Brazil's Alberto Nepomuceno was the first composer to introduce national elements into the music of his native country.
The teacher of Heitor Villa-Lobos, he studied himself with some of Europe's most famous figures. Nepomuceno was born July 6, 1864, in Fortaleza, in northeast Brazil, where his father was a violin teacher and cathedral musician. The family moved to Recife, where Nepomuceno continued to study violin and piano, and considered a career in law. That brought him into contact with progressive forces that sought, eventually successfully, to overthrow the Brazilian monarchy and to institute republican government. He maintained his musical studies, however, and at the age of just 18 he became the director of the Carlos Gomes Club, Recife's leading concert venue. A few years later, he began presenting his own songs in concert, many of them Portuguese-language songs even though partisans of Italian opera argued that Portuguese was inappropriate for vocal music. Nepomuceno carried on a vigorous battle in the press with his detractors, moving to Rio de Janeiro in 1885 and teaching music there. In 1888, despite having to provide for his family after his father's death, he was able to travel to Europe for further studies. He worked in Italy with Giovanni Sgambati and then, in Germany, with the piano virtuoso Theodor Leschetizky. In Leschetizky's class, Nepomuceno met and fell in love with Norwegian student Walborg Bang, who had also studied with Grieg. The two married and lived for a time in Grieg's house in Oslo, where Nepomuceno's commitment to musical nationalism deepened. In the late 1880s he wrote several Afro-Brazilian dances for piano; these were probably the first instances of classical music that incorporated native Brazilian idioms. His String Quartet No. 3 of 1890, subtitled "Brasileiro," went even further in this direction. After returning to Brazil, Nepomuceno taught at the Institutio Nacional de Musica in Rio, where Villa-Lobos was his student, and he promoted Villa-Lobos' early music. He wrote several operas, including Artemis (1898) and Abul (1904), as well as a Sinfonia in G minor and an orchestral serenade. Later in life, he suffered from poor health and was unable to take up an invitation from Mahler to conduct in Vienna. Nepomuceno died in Rio on October 16, 1920, three days after having given his final concert at the city's Municipal Theater. Despite its manifest influence, his music remains little known outside Brazil; the String Quartet No. 3 was not even published until 2005. ~ James Manheim, Rovi