Art, Composers, Who was/is

The Lady of Carnival

Carnival is coming, it’s a very popular party all over the world, celebrated in different ways. Today I want to talk about the story of a woman who has forever changed the carnival of her country, Brazil.

Francisca Edwiges Neves Gonzaga, or as she’s better known Chiquinha Gonzaga, was a Brazilian composer, pianist and the first woman conductor of Brazil. One of the first pianist of choro (an instrumental popular music genre in Brazil), but she is famous for being the author of the first carnival march.

Chiquinha Gonzaga in 1877
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her Life

She was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1847, from a mestizo mother and wealthy white father. For these circumstances her birth was not easy, her mother didn’t know if the father would recognize the paternity, as he was a military with promising career and from a wealthy family. Despite the disagreements with his family, he accepted the child and married Chiquinha’s mother.

Chiquinha Gonzaga was very well educated as all other girl from a military family. She was prepared for a successful future, in other words, a good marriage to raise her to the category of “lady”. Music was the most important thing to her, she composed her first work when she was only 11. In late 19th century Brazil, women were often seen almost as slaves. Very few dared to disobey their parents or husbands and when that happened, they were sent to convents or reformatories. However, with the arrival of the Royal Family in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro was turning into a metropolitan centre and some usages and consumption were modified. The city started to have the appearance of a European city, but these social changes didn’t affect the manners, and for women nothing changed.

In the year 1863 she married with a man chosen by her father, even though she had expressed her disagreement with this arranged marriage. Jacinto Ribeiro do Amaral was a young official of the Imperial Navy. The life on the ship were her husband served, his psychological and physical abuses, the constant humiliation (because he didn’t agree that she’d pursue a musical career) were too much to her, so Chiquinha decided to leave her husband and ask for the divorce, a scandal at that time. She could take with her only her eldest son, her husband didn’t allow her to take the other two. After this episode, she was “declared dead and of unpronounceable name” by her father.

She moved to Minas Gerais, in 1870, with an engineer with who she had a daughter. But she could not accept his extramarital betrayals and decided to separate, and once more loses a child as he didn’t allow her to take their daughter. In 1876 she’s living in Rio again with her eldest son and working as an independent musician, is then when started her successful career as a pianist and composer.

After many years dedicated mainly to her music, Chiquinha Gonzaga met João Batista Fernandes Lage, a young man and talented musician apprentice. They fell in love, but the age difference was too large and would cause more prejudices in her life. She was 52 and he was only 16, so she adopted him as a son, finding in this the only way to live this love and at the same time to avoid the scandals. For the same reasons they moved to Lisbon (Portugal), where they lived some years away from all acquaintances and the society of Rio de Janeiro. It was difficult to her children to accept the relationship, but very soon they realized the importance of João Batista for her mother’s life and music. She never admitted publicly their relationship, it was discovered after her death through letters and photos of the couple.

She died in 1935 during the beginning of a carnival, and was buried in the cemetery of São Francisco de Paula in Rio.

Her Career

When she was working as an independent musician and giving piano lessons in Rio, she started to participate in ball and choro‘s reunions that were normally reserved for men. In these reunions she met the flautist Joaquim Antônio da Silva Callado and started to play in his group O Choro do Calado, being the first woman of the group.

The need to adjust the sound of the piano to popular taste was the reason of her recognition as the first popular composer of Brazil. During this time, she composed her first success, the polka Atraente (1877). She was famous but very criticized by the masculine society of her time. After the success of this first composition, she decided to try the theatre of varieties and composed the operetta A Corte na Roca (1885) with text of Palhares Ribeiro, in the Imperial Theatre. In 1911, the operetta Forrobodó had 1500 presentations in a row, being a recordist of this genre in Brazil. She composed also the score of the operetta Juriti by Viriato Corrêa. And in 1888 she rules for the first time an orchestra with A Filha do Guedes.

Score cover Chiquinha Gonzaga by Bordalo in 1877

In the year 1899 she composed Ô Abre Alas for the parade of the group Rosa de Ouro, of Andaraí in Rio de Janeiro, becoming the first composition created foe the carnival and defining a new musical style called marcha-rancho, that is considered the official rhythm of Brazilian carnival.

In 1934 she wrote her last composition, at the age of 87, the score of the play Maria.


  • Chiquinha Gonzaga was a very active citizen, involved in several social movements that took place during her generation, such as the abolition of slavery, the proclamation on the republic in Brazil. And many times, she had a leading position for the suffragist movement.
  • In the Passeio Público of Rio de Janeiro there is a herm in her honor by the sculptor Honorius Peçanha.
  • In May 2012, it was enacted the law 12624 that established the National Day of Brazilian Popular Music celebrated on her birthday (October 17).
  • She was portrayed as a character in films and television. In the films: Brasilia 18% (2006) directed by Nelson Pereira do Santos, and O Xangô de Baker Street (2001) directed by Miguel Faria Jr. and based on the book by the same name by Jô Soares. In television: the miniseries Chiquinha Gonzaga (1999) directed by Jayme Monjardim.
  • Chiquinha Gonzaga was honoured at the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro in 1985 through the Escola de Samba Mangueira with the plot Abram alas que eu quero passar. And again in 1997, the Escola de Sampa Imperatriz Leopoldinense with the plot Eu sou da lira não posso negar.
  • The Chiquinha Gonzaga Medal of Recognition, is given to women who work for democratic, humanitarian, artistic and cultural causes within the Union, States and Municipalities in Brazil.