Pioneer Women Composers of Brazil

Daniella Thompson

26 January 2021

In Brazil’s male-dominated society, women were long denied the right to practice a profession or an art. Women who performed on the stage were considered “fallen.” Composing music, conducting, and even playing professionally were strictly the domain of men. It is therefore remarkable that a young pianist named Chiquinha Gonzaga managed in the 19th century to overcome formidable societal hurdles and succeed beyond all measure on the strength of her talent and pluck. Chiquinha blazed a trail for other talented women musicians, including Carolina Cardoso de Menezes, who became a professional pianist in her teens and went on to a prolific career.

Chiquinha Gonzaga in 1877

Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847–1935)

Francisca “Chiquinha” Edwiges Neves Gonzaga was born out of wedlock on 17 October 1847 in Rio de Janeiro. Her father, José Basileu Neves Gonzaga, was a military officer from an illustrious family, while her mother, Rosa Maria de Lima, was the mestizo daughter of a slave. Breaking the social norms of slaveholding imperial Brazil, José Gonzaga officially recognized Francisca as his daughter and eventually married her mother.

The youthful Chiquinha received a traditional young lady’s education, intended to secure for her a good marriage. Apart from being taught reading, writing, arithmetic, French, and religion, she received music lessons. She grew up listening to polkas, maxixes, waltzes, and modinhas, which were played at the family parties in which she happily participated. At the age of 11, she composed her first tune, a Christmas song titled “Canção dos Pastores” (Shepherds’ Song).

View of Rio de Janeiro in the mid-19th century (Strassberger)

In Brazil’s rigidly patriarchal society, women enjoyed few civil rights. They were required to obey their fathers, and later their husbands, regardless of their own inclinations. In January 1863, the 16-year-old Chiquinha was married off to Jacinto Ribeiro do Amaral, a 24-year-old officer in the merchant marine and the scion of a prominent family. Chiquinha’s father gave her a piano as a wedding present, and she continued playing and composing dance tunes, much to her husband’s displeasure.

The couple’s first child, a boy, was born in 1864, followed by a girl in the next year. In 1865, Jacinto began transporting soldiers, arms, and slaves by ship to the Paraguayan War and compelled Chiquinha to accompany him on his voyages. Isolated in her cabin, forbidden to play music, she began to chafe against her restrictive married life and moved back to her parents’ home. There she received no encouragement and, discovering that she was pregnant with her third child, returned to her husband. The marriage, however, was soon over. Chiquinha left her husband for the engineer João Batista de Carvalho Júnior and moved to a plantation in Minas Gerais. Her scandalized parents cast her out, keeping her two younger children, and Amaral sued for divorce in the ecclesiastical court.

Chiquinha gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter, in 1876, but Batista de Carvalho’s infidelity caused this relationship to founder as well, and Chiquinha returned to Rio de Janeiro, where she made a living by giving piano lessons. She established herself in Rio’s musical milieu with the help of her friend and mentor, the celebrated flutist and composer Joaquim Antônio da Silva Callado (1848–1880). Widely considered the father of choro, Callado dedicated the polka “Querida por Todos” (Beloved by All) to Chiquinha Gonzaga. She joined his band, O Choro do Callado, playing in balls and theaters and earning two thousand réis per night.

In 1877, Chiquinha composed her now famous polka “Atraente” (Attractive), which was published just before the carnaval and became an instant hit. Soon she began composing music intended for the vaudeville theater, where she hoped to earn money, conquer audiences, and be recognized as a composer. In 1883, she composed the music for the three-act satire Viagem ao Parnaso (A Trip to Parnassus) by Artur Azevedo. The producer refused to mount a piece composed by a woman, so Parnaso did not reach the stage until 1891.

In 1884, Chiquinha composed music to a libretto she had written in 1880 for a one-act operetta titled Festa de São João. This piece was never staged, and the music wasn’t published until 2014. Only in 1885 did the composer finally succeed in having a première at the Teatro Príncipe Imperial of another one-act operetta, A Corte na Roça (The Court in the Country), whose libretto was penned by the beginner Palhares Ribeiro.

Several productions that included her music soon followed: A Filha do Guedes (1885), adapted from a French comedy; A Mulher-Homem, Há Alguma Novidade?, O Bilontra, O Maxixe na Cidade Nova, and O Destino (1886); and O Zé Caipora (1887). Chiquinha continued to compose for and conduct on the stage. Edinha Diniz, author of the biography Chiquinha Gonzaga: uma história de vida, provided an outline of the composer’s theatrical output in this list.

Cover of a Chiquinha Gonzaga score book published by Narciso & Arthur Napoleão (courtesy of

Chiquinha Gonzaga promoted the guitar at a time when the instrument was widely associated with lowlife. In August 1889, she conducted her Brazilian fado “Caramuru, the Fire God”at the Imperial Theatro São Pedro de Alcântara in a concert of more than 100 guitars. “Caramuru” was danced and sung to an accompaniment of guitars, violas, and pandeiros (the latter also frowned upon by polite society).

In 1895, Chiquinha composed one of her best-known tunes, the maxixe “Gaúcho” [Corta-Jaca]. This number entered the world’s classical repertoire in 1919, when Darius Milhaud quoted it in his most famous composition, Le Boeuf sur le Toit, albeit without crediting the source. Maestro Radamés Gnattali did better in 1956, when he dedicated the fourth movement of his suite Retratos (no relation to the ensemble in the video above) to Chiquinha Gonzaga with his free adaptation of “Gaúcho.”

The year 1899 was a watershed for the composer. At that time, Chiquinha was living in Andaraí, a neighborhood in the North Zone of Rio. Across the street from her home was the seat of the cordão Rosa de Ouro, one of the city’s earliest street carnaval marching processions. One February day, during a rehearsal of the cordão, Chiquinha was inspired by the marching rhythm of the paraders and composed a march that she titled “Ô Abre Alas.” It was the first song expressly written for carnaval. Chiquinha included it in the musical revue Não Venhas!…, staged at the Teatro Apolo in January 1904. The march became her biggest hit and spawned a new genre of carnaval tunes, the marchinha. To this day, “Ô Abre Alas” retains its major position in the carnaval repertoire.

Chiquinha Gonzaga, sole woman in a group of theatrical authors, 1921

Having conquered the musical sphere, Chiquinha began a crusade for authors’ rights. In 1913, she launched a campaign to recognize authors’ rights after discovering in a Berlin music shop several of her compositions published without her permission. When Fred Figner, owner of Casa Edison, turned out to be the responsible party, Chiquinha demanded and received satisfaction, initiating the first discussions about copyright in Brazil. In 1916, the National Congress approved the Brazilian Civil Code, whose Law No. 3,071 dealt with literary and artistic property, reinforcing authors’ rights. The following year, the Sociedade Brasileira de Autores Teatrais (SBAT) was founded, and Chiquinha Gonzaga was a member of its first board of directors.

Chiquinha Gonzaga in her last photo, taken on her 85th birthday

Chiquinha Gonzaga died in Rio de Janeiro on 28 February 1935, at the age of 87, after a long life replete with groundbreaking accomplishments. This musical giant is affectionately known throughout Brazil as A Maestrina (the little maestra).

Listen to pianist Maria Teresa Madeira playing Chiquinha Gonzaga’s compositions.


Carolina Cardoso de Menezes, 1952

Carolina Cardoso de Menezes (1913–2000)

Carolina Cardoso de Menezes was born on 27 May 1913 in Rio de Janeiro to a family of well-known musicians. Her father, Oswaldo Cardoso de Menezes, was a famous pianist and composer of popular music for the theatre. Her grandfather, also a composer, and her grandmother, a concert pianist, performed for Dom Pedro II at the imperial palace. Her mother and uncle were musicians as well.

Carolina learned to play the piano by ear beginning at age two. She accompanied her mother, playing four hands, and did not have formal music lessons until she was 13 years old.

At the age of 15, Carolina performed on the radio for the first time, and two years later, having won a piano competition at the same radio station, she was given a contract. Her recording debut occurred in 1929, when the 16-year-old Carolina played the piano alongside the famous Bando de Tangarás in the now legendary recording of the samba “Na Pavuna.”

When she was 17, Carolina completed her studies of theory and solfège at the National Music Institute and continued to study harmony with her composer-cellist cousin. A wealthy benefactress offered to finance her studies in Paris, but her mother having forbidden her to go abroad, Carolina continued to perform on the radio and in many recordings. Her first recorded solo performance took place when she was 18.

Carolina’s early recordings included some tunes that she had composed. Soon, well-known artists began to record her compositions. It’s interesting to note that some of her tunes carried English titles like “Good-bye,” “My Sweet Heaven,” and “I have Money.”

Exhibiting pianistic virtuosity and rich rhythms, Carolina’s interpretations of choro and samba tunes became a byword. Stride piano was one of her signatures. In a 1978 radio interview, Carolina credited Fats Waller with having influenced her style.

Between 1935 and 1944, she had a daily 15-minute program on Rádio Tupi, where she accompanied singing stars like Carmen Miranda and Francisco Alves, as well as Josephine Baker, Pedro Vargas, and Jean Sablon. During the same years she recorded many sambas, choros, foxtrots, boleros, baiões, and carnaval marchinhas.

In 1949, Carolina signed a contract with Brazil’s top radio station, Rádio Nacional, where she presented the weekly program Carolina and her Piano, whose opening theme was her fox-blues “Preludiando.” During the 1950s, she released at least one LP per year. Among the latter were Carolina Cardoso de Menezes Interpreta Ernesto Nazareth (1952); Reminiscências (1954); Sucessos em Desfile No. 1 (Hit Parade No. 1, 1954); Sucessos em Desfile No. 2 (1955); Lembrando Carmen Miranda (Remembering Carmen Miranda, 1955); Honeymoon in Rio (1956); Teléco Téco (1957); Carolina Viaja Pelas Cidades do Mundo (Carolina Travels Through the World’s Cities, 1957); Boite Carolina (Carolina’s Nightclub, 1957); and Tapete Mágico (Magic Carpet, 1958).

In 1955, the songwriter, singer, and music historian Almirante, who had given Carolina her first recording gig in 1929, organized the second Festival of the Velha Guarda to continue giving exposure to great veteran samba and choro musicians like Pixinguinha, Donga, and João da Bahiana. Carolina was one of the artists invited to take part in this festival. Around the time that she released the album Boite Carolina, the pianist owned a night club by the same name in Copacabana, where she performed.

More albums came in the 1960s. These included Um Mundo de Músicas (1960); Encontro de Ritmos (1960); Carolina no Samba (1960); Carolina e o Sucesso (1961); and Telecoteco de Ontem e de Hoje (Telecoteco of Yesterday and Today, 1962).

In a 1968 carnaval song competition, Carolina’s marcha-rancho “Aquela Rosa que Você Me Deu” (That Rose That You Gave Me) won second place. After a decade and a half of reduced activity, Carolina returned in 1986, recording the LP Os Pianeiros with Aloysio de Alencar Pinto and Antonio Adolfo. On this album, Carolina played “Odeon” (Ernesto Nazareth); “Mulher” (Oswaldo Cardoso de Menezes); “Sete Coroas” (Sinhô); “O Maxixe” (Aurélio Cavalcanti); “Do Sorriso da Mulher Nasceram as Flores” (Eduardo Souto); and “Tempos que se Foram” (Alberico de Souza).

In 1987, Carolina took part in recording the CD Memória do Piano Brasileiro, Vol. 1, which includes four of her live performances. Two years later, she teamed up with violinist Fafá Lemos, recording the beautiful album Fafá & Carolina. On this disc, you can hear Carolina playing an overdubbed two-piano performance of her composition “Curió Dengoso.”

Carolina’s last album

Carolina Cardoso de Menezes’s last album, Preludiando, was recorded in 1997. It combines standards of the popular Brazilian songbook with seven of her own compositions, including “Preludiando”; “Lembrando Nazareth”; “Bachianas Cariocas No. 1”; “Duas Américas”; “Ligia” (co-authored with Bidú Reis); “Caboclinha” (co-authored with Oswaldo Cardoso de Menezes); and “Maroto.”

During the last year of her life, Carolina took part in a fundraising recital at the Sala Cecília Meireles in Rio de Janeiro, where she played two of her compositions and one by Chiquinha Gonzaga. That same year, she gave a live recital on Rádio MEC and made her last public appearance at the Sala Funarte in Rio, in a recital of the pianist Maria Teresa Madeira. On that occasion, she played two of her compositions and “Tico-Tico no Fubá” (Zequinha de Abreu).

In addition to being a prolific composer, playing and recording, Carolina Cardoso de Menezes worked as an arranger and musical transcriber. She passed away on 31 December 2000, aged 87, like Chiquinha Gonzaga before her.

Two years after Carolina’s death, Maria Teresa Madeira gave a recital in her honor on Rádio MEC. She also recorded a yet-to-be-released CD dedicated to Carolina. Maria Teresa Madeira’s doctoral dissertation, submitted in 2016, is titled Carolina Cardoso de Menezes, a Pianeira.

Listen to Carolina Cardoso de Menezes playing her own compositions.

Sources: Edinha Diniz, Acervo Digital Chiquinha Gonzaga, Dilva Frazão, Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil, Maria Teresa Madeira, Alexandre Dias & Instituto Piano Brasileiro.

Copyright © 2021 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.