The story of Francisca (more known as ‘Chiquinha’) Gonzaga is extremely fascinating. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1847, this Brazilian pianist/composer had a prolific musical career, creating a vast repertoire of compositions for small and large ensembles in different musical genres (including popular styles and theater pieces).
Through her music we are given a glimpse into the atmosphere of late 19th century Brazil, a transitional period of great social and cultural change.
At this time Brazil was a Portuguese colony, influenced by European culture, lifestyle and art. Styles of European music found their way into society through the importing of traditional dances such as the polka, mazurka and gavotte.
The process of colonization also included the importation of slaves, who brought their own culture and music to Brazil, enriching the European musical forms with African Rhythms called Batuque.
The mixing of these two distinct worlds and styles helped define Brazil's newly emerging identity and culture.
To an extent Chiquinha’s repertoire is a direct expression of this union. She in fact had this very dichotomy in her blood, being the daughter of Jose’ Basileu Gonzaga, a wealthy white man holding an important military position in Rio de Janeiro, and Rosa Maria Neves de Lima, a mulatto woman and daughter of a slave.
The relationship between Chiquinha’s parents was very complex, as mixed marriages represented a serious taboo in Brazilian society. Nevertheless, Francisca was the first child to be recognized by Jose’ Basileu, who provided her with the finest education, the goal of which being an arranged marriage that would introduce her to Rio de Janeiro high society.
This education included the study of the classics of piano literature, an influence we can find traces of in many of Chiquinha's compositions:
Yet despite Jose’ Basileu efforts, Chiquinha’s strong personality did not fit solely into her father’s expectations. Instead, she was drawn to the more vital side of Brazilian culture, captured by the African rhythms in dances like the maxixe and lundu, considered to be scandalous and vulgar at the time.
Along with other important musicians of her generation (including her lifelong friend Joaquim Antonio da Silva Callado), she began to mix European forms with African rhythms, creating the first expressions of the style that would later come to be known as ‘choro’.
The term choro comes from the verb chorar, which means ‘to cry’.
The style of choro was initially associated with several already existing dances in Brazil, including tango-brasileiro, tango-choro, choro-polka, polka-brasileira, among others. Only later through the pioneering efforts of composers like Chiquinha did this style develop into a more specific musical form and genre of its own.
Chiquinha was the first pianist to be part of a choro ensemble, pursuing a musical career at a time when women were not even allowed to work. After divorcing her husband —and being excommunicated by church and family as a result— she made a living as a musician.
She performed in cafes and choro sessions, taught, composed and sold her music, and also became the first female conductor in Brazil.
She contributed to the foundation of the Brazilian Society of Theater Authors, a copyright society for composers and writers, and being an avid supporter of social equality, joined the abolitionist movement that lead to the end of slavery in Brazil in 1888.
Throughout all her accomplishments and pioneering changes, music always served as a cathartic release for Chiquinha’s fearless soul. Indeed, the legacy she left behind reflects the spirit of a courageous woman who dared to challenge the conventions of her time.