Wednesday 21 February 2018

Classical: Heir of Brazilian barber made his mark as 'Mozart'

Composer: Camargo Guarnieri, who was named Mozart by his father, Miguel
Composer: Camargo Guarnieri, who was named Mozart by his father, Miguel

George Hamilton

What's in a name? Shakespeare's Juliet reckoned it mattered not that her Romeo was a Montague, and the Montagues and the Capulets - her lot - just did not get along.

"That which we call a rose," she figured, "by any other name would smell as sweet." It wasn't a view that would have been shared by a Brazilian barber, who left his mark on the world of music in a most peculiar way.

Miguel Guarnieri was born in Sicily in the latter half of the 19th Century. When he was only two, his family emigrated to South America and they settled, none too lavishly, in a rural town in upstate São Paulo in the south-east of Brazil.

Growing up, Miguel developed a love of music, and opera in particular. He learned to play the flute, and became a member of the community band. When he married a local woman, Gécia Camargo, she brought her piano to their new home.

Together they had four children, and this is where it gets quite mad - they named them after Miguel's favourite composers: Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, and Mozart. As in, "Come in for yer tea, Bellini!"

Mozart Guarnieri, born in 1907, was the youngest.

His father got him started on the piano, and he took to it immediately. But there was a problem. Finances were so tight that the piano had to be rented out and, as often as not, it was away at some social function or other.

Father and son were both frustrated. Eventually, there was nothing else for it but move lock, stock, and barrel - and piano, too - and head for the Big Smoke, where the prospects were better.

In São Paolo, Miguel played in dance bands to supplement whatever he took home from the barber's shop, and Mozart would play, too.

He performed in cafés, and in cinemas, providing the music for the silent movies. He was good enough to get into music school, and studied composition and conducting.

He was writing as well, mostly South American dance tunes. Meeting Mario de Andrade, who was the leading artistic figure in Brazil at the time, active in literature, and above all in music, helped set him off in a more serious vein.

His reputation grew.

He was taken on by the cultural department of the city of São Paolo. He earned a bursary, and, in 1938, headed off to study in Paris. Not the best of times to be basing yourself in western Europe.

He did get to work with the French composer Charles Koechlin, but his stay didn't last long. World War II broke out, and he was straight on to the boat back home.

But his short stay had bolstered his confidence in his abilities and he started to experiment with a broader palette. Two symphonies resulted.

No less a figure than Aaron Copland was impressed. In Modern Music, a quarterly of the time, he described Guarnieri as "the most exciting 'unknown' talent in South America".

"A real composer," he went on, "he has everything it takes - a personality of his own, a finished technique, and a fecund imagination."

His music is out there, bold and refreshing.

Just a word of advice if you go looking. He dropped the Mozart. Too pretentious, he felt.

He thought of his mother before she was married. Copland's exciting unknown got himself a new name - he became quite simply Camargo Guarnieri.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday from 10am.

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