Luiz Antonio de Almeida

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Interview with Luiz Antonio de Almeida - October 2006

The Choro music team was in Rio de Janeiro in October 2006 and interviewed Luiz Antonio de Almeida. Read more:

Would you please tell us a little more about your life?

I was born in a musical family; Zequinha de Abreu was my cousin. In 1976, at 14, I saw the pianist Eudóxia de Barros in a TV show answering questions about Nazareth’s life and playing his music, and was particularly impressed with the musicality of his work. For me his music involved Brazilian themes and exceeded ordinary limits, and it touched my heart profoundly.  I started researching into his work; I bought records and started studying his compositions.

In 1978 I moved to the city of Jacarepaguá, next to the mental hospital where Ernesto Nazareth lived during his last year of life.  I eventually met the nurse who took care of him when he was already very old, and then I got close to the composer’s family.  That is how my interest in Nazareth began.  

Can you tell us a little about Ernesto Nazareth’s family?

The three men of the Nazareth family married three sisters from the Meirelles family. The first was Vasquinho, who married Guilhermina; soon after that Ernesto married her sister Teodora, and her oldest sister married Ernesto’s dad, who was then a widower.  They were very traditional families from Rio de Janeiro and very close to each other. 

Ernesto had four children: Eulina, Diniz, Maria de Lourdes and Ernestinho… I met Jolita, Nazareth’s niece, when she was 85. Ernesto Nazareth did not have grandchildren, but he had 4 nephews. At 17, already very interested in the family, I met the old generation and practically was adopted by them. I met Ernesto Nazareth’s son, Diniz. 

Upon his death, Jolita became Nazareth’s sole heir, and passed on all his archives to me. That was how I became his biographer, since I had already started my research.  I interviewed friends, former students, and in the end became an expert on Nazareth, as a researcher of his life.  

At 24 I even won a national price for my work. Various researchers around the world have contacted me to understand the life of Ernesto Nazareth. I made some research for publishing houses in Japan - a country that impressed me very much – in addition to others in the US and Panama.  

How do you portray Nazareth’s music, classical or popular?

Ernesto Nazareth composed classical music; they are classics in the sense that they are still present today. There are songs over 100 years old that are still played today. 

I classify Ernesto Nazareth’s music as classical with a popular theme underneath, for the way it is presented to the public. There is a Brazilian style in his music, with popular themes, but the structure is classical.  It is not true that it is simple music - it has been popularized, but it does not intend to have a popular character.

Did Ernesto Nazareth teach classes?  Did he have any disciples?

No. Ernesto Nazareth had a gift for compositions.  He was a much requested professor by high-society girls, but never had a disciple. He just gave classes to provide for his basic needs.  Ernesto Nazareth studied piano seriously - he played Chopin’s sonatas, and had an extensive knowledge, although he soon realized he could not make a living as an interpreter, but already upon the release of his first composition he found great public acceptance.

Is it true that Ernesto Nazareth developed syphilis?  How did they ever find it out?

No one discussed this issue. His own family didn’t want to accept it. The doctors of the mental hospital to which he was committed presented this diagnosis. I guess he probably developed the disease during one of his adventures as a widower, and in his case the disease eventually reached the nervous system. 

He actually began the medical treatment, but never healed. It was his madness that caused him to be committed to a mental institution: he was always trying to escape, and during one of these escapes he took the wrong way, which led him to a forest with a river. 

I was never sure of whether he killed himself or it was an accident and he just drowned, since at that time most people didn’t know how to swim. From the countless interviews I collected for my research the opinions about Nazareth’s cause of death were divided between those who thought he had killed himself and those who didn’t. Nazareth had his moments of lucidity. It was a great coincidence it happened on the birthday of his son.  

His death was on February 1, 1934, and not on February 4th, as it has been reported. He was found in the waters of the river that watered the city, which caused its contamination. There is no doubt that he died on the same day he escaped. At the time he was 71, and he wouldn’t endure sleeping in the forest.

Would Ernesto Nazareth have liked to follow a classic career or go to Europe?

He was a very frustrated man.  He used to say that he would like to be another Guiomar Novaes. He spoke about going to Europe. He had many friends who traveled, but he didn’t have financial resources. He was our major composer in the 19th century, for the grand quality of his work. He also wrote a thesis about the piano and musical theory.  

What did Ernesto Nazareth think about the fact of Choro musicians playing his music?

Ernesto Nazareth liked his music well played.  He was very sensitive.  It didn’t matter what instrument it was, but it had to be well played. He participated in Choro ensembles. He didn’t have any preconceived ideas of his music leaving the universe of piano and going to strings and winds.  

Why would he call it Brazilian Tango instead of tango?  Was the tango considered a minor form of music?

There was no such terminology at that time.  Ernesto Nazareth considered the Tango a type of music that both Chiquinha Gonzaga and he composed.  It was a type of music that had a Spanish influence from Andaluzia, passing by the black community in Cuba and reaching Brazil.  The Lundú and the African batuque also had a great influence. He used the name that Chiquinha had already used in her first tango. 

In 1893 he composed “Brejeiro”, which was his first tango, whereas Chiquinha already had 13 tangos composed at that time. Meanwhile, the Argentinean tango started to be a great success, and the designation “Brazilian tango” was used in order to distinguish the two. This was Nazareth’s favorite form of music.

African rhythms and the polka came as an influence from Europe, and Ernesto Nazareth put an end to all that. The Choro came up as a form of playing; it was not a genre of music: it was a type of formation, with the guitar, the flute, and the mandolin. It was a group that called itself Choro, and over time it became a style of playing. Ernesto Nazareth and Chiquinha were the last ones to keep the designation Brazilian tango.  

“Apanhei-te, Cavaquinho!” is a polka, not a choro, but due to commercial interests it was printed as a choro. Nazareth left just one Choro:  Cavaquinho – Por que Choras?  (Cavaquinho - Why do you cry?). The publishers didn’t want to call it a polka any longer, because it was a style already passé. They thought it would be better for the Choro to prevail, since it had become more popular. 

The maxixe came up at the same time as the Brazilian Tango and the Choro. Those were very conservative times, and then this very sensual dance was born, a dance with physical contact: the maxixe always required physical contact.  Ernesto Nazareth only composed one maxixe and even then he used a pseudonym – “Renaud” to write the song, called “Dengoso” (Dainty).  In a way, this style was considered “outlawed” because of its choreography. The maxixe, the Choro and the Brazilian tango were born approximately at the same time.  

Ernesto Nazareth is seen in some parts of the world as a very learned composer. Could you speak about this?

He is seen around the world as a classical musician. I worked on a project about the music of Ernesto Nazareth in Japan and they only wanted to know about him, they were absolutely not interested in any other. The Japanese people were intensely interested in his arrangements for sax and clarinet. He is a kind of an idol in Japan. When the Japanese Empress came to Brazil she requested that only Ernesto Nazareth and Chopin were to be played during the ceremony. He is the Brazilian composer most recorded outside Brazil, after Villa-Lobos, with more than 1600 recordings.

Some titles are curiously strange.  For example, “Nenê” (Baby): the lyrics written by Catulo have a loving connotation, rather than a childish one. How did these lyrics come about? Did the lyricist speak with the musician to understand what he intended to convey with his music?  

Ernesto Nazareth composed only once or twice in partnership. Catulo would get a piece already published and write lyrics to it, turning it into a success. It was a little bit inadequate, but Nazareth didn’t complain because the composition would eventually turn out to be a hit. Sometimes the lyricist changed the title of the song. For example, “Brejeiro” (Coquettish) became “Sertanejo Enamorado” (Country Boy in Love). Ernesto Nazareth only put lyrics in three or four of his music scores, such as “Beija-flor” and other sambas.

Did Ernesto get to declare his dreams, his major objectives for his music?

Well, he lived to be around 70. From the statements that I gathered from interviews given by people that lived with him when he was already old, I could notice that there was a feeling of frustration, and he did not speak of dreams any longer.

In one of her articles, Maria do Carmo Nogueira da Gama comments about Nazareth:  “Like Rachmaninoff, Nazareth had very big hands, which on the one hand made it easier for him to compose and play chords above one octave, but on the other hand makes it difficult for those with normal-sized hands to interpret his work on the piano”.  In fact, it was clear to us when we adapted Nazareth’s compositions for flute, clarinet, sax and mandolin. It was not often possible to perfectly adapt Nazareth’s music to these instruments. Was this fact ever commented by him or other people at the time?

They used to say that Nazareth didn’t have hands, but paws! …This is heard from his contemporaries. Mignone himself told me that even though he had big hands, he still produced a velvety sound and played very softly.

In compiling Nazareth’s works we found two scores (Nenê and Bambino) with introductions and lyrics written by Catulo da Paixão Cearense. We were unable to locate any introduction for either Nenê or Bambino in any other edition of his works, only in this specific lyrics-version. The question is: were the introductions especially written by Nazareth for this lyrics-version, or were they independently produced by others? Would Nazareth have “approved of” the existence of these two introductions?  

The introductions were not written by Nazareth. They were inserted only in the lyrics-scores: these are posthumously printed editions.

The last of Nazareth’s sons to pass away was Diniz, in 1983. Did he leave any recorded or written interview before his death, to which we could have access?

I was close friends with Diniz, and even got to interview him with a K7 recorder – I still have the tape, but he wasn’t much of a speaker. He was hearing-impaired; I had to write my questions for him in large letters. He would read them and then answer. It was very tiresome, and I gave up after the first 20 minutes. This interview, in my opinion, just had value as a register of his voice.

How would you summarize Ernesto Nazareth in one phrase?

Nazareth for me is one of those things that Brazil produced. He was a romantic, and composed melodic and melancholic phrases. It seems that his music would come from outer space.