A. Carlos Gomes (1836 - 1896)

A Biography

1. Early works in Brazil
2. Carlos Gomes' Brazilian inspiration
3. Recognition in Italy
4. Success around the world
5. A man of temperament
6. On Gomes' origins, and their influence on his music
7. His last will: stay in Brazil

1. Early works in Brazil

Carlos Gomes was born in Campinas (São Paulo state, Brazil) on July 11, 1836. At this time, Brazil had recently become an independent country (1822). It was then the only american country with a stable monarchy. From 1831, Emperor Dom Pedro II was reigning in Brazil, while Italy was the kingdom of Vittorio Emmanuelle. Musical life in Brazil was set on romantic songs apt for salon such as lundus or modinhas, or opera coming from Europe, specially Italy, where the geniality of Verdi was dominant.

There is some controversy as to Carlos Gomes' origin. The most widely accepted version is that he was, actually, one fourth Indian: his grandmother was a full blooded Guarany Indian, married to a son of a Spanish immigrant.

Son of a provincial bandmaster, Antonio Carlos Gomes learned from his father the rudiments of music. At age 18, he composed a mass that was premiered in a local church. He then started to tour Brazil as a pianist in his early twenties. He is then admitted into the National Conservatory to study composition with Italian maestro Gioacchino Gianini. There, Antônio Carlos Gomes composed in 1860 two cantatas: the first one was performed before the Emperor, who awarded the composer a Golden Medal. With the second, A última hora do calvário (the Calvary's Last Hour), a sacred piece written for the Santa Cruz military church, Carlos Gomes was offered the position of Director of the Orchestra, and Second Conductor of the National Lyric Theater.

The following two years, between 1861 and 1863, Carlos Gomes composed his first two operas, in Portuguese, in the belcanto Italian style. A noite do castelo (A night in the Castle) was premiered in 1861, in the Fluminense Lyric Theater, Rio de Janeiro. On this occasion, the composer received from the Emperor the distinction of "Cavaleiro da Ordem da Rosa". In 1863, Carlos Gomes' second opera Joana de Flandres received the same public success as the first one. Owing to these two works, Carlos Gomes will obtain a scholarship from the Brazilian Imperial Art Academy, an institution to which the National Conservatory reported, to go study in Europe. After a long trip through Portugal and France, when he chose to settle in Milan, he was twenty eight years old. In Italy, he composed 6 of his major operas, one Vocal Symphonic Poem, 2 musical theater works and a huge collection of chamber music.

The young Gomes, around 1863

Cover of the score of "A Noite do Castelo"

2. Carlos Gomes' Brazilian inspiration

Gomes, throughout his life, demonstrated that a true musical genius cannot be restricted to composing popular melodies or sentimental songs. He taught that music as an art has no frontiers, and understood that a young country (Brazil was less than 400 years old) needs to build its music on tradition and its own cultural aspects. Brazilian music known nowadays is the result of years and years of historical mix of different cultures. In addition to the Portuguese music (largely influenced by moorish elements from the invasions between the 8th and 15th centuries) the Brazilian people was enriched by many other international influences such as Italian opera, Neapolitan songs, French religious music and children songs, German waltz, Slavic polka and mazurka, all of them mixed with the native Brazilian rhythms (Indians). Finally, black African people, introduced by slavery, brought their own rhythms and music along.

Carlos Gomes' music is such a mixture: authentic Brazilian music. His major works have been composed in the dramatic art field: opera. Besides his composition skills, he was a fine tenor, and only opera, a mixture of various arts: dance, painting, architecture, orchestral and vocal music could offer him the means to express his talent. His works are a refection on his own background. Carlos Gomes' dramatic production never included the opera buffa type. All his dramatic expression is subordinated to vocal supremacy.

Soon, the Gazetta di Milano, Ricordi's publication, described him thus:

"When Carlos Gomes walks, always alone and lost in thought, you would say he was a savage, transported abruptly and magically into the midst of our Milan. Gomes, with his way of walking, seems to suspect a precipice at every step, a betrayal in every person, an enemy. This primitive head, his frightened manner, this age so grim it seems sinister, make many consider him as a misanthrope. Gomes is not that: he has a noble and generous heart, full of affection for his friends, of enthusiasm for his art. But he loves, adores, is roused to enthusiasm in his own way: like a true savage."

In this sense, Carlos Gomes can easily be compared to Verdi, always considered as a country man. But the similarities between the two men go far beyond the aspect. Three years after settling in Italy, Antonio Carlos Gomes received the degree of Maestro and Composer in the Milan Conservatory. He quickly became very popular with his operettas (Se Sa Minga, 1867 and Nella Luna, 1868). Some of his melodies were so popular that they were played by traditional organ-grinders.. In 1868 he moved from Milan to Maggianico, into a mansion in the surroundings of Lecco, an intellectual suburb, where he will built, ten years later, a magnificent mansion. Among his neighbors were A. Ponchielli and A. Ghislanzoni, Verdi's librettist. Ponchielli quickly became Carlos Gomes' good friend. In 1878, A. Ghislanzoni declared in the Gazetta Musicale:

Gomes lives in a paradise at Villa Brasilia, his mansion in Maggianico. Entering the property one feels like being in a tropical jungle with more than three hundred ficus trees. When the garden gates are open, the perfumed camellias invite us to get in .

According to the memories of Carlos Gomes' daughter, many Brazilian birds and monkeys also lived among the bamboos.

Cover page of "Se sa minga"

3. Recognition in Italy

In 1869, Carlos Gomes finishes composing his first famous opera: Il Guarany, based on a Brazilian homonymic indianist romance by José de Alencar. Il Guarany was acclaimed at la Scala of Milan in 1870. His former composition teacher Maestro Lauro Rossi wrote him am impressive letter, saying: "no one had such victory in his premiere" . Princess Matilde asked for a copy of the score. Even the cautious Verdi, on hearing it, spoke of Carlos Gomes as a musical genius: "questo giovane comincia da dove finisco io" (This young man starts where I finish). Immediately after the performance, the Lucca Editori bought the rights of the opera.

The success of this opera will be confirmed during the following years, as shows this review from the "Journal de Nice", after the performance of Il Guarany in February 1880 :

" Gomez' works reveals a lot of study and instrumental science. In includes numerous beautiful parts. Let's highlight spefically the symphonie, where one can find flashes of originality, clear and spontaneous melody lines, and the two soprani-tenor duettos which are wonderful. The second act brindisi and the third act prayer are brilliant. Enesmbles are well built and well treated. This is the impression left by the first audition of this opera. However, we are convinced that it will have a lot of success as, we repeat it, in shows first class music that one will never get tired of listening to. let's add that the execution will even enhance this success, as it is excellent."

Antonio Carlos Gomes kept on composing, always very influenced by Italian culture, but with a bias towards Wagnerian chromatism; his next works were to take a different path. Il Guarany belongs to a renovation movement in the Italian theater that started with Meyerbeer's The African, and continued with Verdi's Aida. All of those operas make good use of exotic topics. On May 20th, following this success, Vittorio Emmanuelle II named Carlos Gomes "Cavaleiro da Coroa da Italia", and Dom Pedro II made him "Comenda da Ordem de Rosa". He was at that time living successful days, and on December 16, 1871, got married with pianist Adelina Peri, who had graduated in Roma and also studied in the Milan Conservatory. From this union came five children. Carlotta Maria, Manual José and Mario all died children. Carlos André lived only until the age of 26. Itala Mariana Gomes Vaz de Carvalho, the only daughter who survived Carlos Gomes himself, was to write the composer's biography.

Il Guarany was written perfectly within the Italian tradition. But his second opera, Fosca (1873), staged at La Scala in 1873 on a libretto by Ghislanzoni, was composed in an advanced polyphonic form, systematically using leitmotifs, and in a very chromatic way. Gounod was present at the premiere, and made flattering commentaries.

Carlos Gomes was accused of being "Wagnerian" and this style was not appreciated at all in the 19th century Italy. Fosca was acclaimed by the experts, but remained a fiasco for the larger public. A few months later, Wagner's Lohengrin was booed by the same spectators. Overcoming this disappointment, Carlos Gomes went on composing Salvatore Rosa, also on a libretto by Ghislanzoni, after the novel "Masaniello", by french writer Eugène de Mirecourt. This work was first performed on March 21, 1874 at the Carlo Felice Theater in Genoa. Gomes had simplified the orchestration, but labeled his impulsive character with frequent "Tuttis" and chromaticism, going away from the Italian style. He used to present his first three operas in Italy saying: "I made Il Guarany for the Brazilians, Salvatore Rosa for the Italians, and Fosca for the experts!" Until now, Salvatore Rosa remains actually the favorite opera of the Italian audiences.

Cover page of "Il Guarany"

Cover page of "Fosca"

Cover page of "Salvator Rosa"

4. Success around the world

In 1876 Antonio Carlos Gomes visited the USA for the first time: he participated in the celebration of the first centennial of the American Independence, in Philadelphia. For this occasion, Emperor Dom Pedro II had commanded Carlos Gomes an orchestral piece: Carlos Gomes wrote a work for orchestra and chorus called Il Saluto del Brasile. He was once more acclaimed, and got reviews such as:

The maestro appropriates himself the qualities of the Italian and German schools without the excesses of either one. The Anthem has all the melodic fascination of Italian pieces, combined with a rich German music.

Finally in February 1878, Fosca was staged again at La Scala. This time, it got the public success it deserved. The Gazetta Musicale once again had flattering comments about this work:

One could say that this is an almost entirely opera in Gomes' style. Indubitably Fosca is the best work of the American maestro. He expresses all of his savage inspirations. The great finale consists in a barbaric warrior shout, but only Gomes could translate in music such philosophy and such effects.

Gomes led a busy life, traveling around the world to conduct his pieces, and never found the time to finish several operas he had worked on: The King's Musketeers, Marinella, both on librettos by Ghislanzoni, as well as Ninon de Lenclos and Palma. Then came 1879, a disastrous year for the composer: he suffered the loss of his third child, and misunderstandings became more frequent with Adelina, his wife. The family decided to move to Genoa in order to change the atmosphere. Unfortunately it did not prove to be really useful, and they moved back to Milan the following year.

Despite his misfortunes, Gomes' 4th opera, Maria Tudor, came to light: the libretto was the result of a cooperation of poet Emilio Praga and composer Arrigo Boito, after a drama by French author Victor Hugo. The premiere was a fiasco, but not due to the quality of the work itself, but more to backstage rivalry. A rival of the lead soprano, jealous from not getting the role, had sent all her friends, and even paid part of the audience to boo the opera, and specially the main soprano. However, after this, the opera was performed 16 more times, each one with great success!

Poster of the American Independance Centennial, with the participation de Carlos Gomes




Carlos Gomes'mansion in Maggianico


5. A man of temperament

According to testimonies by his contemporaries, Carlos Gomes had a meridional temperament, with moments of explosion and wraths, and others of kindness and amiability. But his heart was noble, always open to the human causes. He loved nature, he loved children, he loved justice. In 1880 he went to Brazil to perform the three successful operas he had written in Europe. After a night of honors, he was offered three slaves, which he immediately freed. Coming back to Italy, he published an album of chamber music and soon initiated his work on a new opera: Lo Schiavo (The slave). However, this opera was not to be performed before 1889. His visit to Brazil had him renew his strengths and ideals. He was definitely engaged in the battle for freedom for the slaves, and wrote a march for it. The original name of this piece was "Marcha Popular" (Popular March), for band and voice, but it was later renamed Ao Ceará livre (To the Free Ceará). Ceará had been the first Brazilian province to liberate the slaves.

With Editora Ricordi he published two chamber music albums in 1882. During the following years, his three successful operas were played all around Europe, and many times he had to travel to assume contractual engagements. There are assumptions about a possible romance that might have taken place between Carlos Gomes and Hériclée Darclée, a Romanian dramatic soprano. She was a sublime interpret of the composer's works: the ideal Isabel in Salvatore Rosa, and an ardent and extraordinarily expressive Fosca and Maria Tudor. Carlos Gomes and Darclée had a wonderful journey including Trieste, Budapest, St. Petersburg, London and returning to Italy by Venice before heading back to Milan.

As expected, the composer got legally separated from his wife early in 1885. They sold Villa Brasilia and all the furniture. Carlos Gomes then settled in a modest apartment inside the Galeria Vittorio Emmanuelle. Because of all these events, he could not finish his works Oldrada, I Bohemi, and Morena. In 1888 Adelina Peri died, leaving him in charge of the education of the two remaining children.

His musical life fortunately was more successful: the Artistic Philharmonic Orchestra of Modena, after a Fosca season, paid a tribute to Carlos Gomes in 1889. And finally, Lo Schiavo, on a libretto by A. de taunay and Rodolfo Paravicini, was successfully premiered that same year in Rio de Janeiro. It was a success at home but not in Europe. It is perhaps Gomes' most important work.Gomes dedicated the opera Lo Schiavo to "Her Serene Highness Princess Dona Isabel, Contessa D'eu, Imperial Regent" , who had signed the liberation of Brazilian slaves.

Due to Carlos Gomes' great popularity in Brazil, the Emperor had promised him the position of Director of The Conservatory of Rio de Janeiro as soon as the composer decided to go back to live in Brazil. However, in November 1889, the Brazilian Republic was established, and Gomes lost his official support, and his hopes for the Directorship of the Conservatory. His name was far too compromised with the Empire, and another musician was assigned the position.

In January 1890 Gomes traveled back to Italy. At that time he encountered many material difficulties, and had to live in the apartment of his friend the Countess of Cavallini. He had started to work on a mystical profane opera "O Cântico dos Cânticos" when La Scala commissioned him a melodrama named Condor, which he wrote in three months. Jointly with Boito, Catalani, Martucci and Bezzini he was nominated to a committee in charge of the selection of the musicians who would play at La Scala. Condor, the new opera he presented, in February 1891 was conducted by Mugnone. Toscanini had been deemed too young to do the job. The result surpassed all expectations, as expressed in a review by the newspaper Il Secolo:

The opera was staged with very good taste: wonderful sceneries, and beautiful costumes. (...) About the orchestra? Astonishing! Conductor Mugnone gave one more proof of what his artistic nature and musical conscience can achieve. Very seldom was the fusion between orchestral and vocal parts as perfect as yesterday. And with such feeling was Carlos Gomes' music sung! (...) Gomes must feel very proud of the favorable judgment emitted by such an imposing and severe public as La Scala's.

Then for the Colombian Festival in Rio de Janeiro, Gomes composed in a new genre: the vocal-symphonical poem, for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Colombo was first presented for the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas (October 12, 1892) in the Municipal Theater of Rio. Although it was not appreciated by the audience, Gomes was named by the Brazilian government to be the representative of his country to the Quadricentennial festivities in Chicago, in 1893. After yet another trip to Italy, where he presented Condor, he traveled for the second time to the USA.

Cover page of the piano score of Lo Schiavo



A. Carlos Gomes, around 50 years old

Cover page of

6. On Gomes' origins, and their influence on his music

On September 7, 1893, the Festival Hall of the Chicago Exposition featured the Brazilian Day, in honor of the 71st anniversary of Brazilian independence. Because of the budget, Carlos Gomes could not stage a whole opera, so he directed a concert incorporating overtures, scenes and arias of his major works. He raised a public ovation, and the comments in the following day were:

"Two hours of pure intellectual pleasure, as is too seldom presented in America. (...) After each piece the audience went crazy, and this day can be qualified not only as the commemoration of a great historical event, but also as the apotheosis of a man."

"The result was beyond any expectation. Carlos Gomes was encored, and Brazil was highly honored by its splendid musical genius. This was the greatest event in the celebration of the 71st anniversary of the Brazilian independence, and also the greatest tribute paid to Brazil out of its boundaries, during the 393 years since the Portuguese settled there."

The Gomesian music was actually so unusual to the North American ears that all kinds of questions about his origins emerged. J.H. Rogers, in his book The World's Greatest Men of Color , writes: "Gomes was a mixture of black, Indian and Caucasian." He was actually wrong. Carlos Gomes' origins actually played an important role in defining his musical style, and Rogers lacked information on the composer's origins: let us recall here what they are. Don Antônio Gomez, child of a Spanish immigrant to Brazil, owned fields and black slaves, and got married with the daughter of a Guarany Indian chief. From this union was born Manuel J. Gomez, who later wedded Fabiana Jaguari Cardoso, a half Indian, half- Portuguese women, as her composite name indicates.

They had two boys: José Sant' Ana Gomez, and Carlos Gomez, who both became musicians. Carlos Gomez, in order to reinforce his "Brazilianism" changed the last letter of his name to make it Gomes. A final z showed Spanish origins, whereas a final s had a more Portuguese character. As Brazil (which is spelled Brasil in Portuguese) was an old Portuguese colony, he prefered to carry the image of Portuguese rather than Spanish descent.

On the other hand, he never hid his Indian origins. On the contrary, he was always proud to be a "child of the jungle". His skin color was towards bronze, characteristic of descendants of the Tupy Guarany Indians, and not dark-yellow as African black's descendents. The savage rhythms of his works are very different from the melancholic onomatopoeic African cadences. In two of his most famous operas, the protagonists are Indian: Peri, in Il Guarany is a Guarany, and Iberê in Lo Schiavo is a Tamoio, substituting for the african slave Ricardo, for political reasons. During his stay in Maggianico, his house was decorated with Indian objects such as bows, arrows, lances, typical clothes, necklaces, bracelets, dry fruits.

Manuel Gomez, Carlos Gomes' father

7. His last will: stay in Brazil

When he returned to Milan after his American success, Carlos Gomes found his son Carletto suffering from the "evil of the 19th century", tuberculosis. He had to spend great deals of money to sent him to a tentative cure in Milan. In 1894, the Brazilian government offered him 20,000 liras in gold to compose a republican anthem, Although in need of money, he dismissed the offer: he judged that this would be a treason to his benefactor, former Emperor Dom Pedro II. This same year he entered the competition to be named Director of the Rossini Musical College in Pesaro, but lost to Pietro Mascagni. In 1895 he traveled to Portugal to conduct his Il Guarany: this masterpiece granted him the distinction of Comenda de Sant'Hiago (Commander of St. James) from the Portuguese government. Back in Italy, he was offered two positions almost at the same time and he had to choose between the two: Director of the Venice Music School, or Director of the Music Conservatory of Pará (Brazil). Old and fatigued of living in a foreign country, he accepted the position in Brazil with these words:

"If my disease is to lead me to death, I want to die in my Brazil, and there is no cure that will keep me here."

His son Carletto seemed to be getting better. Carlos went to visit him for the last time before leaving for Brazil. He finally left Italy in April 1896 to assume his new function in his country, where he was to die on September 16, 1896. He had a grandiose funeral ceremony. His children in Italy celebrated on October 7 a mass in his memory, that many musicians and friends attended. On the door of the San Fedele church in Milan, one can read:

  • Al Maestro     To the Maestro
    Antonio Carlos Gomes     Antonio Carlos Gomes
    Gloria del Brasile che ebbe i natali     Glory of Brazil, where he was born
    Onore dell'Italia     Honor of Italy,
    Ove educò e spiego il suo genio     Where he was educated and developed his genius
    I figli, gli amici e la patria     The children, friends and the country
    Ne piangono la prematura morte     Cry at his early death
    E pregano pace     And pray for the peace of his soul

Carlos Gomes remained a true Brazilian until after his death: to the signature on his testament were added the words: Brazilian and patriot. Referring to the composer, Mary Throwbridge Honey wrote :

Man is ever in a state of heroworship, an attitude which, if properly directed, tends toward the highest type of patriotism and international good will. But aside from Washington there are few heroes in the New World which are acceptable to all sections and all the religions and political parties. Could it be that we have looked for our heroes in the wrong field? Perhaps we might receive suggestions on this point from foreign nations. A foremost composer of South America, Carlos Gomes, is a national ideal. (...) To Brazil's greatest musician all mankind may offer tribute.

The nations of the New World (Latin America, USA and Canada) enjoy dramatic art. Since opera became slightly popular there during the 19th century, all of European singers and composers have had opportunities to perform in the Americas. However, Carlos Gomes' operas are almost absent from stages nowadays. In his lifetime, Carlos Gomes revealed to the world the musical potential of American nations. It is now our responsibility to give the Brazilian musical genius the place he deserves. It is time to give justice to his name, and remember his works.

Mosaïc on Carlos Gomes' Maggianico mansion

A. Carlos Gomes, in his last years

A. Carlos Gomes
Operas - Songs - Chamber Music - Piano Music - Biography - Bibliography & Recordings

About the author of this site, Cyrene Paparotti