History Hunt: José Maurício Nunes Garcia

This week, I’m fulling another request of patron IllustriousIllusionist, which was to feature one particular artist with relatively little information available in English. It’s time to move back nearly a century to meet our latest composer!

José Maurício Nunes Garcia was born on September 22, 1767, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Interestingly, Rio de Janeiro was also the birthplace of a previously featured History Hunt musician, Chiquinha Gonzaga (although she was born eighty years later).

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, birthplace of Chiquinha Gonzaga and José Maurício Nunes Garcia.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, birthplace of Chiquinha Gonzaga and José Maurício Nunes Garcia.

Nunes Garcia’s musical education began at age six, when his family asked a friend of the family to give him lessons. He also may have sung soprano in the church choir, though the evidence isn’t clear. What is clear, though, is that Nunes Garcia had an excellent voice and could easily remember and play the music he had heard. He also taught himself how to play the guitar and the harpsichord, with no help at all. And by the time he was twelve years old, he was giving music lessons of his own!

With his musical studies so connected to the church, it isn’t surprising that his first composition (of which we still have the music) was dedicated to the Cathedral and Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro. Not long after, he began the long process of becoming a priest, and learned how to play the organ by studying with various organists at local churches.

At seventeen, he joined the brotherhood of Saint Cecilia (the patron saint of music) as a music teacher. He continued composing, and by the time he was twenty-three, his music had made him famous in Rio de Janeiro.

The year after that, Nunes Garcia was ready to become a full-fledged priest. However, there was one problem: in those days, priests weren’t supposed to have “any colour defect” –in other words, they were supposed to be white. He had to ask the bishop in charge of his ordination for him to be “excused” from his so-called “defect.” Fortunately, in Nunes Garcia’s case, at least, the bishop recognised the rule as the racist nonsense that it was, and after years of study, Nunes at last was able to join the priesthood.

However, as someone who faced a great deal of racism both at this point in his life and when he was older, there’s one decision made by Nunes Garcia that’s difficult to understand. While he was definitely a great composer and musician, Nunes Garcia was also, later in life, a slaveholder. The fact that his grandparents were slaves themselves seems to have no impact on him. It seems that he couldn’t see past what was considered “normal” for his time, and was unable to understand the cruelty and injustice of participating in slavery. Sadly, this was the case with far too many people in all sorts of countries around the world (including my home country of Canada) during this period in history.

Once Nunes Garcia was ordained, he began composing full speed ahead. In the year leading up to his ordination, he’d had very little time to compose, but his studies were over–he could once again create the music he loved. Also around this time, he began including the popular and folk music of Brazil in his compositions. A few years later, he started giving free guitar lessons, which were extremely popular.

In 1797, the music director in charge of the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro died, and Nunes Garcia took his place. This was a dream come true for him: he was now the head musician of the archdiocese, in charge of composing for religious holidays and important political occasions.

But everything changed for the worse when the Portuguese royal family arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1808, fleeing unrest in Europe. A number of European priests came with the royal family, and when they discovered that the music director in Rio de Janeiro was a person of colour, they tried to have him removed from his job and dismissed from the priesthood. Fortunately, the Prince Regent of Portugal was so impressed with Nunes Garcia that he didn’t just ignore the advice of his own priests–he made Nunes Garcia the head of the musicians in the Royal Chapel!

The Prince Regent was less impressed with the musicians Nunes Garcia had been working with, though, and he ordered the Royal Chapel of Lisbon’s musicians–who were still living in Portugal–to set sail. In the meantime, Nunes Garcia was to compose music for these new musicians, which he did, creating about 70 new works in three short years.

The first of the new musicians arrived a year after the Prince Regent. Unfortunately, these musicians were of the same opinion as the Portuguese priests: they did not want to work for a person of colour. Due to their racist beliefs, they decided to make life difficult for Nunes Garcia, who had to work hard to ensure professional performances in spite of his uncooperative musicians.

There was only so much he could do, however. When the music director of the Royal Chapel of Lisbon arrived in 1811, he managed to convince Nunes Garcia’s superiors to let him take over Nunes Garcia’s job. A year later, Nunes Garcia also lost his job as organist.

In spite of these great blows, Nunes Garcia kept moving forward, and kept composing large-scale works. He was the first Brazilian composer to write an opera, though we no longer have the music: it was lost in a fire only five years after Nunes Garcia finished it.

All in all, it’s estimated that Nunes Garcia wrote somewhere between three hundred and four hundred works, although only two hundred and forty are known to survive. I can only hope that someone will discover more of his lost works and bring more English-language recognition to this neglected composer.

Listen below to the beautiful “Immutemur habitu,” one of Nunes Garcia’s religious choral works:

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):
José Mauricio Nunes Garcia at AfriClassical.com
Garcia, José Mauricio Nunes at BlackPast.org
Immutemur habitu (José Maurício Nunes Garcia) at the Choral Public Domain Library
Sacred Music of José Maurício Nunes Garcia at AllMusic
José Maurício Nunes Garcia at Wikipedia.org

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