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Chiquinha Gonzaga: the first Brazilian conductor

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Composer, Conductor, Pianist

Chiquinha Gonzaga: the first Brazilian conductor

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 22/03/2023

By: Cláudia Verardi - Librarian at Fundação Joaquim Nabuco - PhD in Librarianship and Documentation

Chiquinha Gonzaga was a very successful Brazilian composer, pianist, and conductor who had her work recognized during her lifetime and was highly acclaimed by the public and critics. She had an exuberant personality and, in the first decades of the 20th century, worked intensely on the transition between foreign and local music, opening paths to define the routes of the Brazilian music that she helped to consolidate.

Francisca Edwirges was born in Rio de Janeiro on October 17, 1847 as the third child of Rosa de Lima Maria. She was in danger of death and, thus, was baptized in haste. Since her mother was a daughter of a slave, she was freed at the baptismal font and lived, as a couple, with Jose Basileu Neves Gonzaga, a white and light-eyed man from a distinguished family of the Brazilian Empire. The troubled relationship of Francisca’s parents, which was rejected by her paternal grandfather, influenced Chiquinha Gonzaga’s entire life. The difficult path of the daughter of a mestiza and a soldier of the Army Corps of Engineers was already foreseen.

By analyzing Chiquinha’s life history, it can be said that she was a woman ahead of her time that defied sexism and the difficulties of being a woman and a mother. She became one of the most popular Brazilian composers and left a beautiful legacy.

This woman’s strong personality and restless spirit were revealed early on, as she did not hesitate to do what she believed was right, even against the standards set by the society.

Her love story, as well as her career, was challenging. At 16 years old, Francisca married Jacinto Ribeiro do Amaral, a tall, blonde, blue-eyed man who was 24 years old at the time. He was a well-off man and owned cattle and farmland. On the other hand, Chiquinha was a young, beautiful, intelligent, and well-educated woman, who lived up to what was expected of a woman at that time. Thus, she was able to parade with him in the court salons of the Brazilian Emperor D. Pedro II. However, her personality did not match the customs of the time.

Chiquinha Gonzaga got her first piano as a wedding present from her father and, while she was married, she dedicated herself to her musical studies, which annoyed her husband, with whom she had three children.

In June 1865, Jacinto became the owner of a merchant ship chartered by the government to serve as transport during the Paraguayan War and began to undertake trips to the south of the country as commander of the Brazilian Merchant Marine. Considering that his wife had a rebellious temperament, he forced her to accompany him in a vain attempt to keep her away from the piano.

Chiquinha accompanied her husband on a few trips, but Jacinto forced her to choose between him and the music. She quickly took a stand and decided to separate from him at a very young age.

Chiquinha returned to Rio de Janeiro accompanied by João Gualberto, her fellow adventurer. However, she faced opposition especially from her family, who advised her to go back to her husband. Thus, such reconciliation attempt last a short time.

According to Diniz (2009, p. 178), Chiquinha’s disobedience was translated into music to contest a power that tried to crush her: while social classes kept their spaces rigidly defined, she took the street culture to the ballrooms. The author also stated that “at the same time that she liberated herself, she liberated music”.

At 23 years old, Chiquinha abandoned her husband and children, losing her reputation and social position as she fell in love with João Batista de Carvalho, a rich engineer and friend of the Gonzaga family. The scandal in the court was inevitable, but it was mitigated later by a work contract for João on the construction of the Mogiana Railroad Company, which took the couple to live in the interior of the state of Minas Gerais.

In 1875, the new couple returned to live at Rio de Janeiro as a married couple, angering Jacinto, who filed for divorce. Chiquinha became divorced in 1877, a century before such status was considered a civil right in Brazil. After the divorce, Chiquinha’s union with João Batista lasted only one year. Then, she left her daughter Alice, the fruit of this union, under her fathers’ care.

Instead of becoming a dark and ashamed figure due to her divorced status, according to Diniz (2009, p. 75) Chiquinha Gonzaga flourished into public life as a pianist and composer of music to dance.

What should just have been a scandal encouraged Chiquinha to reinvent her role in society, as she acted enthusiastically supporting social causes. She became a celebrity by confronting the music market.

Performing in the rich musical environment of Rio de Janeiro of the Second Reign, in which polkas, tangos, and waltzes prevailed, Chiquinha Gonzaga did not hesitate to incorporate to her piano all the diversity she found, without prejudice. (DINIZ, 2011, p. 1).

One of her compositions has crossed generations and is still a current success, since it is played year after year in carnivals: “Ó Abre alas” (Open the way) from 1899. According to Diniz (2009, p. 174), when Chiquinha composed this song the most popular expression of Brazilian carnival, was the cordão, which consisted in the Carnival of the people of Rio de Janeiro. Each cordão had its well-defined colors and used percussion instruments. Chiquinha lived at Andaraí neighborhood, in Rio de Janeiro, where the cordão Rosa de Ouro had its headquarters. Inspired by the rehearsal of this group, she sat down at the piano and composed this march, which became the first song of the Brazilian Carnival:

Open the way 
That I want to pass (twice) 
I'm from the lyre
I can't deny (twice) 
Open the way 
That I want to pass (twice)
Rosa de Ouro
Is going to win (twice)

As a conductor, she participated in 77 theatrical plays of various genres.

In 1912, she premiered Forrobodó, her greatest theatrical success. The play had 1500 consecutive performances after the premiere, and currently still owns the highest performance of this genre in Brazil. For this play, she composed the Brazilian musical genre modinha song Lua branca (White moon), whose original verses maintain the caricature spirit of the work. In 1929, however, a romantic version with the same title appeared, which was recorded by the singer Gastão Formenti. The authorship of the lyrics of this second version is unknown to this day (SANTANA, 2015, p. 8).

The composer despised prejudice and social backwardness of her time, denounced intolerant attitudes, and supported the abolitionist movement. She went from door to door selling her music to raise funds for the Confederação Libertadora. Thus, she bought the freedom of several slaves, including the musician José Flauta.

In 1899, Chiquinha was already an established musician and met the companion that she spent her entire old age, a young Portuguese apprentice musician. Chiquinha, who was 52 years old at the time, got together with João Batista Fernandes Lage, only 16 years old, and lived with him for the rest of her life. Besides being a life partner, “Joãzinho”, as he was affectionately called, preserved of the composer’s collection with great dedication and care and was recognized by her family, who are grateful to him for his zeal for his wife and her work.

Besides all the work of the tireless and audacious Chiquinha Gonzaga, she also took the initiative to create the Sociedade Brasileira de Autores Teatrais (Brazilian Society of Theatrical Authors). It was founded in 1917 as the first society responsible for collecting and protecting copyrights in Brazil.

Currently, Brazilian music has several women who stand out as singers, songwriters or instrumentalists, who manage to live off their own artistic work. However, according to Santana (2015, p. 2) “what today seems natural, about a century ago was rare: women who dared working with this medium were viewed with prejudice and suffered discrimination”. Chiquinha Gonzaga who precisely “opened the way” in Brazil’s musical scene for women.

In 1933, the conductor, 85 years old, wrote her last composition entitled Canção de Lauro, for the rough play Maria.

At the age of 87, Chiquinha Gonzaga died in Rio de Janeiro on February 28, 1935.


Pianists and researchers Alexandre Dias and Wandrei Braga, conceived and made available the Acervo Digital Chiquinha Gonzaga website ( that offers free access to the composer’s work.




Recife, October 25, 2016.

sources consulted

ACERVO Digital Chiquinha Gonzaga inaugura nova seção, Peças Teatrais Completas, com publicações inéditas. 2014. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 25 out. 2016.

ALBIN, Ricardo Cravo. MPB: a synthesis of the Brazilian soul: 1915-2005. [S.l.]: Price WaterHouseCoopers, 2005.

CHIQUINHA Gonzaga [Foto neste texto]. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 24 out. 2016.

DINIZ, Edinha. Chiquinha Gonzaga: acervo digital: biografia. 2011. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 25 out. 2016.

DINIZ, Edinha. Chiquinha Gonzaga: uma história de vida. Nova Ed. ver e atual. Rio de janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2009.

SANTANA, Ana Elisa. Chiquinha Gonzaga: a vanguarda da mulher na música brasileira. 2015. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 24 out. 2016.

how to quote this text

VERARDI, Cláudia Albuquerque. Chiquinha Gonzaga: a primeira maestrina brasileira. In: Pesquisa Escolar. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, 2016. Available at: Access on: month day year. (Ex.:Aug.6. 2020.)