History Hunt: Chiquinha Gonzaga

Sometimes History Hunting isn’t just about finding forgotten composers in your own music traditions: it can also involve hunting down the great musicians of other countries whose music isn’t well known in your own. This kind of History Hunting comes with its own challenges. Maybe there’s a lot of information out there about your chosen composer, but little of it in a language you speak.

That’s exactly what happened with me this week. I decided to learn more about a composer outside of North America and Europe, because if I limit myself, there are countless brilliant musicians I’ll never hear about. And so this week’s History Hunt is all about Chiquinha Gonzaga.

Chiquinha Gonzaga was born Francisca Edwiges Neves Gonzaga on October 17, 1847 in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. (“Chiquinha” is a Portuguese nickname for “Francisca.”)


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, birthplace of Chiquinha Gonzaga

Although there was a great deal of prejudice against women in Brazil at that time, Gonzaga received a very good education. What she loved best about what she learned was playing the piano. When she was only 16 and she married the husband chosen for her, making music was her favourite thing to do–even though her husband didn’t approve. When he bought a ship and insisted that Gonzaga accompany him on his trips for the government, he thought that would be the end of her music. Instead of giving up, though, Gonzaga sneaked a guitar on board and learned to play it!

Finally, her husband got fed up and told Gonzaga that she had to pick between her music and him. Gonzaga chose music, packed up, and left!

Even though her family was furious, Gonzaga made a lot of friends in the music community. She started attending musical events that were traditionally male-only, met Joaquim Callado, who would go on to become a famous flute player, and became the first woman to play in his band, “O Choro do Calado.”

Gonzaga published her first composition, “Atraente,” when she was 30, and met with terrific success. The next year, one of her polkas sold 2000 copies. It may not sound like much, but for that time, it was an incredible amount–twenty times what was usual for a composer!

Unfortunately, while Gonzaga’s popularity as a composer was growing, she still faced sexism. After seeing the revue (a bit like musical theatre) “O Rio De Janeiro em 1877,” Gonzaga thought she would try something similar. Her first revue, “Festa de São João,” wasn’t published for four years. When she wrote the music for another, the producer cancelled the whole thing because “everyone knew” women couldn’t write good music!

At 38, Gonzaga decided that being a terrific musician and a great composer wasn’t enough–she wanted to be a renowned conductor as well! Even though women weren’t supposed to conduct according to the rules of society at the time, that didn’t stop her. She conducted the brand-new work, A Corte na Roça, to great success, and from then on, she was unstoppable. She was hugely popular in Brazil and toured all over Europe, from Scotland to Italy.

Not only a great composer, conductor, and artist, Gonzaga was active politically and passionate about ending slavery in Brazil. She gave speeches and even sold her music door-to-door in order to be able to free a fellow musician. She was truly a remarkable woman.

Here’s an arrangement of “Atraente,” one of Gonzaga’s most well-known pieces:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (sources):
Chiquinha Gonzaga at AllMusic.com
Chiquinha Gonzaga at Wikipedia.org
15 mulheres que mudaram o Brasil at MdeMulher (Portuguese). (Note: References to mature content are made in the link.)
Pop Culture Latin America!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle by Lisa Shaw and Stephanie Dennison
Chinquinha at NameDoctor.com
Image Source: Seuhistory.com


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