The ‘Italian’ Composer from Campinas: The Life and Times of Carlos Gomes (Part One)

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Carlos Gomes (

Mozart, Rossini, and Weber set the standard for opera overtures; Verdi and Wagner simply elaborated on their form. The basic reasoning behind them, after all, was sound and sensible: what better way to summarize the musical and dramatic events to come than with a salient selection of aural highlights?

And what better way to begin our story than with an overture — or Sinfonia, as its composer preferred to call it; only later did it acquire the bizarrely pompous title of Protofonia. With its stately sounding main theme, familiar to older generations of Brazilians through over-exposure on national radio (i.e., A Hora do Brasil, or “The Brazil Hour” program), the music of the Overture to Il Guarany reminds one of the dynamic opening bars of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (“The Force of Destiny”), or the prelude to his earlier Rigoletto.

In truth, the opera originally premiered with a much shorter orchestral introduction, while the Overture did not assume its proper place until more than a year after Guarany’s debut. Remarkably, the work was credited at one time with single handedly “reviving,” albeit briefly, the fossilized state of European grand opera in the late-nineteenth century.

But who was it that wrote this piece? What do we know about his life and times? How did a simple country boy from Campinas manage to find himself in the midst of operatically minded Milan? And why did he lose favor with the public (both Brazilian and Italian) with such seeming finality?

For one thing, Il Guarany’s creator — the musician and composer Carlos Gomes — was an overly ambitious, manic-depressive-type, openly prone to uncontrollable fits of rage and anger, who became, in spite of his all-too-human shortcomings, Brazil’s first internationally acclaimed classical-music celebrity. For another, he was a true native son who just so happened to have rubbed elbows with royalty, while living and working alongside some of the most unforgettable personalities of his or anyone’s time. These alone merit our attention and respect.

Our aim in this introductory section, then, is to try and serve the same purpose as the Overture: to summarize the musical and dramatic events of Gomes’ life in as succinct a manner as possible. The goal is not to tear the musician down, but to build him back up through the contributions he made to his country and to his art.

An incredibly complex individual who lived in extremely volatile times, as such Gomes can be held up as a model for the sorts of problems future generations of Brazilian artists would encounter away from their home soil. Though his life was a brief one (in comparative terms), enough clues have been left behind to give readers a fair hint as to the quality of his character, as well as to his personal and professional attributes.

For me, this section, equally as brief, represents a golden opportunity to set the record straight regarding this all-but forgotten national composer.

Musical and Imperial Precedents

There were several false starts at presenting staged opera in Brazil during the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, mostly with the building of a few ad hoc theaters in fairly impermanent locales.

The first of these occurred in the state of Minas Gerais, followed by Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Pernambuco, and São Paulo, with those in Rio serving as the primary focal point. One casa da ópera (or “opera house,” but which could have involved other activities besides plain old-fashioned singing) even took on the rather apt name of Teatro Provisório, or Temporary Theater. Rechristened the Teatro Lírico Fluminense in 1854, it shuttered its doors after 1875, only to be demolished later on — a poor indication of where the arts stood in the general scheme of things. In adhering to the prescribed pattern of the time, the thought was that when one theater closed another one opened somewhere else. At the very least, this would ensure their continuity.

Emperor Dom Pedro II (

It was not until 1840, when the country’s “enlightened despot,” Dom Pedro II, was formally crowned as emperor of Brazil, that opera and classical music began to make any serious inroads with like-minded audiences.

The tall, shy, fair-haired, and uncharacteristically bookish Dom Pedro was an exceptionally well-rounded and well-traveled sophisticate who believed strongly in support of all scholarly and intellectual pursuits. In that, he was a tireless and enthusiastic advocate of the opera, mostly from the Italian bel canto and French opéra-comique repertoires, while encouraging its performance everywhere in the realm, but particularly in Rio and São Paulo.

Granted he did not become an opera lover overnight, as an 1844 letter written by the emperor’s sister would seem to imply (“you my Brother who were always so bored with music”). Instead, Dom Pedro lavished just enough resources on the art to fully partake of its myriad delights, much as any highborn carioca of the imperial period might have done.

In spite of Brazil’s predominantly agrarian economy, His Majesty astutely grasped the efficacy of bringing high culture to the masses as a way out of their agricultural and educational rut. That this never actually took place during his long reign hardly crossed the emperor’s mind.

By 1857, the Imperial Academy of Music and the National Opera had both been established for this express purpose. Interestingly, they were placed under the guidance and tutelage of a non-Brazilian, the Spaniard Don José Amat, a former soldier, singer, musician, impresario, and composer in his own right. His “audacious objective,” as Paulo Castagna of the Instituto de Artes da UNESP (Arts Institute of the University of the State of São Paulo) officially referred to it, was, “To propagate and develop a taste for singing in [Brazil’s] native language,” more or less upholding the longstanding tradition of opera in the vernacular.

Francisco Manuel da Silva, the composer of the martial-like future hymn of the Brazilian nation, was one of the contributing members of the National Opera’s artistic council, as were fellow musicians Gioacchino Giannini, Manuel de Araújo Porto-Alegre, Dionisio Vega, and Isidoro Bevilacqua.

Thus, all the heavenly bodies (and their human components) were properly aligned in breathless anticipation for the coming of the extraordinary talent who would take the Brazilian lyric stage by storm. They did not have long to wait.

From “Tonico” to Master Composer

Through one of those divinely inspired confluences that brought worthy artists and their benefactors together when the need was at its greatest, the restless and urbane emperor of Brazil was introduced to a talented young composer from the sticks of São Carlos, now present-day Campinas: Antonio Carlos Gomes, born July 11, 1836, and one of 26 children from his father’s four marriages; of whom Giuseppe Verdi, the grand old man of the Italian lyric stage, was once purported to have proclaimed “a true musical genius” and “This youngster begins where I have ended” — words that would both uplift and challenge the impressionable Brazilian for the remainder of his life.

Having shown promise at a young age, the boy “Tonico,” as he was then called, often accompanied his older brother José Pedro Sant’Anna, a conductor and composer, and bandmaster father, Manuel José, on their frequent concert trips to churches and family gatherings in and about their hometown, and along the periphery of São Paulo.

An early record from 1879, entitled Brazil and the Brazilians Portrayed in Historical and Descriptive Sketches, written by two itinerant missionaries, the Reverends James C. Fletcher and D. P Kidder, offers a rare glimpse into the musically inclined youth in his natural state:

“He was first taught the violin, then the clarinet, and finally the piano. Before he was fifteen years of age he became renowned in the whole region for his singing and for his remarkable, clear, sympathetic, and thrilling soprano voice, which he possessed up to the time he was sixteen. In all the church festivals people flocked from far and near to hear the famous boy soprano. The year before my earlier visit to Campinas, Carlos Gomes (for thus his compatriots call him, dropping the Antonio) saw for the first time the whole opera of the Trovatore. It is still recalled, how, stealing out by himself, with Verdi’s masterpiece in his hands, he sought the shade of trees, and there became ecstatic over the wonderful music. He sang it, he acted it, he went through the movements as if he were playing upon the orchestral instruments used – and, in short, he seemed as if beside himself. From that moment he began to create.”

If numerous eyewitnesses had not provided independent corroboration of this bucolic bit of nostalgia it might just as easily have been taken for a calculating tale, the sort of childish fairy story one could readily associate with a precocious lad named Mozart. With respect to his future involvement in the operatic art, however, it serves to illuminate one incontrovertible point: from earliest youth on into his later years Gomes would be closely identified, whether rightly or wrongly, with the stirring works of his idol, maestro Verdi.

After firmly establishing himself with the locals as a viable musical candidate of substance, the youthful Antonio Carlos was able to supplement his studies by giving independent lessons in voice and piano; prior to moving on, at the urging of friends, in 1859 to the more worldly surroundings of Rio — exactly the ideal spot where a certain musical dilettante happened to hold court.

Accounts vary as to when and where Gomes and Dom Pedro first met. Some scholars believe that one Countess de Barral, “the instructress of the Princesses, and who had a warm friendship of their Majesties,” and an early admirer of his songs, was the person that brought young Gomes to the emperor’s attention, but no matter. From their first reticent exchanges composer and patron soon forged a close personal bond based on mutual need. More importantly, and in view of various individual crises, they built up a lifelong understanding of and respect for each other’s worth. Still, at certain times their obvious affection for one another often hampered Gomes from advancing beyond his means.

The emperor, through his royal connections, helped Gomes gain entry into the Imperial Academy of Music in Rio de Janeiro (1860-61). Upon graduation, he found steady employment as a conductor and vocal coach at the National Opera, thanks to the auspices of Señor Amat. Truth be told, it was the perfect training ground for an enthusiastic opera buff such as Gomes to evolve and develop in.

To further his potential along, especially after two promising early efforts for the stage, A Noite do Castelo (“The Night of the Castle”) in 1861, and Joana de Flandres in 1863, Dom Pedro packed the young man off to Europe, the highpoint of any nineteenth-century musician’s career, where he was given a generous grant, in 1864, to complete his musical training at the Milan Conservatory.

Empress Teresa Cristina (

His Majesty’s original plan called for Gomes to worship at the feet of Richard Wagner* or some other German Meister, much to the composer’s dismay. But for the intervention of the emperor’s Neapolitan-born spouse, Empress Teresa Cristina, Gomes might well have been on his way to Munich. Fortunately for Brazilian opera, the empress succeeded in tempering her studious-minded mate’s bold scheme, which allowed the fledgling musician to follow his own creative path to the Mediterranean. Gomes never forgot the kindness and courtesy shown to him during this most formative time.

It must also be pointed out that it was through his innate skill at composing that the grant was extended at all. The emperor himself, along with Gomes’ mentors Francisco Manuel and José Amat, were the first to voice their unanimous endorsement of his gifts. “True musical genius,” as Verdi and some later biographers insisted, had very little to do with it.

For example, in the second-act ensemble from Joana de Flandres there is ample evidence of a sure, if imitative, hand at work; of a delicately shaped line and elemental grasp of music and drama, and how the two flowed together as one. Clearly, the youngster’s ease with the basic strictures of opera was no amateurish “first step.”

That fact, along with the realization that here was a native-born musician with a built-in capacity for refurbishing the old forms, must have excited Tonico’s benefactors to no end. His next stop would have to be Milan.

Due to his being over the mandatory age limit, however — he was 27 at the time — as well as a complete outsider, Gomes’ application to the Conservatory was rejected; whereupon the guidelines governing his grant stipulated that private lessons could be taken instead from one of its directors, the composer and stern taskmaster Lauro Rossi, as well as from resident musician Alberto Mazzucato.

From pupil to teacher, then back again: it would not be the last time the tables would be turned on the unsuspecting artist. Coincidentally, this denial of entry into one of Western Europe’s most prestigious institutions had been a source of much bitterness for the inexperienced Verdi some 30 years prior, and for substantially the same reason: his age. Only, the Italian master’s musical pathway would take a far different route from that of the Brazilian novice.

Gomes eventually received an official sanction from the Conservatory’s ruling body, managing to complete his formal schooling in a mere three years’ time, yet he would never reap the financial rewards this honor would presumably seem to bestow. Verdi, on the other hand, nursed his earlier rejection for the rest of his days, but went on to even greater glory in spite of the turn down.

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes


* Apparently, Pedro II was quite the “perfect Wagnerite,” having kept up a steady correspondence with the temperamental German genius until the composer’s death in 1883. In fact, the Brazilian emperor once invited Wagner to prepare a program of his works for Rio’s Imperial Theater. Though he never visited Brazil, the financially strapped composer took the emperor’s advice to heart by beginning work on his next project, the opera Tristan und Isolde, on the condition that Wagner would premiere it in Brazil.This too never came to pass. However, Wagner would meet his biggest fan in 1876 – to the delight of Dom Pedro, who, along with King Ludwig II, the young Kaiser Wilhelm, statesman Otto von Bismarck, composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and numerous others, had gathered in August of that year for the first ever Bayreuth Music Festival.

6 thoughts on “The ‘Italian’ Composer from Campinas: The Life and Times of Carlos Gomes (Part One)

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