Ernesto Júlio de Nazareth was born in Rio de Janeiro, on March 20, 1863. Son of Vasco Lourenço da Silva Nazareth, customs officer, and Carolina Augusta da Cunha Nazareth, he lived in a modest home with his parents, situated in an area known as "Flancos do Morro do Nheco" (later known as “Morro do Pinto”), in between the districts of Santo Cristo and Cidade Nova.
As a child, he studied piano with his mother, an excellent pianist. At ten years of age, he fell off a tree and suffered a violent cerebral concussion, causing a series of auditory problems, which along the years almost led him to complete deafness.
In 1874, upon the death of his mother, he received piano lessons from Eduardo Madeira, a family friend, and later from Lucien Lambert, a famous French piano professor who lived in Rio de Janeiro. With the first teacher he studied a year and a half; with the second he only had eight classes. Afterwards, he studied alone, which made him largely self-taught. As for his elementary studies, they were administered by Priest Belmonte, at Colégio São Francisco de Paula, at Praça Tiradentes.
In 1877, at the age of fourteen he composes his first song, the polka-lundu “Você bem Sabe” (You know it really well), which was published a year later by Casa Arthur Napoleão & Miguez, located at Rua do Ouvidor, 89. Two years later, already evidencing the characteristics of the “Brazilian tango,” a kind of music that would later lead his name to achieve legendary fame, he published the polka “Cruz, Perigo!” (Gosh, danger!), which quickly becomes popular.
On March 8, 1880, twelve days before turning seventeen, he takes part in a recital at Salão do Clube Mozart, probably his first public presentation.
In 1881 he composes and releases the polka “Não Caio n’outra!!!” (I won't fall for that again!!!), his first great hit, based on the number of reprints.
In 1885 he plays in concerts held at the clubs Rio Comprido, Engenho Velho, Riachuelense do Engenho Novo and São Cristóvão. In the next year he also performs at the O Rossini club, located at Praça Onze.
On July 14, 1886, at the church São Francisco Xavier do Engenho Velho, he marries Theodora Amália Leal de Meirelles (1852/1929), who then adopted the name Theodora Amália Meirelles de Nazareth. From this union were born Eulina (1887/1971), Diniz (1883/1983), Maria de Lourdes (1892/1917) and “Ernestinho” (1896/1962). At that time he was already earning his living with the sale of his compositions, giving private piano lessons, and playing at dances, christenings and weddings parties.
In 1889, his thirteenth polka was published, “Atrevidinha” (Forward Young Girl). And during the same period he composes the quadrille "Chile-Brasil" (Chile-Brazil), which he would only see published later, in 1897.
In 1893, he had a tango and a waltz printed for the first time: "Brejeiro” (Coquettish) and “Julita.”
Around 1894, he started working as a pianist at Casa Vieira Machado & Cia., located at Rua dos Ourives (later Rua Miguel Couto), 51. Brejeiro became Nazareth’s most successful composition in the 19th century. During the same period, the waltz “Helena,” firstly published in 1896, would also become his most popular waltz.
After the initiative taken by the São Cristóvão club, he performed in 1898 at the Salão Nobre da Intendência da Guerra ("Noble Salon of the War Commissariat"); the exact date and program performed are, however, not known. In the following year, his first edition of “Turuna,” (Brazilian slang for Daredevil) a “grand characteristic tango” is released.
In 1901, Ernesto Nazareth finishes “Batuque” (generic designation of Afro-Brazilian Negro dances), a characteristic tango. In the following year, sponsored by “Casa Edison” (Odeon), he had the first of his compositions made into a record: “Está Chumbado" (He's plastered) is recorded by the "Banda do Corpo de Bombeiros" (Band of the Firefighters), conducted by Anacleto de Medeiros.
In 1903, he composes the waltz "Coração que Sente” (A heart that feels) and later, in 1904, he meets the celebrated North American pianist Ernest Schelling. At that time the Rio de Janeiro musical community intensely commented when the illustrious foreigner went home taking with him a large number of Nazareth’s compositions.
In 1905, Casa Edison released Odeon and Brejeiro with lyrics from Catullo da Paixão Cearense and played by Mário Pinheiro. In the same year, the first edition of the Tangos Escovado (Brazilian slang used for the word “shrewd”) and Ferramenta (Tool) were released. Below the author’s name, the score of the latter shows the oldest annotation of the epithet “king of the tango."
At least until December 1906 the composer still worked at Casa Vieira Machado & Cia., located at Rua da Ouvidor, 147 (new address).
In 1907, at the age of forty-four, he was hired as third clerk at the Tesouro Nacional (Department of the Treasury). This was the only time he tried an activity not related to music; he stayed there for a very short time, deciding to leave before taking tests for a permanent position.
In the following year, he begins to work as a pianist-demonstrator at Casa Mozart (owned by his Portuguese friend Lino José Barbosa), located at Avenida Central, later Avenida Rio Branco, 127. Between August and November he is invited by conductor Alberto Nepomuceno to play twice at the Exposição Nacional (National Exhibition), an event that took place at Praia Vermelha (Red Beach) to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Opening of Brazilian Ports to Foreign Trade.
On June 6, 1909, Nazareth takes part in a recital at the “Instituto Nacional de Música” (The National Music Institute); this event takes place at Rua Luis de Camões, where he played his gavotte "Corbeille de Fleurs” (Basket of Flowers) and the “characteristic tango” Batuque. He also accompanied Heitor Villa-Lobos in the piece “Le Cygne” (The Swan), by Saint-Saëns, for the violoncello and piano. This could have been Villa-Lobos’ first public presentation (at which time, he would have been twenty-two years old), since no other made on prior dates has ever been recorded.
In 1910, he began dividing his activities between Casa Mozart and the waiting area of the old Odeon Cinema. In the same year he composes and publishes, on his own account, the tango “Odeon,” dedicated to the owners of the Odeon Cinema.
Two years later, the first editions of the tango “Carioca” (Native or inhabitant of the City of Rio de Janeiro) and the waltz “Expansiva” (Extrovert), his most recognized piece of the genre, are published. He also releases records with Casa Edison (Edison Recording Company),accompanied by the flautist Pedro de Alcântara: the tangos Odeon and Favorito (Favorite), the polkas “Linguagem do Coração” (Language of the Heart) composed by Callado, and “Choro e Poesias” (Choro and Poems), by Alcântara himself.
In 1913, he leaves Odeon but continues to work at Casa Mozart. In the same year the “characteristic tango” Batuque, dedicated to the conductor Henrique Oswald, and the waltz “Confidências,” (Secrets) dedicated to the poet and popular romantic singer, Catullo da Paixão Cearense, are printed.
The polka “Apanhei-te, Cavaquinho!” (I’ve got you, Cavaquinho!), published in 1914, enjoys a thunderous success. In 1917, he returns to the Odeon Cinema, now also working as pianist of a small orchestra in which Villa-Lobos participates as a violinist. On December 1st his daughter Maria de Lourdes passes away at the age of twenty-three.
In 1918, he leaves the Odeon Cinema, but it is important to note that during his second phase there he meets Arthur Rubinstein, Darius Milhaud and Francisco Mignone.
In 1919, he starts working as a pianist-demonstrator at Casa Carlos Gomes, located at Rua Gonçalves Dias 75, owned by the composer and also pianist Eduardo Souto. Two years later, Villa-Lobos dedicates the piece “Choro #1” for the guitar to Ernesto Nazareth.
With the tango “O futurista” (The Futurist), which was concluded and published in 1922, the author tried to show to the “modernists” of the time that “even if a piece of music has some dissonance, it does not necessarily mean it lacks beauty!” On December 16, invited by Luciano Gallet, he performs his tangos Brejeiro, Nenê (Baby), Bambino (Little Boy) and Turuna (Brazilian slang for Daredevil) at the “Instituto Nacional de Música,” (The National Music Institute) located at Rua do Passeio, 98.
At the end of 1925 he leaves Casa Carlos Gomes to prepare a tour in the State of São Paulo. In April, 1926 he leaves for São Paulo, where he plays at the most important theaters: the Municipal Theater and the Musical and Drama Conservatory. The concert at the Municipal was preceded by a speech about the composer made by the eminent writer and musicologist Mario de Andrade. He also visited the cities of Campinas, Sorocaba and Tatuí, where he confirmed the enthusiasm and attention devoted by all audiences to his works, and managed to publish the tangos “Desengonçado” (Clumsy), “Paulicéa, como és formosa!...” (São Paulo, how beautiful you are!...), “Quebra-Cabeças” (Puzzle), and the waltzes “Celestial” (Celestial), “Dirce” (Dirce), and “Elegantíssima” (Extremely Elegant).
Eleven months later, in March 1927, he goes to Rio de Janeiro, bringing with him the manuscripts of the tangos “Cruzeiro” (a train journey made at the time between the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo), “Cubanos” (Cuban People), and “Paraíso” (Paradise) (Milonga-style). In the same year, he also publishes the tango “Proeminente” (Eminent), dedicated to the Polish pianist Mieczyslaw (Miécio) Horszowski.
In December 1928, if the date of his first published song is considered as a reference, Ernesto Nazareth completes fifty years of artistic accomplishments. On May 5, 1929, at the age of seventy-four, his wife Theodora Amália dies of natural causes. Between the end of the same year and the beginning of the next Ernesto Nazareth composes three carnival marches: “Exuberante” (Exuberant), “Crises em penca” (A bunch of crises) and “Comigo é na Madeira” (For me it's with the guitar).
In May, 1930, he finishes what will be his last composition: the waltz “Resignação” (Resignation). In September, accepting an invitation received from Eduardo Souto, the artistic director of Odeon-Parlophon, he records Apanhei-te, Cavaquinho!, Escovado, Nenê, and Turuna. Only the record with the two first compositions becomes commercially available to the public. In the following year, he appears in radio programs at the Sociedade do Rio de Janeiro radio (currently the radio of the Ministry of Education and Culture - MEC), and the Mayrink Veiga radio station.
On January 5, 1932, he played a recital exclusively based on his compositions at the Studio Nicolas, located at Rua Alcindo Guanabara, 55, 2nd floor. A few days later, accompanied by his daughter, Eulina and a friend called Maria Mercedes Mendes Teixeira, he travels by ship to the State of Rio Grande do Sul, where he plays in the cities of Porto Alegre, Rosário and Sant’Anna do Livramento. On that occasion he takes with him his latest published composition, “Gaúcho” (a cowboy of the South American grassland plains - pampas), a Brazilian tango dedicated “to the noble Gaúcho people.”
After the tour he leaves for Montevideo, capital of Uruguay, from where he travels back to Rio de Janeiro. However, while in Montevideo he suffers a series of nervous breakdowns inside the music instrument store owned by Julio Mouqués. In Rio, after a series of tests, he is diagnosed with syphilis. Because of the irreversible stage of his neurological condition, the composer was initially hospitalized at the Gaffrée and Guinle Foundation, at the time located in one of the residences of the late Portuguese Emperor D. Pedro II, in the district of “Praia Vermelha,” and later (on March 4, 1933), at the Juliano Moreira asylum, in the city of Jacarepaguá, State of Rio de Janeiro.
On February 1, 1934 he escapes from the asylum and passes away (possibly on the same day), drowning in the waters of a local dam . His body was found on February 4, and he was buried on the next day, at the São Francisco Xavier cemetery. The composer died at the age of seventy years, ten months and ten days.
Ernesto Nazareth, one of the greatest names of the Choro, left for posterity 88 tangos, 41 waltzes, 28 polkas, as well as anthems, sambas, marches, quadrilles, schottisches, foxtrots and romances, among other kinds of music, totaling 211 compositions undisputedly written by him.