It seems that the first harpsichords arrived in Brazil as soon as 1552, with the arrival of D. Pero Sardinha to Bahia to organize the first church. Several passages of chronicles and missives of the priests attest to the presence of harpsichords in the convents of the Company of Jesus in the 16th century, as we can observe in the following excerpt from the letter by Fernão Cardim to El-Rei
(Rodrigues Vale, 1978, p.17):

[...] in all of these three villages there as schools of reading and writing, in which priests teach native children; to a few more skilled ones they also teach how to count, sing and play; they take everything well and there are already many who play flutes, violas, the harpsichord and celebrate mass in organum, things their parents esteem very much [...].


The author continues:

[...] during the whole baptism there was good music and motets, and every now and then flutes were played; afterwards there was a solemn mass with the deacon and subdeacon, celebrated in organum by the natives, with their flutes, a harpsichord and descant.

Other references to the instrument can be found in accounts from the 18th century. In the first decade, in a visit to a school of music in Salvador, Peregrino de Nuno Marques Pereira observed in a chronicle that “In a corner of the room [there is] an organ, a harpsichord, and a monochord.” Already at the end of that same century in Rio de Janeiro, the English traveler Sir George Stauton tells that the ladies of Rio de Janeiro “loving music passionately, usually play the harpsichord or the viola” (Tinhorão, 1998, p. 124).

Names of artisans tied to the making of harpsichord in early Brazil are still rare. However, organ builders, such as Agostinho Rodrigues Leite - in Olinda - and Manuel Inácio Valcacer - also a maker of instruments in general - may be associated to the building of harpsichords and spinets. Antônio José de Araújo, active in Rio de Janeiro, mentioned as an “organ maker and harpsichord and piano tuner,” and, in 1814, called “master and tuner of harpsichords,” could also be associated to the construction of harpsichords. The information that Mathias Bostem, maker of the spinet that is currently at the Imperial Museum in Petropolis, was appointed, in Lisbon, “master of harpsichords” of the Royal Chamber, and fulfilled the roles of tuner, orchestra harpsichord player, and also of builder, can reinforce the previous hypothesis (Correa de Azevedo, 1956, Ayres de Andrade, 1967, Scherpereel, 1985).

José Maurício Nunes GarciaThe use of a harpsichord by Rio de Janeiro’s greatest composer at the end of the 18th century, José Maurício Nunes Garcia (1767-1830), has been reported by several authors: “[...] he played the viola and the harpsichord without ever having had lessons [...] ” (Araújo Porto Alegre, 1983, p. 23). Or still: “[...] he made enormous efforts to develop the people’s taste for music, giving, as a minimal contribution, guitar, harpsichord and spinet lessons [...]”, as told by the Viscount of Taunay (1983, p. 12). The harpsichord was always present in rich sitting rooms, as described by Luiz Heitor Corrêa de Azevedo (1956, p. 18):

Many foreign travelers mentioned, in their memoirs, the grace and skill with which young Brazilian girls played harps, violas or harpsichords, singing the modinhas with an inimitable expression [...]

Beside the accounts of travelers, a few literary works, even in much later periods, both in Brazil and in Portugal, described daily habits that illustrate the use of the harpsichord. Thus, Machado de Assis, in Chapter 13 of Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, writes that “[...] young ladies spoke of the modinhas they would sing at the harpsichord, and of the minuet and English solo [...]”. Eça de Queiroz writes in his short story Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura (p. 20) that: “ [...] the Vilaças had the habit on Saturdays of attending the house of a very rich notary on the Calafates street; these were simple and tranquil reunions, where motets were sung at the harpsichord.” On the next page he continues: “[...] later, precious Dona Jerônima da Piedade e Sande, sitting with an emotive manner at the harpsichord, sang, with her nasal voice, the old aria of Sully.”

The references on the usage of harpsichords in Brazil are not few. Since the 16th century reference can be found in the most varied documents and in works of fiction. But only recently have the first registries of the presence of the instrument been found in official documents, more specifically in Rio de Janeiro (Mayra Pereira, 2005). This research reveals that the oldest document makes reference to the arrival of harpsichords in the port of Rio de Janeiro in 1721. From this year on many advertisements for sales or auctions of harpsichords or spinets were found in newspapers, as well as registries of instruments in inventories or customs documents. What is most interesting is that in 1829, a decree from the king sets a fixed sales price for harpsichords and, in 1830, harpsichords are announced to be auctioned (Pereira, 2005). The documents researched demonstrate that the instrument has always been a part of the musical life of Rio de Janeiro, and remained so for a very long time.

With regards to pianos, it is verified that they begin to appear more in Rio de Janeiro in the first decades of the 19th century, although they were already known in the final years of the previous century. An inventory of 1798 is the oldest documented evidence of its presence, and the instrument was possibly built in the city of Rio de Janeiro itself (Pereira, 2005). For a long period of time harpsichords and pianos coexisted, and José Maurício Nunes Garcia can be mentioned as an example of a composer and keyboard player that played both instruments as well as the organ. Starting in the 19th century, several types of pianos arrive in the city (square pianos, grand pianos, and upright pianos), arriving from Portugal, Germany, England, and France. The documents mention the following builders Erard, Broadwood, Stodart, and Clementi (Pereira, 2005).

There are no doubts about the frequent use of the harpsichord in Brazil during the 16th, 17th, 18th, and the first decades of the 20th century, but the search for a repertoire of works composed specifically for the instrument may still reach more satisfactory results. However, although they did not think singly of the harpsichord, two of our composers may have a few of their works included in this repertoire.

José Maurício Nunes Garcia, one of the greatest names of Brazilian colonial music, composed at the end of his life a Método de Pianoforte [Pianoforte Method], a collection of 30 small pieces for keyboard, which, although they do not privilege the harpsichord directly, are also appropriate for the instrument, both for historical and musical reasons. The Lições e Fantasias [Lessons and Fantasias] that are part of the Método, whose objective was didactical, are miniatures with progressive level of difficulty, elaborated for the musical education of two of his sons, who were still young at the time. The pieces contain interesting allusions to works by José Maurício himself - such as excerpts from Réquiem, 1816 - and also by authors such as Haydn and Rossini.

The composer from Pernambuco, Luís Álvares Pinto, whose most famous work is his Te Deum, wrote in 1776 the Lições de Solfejos [Solfeggio Lessons], small contrapuntal pieces with two parts, which finalized a volume on musical theory. These are works that were possibly used by young beginning keyboard (harpsichord, organ) players.

An other interesting case is that of the Sonata no 2 found in the archives of the Sociedade Musical Santa Cecília [Musical Society of Saint Cecilia] in Sabará, Minas Gerais, already colloquially named Sonata Sabará. By an unknown author, in three movements (Allegro, Adagio, Rondo) it is considered by many to be a Brazilian work. Going against the wishes of a few musicologists, but supported on the reflections below, I believe that the most probable is that it was a copy made in the colony of a work by a Portuguese author, something that was common at the time. Its compositional style, should it be a Brazilian work, would represent a rare and unique example.

That was precisely the case of the manuscript about tuning systems found in Salvador, Bahia, initially announced as Brazilian, and supposedly by an unknown author. I found out it was a copy of one of the important Portuguese treatises, the Compendio de musica theorica e pratica [Theoretical and Practical Compendium of Music], by Frei Domingos de São José Varella, published in Porto in 1806. A similar case happened with the work Compendio Musico or Arte Abreviada, by Manoel de Moraes Pedroso, published in Porto in 1751, and copied in Mariana, Minas Gerais, in 1790 by José de Torres Franco (Fagerlande, 2002).

Since the second half of the 18th century until the first decades of the 19th Brazilian composers used the basso continuo in several works and the presence of the harpsichord can be identified for its realization. Treatises on the basso continuo possibly used in Brazil were mostly Portuguese works, in original publications, or copied here, as we have seen. The two Brazilian works that discuss the subject date of the 19th century, of which A Arte da Muzica [The Art of Music], by an anonymous author, published in Rio de Janeiro in 1823, indicates the harpsichord as an instrument that is adequate for the continuo and that the continuo is adequate for the accompaniments of modinhas and minuets.

Considering that the history of the harpsichord in Brazil embraces a period of a few centuries, we still know very little about it. We must wait for future research, which will possibly reveal facts, scores, and perhaps composers.

But the history of the harpsichord in Brazil does not end in the 19th century. In mid 20th century the harpsichord player, conductor, and harpsichord maker Roberto de Regina triggered an important movement, reviving the instrument in our country. After a few decades of this pioneering work, several harpsichord players and builders appeared. Currently, the teaching of the instrument is part of the regular curriculum of a few music schools in the country, at the professionalizing, undergraduate, and graduate levels. A few contemporary composers have not remained aloof from the resurgence of the harpsichord and have written pieces for the instrument - solo, as chamber music or with an orchestra - such as Almeida Prado, Edino Krieger, Osvaldo Lacerda, Marisa Rezende, Ronaldo Miranda, Ernani Aguiar and Claudio Santoro.

Marcelo Fagerlande©2005


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