Legendary ladies: The women history forgot, No.2 – Chiquinha Gonzaga

Children need strong role models. Not only that, but they need role models which reflect the diversity of humankind – role models who look like you or come from a similar background to you are always easier to relate to. However, most of the role models our society holds up today are male and white, meaning many children and, in particular, girls are left out. I am passionate about doing my small part to address this.

In this vein, the second of my blog posts on the amazing women that history forgot looks at a pioneering, mixed race, female composer from the nineteenth century – Chiquinha Gonzaga. In spite of her success at the time, few beyond musical circles in her native Brazil, have heard of her. But, before I get into her story, I’ll begin with some interesting facts about Chiquinha that you can share with your kids.

Interesting facts to share with the kids:

  • Chiquinha Gonzaga was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1847 and became one of the first famous, female composers in the world.
  • What made her even more rare in those days was that she was mixed race and she was a divorced mother.
  • Many in those days believed that people like her were not meant to be composers. They thought it was something only white men should do.
  • Chiquinha struggled against prejudice like this her whole life, but she did not let it defeat her.
  • She became a famous and highly successful composer in her own country of Brazil and even did tours in Europe, including the UK.
  • Because of the difficult challenges she had faced, Chiquinha wanted to help make things better for other people and was a leader in many social campaigns. She campaigned for the end of slavery in Brazil and for women to be given the vote. Both these things happened in her lifetime.
Chiquinha, aged 18
Chiquinha, aged 18

An unusual childhood

Francisca Edwiges Neves Gonzaga, better known as Chiquinha, was a Brazilian composer, conductor and anti-slavery and votes for women campaigner. One of the first women in the world to gain fame and earn her living as a composer, Chiquinha is largely forgotten today. She was the daughter of a wealthy white father and a poor mother of mixed race. Though this wasn’t particularly unusual at the time, what was unusual was that her parents were married and Chiquinha was brought up like any other wealthy young lady. She was taught to read and write, she became a talented mathematician and excelled at the piano.

Saved from disaster by music

Chiquinha was married off at the age of 16, very much against her will. Her dowry was a piano. The marriage was a very unhappy one and Chiquinha was very poorly treated by her husband. She managed to secure a divorce, a scandalous thing in nineteenth century Brazil, but her husband gained custody of their youngest two children. Chiquinha was left completely alone with her eldest son as her father now disowned her. Fortunately, she had continued her piano playing during her marriage and supported herself and her son by teaching piano and playing in musical instrument shops.

A very energetic-looking Chiquinha, aged 78
A very energetic-looking Chiquinha, aged 78

Success in the face of prejudice

She also composed her own music, mainly for popular dances such as the polka, tango and waltz. This is where her contribution to music really began, as she adapted the traditional sounds of the piano for the modern requirements of popular entertainment. At the age of 30, she gained her first big success with the polka ‘Atraente’, which was so popular it was printed and copies sold. And this was in the face of considerable criticism for her working in a male industry, for her composition of ‘vulgar’ popular music and for being a single mother.

Chiquinha, the campaigner

Chiquinha continued to compose and at the same time became engaged in a number of social movements. Her social engagement was inspired in part by her mother’s poor origins and the discrimination and struggles she herself had faced. It included the campaign to abolish slavery in Brazil, which finally succeeded in 1888. As part of the campaign she had sold her sheet music door-to-door to raise funds. She was also politically engaged, campaigning for votes for women and becoming involved with the group who overthrew the Brazilian emperor in 1889 and declared Brazil a republic. Throughout this time, Chiquinha’s popularity rose and rose and she moved into composing operettas and even opera. In the 1880s she also began to conduct, the first woman in Brazil to do so. She scored a major success in 1911 with the operetta ‘Forrobodó’ which ran for 1500 shows straight following its premiere.

Success beyond Brazil

As Chiquinha’s popularity grew in Brazil, she began to be noticed in Europe too, and toured there on numerous occasions between 1902 and 1910, including trips to the UK. Not only was Chiquinha talented and popular, but she had great stamina too and continued composing into her eighties. She wrote her last composition, the opera ‘Maria’, only a year before her death at the age of 87.

Her impact on Brazilian music and Brazilian society is huge. But she was also a pioneer for women and people of mixed race the world over and for this she deserves to be much better known.

Are there any fantastic female role models you think should be covered in a future instalment? Let me know in the comments below.

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