Brazil’s Greatest Classical Composer Was Never More than a Salieri

Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Gomes 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, with some even taking on the rather apt name of Teatro Provisório, or Temporary Theater (later called the Teatro Lírico). It was not until the establishment of the Portuguese court in Rio de Janeiro, circa 1840, where the "enlightened despot" Dom Pedro II was formally crowned as emperor of Brazil, that opera began to make any serious inroads with like-minded audiences.

His majesty was an extremely well-educated and well-traveled sophisticate who strongly believed in support of all scholarly and intellectual pursuits. In that, he was a tireless and enthusiastic advocate of the opera (mostly from the Italian and French repertoires), and encouraged its performance everywhere in the realm, but particularly in Rio and São Paulo.*

He astutely grasped the efficacy of bringing high culture to the Brazilian masses as a way out of their agricultural and educational rut. (That this never actually took place during his reign hardly crossed the Emperor’s mind.)

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 (born July 11, 1836, and one of 26 children) from the rural sticks of São Carlos (now Campinas), Antonio Carlos Gomes, of whom Giuseppe Verdi, the grand-master of Italian opera, was once purported to have proclaimed, "This young man begins where I have ended."

Having shown promise at an early age, the boy Tonico, as he was then called, often accompanied his older brother José Pedro, a conductor, and bandmaster father, Manuel José (known by the nickname Maneco Músico, or "Manny the Musician"), on their frequent concert trips to churches and family gatherings in and about their hometown.

While firmly establishing himself with the locals as a serious musician of quality, the youthful Antonio Carlos was able to supplement his studies by serving a brief apprenticeship to a tailor before moving on to the more cosmopolitan surroundings of Rio de Janeiro – exactly the ideal spot where a certain musical (and imperial) dilettante happened to reside.

Accounts vary as to exactly when and where Gomes and Dom Pedro first met (some scholars speculate he was brought to the Emperor’s attention by a certain Countess de Barrai), but from their initial reticent exchanges both composer and patron soon forged a close personal bond as well as a strong financial relationship; but more importantly, and despite various individual crises, they built and maintained a lifelong friendship and mutual understanding and respect for each other’s worth.

The Emperor, through his royal connections, helped Gomes gain entry into the Imperial Conservatory of Music in Rio de Janeiro (1859-61). To further his potential along as an opera composer, especially after two highly promising early efforts for the stage, A Noite do Castelo ("The Night of the Castle") in 1861, and Joana de Flandres ("Joan of Flanders") in 1863 – both of whose stories took place in medieval times and revolved around courtly folk – Dom Pedro packed the young man off to Italy, the highpoint of any nineteenth-century musician’s professional career, where Gomes was given a grant, in 1864, to complete his studies at the Milan Conservatory.

Due to his being over the mandatory age limit, however, Gomes’ application to the Conservatory was at first rejected, so he undertook private lessons instead with one of its directors, the composer Lauro Rossi, and with resident musician Alberto Mazzucato.

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 earlier, and for substantially the same reason. Only, the Italian master’s musical pathway would take a far different route than that of the Brazilian novice.

Gomes eventually received an official sanction from the Conservatory’s ruling body, yet 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 fame and fortune in spite of the turndown.

Our Man in Milan

But as far as works for the lyric stage were concerned, it would seem the Milanese were as adept at recognizing nascent musical talent as the perceptive Dom Pedro was, for while the composer was in the city he became the toast of the industrial town.

Some of his greatest operatic compositions received their world premieres at Milan’s celebrated Teatro alla Scala, including his most popular stage piece, Il Guarany (O Guarani, 1870), performed and revived by opera companies worldwide, from the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow to Covent Garden in London, but never given at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.

Based on the novel O Guarani by Brazilian writer José Martiniano de Alencar, this sprawling four-act work told of the interracial love between Cecília, the daughter of a Portuguese fidalgo (or "nobleman"), and Peri, a chief of the Guarani Indian tribe, in sixteenth-century Rio de Janeiro.

The exotic locale and contrived romantic relationships, involving a cultural clash similar to the one the characters Sélika and Vasco da Gama, in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s posthumously produced spectacle L’Africaine (1865); Aida and Radamès, in Verdi’s Egyptian grand opera Aida (1871); and Lakmé and Gérald, in Léo Delibes’ Lakmé, an opéra-comique set in British-occupied India (1883), would all go through (only in reverse) – as well as the explosive and fiery climax – had literally brought down the house and gave the unfamiliar new name of Carlos Gomes a high recognition factor in Europe and in his native Brazil, not immediately sustainable thereafter.

To be sure, part of Guarany’s general appeal to audiences of the era was the high-lying, lead tenor role of Peri: part jungle warrior and part noble savage, in the literary tradition previously expanded upon by such national figures as José Bonifácio, Gonçalves Dias, Joaquim Manuel de Macedo, and other so-called "Indianist" authors, he was primarily a figment of Alencar’s imagination – who, it was reported at the time, had absolutely abhorred the composer’s operatic treatment, and deliberate distortion, of his most elaborate work of fiction.

Of particular interest was the Guarani’s courting of the beautiful Portuguese donzella in distress, a highly unlikely encounter at best; and Peri’s climactic, spur-of-the-moment baptism into the Catholic faith by the girl’s reluctant father – reluctant, that is, to have the native chieftain as his future son-in-law unless, of course, he renounced his pagan gods.

Some would say that Carlos Gomes used Alencar’s novel (which he found, quite by accident, at a Milan marketplace in an unreliable Italian translation) as a pretext for differentiating his first major European stage production from those of his theatrical rivals. It is possible as well that the main character of Peri was closely identified with, and modeled upon, the seemingly wild and unpredictable Gomes himself (rumored to have been of Guarani Indian descent), the stereotypical foreign visitor in a foreign land.

The fact that a year following the opera’s successful premiere in Milan, when, after Gomes had come back from its equally triumphant booking in Brazil, he took an Italian-born bride (with the surname of Peri) to the altar, only added fuel to these speculative notions.

Gomes’ subsequent Italian product, Fosca (1873), with a plot and setting right out of his next-door neighbor Amilcare Ponchielli’s melodious La Gioconda from 1876; Salvator Rosa (1874), a quasi-Verdian homage to the Italian composer’s French-language version of Don Carlos (1867); and especially Maria Tudor (1879), a subject adapted from one of French writer Victor Hugo’s least successful stage plays, were either semi-favorably received or rejected outright by critics and public alike, and were nothing like the wild success he had first enjoyed with Guarany.

Even the presence, at the first performance of Maria Tudor, of famed tenor Francesco Tamagno (who went on to create the title role in Verdi’s Otello), baritone Giuseppe Kaschmann, and bass édouard de Reszke were not enough to turn the tide.

Down on His Luck

In 1880, the disillusioned and economically hard-pressed (and ill-tempered) composer returned to Brazil, where he set to work on several new projects, but all were prematurely aborted for one reason or another, thus repeating a pattern of fits-and-starts he first displayed back in Milan.

Traveling to and from Italy, Gomes put the finishing touches to his next opera, Lo Schiavo (O Escravo, or "The Slave," 1889), which debuted in Rio to wide acclaim. The original scenario had called for an African male title character fighting for the abolition of slavery in Brazil around the year 1801, a powerfully "authentic" tale, no doubt – too authentic, in some critics’ eyes; he was soon transformed into a Tamoio Indian at the insistence of librettist Rodolfo Paravicini and publisher Giulio Ricordi, in deference to the continuing European taste for "exoticism" in art music.

Surprisingly, the composer complied with their request and acquiesced without a fight. The catch, however, was that the opera was never performed on the Continent in Gomes’ lifetime.

Along with its predecessor Il Guarany, Lo Schiavo is but one of only two works in the entire active repertoire that have even treated or addressed Brazilian-based subject matter. The superiority, inspiration and melodic advancement Gomes showed in his writing of Lo Schiavo, dedicated to "Her Serene Highness, Princess Dona Isabel," who had earlier (on May 13, 1888) signed the so-called Golden Law into existence abolishing the institution of slavery, led the Emperor to promise him the prestigious position of director of the Music Conservatory in Rio.

Unfortunately for Gomes, the atmosphere in his home country was rife with revolution, and, by late 1889, the Proclamation of the Republic was all but a fait accompli. The aging sovereign Dom Pedro II, the very symbol of Brazilian aristocracy and the ruling elite, was deposed and unceremoniously shipped off to Portugal.

As a recipient of the benevolence and generosity of the now-exiled monarch, Gomes lost his yearly stipend, which he had been accustomed to receiving for nearly three decades. Because of his diminished economic status and personal connection to his royal patron – and amid unremitting accusations of his having squandered the Emperor’s funds – he was forced to leave Brazil, in 1890, for Italy, where he went to fulfill a contract with La Scala for a new work, Condor (the composer rather preferred the title Odaléa), given in 1891 to much local fanfare but very little monetary recompense and even less critical regard, despite its having racked up a respectable number of performances.

Sadly, the year ended with the death in France of his most ardent supporter, Dom Pedro, thus sealing the composer’s financial fate.

For the Fourth Centennial Celebration of the Discovery of America, Gomes wrote Colombo, a "symphonic poem with chorus," which premiered with some success in Rio de Janeiro in 1892. It became one of his most ambitious and fully evolved large-scale pieces. He even traveled later that year to Chicago to oversee a performance of Guarany.

However, when an expected subsidy from the Brazilian government failed to materialize, the put upon composer was forced to use his own exceedingly limited funds to give free public concerts of excerpts from his work instead. In a letter from that period, written in the U.S. to a friend in Italy, the exasperated Gomes complained:

"The presentation in Chicago of Guarany went for nothing…I had hoped to make a world of contacts, but too late I realized the sad truth. In this country, art is a myth. Americans are only interested in new and practical matters, that is, in the easiest methods for making money!"

Despite the comparisons to Verdi and the earlier predictions of his being the great man’s successor, Gomes never attained the success and recognition in his profession that had once been expected of him. Although some of Verdi’s own librettists, i.e. Antonio Ghislanzoni and Arrigo Boito, supplied texts or revisions to several Gomes works, in the long run they did nothing to help earn his operas a permanent place in the standard repertory. Further, the composer’s work habits were often erratic, as a peremptory burst of enthusiasm for a subject would give way to complete abandonment of the idea soon after.**

Poet and playwright Ghislanzoni, a former neighbor and one of Gomes’ closest companions, once described the tormented composer as "full of enthusiasms and disappointments, impulses and uncertainties, noble intentions and unjustified insecurities, so typical of the irreconcilable attitude of one who [constantly] struggles to produce a masterpiece." This was an exceptionally accurate portrait.

Though they were popular in their day, the quality of the music to be found in his operas was inconsistent and derivative, what one modern critic (referring to Guarany) called "a clichéd stew of Verdian heroics and Donizettian flightiness," and another termed "Bellini without tunes, Rossini without wit."

These may seem like unduly harsh assessments, but they are not far from the mark, for Gomes chose as his musical models the operas of early- and middle-period Verdi, spiced with the unwieldy five-act French opuses of Meyerbeer, whose oeuvres were already considered passé just as the Brazilian approached his creative prime, and topped them off with a dash of Wagnerian leitmotiv, for which he was severely taken to task by the press.

It was quite probable that Gomes was eclipsed, if not entirely overshadowed, by the mature Verdi’s late career output, which included Aida, the Requiem Mass (1874), and the final masterpieces of Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893).

There was also a whole new stylistic form called verismo ("realism") to contend with, and new challengers on the Italian front to defend against, among them Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana, 1890), Ruggiero Leoncavallo (Pagliacci, 1892), Alfredo Catalani (La Wally, 1892), and the up-and-coming Giacomo Puccini, whose Manon Lescaut caused a sensation at its 1893 premiere in Turin, which Gomes attended.

It was not so much feelings of inferiority that finally did Gomes in, so to speak, as that of the quality of the competition. History eventually relegated the Campineiro to a position not unlike that of Viennese court composer Antonio Salieri vis-à-vis the extraordinary body of work produced by that sublime musical genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Poor timing and equally bad luck would continue to badger the unfortunate composer all the way back to his native land. In fragile health from years of neglect, battered by bouts of depression over the earlier deaths of his wife Adelina (in 1887) and three of his five children – intermittently relieved by the liberal ingestion of opium – and constantly hounded for funds, Gomes sold off whatever property he had acquired and returned to Brazil one last time, in 1896, to assume the directorship of the Belém Conservatory, at the mouth of the Amazon River, which for him was a personal and artistic nadir compared to his earlier triumphs.

Antonio Carlos Gomes died of cancer on September 16, 1896, only five months after he had taken up his post, and in the same year that opera was about to delight in a decade-long rebirth in the region. He was 60 years old, but his legacy would forever be assured as the first and only widely recognized composer of Brazilian national opera the country would produce.

A beautiful marble bust of Gomes, sculpted by the Genovese artist Achille Canessa, reposes in the great hall of the Teatro da Paz Opera House, in the northern city of Belém do Pará, as a posthumous tribute to the man and his works. It occupies a space next to the bust of a relatively unknown fellow composer named Henrique Gurjão.

The irony of juxtaposing the perceived greatness of a Carlos Gomes with the almost total obscurity of an Henrique Gurjão cannot be lost on the casual observer: of course, Gomes towers head and shoulders above his unfamiliar countryman; but he stumbles ever so markedly – and so utterly – before the likes of Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini.

We need only to be reminded of the ephemeral quality of fame, and of how truly fleeting the memory of a great artist can be when compared to that of his peers.

* Apparently, Pedro II was quite the "perfect Wagnerite" as well, having kept up a steady correspondence with the temperamental German genius until the composer’s death in 1883. In fact, toward the late 1850s the Brazilian emperor invited Wagner to conduct a program of his works at Rio’s Imperial Theater. The financially strapped composer turned down the offer, but would eventually meet his biggest fan in 1876 – to the delight of Dom Pedro, who, along with King Ludwig II, Kaiser Wilhelm, Otto von Bismarck, Peter Tchaikovsky, and others, had gathered in August of that year for the first ever Bayreuth Music Festival.

** Some of the more elaborate titles Gomes was known to have worked on at one time or another included: Emma di Catania, I Moschettieri del Re ("The King’s Musketeers"), Morena, O Cântico dos Cânticos ("The Canticle of Canticles"), Gli Zingari ("The Gypsies"), Eros, Moema, and Kaila.

Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York City, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his wife and daughters. In 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is a lover of all types of music, especially opera and jazz, as well as an incurable fan of classic and contemporary films. You can email your comments to


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