:: These reviews were originally published
:: in Daniella Thompson on Brazil.


Tango: An Album of Brazilian Dances

Oxford publishes rare 19th-century piano scores.

Daniella Thompson

17 November 2006

The Performing Arts Library of the University of Maryland houses a little-known Brazilian treasure: an album of approximately 50 Brazilian tango scores for piano, published between 1870 and 1890 and collected in the late 19th century by S. Frederic and Cecilia Billinghurst.

Twenty-one of these scores are now available for the pleasure of pianists and the instruction of researchers in the score book Tango: An Album of Brazilian Dances for Piano (Oxford University Press), selected and edited by Victor Fell Yellin.

Most of the composers represented in this album are little known, and few are mentioned by Alexandre Gonçalves Pinto, aka “Animal,” in his essential book of reminiscences, O Choro (1936). Still, their works are more easily encountered today than at any time since their publication over a century ago. Even some of the more obscure composers turn out to have scores in the Biblioteca Nacional, and in some cases, the scores are available online as pdf files. Several of the digital scores—by no means all—replicate repertoire items in Tango. Yet for the majority of the tunes, this album may be the only commercially available source.

Alvarenga’s tango de opereta “O Periquito” in the Biblioteca Nacional

Even the tunes composed by the big names of Brazilian tango—Callado, Nazareth, and Chiquinha Gonzaga—are not common. Nazareth’s polka “Os Teus Olhos Cativam” was recorded only once, by Banda Escudero in 1912. The two Chiquinha compositions in Tango are not to be found in the BN digital archive. To the best of my knowledge, Callado’s “Iman” received only one recording, in the five-CD box set Joaquim Callado—O Pai dos Chorões from Acari Records.

Nazareth’s polka “Os Teus Olhos Cativam” in the Biblioteca Nacional

The scores in Tango are not facscimiles but modern editions faithful to the originals. Both the scores and the musical information provided about the individual tunes constitute a notable contribution to the available repertoire of early popular Brazilian piano music.

Unfortunately, Yellin (1924–2005), a musicologist and New York University professor who passed away during the preparation of this album, reveals surprising lacunae in his knowledge of the subject. A Louis Moreau Gottschalk scholar, he was inclined to exaggerate Gottschalk’s influence on the development of the Brazilian tango. While most scholars agree that the habanera is one of the components (along with polka and lundu) that went into the creation of the Brazilian tango, Yellin would have us believe that it was Gottschalk who brought the habanera to Brazil. Furthermore, Yellin suggests that the African elements in Brazilian tango are wholly Afro-Caribbean, ignoring the locally grown rhythms whose archetypes had been brought by slaves directly from Africa to Brazil.

Callado’s polka “Iman” in the Biblioteca Nacional

In his essay Música: Tradição Não-Escrita, José Miguel Wisnik sums up the prevailing wisdom on the roots of Brazilian tango:

No século XIX, a polca, introduzida como dança de salão em 1844, será progressivamente adaptada a jeitos de executar que testemunham a dicção, as inflexões ornamentais e a rítmica ligada aos perfis decantados na tradição popular brasileira. Tocada pelos chamados “pianeiros”, que a reinterpretam segundo os motivos sincopados da umbigada e do lundu, ou pelos grupos instrumentais ligados à antiga música de “barbeiros”, formados por flauta, clarinete e oficleide, a polca dá origem ao maxixe e ao choro, dois gêneros fundamentais para o surgimento da moderna música popular urbana.

In the 19th century, the polka, introduced as a ballroom dance in 1844, would become progressively adapted to modes of playing that reflect the diction, ornamental inflections, and the rhythms tied to the characteristics decanted in the popular Brazilian tradition. Played by the popular pianists (who reinterpreted it according to the syncopated motifs of the umbigada and the lundu) or by the instrumental groups associated with the old “barbers” music* (comprising flute, clarinet, and oficleide), polka begat the maxixe and the choro, two genres fundamental to the rise of modern urban popular music.

* Musical ensembles of slaves who also practiced the barber’s trade had existed in Brazil since the 18th century.

Antônio José dos Santos’ polka “Marocas” in the Biblioteca Nacional

Lundu, choro, and maxixe are terms entirely absent from the Tango album’s introductory notes. Those familiar with popular Brazilian instrumental music will scratch their heads over this gaping omission. Only lack of familiarity with the choro and maxixe repertoire could lead the editors of Tango to write, “Without knowledge of the specific dance steps, the tempo of these Brazilian pieces is difficult to estimate” and “These syncopations derived from the movements of various types of Afro-Caribbean dance.”

Darius Milhaud was quicker to grasp the uniquely Brazilian essence of this music:

The rhythms of this popular music intrigued and fascinated me. There was an imperceptible suspension in the syncopation, a nonchalant respiration, a light pause that I found very difficult to grasp. So I bought a large quantity of maxixes and tangos; I made an effort to play them with their syncopated rhythms that pass from one hand to the other. My efforts were rewarded and I could finally express and analyze this “little nothing” so typically Brazilian.

Henrique da Rocha’s habanera “Já Sei... Já Sei...” in the Biblioteca Nacional

Less important but hard to pass over are a few small annoyances, such as the cover depicting Argentine tango dancers (when will they ever learn the difference?). The composer Francisco de Sá Noronha appears here as Francisco de Silva Noronha, and liberties have been taken in the translation of several tune titles. “Os Teus Olhos Cativam” (Your Eyes Captivate) is translated as “Prisoner of Your Eyes” and “Já Sei... Já Sei...” (I Know, I Know...) as “Now I Know...”

While both of the above may arguably be chalked up to whimsy, there is no excuse for rendering “Só no Choro” (Only in Choro) as “Alone in Sadness.”

Tango: An Album of Brazilian Dances
Selected and edited by Victor Fell Yellin
Oxford University Press, 2006
48 pages

01. O Periquito (Francisco Xavier de Matos Alvarenga)
02. Porquê Não? (Arnolfo Azavedo)
03. Iman (Joaquim Antonio da Silva Callado)
04. O Annel do Enéas Pontes (A.S. Chirol)
05. Teteia (Amelia Goldschmidt)
06. Só no Choro (Chiquinha Gonzaga)
07. Teu Sorriso (Chiquinha Gonzaga)
08. A Chilena (Federico Guzman)
09. Ahi! Não Tenho Mais Onde Cahir (Abdon Milanez)
10. Assucar com Canela (Lavildevan)
11. Suzana Vae à Missa (Abdon Milanez)
12. Os Teus Olhos Cativam (Ernesto Nazareth)
13. Amor Tem Fogo (Francisco de Sá Noronha)
14. Herminia (Julio Cezar do Lago Reis)
15. João Féra (Julio Cezar do Lago Reis)
16. Quem Me Quer? (Julio Cezar do Lago Reis)
17. Já Sei... Já Sei... (Henrique da Rocha)
18. Marocas (Antonio Jose dos Santos)
19. Tango dos Jornalistas (A. Rubio)
20. Tentação (F.L. da Silveira)
21. O Sospiro das Flores (Jayme Xarau)


Copyright © 2006–2008 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.