapting foreign forms was inspired in popular facts, systemized by Nazareth and afterwards adopted by the people. (…) This was undoubtedly the most important contribution made in his time to the Brazilian music.
Aloysio de Alencar Pinto (12)
The position held by Ernesto Nazareth in the history of Brazilian music is of major importance, since he established melodic formulas, harmonic schemes and rhythmic cells in the musical agenda that eventually came to represent the national musicality. (…) Nazareth channeled all the music that was scattered around the corners to the piano. He captured, refined, filtered, transformed, and condensed in his piano pieces the rhythmic and melodic formula of the choro, the carioca serenade style, and the improvised slang of the maxixe.
Mozart de Araújo (11)
Other composers, contemporaries of Nazareth - notably Alves de Mesquita, Callado and Anacleto de Medeiros - also wrote music with nationalist tendencies. The influence exerted by Ernesto Nazareth on popular and classical composers was and remains evident. Even musicians with the immense clout enjoyed by Villa-Lobos praised Nazareth’s works and used them for artistic and aesthetic solutions.
Francisco Mignone (07)
Along with Joaquim Antonio da Silva Calado and Chiquinha Gonzaga, Ernesto Nazareth completes the trinity of authors who best represented this process of establishing one type of national music, to which the so-called "serious" composers jealously started to help themselves.
Luiz Heitor (05)
As a matter of fact, some of the most important Brazilian musicians, such as Villa-Lobos, Mignone, Lorenzo-Fernandez (1897/1948), Camargo Guarnieri (1907/1993), and Marlos Nobre (1939) drank from Nazareth’s spring; but certainly it was because they acknowledged his nationalist values.
He is the true incarnation of the Brazilian musical soul; his wonderful mind spontaneously conveyed the live emotions of a certain people, whose character he typically presents in his music.
Heitor Villa-Lobos (01)
Nevertheless, Villa-Lobos would be referring to the “Brazilian soul” of which region - Northern, Southern, Southwestern, Central Western?
Ernesto Nazareth is not entirely a representative of the Brazilian soul. He lacks the generality of national matters. He is more connected to the land in which he was born. He is a marvelous composer from Rio de Janeiro. His rhythmic findings evoke the environment in which he lived, and only afterwards they will, maybe, reflect national fashions of a general order.
Baptista Siqueira (14)
Also, it does not seem that Ernesto Nazareth was the “inventor” of any kind of rhythm, as stated by some researchers. What he did, just as many of his generation, was to pass on to the paper several rhythms already systematized, adding, however, some particular features of his personality and thus creating a style of his own, but never a “new or original rhythm!...” There were even those who tried to rename the “Brazilian tango” as “Nazarethxixe,” which, in spite of being very nice, is absolutely inappropriate.
As to classifying Ernesto Nazareth as a popular or classical musician, first we should clarify that there is a tendency amongst critics who would rather use the term classical instead of erudite. For me, these two expressions perfectly apply to him, since according to the Aurélio Dictionary, erudite means one “that is characterized by erudition, that is learned” and classical as something “of the highest quality,” “whose value has been proved by time” “without ornamentation excesses; simple, plain” “writer, artist or well-known work of high category.” Therefore, there will be no mistake in classifying our celebrated composer as erudite – if in his works we find a whole lot of knowledge deriving from a very prepared author – or classical, for the perpetuity of his legacy.
Ernesto Nazareth, however, is a real “erudite” composer, and this can be evidenced by observing some features of his work, which sets him far above the poor technical and artistic levels of popular musicians: (1) beautiful and original melodies, always different from one piece to the next; (2) rich and coherent harmony; (3) a precise rhythm, although variable, within the limits imposed by the dance selected; (4) above all that, in his vast production, a significant diversity of pianistic technique solutions.
Osvaldo Lacerda (04)
If Nazareth’s music has all classical features (as to both form and contents), if it maintains the universal aesthetic principles of variety in its unity, if in its formal models - both in terms of structure and design – it follows the best of all classics, (...) then this music has only one destiny: "to live while there is intelligence on Earth."
Baptista Siqueira (14)
An artist of irregular formation, practically a self-taught man, but intending to become a great interpreter of the classical repertoire, Ernesto would never live exclusively from recitals; instead of undertaking a career abroad or “wangling a job” as a public servant, he was compelled to involve himself with popular music, which language was closer to the reality that surrounded him.
The predominance, in his work, of a few dances pertaining to our music (tango, maxixe, waltz, and polka) and his limitation to just one instrument lead many people to classify him as a “popular” or at best semi-classical composer.
Osvaldo Lacerda (04)
His music has been widely questioned: classical or popular? Music can be classified as classical, folk or popular. There is, however, between the terms classical and popular, this intermediate definition - semi-classical – within which Nazareth’s music falls perfectly. In other words, his music can also be considered a classic of the popular music. We can also use the same line of reasoning to classify the works of Eduardo Souto, Chiquinha Gonzaga, Zequinha de Abreu or Marcelo Tupinambá, although not assigning the same level of geniality. Nazareth is as important for us as Strauss was for Austria.
Eudóxia de Barros (10)
In many other quotations, not only in these two reproduced here we find the expression “semi-classical.” It is therefore convenient to clarify how incorrect it is when applied to Nazareth’s work. First, semi means “half” or “partial,” and if on the one hand he wasn’t a musician as complete as Francisco Mignone - who composed maxixes, cateretês, as well as concerts, dances, operas and symphonies – on the other hand Ernesto was never a “partial” or “half” musician!...” To classify him as “half anything” just because he composed exclusively for one given instrument would be at least lack of better knowledge of the subject. If nobody, for example, has ever created, or will never create a dance about the theme of Negroes that has been or will be more interesting than the Maracatu de Chico-Rey composed by Mignone, does it mean that someone would ever have composed, or will ever compose a more original and amazing “Brazilian tango” than Odeon, written by Nazareth?
Ernesto Nazareth only intended to make something very well written and structured within the strictest musical rules, since he believed that this way his work would not be relegated to minor categories like many of his contemporaries. He was aware that through pleasing the most sensitive spirits and the most demanding interpreters his art would become immortal. And that is it.
Two things give me immense pleasure: one person reverently listening to me and a “puzzled” pianist trying to overcome any given difficulty found in my music!...
Ernesto Nazareth (09)
Scott Joplin (1868/1917), the North American parallel of our composer, spent all his financial and physical resources to write a “rag opera” called Treemonisha (1911), which was staged only once during the author’s life (1915). It is an interesting work, although it bears no relevance to universal music, since what made the name of this black artist internationally renowned were his incomparable “rags” or “ragtimes.”
As to the term “popular”, we should understand it as “inherent to the people,” “made for the people,” “pleasant for the people” or “vulgar, trivial, ordinary.” Nazareth was not popular, in the broad sense of the word, as Chiquinha Gonzaga (O abre-alas – Please Make Way), Catullo da Paixão Cearense (Luar do sertão – Backcountry Moonlight), Eduardo Souto (Tatu subiu no pau – The armadillo climbed the trunk), and José Barbosa da Silva or “Sinhô”(Gosto que me enrosco – It strikes me as laughable), among others. Rather, he was “popularized,” that is to say: “recognized or esteemed by the people.”
It cannot be said that because Ernesto Nazareth wrote tangos, waltzes and polkas he was a popular music composer. He composed these pieces with such an elegant technique and fantastic performance style that they became inaccessible to those who do not master the keyboard.
Mariza Lira (13)
Everything Nazareth wrote focused on the piano. And the piano was never an instrument “inherent to the people,” “made for the people…” The composer always concerned himself with giving a nobler conception to his art, and systematically avoided degenerating into vulgarism.
My music was not written to be danced to; but, rather, to be heard!...
Ernesto Nazareth (09)
He was typically the creator of a work directed at the middle and upper classes, since any less fortunate person would stand a very remote chance to get to any music store, ask for a given score, pay for it and find an instrument at his/her disposal at home, not to mention having the necessary knowledge to play it. Machado de Assis (1939/1908) once said that “popular music is the one that invites you to dance, the one you memorize quickly…” Taking in consideration his waltzes and some polkas, what “tangos” written by Nazareth could we really consider as an “invitation to dance?”
Nazareth not even wrote dances to be danced. His admirable synthesis of the urban dance - the choro, the serenade - has an essentially artistic and concert-like nature. He didn't like to have his waltzes, tangos or polkas played "to be danced to." It would humiliate him... He wanted to be "heard," and if he didn't get anybody’s attention, he would stop playing.
Andrade Muricy (08)
Chiquinha Gonzaga wrote and promoted the maxixe. But not Nazareth!!! If anyone ever danced to “Brejeiro” as a maxixe, Nazareth had nothing to do with it…
Baptista Siqueira (14)
(…) we could also point out the anti-choreographic nature of many of the composer’s works. As the author of a work almost entirely composed of dancing pieces (tangos, waltzes, polkas, schottisches, quadrilhas (sort of quadrille) and mazurkas), Nazareth wasn’t always - strictly speaking - an author of music meant for dancing. Not all his waltzes, not all his tangos – although structured in regular and symmetric periods – may be danced to. And by the statements given by those who were close to him, we can affirm that Nazareth did not compose them thinking of dances, even though the ballroom was the favorite scenario for his performances. He much preferred family soirées to evening parties.
Mozart de Araújo (11)
In relation to “memorizing quickly,” certainly Machado was referring to songs with simple melodies or verses. From the 212 pieces of the brilliant carioca composer, only 19 were originally written with lyrics, and out of these only nine were published.
As a matter of fact, in the extensive list of works of our composer, we did not find more than five or six pieces provided with lyrics. And in these small number of pieces the absence of vocals is clear, i.e., the absence of those features that for being so naturally adjusted to the nature of the human voice, make the songs so singable. (…) Against vocals and choreographies, Nazareth was, by temperament, a ballroom musician: hence the pianistic nature of his works. We will never be able to find such perfect command of the keyboard and such refined pianistic technique in the works produced by composers in his category.
Mozart de Araújo (11)
One aspect of Nazareth’s personality that enhances his tendencies toward irreproachable music should also be pointed out: the complete absence (!) of lyrics, which deprived his work of an essential feature of the so called popular music, exactly one of the reasons for being accepted in the popular layers – the amalgamation of melody and poetry.
Edigar de Alencar (02)
Chiquinha Gonzaga and Nazareth had very different natures, but they supplemented each other. Chiquinha Gonzaga was more popular, her art is closer to ballads, a type of music that touched people incomparably. Nazareth tried this musical genre, unsuccessfully. Chiquinha Gonzaga was entirely at ease in terms of popular music. She did not seek, as did Nazareth, to compose grand music.
Andrade Muricy (08)
Well then, how can one explain the success achieved by Ernesto Nazareth in the musical milieu of his time?
By reading and comparing Nazareth’s works, I realized that all his pieces - even the first ones – can be ranked far higher than those left by his colleagues. (…) In spite of being good pianists, none of them reached, like Nazareth, that excellence in their métier, that spirited work in which the melody, the harmony and the rhythm are almost spontaneously adapted, in which a refinement of expression already exceeded the limits of popular music and unpretentiously reached levels of artistic creation. Using material that others would regard with disdain, he produced real findings for our music.
Aloysio de Alencar Pinto (12)
His unparalleled popularity, both in extension and deepness – the greatest of all times - was eventually achieved by the persistence of the beauty and perfection present in his compositions.
Mariza Lira (03)
(...) what a poetic force, what rhythmic purity of this composer that would become popular just by the hot and tasty rhythm of his melodies! And, above all, what faithfulness, what true native feelings he had, to reflect in his scores the life of Rio de Janeiro of that time.
Edigar de Alencar (02)
Based on the popularity of Nazareth’s pianistic music, we may rank him as the second composer that was really able to reach the vast Brazilian public of music lovers, after Carlos Gomes. And it is most likely that the semi-popular nature of his work has helped him to gain access to so many homes (...); but what seems obvious is that his music holds a firm and permanent place in our hearts.
Vasco Mariz (06)
Moreover: if the intrinsic value of Ernesto Nazareth’s work particularly helped its dissemination, we should not forget the privileged condition of its author as an interpreter, which guaranteed the access of his pieces to the most important music promoters.
Composer, pianist, accompanist and private piano professor, Ernesto Nazareth played in clubs, dances, christening and wedding parties, worked in music stores and movie theaters, toured, recorded albums, performed on radio programs, etc; accordingly, he reached a popularity that very few of his generation had the chance to know. From the publication of his first music piece, in December 1878, until his last recital, in February 1932, 53 years of artistic activities went by. Five decades of pure, sincere and beneficial devotion to music!
But, if Ernesto Nazareth had so significant a role in the Brazilian music, why then did he have to rely on the care of his children, at the end of his life, so that he would not live in absolute poverty?
Let us quote three absolutely significant reasons:
1) the geographic reason: he was born in Brazil;
2) the reason concerning copyright: we know that only today, thanks to the perfecting of copyright laws and respective collection procedures a celebrated artist can compare the balance of his current account to the prominence of his name;
3) the instrumentalist reason: the piano, as principal means used to promote his art, was gradually replaced by the phonographs, gramophones, record players, and radios;
Therefore, Nazareth, as well as Francisca Gonzaga, Eduardo Souto, Zequinha de Abreu (1880/1935) and Marcello Tupynambá, among others, gradually left the scene. Ernesto really started to rely on the assistance of his children; Chiquinha survived on some savings, plus some compensation received from an institution called SBAT, which she helped to organize; Souto, already of age, resumed his previous activities as bank clerk; Zequinha became a door-to-door music salesman; and Tupynambá, already blind, came to pass away in a house that he had managed to buy with money raised in a public subscription.