The Poet and the Moon

The Poet and the Moon

Ugly and diminutive, Catullo da Paixão Cearense was a giant of
Brazilian music during the first half of this century writing the lyrics for some of the
most enduring national tunes. He became a well-known figure in the recitals that were
popping up in all the good homes in Rio. His biographer Carlos Maul wrote: "…when
the singer’s shadow waned in the room, the last verse escaping for his lips, there was a
real explosion of delirium, so spontaneous, so vibrant, so loud, as if an enormous
hurricane had burst into the surroundings."
By Arthur de Faria

(Born Oct. 8, 1863 in São Luís do Maranhão, died May 10, 1946 in Rio de Janeiro)

A Maranhense (someone born in the state of Maranhão) raised in the interior of
Ceará, son of a modest gold and silver dealer, lover of the most indecorous romantic
Brazilian poets, Catullo arrived in Rio when the family moved to the then Federal Capital
in 1880. His father, Amâncio José da Paixão Cearense was the biggest in his field in
São Luís, but do you have an idea of what it is to be the biggest gold and silver dealer
there in 1880? Because of this, he decided to try his luck in Rio, with his wife and three

Catullo, the firstborn, was 16 years old. He was short, but strong and stocky.
Consequently, he managed to get one of the few jobs that there was at the time:
longshoreman in the port of Gamboa. He saved every nickel in order to buy more and more
books written in Portuguese and French, languages that he studied until the point of
exhaustion even when he was still in São Luís. From an early age he was arrogant. That
arrogance—by the way, his great characteristic—was the probable fruit of his
admiration for the highly refined authors that his father read.

Catullo—he got his name from Antique Rome’s Gaius Valerius Catullus, who is often
considered the greatest Latin poet ever—spent his life thinking he wrote like them.
On the other hand, he also spent his life remembering his time in the interior of Ceará,
still a boy where he not only knew the landscape of the hinterland—including the
moonlight—as well as some of the best guitar players then. With them, he learned to
strum a guitar.

In Rio, in a short time he was hanging around with serenade folks. His father didn’t
manage to become famous like he was in his hometown, and things, instead of becoming
better, became worse. But, irregardless of not having money, the boy was more or less
adopted by a group of upper middle class and rich young Cariocas (Rio resident),
that spent their time fooling around—serenading one house after the other in that
tranquil Rio of the times of Machado de Assis—they called themselves the "serenateiros",
which was to distinguish themselves from the "seresteiros" who were
spoken poorly of.

In a short time, his fame as a good singer and guitar player became known in the homes
of the most important families in the Federal Capital. At the beginning of 1885, when he
was 22, he was lucky enough to sing at a birthday party where the wife of the then
powerful consul Gaspar da Silveira Martins was present. Dressed in the latest fashion,
singing the best tunes of the time, and speaking his puffed-up Portuguese, he fell into
the graces of the consul’s wife.

He left the party after being hired as Portuguese teacher for the couples’ children.
Food, board, laundry and a modest salary—compensated by the unrestricted access to
the immense and little used consul’s library. It was everything that he wanted. There he
learned, alone, Spanish—and so well that he became a translator of the language.

Everything was going very well until the terribly womanizing professor ran into an
unbelievably bad spot of trouble. It was something that never was very well explained.
According to him, it was like this: One beautiful early September morning of that very
year of 1885, he was arriving in a good mood in his room at the back of the Consul’s
house, where he lived. He had spent the night serenading and only God knows his state when
he opened the door.

The fact is that he came face to face with a girl dressed only in a nightie. Before he
could thank divine providence and start to teach her to know the way to make a goal,
Catullo felt a hand on his shoulder and a disturbance taking place around the house. It
was the girl’s family. He got married in police headquarters. His young wife, who he
didn’t even know, had been passed off through an unorthodox framework: the little girl,
whose flower had already been picked by some other unscrupulous gardener of love, had
worked out everything with her family.

According to other versions, she herself had invited him to the alcove, and being
there, her family invaded the room and made the young sinning couple marry against their
will. Whatever the true story may have been, the fact is that Catullo never had the
courage to return to the Consul’s house. He also didn’t see his wife again after the civil
ceremony at police headquarters. Nor did he go to the church wedding, since the church’s
register doesn’t show his signature for the religious ceremony. The supposed lover would
only surface after his death when she started a proceeding to retain the rights to his
royalties. She didn’t win.

This time according to Catullo himself, this burden on his shoulders would hinder him
from entering in new nuptials for the rest of his life. Including the daughter of a
senator from Goiás—simply nicknamed Coleira—for whom he nurtured a
sincere, chaste and corresponding love, that would continue to the end of his days. Not as
bad as the collateral effects of that story of love—begun with a simple look and
never more than this—would be the supports that he had to transport for his entire
career of lyricist and poet in the best hyperbolic tradition.

With vengeance against the designs of destiny, Catullo became a great anti-marriage
advocate, speaking poorly of the institution whenever he could. This didn’t stop him
from—in spite of being ugly and dangerously similar to a frog, as the caricatures of
the time dwelled on calling to mind—collecting some female friends. The
writer, Agripino Grieco, a friend of Catullo’s, said that his buddy had the heart of a
slave ship: "always full of dark (female) captives".


At the time in which he was giving his heart to his beloved Coleira, the young
man had been transformed into a well-known figure in the recitals that were popping up in
all the good homes in Rio. A night-time concert that one could be proud of had to have
Catullo singing and playing or reciting his long poems. His songs and poems had results so
startling as this, according to a report from his friend and biographer Carlos Maul:

"…when the singer’s shadow waned in the room, the last verse escaping for his
lips, there was a real explosion of delirium, so spontaneous, so vibrant, so loud, as if
an enormous hurricane had burst into the surroundings. It wasn’t clapping, it was screams
of approval, ecstasy, joy—almost insanity and folly—which was blended in with
the enthusiasm of that possessed audience, surrounding the singer in a clamorous
whirlwind, in a roar of moving, impetuous, and passionate tenderness". The Beatles,
they were nothing next to Catullo.

Slippery and slick as only he was, Catullo always knew how to mix in circles of power.
He played for nothing less than four presidents of Brazil, from Nilo Peçanha to Artur
Bernardes. Dressed formally in a stylish coat and tie, he knew how to awaken the curiosity
of the elite Cariocas of his time because of his curious figure. In 1908, in the
middle of a wave of interest for Brazilian folklore induced by the Commemorative
Exposition of the First Centennial of the Opening of the Ports, Catullo began to pay
attention to the subject.

From 1912 on, he, who published verses and tunes, "discovered" his country
vein and turned to writing more regional lyrics—still always pompous. From then on,
his success grew even more. At the end of the year, he appeared, in a smoking jacket and
with a guitar, in the concert hall of the National Institute of Music. He broke all the
hall’s attendance records ("the first battle is won", he would have said:
"we penetrated the fortress of the classics!"). In fact, it was an important
step in the ennobling of the guitar, that up until then was an instrument of common,
low-class people—of castration, to use a term coined by the poet. For serenades it
might be used, but in good family homes and theaters it still caused surprise.

The truth was that it always wasn’t that way. The six-string guitar became second class
after the entrance of the piano en masse in Brazil, in the second half of the nineteenth
century. The guitar player João Pernambuco—who became his partner—and Catullo
were important pieces in recapturing the instrument’s dignity. According to the scholar
Luiz Murat, Catullo "Expunged out the guitar from the illegitimacies and the vaunting
of the pool halls and invoked it to be the interpreter of Arquiloco, in this way turning
it in our gatherings what was the forminx of the Greek conquerors". Oh, that’s
it then.


With his growing success, Catullo got to publish 10 songbooks with his lyrics. Many of
which for music of which his almost sick megalomania insisted in "forgetting"
the composer. The most famous—"Luar do Sertão" (Country Moonlight) and
"Cabôca de Caxangá", both composed in 1913—were shamelessly appropriated
from the already mentioned and highly-gifted guitar player João Pernambuco. They create
controversy until today. Much paper was spent and much talk was struck up to decide if
João was or wasn’t the author of both songs. In the end, it appears that it was him. Even
because Catullo never wrote a note of music. 

In the hundreds of songs that he penned, he wrote lyrics for an already existent
melody. And, since João Pernambuco—in spite of being the author of semi-erudite
classics like "Sons de Carrilhões"—was a terribly simple
hick—it was easy for someone with the street smarts like Catullo to outsmart him.
Catullo himself said in an interview with a Lisbon newspaper in 1935 that "when I was
beginning my most important poetic work, João Pernambuco came on the scene. He came from
north and knew how to play the guitar very well, and brought me a vocabulary that wasn’t
yet corrupted by civilized speech". Or rather, Pernambuco not only wrote the music,
but helped with the lyrics in his associations with Catullo.

"Cabôca de Caxangá" was a tremendous success in the Carnaval of 1914, a
recording by the Grupo de Caxangá, lead by Pernambuco. In putting down the names of the
authors for the song, Catullo, forgot for the first time his partner’s name.
"Luar do Sertão" was registered only in 1915, and again, only with
Catullo’s name as author. Pernambuco was annoyed with this at times, but he was such a
good guy he continued being Catullo’s friend until the 40s.

Other important partnerships—these recognized—were Ernesto Nazareth, inventor
of the Brazilian tango, and the mulatto Anacleto de Medeiros, leader of the legendary
Banda do Corpo de Bombeiros. Catullo put words to some of Anacleto’s best musical pearls,
like the waltz "Por um Beijo," where the singer, without fearing the wrath of
God, robs stars from the sky, brings a beam of moonlight, descends from the skies to the
sea and steals the most beautiful pearl, besides other acts worthy of making Indiana Jones
envious, all for the supreme glory of just one kiss from the one he loves.

Another "Catullian" marvel, "Talento e Formosura," was written for
the grandfather of the xote—the unknown Edmundo Otávio Ferreira. The lyrics,
of an unparalleled refinement are a long poem, all in Alexandrine verses, that exemplifies
well the "simplicity "of the guy’s poetry. Feel the drama:

Tu podes bem guardar o dom da formosura,
Que o tempo um dia há de, implacável, trucidar…
Tu podes bem viver ufana da ventura
Que a natureza, cegamente, quis te dar…
Prossegue embora em flóreas sendas, sempre ovante,
De Glórias cheias, e no teu sólio triunfante,
Que antes que a morte vibre em ti funéreo golpe seu
A natureza irá roubando o que te deu.

You can guard well the gift of beauty,
that time one day, unforgiving, will slaughters…
You can live well proud of good fortune
that nature, blindly, wanted to give you…
It continues on in flower filled paths, always jubilant,
Full of glory, and on your triumphant throne,
that before death quivers in thee funereal blow
Nature will go stealing that it gave you.

Of course, it was one of romantic singer Vicente Celestino’s favorites.


In 1914, following his rising career, Catullo gave a recital of his songs in the
Palácio do Catete (the presidential palace) itself, at the invitation of the wife of the
then President, Hermes da Fonseca. The couple themselves were present—Nair de Teffé,
who besides being first lady was an amateur singer and caricaturist—and the venerable
head of the country. It was from this recital on that Nair discovered Brazilian music,
sung in Portuguese. She, until then—and all the Carioca high-society of which
she was a heroine of the vanguard—limited themselves to opera arias and Italian
songs. The First Lady even learned to play the guitar.

In 1918, Catullo gained strength from another important admirer: Assis Chateaubriand,
the future all-powerful owner of the media conglomerate Emissoras Associadas, to whom
Catullo had just dedicated "Luar do Sertão." Chatô felt that Catullo
was—as always—in financial difficulties and he used the prestige of the two to
arrange a super-spectacular of homage, the 18th of September, in the old Teatro
São Pedro—today João Caetano. Just to have an idea of what that prestige was, the
Homage to Catullo Central Commission had a handful of ministers, various high court
judges, consuls, lawyers, professors, and a half dozen businessmen. The show had the cream
of poets, opera singers and actors of the time, besides, of course, Catullo. With the
money, they published his new book: Meu Sertão. A sales success.

This was one of the rare opportunities in which Catullo accepted some money to play or
sing. He thought that his art didn’t have a price, and he didn’t care that he lived in
almost a shanty—that, of course, was called Palácio Choupanal (the Cabin
Palace)—carpeted with books, in a suburb of Rio. After all, in this shanty
there was never a lack of illustrious visitors, from powerful people to legendary opera
singers like the Italian tenor Gigli, and even foreign poets, who went to check out that
curious mixture of Parnassian Poet aprés la lettre with stylized country. And he
wrote poetry almost purely Brazilian, free from the complex of sickening French that
overran our literary ranks. And everyone kept absolutely silent to hear him play or recite
poetry. Especially because if he heard even a peep, he stopped everything and sulked.


In spite of being recorded and re-recorded constantly by his biggest singer and
admirer, Vicente Celestino, Catullo the singer and poet was becoming forgotten, together
with the Brazilian Belle-Époque, which were indissoluble. The times were others,
probably initiated with the trip of the Oito Batutas de Pixinguinha to Europe, where our
Black artists made such a big success that Brazil was obligated to recognize that this new
Black music—melodically elaborate, but with a lot of rhythm and simple
lyrics—might have its charm. It wasn’t for no reason at all that Catullo was of the
most indignant with the fact the eight blacks that played chorinhos and maxixes
went to represent Brazil in Paris. After all, when, in the 20s, renowned writer Monteiro
Lobato dedicated an entire chapter to him in his book Na Antevéspera and began to
vie for a place for Catullo in the Academia Brasileira de Letras, the old man was singing
in a cinema on Avenida Rio Branco, dressed in country attire and with a fake beard. But
without losing his haughtiness.

He died on Mother’s Day morning in 1946, thinking he was almost forgotten. That night
he was going to participate in a recital in homage to the national forefathers, promoted
by his friend Ortiz Tirado, doctor and internationally renowned Mexican tenor. Only that,
contrary to expectations, his funeral was a success for the public and for the critics,
full of important people and swelled by thousands of anonymous admirers. He would have
liked to have seen it.


"Luar do Sertão" was even recorded by Marlene Dietrich, besides being able
to be found on LPs done by Canadian orchestras, by the Greek singer Nana Mouskouri,
French, English and American versions and so on. But the greatest record of Catullo’s to
have is a collection of 78 rpm records, edited in the ’50s, with works of the bald one
sung by Vicente Celestino. It’s one of those rarities, but it’s worth the search.

Translated by Barbara Maglio who can be reached at

Arthur de Faria, the author, a journalist, writer, and musician from Rio
Grande do Sul, may be contacted at

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