Ernesto Nazareth

(Brézil - Brazil)

Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934) was born and lived throughout his life in Rio de Janeiro. Raised in a modest home, he began piano lessons with his mother and then studied with family friends Eduardo Madeira and Lucien Lambert. His unusual talents were recognized at an early age when, at fourteen, his first piano composition, the polka-lunda Voce bem sabe was published.

During this time musical life in Brazil was a rich tapestry of imported European art music and indigenous folk music performed by the chorinhos. The chorinhos were serenading bands who played a variety of string and wind instruments including guitar, mandolin and ukelele, flute and clarinet. These street musicians improvised on traditional Brazilian folks melodies and rhythms very often flavored with "blues-like" tunes known as choros. For Nazareth, these musical currents were among the ideas which charged his own imagination at the keyboard.

Nazareth was nonetheless influenced by non-Brazilian music, particularly the piano works of Chopin, which he studied avidly as a young man. And surely he had at least a passing acquaintance with the light, melodic style of Gottschalk, whose music remained immensely popular in Rio de Janeiro many years after the composer's spectacular appearance there in 1869. But Nazareth was a true Brazilian musician at heart, with no intention to do more than provide music to be enjoyed. He was largely self-taught, and much of his musical career was spent playing piano in theatres, sometimes as accompanist for silent films, sometimes in small theatre orchestras. It was in one such theatre that he became acquainted with the composer and cellist Heitor Villa-Lobos. Nazareth had considerable responsibility for the development of the choros, upon which Villa-Lobos based many of his later works.

In his compositions one can hear echoes of the rich harmonic language of the late nineteenth-century European composers woven into the syncopated dance rhythms and choros style accompaniments of his native Brazil. Additionally, the rhythmic snap of American ragtime and early jazz is seamlessly present. It was Nazareth's unique ability to synthesize these elements into an organic whole, resulting in an important contribution to twentieth-century music as well as to piano literature.

Just as Nazareth received inspiration from the European style through the music of Chopin and others, so he gave something, however indirectly, in return. In his autobiography, Notes Without Music, French composer Darius Milhaud recalls his sojourn in Brazil, and his hearing Nazareth play at a cinema in Rio de Janeiro. Milhaud became fascinated with the infectious rhythms of the music and was determined to master them. The final result was his Saudades do Brasil for piano.

In his nearly 300 short piano works Nazareth ably captured the essence of popular Brazilian dance music. He wrote for a strictly urban audience, but one hears in his music the rich rhythmic influence of Africa (especially in pieces composed after 1888, when slavery was abolished in Brazil). Many of the pieces are as syncopated as anything Scott Joplin conceived. The popular Brazilian dances are all here: samba, maxixe, batuque, and most importantly, the tango. There's evidence that the tango, which became a world craze and still retains widespread popularity, not only originated in Brazil but in fact with Nazareth himself. True or not, responsibility lies in large part with Nazareth for the development of the Brazilian tango, of which he wrote more than 100.

Although total deafness in his later years reduced Nazareth's output, his popularity has yet to wane in his native land. Those who appreciate Gottchalk and Joplin will quickly form a list of favorites among these charming gems.

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