In Defense of Brazil’s Beautiful and Moving National Anthem

    Brazil's National Anthem

    Brazil's National Anthem When I told my Brazilian wife about an article I read recently bashing her country’s melodious Hino Nacional ("the world’s worst national anthem," was the staggeringly forthright, first line of the piece), she grew absolutely indignant – irate, I’d dare say, all four-foot-eleven inches of her – over what I truly thought was a tongue-in-cheek approach used by the author, Englishman Ricky Skelton, regarding this potentially incendiary subject.

    Playing devil’s advocate for once (but ever so gingerly where my combative spouse was concerned), I jumped to Mr. Skelton’s defense, and even agreed with some of his shaky line of reasoning, including the statement that of all the soccer nations in the world today, Brazil, with its "uniquely Brazilian genres of music," i.e. samba, bossa nova, axé, Tropicália, forró, MPB, and funk, could certainly "do better, far better" with its national anthem – or so he’d have us believe.

    The solution Mr. Skelton offers would be for someone with the musical talent of, say, Martinho da Vila, to "compose a new Samba Anthem…which will get the players and crowd infused with the vibrancy and exuberance of their amazing country."

    That’s all well and good, as far as it goes. However, where we must part company is in his designation of a "good national anthem" (citing France’s and Scotland’s as the best examples), which should, he goes on to explain, "be an expression of the characteristics of a nation and its people. Yet for some reason, Brazil has some turgid, 200-year-old military marching music, which should be more suitable for an old central European country like Liechtenstein."

    I do not want to repeat what my dear and loving wife had to say about that last phrase. I also do not wish to respond in an adversarial manner to this peremptory challenge, but would like instead to take a less aggressive tone – sort of a friendly rebuttal, if that would be permissible – in my reply to Mr. Skelton’s contentious arguments.

    First off, why bad-mouth a battle hymn to an already embattled republic without first reciting some of the all-important lyrics inherent in it, which, in this case, are as full and complete expressions of the characteristics of the Brazilian nation and its people as any that are currently out there.

    Secondly, why offer a viable solution to a supposed problem where none even exists? Has anyone ever complained before about the failings of the Hino Nacional? Where is the documented evidence of such an allegedly egregious offense? Shouldn’t we rather adopt the more neutral tactic of "if it ain’t broke don’t fix it"?

    And thirdly, why not provide some enlightenment to the general public (in the way of much-needed background information) about the historical events surrounding the creation of Brazil’s nationalistic theme?

    Now here’s where my history degree and love of popular and classical culture come into play: for you see, unlike Mr. Skelton, whose "exhaustive research" took on the rather unscholarly form of "watching World Cups and international football for a lifetime," I decided to go online and conduct my own investigation into this matter.

    What I learned, then, was this: that a constitutional sympathizer named Francisco Manuel da Silva (1795-1865) composed the music to what we know as the Brazilian national anthem in 1822, as a reaction against Portuguese monarch Dom João VI. The story goes that da Silva wrote the piece in a shop frequented by intellectuals yearning for freedom.

    It went on to serve for many years as the unofficial Hino Nacional as well as a military band-music standard, hence the reason why it sounds the way it does. Okay, so Francisco Manuel da Silva is no Rossini or Bellini – and he probably couldn’t hold a candle to John Philip Sousa, either – but he’s definitely no slouch in the Salieri mold, of that I am certain.

    Interestingly, it took another hundred years for the lyrics to be joined together with the existing tune. This eventually came about in 1922, when, on the eve of the centenary celebration of Brazil’s Independence, poet and journalist Joaquim Osório Duque Estrada (1870-1927) delivered up the definitive text to "Ó Pátria Amada" ("Oh Beloved Country"), the current lyrics to the anthem.

    The music was played (sans words) during the royalist period, covering the years 1831 to 1889, and primarily at official occasions. Incidentally, when the last of Brazil’s emperors, Dom Pedro II, was deposed and sent into exile in 1889, the governing body of the New Republic realized the need for replacing old imperial ideals with newly installed republican ones.

    A competition was thereby held promoting a new national anthem (and, by association, a new political allegiance). The country’s foremost classical exponents were invited to participate, including famed opera composer Antonio Carlos Gomes. He respectfully declined, however, due to his previous close relationship to Dom Pedro (would that some of our present day political figures are capable of doing the same).

    The winning entry turned out to be that of composer-conductor Leopoldo Miguez (1850-1902) and his patriotically themed "Liberdade, liberdade, abre as asas sobre nós!" ("Liberty, liberty, may your wings envelope us"), with appropriately vibrant verses by José Joaquim de Campos da Costa de Medeiros e Albuquerque (1867-1934) – that’s a hearty mouthful even for Brazilians!

    Upon hearing the committee’s choice at the official unveiling, the first president of the republic, Marechal Deodoro da Fonseca, in typical Brazilian eleventh-hour fashion, made his now-famous pronouncement to one and all: "Prefiro o velho" ("I prefer the old one"), meaning da Silva’s century-old "military marching music," thus lending support to the "if it ain’t broke don’t fix it" school of thought previously invoked.

    As a consolation prize for his efforts, Miguez’s song of liberty was honored with the official title of Hino à Proclamação da República ("Hymn to the Proclamation of the Republic"), a position it holds to this day.

    Staying with da Silva’s music for the moment, the one that Mr. Skelton finds so unworthy of consideration of Brazil and her talented people, there is this extraordinary bit of trivia I wish to impart to readers.

    Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), an itinerant American composer, musician and pianist, a native of New Orleans and a Creole-Jewish descendant, spent a large portion of his professional career in the salons of European, Latin American, and Caribbean society, as well as on our own Brazilian shores, where he met his tragic and untimely end.

    It was Gottschalk who not only found the anthem worthy of his consideration, but was credited with having written one of the most bombastic, most colorful, most entertaining, and most thoroughly enjoyable concert showpieces anyone has ever heard (I kid you not).

    Called, appropriately enough, the Grande Fantasia Triunfal Sobre o Hino Nacional Brasileiro ("Grand Triumphal Fantasy on the Brazilian National Anthem"), it was originally conceived for piano and orchestra, and was to be played as part of a much longer composition entitled Marcha Solene Brasileira ("Solemn Brazilian March").

    Both works premiered at the Teatro Lírico in Rio de Janeiro, on November 24, 1869, with Emperor Dom Pedro II and his full court in attendance, along with three of the city’s orchestras, the marching bands of the National Guard, the Imperial Army and Navy, and about 650 other performing extras, including mixed chorus and backstage cannon (shades of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture).

    Unfortunately, it was during this same "monster concert" that Gottschalk collapsed from exhaustion and pain, and a few weeks later died, at age 40, from a ruptured abdominal abscess.

    I recommend a listen to the CD, especially the one with Brazilian pianist Cristina Ortiz, as it will soften anyone’s hardened heart about this marvelous piece – I guarantee it.

    I come now to the most difficult part of this summation (difficult, I should say, for anyone unfamiliar with the complicated Portuguese language): and that is, the words to the Hino Nacional itself. Space and time prevent me from delving too deeply into all the intricacies and nuances found in this fairly longish and distinguished poem, and for which some knowledge of Brazilian history may also be a prerequisite.

    Suffice it to say that some of the fervor and inspiration Mr. Skelton feels is so sorely lacking in Brazil’s national anthem can be heard right here, to its fullest extent, in the beautiful and moving lyrics to this mighty ode. Some highlights of the same are:

    E o sol da liberdade em raios fúlgidos
    Brilhou no céu da Pátria nesse instante.
    Se o penhor dessa igualdade
    Conseguimos conquistar com braço forte,
    Em teu seio, ó liberdade,
    Desafia o nosso peito a própria morte!

    The words, loosely translated by yours truly, now begin to take on a more stirring form:

    And the sun of liberty, with its brilliant rays,
    Shined on in our nation’s sky at that supreme moment.
    The guarantee of that equality
    Was so bravely won with our own strong arms,
    In your breast, oh lady liberty,
    Forever challenge our hearts, even unto our death!

    Does this smack of patriotic fervor? You bet it does! Does it urge fellow Brazilians to fight and die for their country? Why yes, absolutely! Then again, so did the Marseillaise ("Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons! Marchons, marchons!" – "Citizens, to arms! Form your battalions! Let us march, together"), which is even older than Brazil’s unfairly maligned anthem and a part of the so-called "good" ones mentioned by Skelton.

    Of course, Brazil hasn’t fought in a real battle since World War II, by my reckoning, but surely every World Cup match-up, every local soccer entanglement – indeed, every time the players hit the field – a fight ensues for honor, for country, and, in fact, for all Brazilian soccer fans everywhere, with the exception of Germany 2006. (Where was that fervor back then? I don’t know…you’d have to ask the Portuguese and the Italians.)

    Still, to put an end at last to my lengthy harangue let me propose a peace offering, if you will, and without the aid of a Secretary of State: for all future World Cup and international soccer appearances by Brazil and its national team, why not have the musicians expand upon Chico Buarque de Hollanda’s classic song, "A Banda," that wonderful hit from 1967, when the country still had a world-class outfit to boast of?

    It’s both a march and a samba, and makes excellent use of an existing band (already on the pitch, most likely, if we’re talking about Brazil); has an imaginative and literate text by an acknowledged master of the genre ("Estava à toa na vida / O meu amor me chamou / Pra ver a banda passar / Cantando coisas de amor / A minha gente sofrida despediu-se da dor / Pra ver a banda passar / Cantando coisas de amor"); and is the perfect musical alternative to the "problem" from a recognized Brazilian authority, no less.

    I think even my wife would be able to compromise on that one (but I’m not going to ask her just yet).

    In conclusion, Mr. Skelton should read the following excerpt from an online posting of London’s The Guardian, dated June 20, 2002:

    "Brazil’s Hino Nacional is arguably the jauntiest, cheeriest, most tuneful, and most beguiling national anthem on the planet. It feels as if it comes ready composed from the opera house…by the time [Englishman Charles] Miller first brought football to Brazil in 1894, the Hino Nacional had long expressed in song what Pelé and his successors later expressed so wonderfully on the field. While the Marseillaise makes bellicose calls to arms, the Hino Nacional stirs national feelings by appeals to Brazil’s ‘pure beauteous skies,’ its sound of the sea, and the flowers of its ‘fair smiling fields.’"

    If the above description can’t convince Mr. Skelton of the error of his ways, then nothing can. With that, I rest my case.

    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 JosmarLopes@msn.com.

    Copyright © 2007 by Josmar F. Lopes

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