In Defense of Brazil’s ‘Hino Nacional’: A Crash-Course in the Hymn of the Nation

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Brazilian Flag (footage.shutterstock.com)

When I told my Brazilian wife about an article I had read bashing her country’s melodious Hino Nacional (“the world’s worst national anthem,” was the staggeringly forthright, first line of the piece), she grew absolutely indignant — irate, I dare say, all four-foot-eleven inches of her — over what I truly thought was a tongue-in-cheek approach used by the author, Englishman Ricky Skelton, regarding this potentially incendiary subject.

Playing devil’s advocate for once (but ever so gingerly where my combative spouse was concerned), I jumped to Mr. Skelton’s defense, and even agreed with some of his shaky line of reasoning, including the statement that of all the soccer nations in the world today, Brazil, with its unique genres of music, i.e., samba, bossa nova, axé, Tropicália, forró, MPB, and funk, could certainly “do better, far better” with its national anthem.

The solution Mr. Skelton offered would be for someone with the musical talent of, say, Martinho da Vila, to “compose a new Samba Anthem… which will get the players and crowd infused with the vibrancy and exuberance of their amazing country.”

That’s all well and good, as far as it goes. However, where we must part company is in his designation of what is a “good national anthem” (citing France’s and Scotland’s as the best examples), which should be, he went on to explain, “an expression of the characteristics of a nation and its people.”

“Yet for some reason, Brazil has some turgid, 200-year-old military marching music, which should be more suitable for an old central European country like Liechtenstein.”

I do not want to repeat what my dear and loving wife had to say about that last part. I also do not wish to respond in an adversarial manner to this peremptory challenge, but would like instead to take a less aggressive tone — sort of a friendly rebuttal, if that would be permissible — in my reply to Mr. Skelton’s contentious arguments.

First off, why bad-mouth a battle hymn to an already embattled republic without first reciting some of the all-important lyrics inherent in it, which, in this case, are as full and complete expressions of the characteristics of the Brazilian nation and its people as any that are currently out there?

Secondly, why offer a viable solution to a supposed problem where none even exists? Has anyone ever complained before about the failings of the Hino Nacional? Where is the documented evidence of such an allegedly egregious offense? Shouldn’t we rather adopt the more neutral tactic of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”?

And thirdly, why not provide some enlightenment to the general public (in the way of much-needed background information) about the actual historical events surrounding the creation of Brazil’s nationalistic theme?

Brazilian Fact-Finding Mission

Now here’s where my history degree and love of popular and classical culture came into play: for you see, unlike Mr. Skelton, whose “exhaustive research” took on the rather unscholarly form of “watching World Cups and international football for a lifetime,” I decided to go a step further and conduct my own unofficial investigation into this matter.

Francisco Manuel da Silva (wikipedia.org)

What I learned from this experience, then, was this: that a constitutional sympathizer named Francisco Manuel da Silva (1795-1865) composed the music to what we know as the Brazilian national anthem in 1822, as a reaction against detested Portuguese monarch Dom João VI.

The story goes that da Silva wrote the piece in a shop frequented by intellectuals yearning for freedom. The melody went on to serve for many years as the de facto Hino Nacional by default, as well as a military band-music standard, hence the reason why it sounds the way it does.

Okay, so Francisco Manuel da Silva was no Rossini or Bellini — and he probably couldn’t hold a candle to American bandmaster John Philip Sousa, either — but he’s definitely no slouch in the Salieri mold, of that I am certain. He captured the musical ear of the young Emperor Dom Pedro II, who, after having appointed him composer-in-residence to His Imperial Majesty in 1841, subsequently decorated da Silva three years later with the prestigious Order of the Rose.

Interestingly, it took another hundred years for the lyrics to be joined together with the existing tune. This eventually came about in 1922, when on the eve of the centenary celebration of Brazil’s Independence, poet and journalist Joaquim Osório Duque Estrada (1870-1927) delivered up the definitive text to “Ó Pátria Amada” (“Oh Beloved Country”), the current lyrics to the anthem.

The music was played (minus the words) throughout the royalist period, covering the years 1831 to 1889, and primarily at official receptions. Incidentally, when the last of Brazil’s emperors, Dom Pedro II, was deposed and sent into permanent exile in 1889, the governing body of the New Republic realized the need for replacing old imperial ideals with newly installed republican ones.

A competition was thereby held promoting a new national anthem (and, by implication, a new political allegiance). The country’s foremost classical exponents were invited to participate, including famed opera composer Antonio Carlos Gomes. He respectfully declined, however, due to his previous close relationship to Dom Pedro (would that some of our present-day political figures are able to do the same). Gomes went so far as to have one his early operas conducted by maestro Francisco Manuel, an early advocate and supporter.

The winning entry turned out to be that of composer-conductor Leopoldo Miguez (1850-1902) and his patriotically themed “Liberdade, liberdade, abre as asas sobre nós!” (“Liberty, liberty, spread your wings over us”), with appropriately vibrant verses by José Joaquim de Campos da Costa de Medeiros e Albuquerque (1867-1934) — now that’s a hearty mouthful even for native Brazilians!

Upon hearing the committee’s choice at the official unveiling, the first president of the republic, Marechal Deodoro da Fonseca, in typical eleventh-hour fashion, made his now-famous pronouncement to one and all: “Prefiro o velho” (“I prefer the old one”), meaning da Silva’s century-old “military marching music,” thus lending support to the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” school of thought previously invoked.

As a consolation prize for his efforts, Miguez’s song of liberty was honored with the official title of Hino à Proclamação da República (“Hymn to the Proclamation of the Republic”), a position it holds to this day.

Staying with da Silva’s music for the moment — the one that Mr. Skelton finds so unworthy of consideration of Brazil and her multi-talented population — there is this extraordinary bit of trivia I wish to impart to readers.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (classical.net)

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), an itinerant American composer, musician, and pianist, a native of the city of New Orleans and a Creole-Jewish descendant, spent an inordinately large portion of his professional career abroad and in the salons of European, Latin American, and Caribbean society, as well as on our own Brazilian shores, where he met his tragic and untimely end.

It was Gottschalk who not only found Brazil’s anthem worthy of his consideration, but was credited with having written not one but two of the most bombastic, most colorful, and most thoroughly enjoyable concert showpieces that anyone has ever heard around it.

Called, appropriately enough, the Grande Fantasia Triunfal Sobre o Hino Nacional Brasileiro, or “Grand Triumphal Fantasy on the Brazilian National Anthem,” it was originally conceived for solo piano, and was to be given as part of a much longer composition entitled Marcha Solene Brasileira (“Solemn Brazilian March”).

Both works premiered at the Teatro Lírico in Rio de Janeiro, on November 24, 1869, with Emperor Dom Pedro II and his full court in attendance, along with three of the city’s orchestras, the marching bands of the National Guard, the Imperial Army and Navy, and around 650 other performing extras, including mixed chorus and backstage cannon (shades of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture). It made quite an impression, as you can imagine.

Unfortunately, it was during these same series of “monster concerts,” as they were then called, that Gottschalk collapsed from pain and exhaustion. He died a few weeks later, at age 40, from general peritonitis, brought on by a ruptured abdominal abscess.

I recommend a listen to the compact disc, especially the one with Brazilian pianist Cristina Ortiz, as it will soften anyone’s hardened heart about these marvelous pieces — I guarantee it.

Getting Down to Basics

I come now to the most difficult part of this summation (difficult, I should add, for anyone unfamiliar with the complicated Portuguese language): and that is, the words to the Hino Nacional itself.

Space and time prevent me from delving too deeply into all of the intricacies and nuances found in this fairly longish and distinguished piece, and for which some knowledge of Brazilian history may also be a prerequisite. Suffice it to say, however, that some of the fervor and inspiration Mr. Skelton felt was so sorely lacking in Brazil’s national anthem can be heard right here, to its fullest extent, in the beautiful and moving lyrics to this mighty ode. Some highlights of the same are:

E o sol da liberdade em raios fúlgidos

Brilhou no céu da Pátria nesse instante.

Se o penhor dessa igualdade

Conseguimos conquistar com braço forte,         

Em teu seio, ó liberdade,

Desafia o nosso peito a própria morte!

The words, loosely translated by yours truly, now begin to take on a more stirring note:

And the sun of liberty, with its brilliant rays,

Shined on in our nation’s sky at that supreme moment.

The guarantee of that equality

Was so bravely won with our own strong arms,

In your breast, oh lady liberty,

Forever challenge our hearts, even unto our death!

Does this smack of patriotic fervor? You bet it does! Does it urge fellow Brazilians to fight and die for their country? Why yes, absolutely! Then again, so did the Marseillaise (“Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons! Marchons, marchons!” – “To arms, citizens! Form your battalions! Together let us march!”), which is even older than Brazil’s unfairly maligned theme and a part of the so-called “good” ones mentioned by Skelton.

Of course, Brazil hasn’t fought in a real battle since World War II, by my calculation, but surely every World Cup match-up, every local soccer entanglement — indeed, every time the players hit the football field — a fight ensues for honor, for country, and for all Brazilian soccer fans everywhere, with the exception of Germany 2006. (Where was that fervor back then? I don’t know… you’d have to ask the Portuguese and the Italians that question.)

Chico Buarque de Hollanda (obviousmag.org)

Still, to put an end to this lengthy harangue let me propose a peace offering, if you will, and without the aid of a Secretary of State: for all future World Cup and international soccer appearances by Brazil and its national team, why not have the musicians expand upon Chico Buarque de Hollanda’s classic song, “A banda,” that wonderful hit tune from 1966, a first-prize winner in the Second Música Popular Brasileira Festival,* when the country still had a world-class outfit to boast of?

The number can be played as both a march and a samba, and makes excellent use of an existing band (already in the stadium, most likely, if we’re talking about Brazil). It also has an imaginative and literate text by an acknowledged master of the genre:

Estava à toa na vida

O meu amor me chamou

Pra ver a banda passar

Cantando coisas de amor

A minha gente sofrida

Despediu-se da dor

Pra ver a banda passar

Cantando coisas de amor

I was feeling down and out

When the love of my life called me

To see the band go by

Playing nothing but songs of love

Even the poor and downtrodden

Said farewell to their pain

To see the band go by

Playing nothing but songs of love

It’s the perfect musical alternative to the “problem” from a recognized Brazilian authority. I think even my wife might be able to compromise on that idea (though I’m not going to ask her just yet).

In conclusion, Mr. Skelton should read the following extract from an online posting of London’s The Guardian, dated June 20, 2002:

“Brazil’s Hino Nacional is arguably the jauntiest, cheeriest, most tuneful, and most beguiling national anthem on the planet. It feels as if it comes ready composed from the opera house… by the time [Englishman Charles] Miller first brought football to Brazil in 1894, the Hino Nacional had long expressed in song what Pelé and his successors later expressed so wonderfully on the field. While the Marseillaise makes bellicose calls to arms, the Hino Nacional stirs national feelings by appeals to Brazil’s ‘pure beauteous skies,’ its sound of the sea, and the flowers of its ‘fair smiling fields.’ “

If the above description can’t convince Mr. Skelton of the error of his ways, then nothing can. With that, I rest my case. ☼

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes


* From the beginning its popularity has never waned. In fact, according to journalist, songwriter, television and music promoter Nelson Motta, “more than one hundred thousand recordings of ‘A banda’ were sold in the first week” of its debut, “transforming it into one of the biggest Brazilian success stories of all time.”

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6 thoughts on “In Defense of Brazil’s ‘Hino Nacional’: A Crash-Course in the Hymn of the Nation

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