Radames Gnattali

Radames Gnattali

Composer

• 1906 1988

Biography

Brazilian composer, Radamés Gnattali’s music has a true Brazilian flavour. He was also a gifted pianist and made many arrangements of popular music for the radio for numerous combinations of instruments.

Radamés was born in 1906 in the city of Porto Alegre in the Brazilian province of Rio Grande do Sul. He was the eldest child of Alessandro and Adélia Fossati Gnattali. Alessandro emigrated from Europe in 1896 and worked as a carpenter to support his family financially, and he was musically gifted, having studied piano, contrabass and bassoon. He also composed some concert music and established an orchestra. Adélia Fossati was a housewife with a ‘magic musical sensibility’ and always made time to teach her children music. Radamés’ piano lessons with his mother began at the age of three or four. Gnattali attended high school at the Colégio Anchieta until the age of 14, though due to his stammering speech, he dreaded school. According to Gnattali, ‘I did not want to stay in school, I was lazy, and my father got very angry with me sometimes. When he finally asked what I really wanted to do, I told him I wanted to be a musician—and he took [me] out of school.’

He then went to the conservatory, where he studied for nine years and was a student in the piano class of Guilherme Fontainha. While at the conservatory, he studied the music ofBach, Chopin and Beethoven. Gnattali cited Ernesto Nazareth as one of his greatest influences, recalling that he met him at the age of 25 or 26 at the Cinema Odeo in Rio. According to Gnattali, ‘One day, I was passing by and I listened to that sound. It was Nazareth playing his piano. I had no money to get in, so I just stopped outside and kept listening’.

Sometime along the way Gnattali also studied a variety of other instruments, including the flute, clarinet and trumpet. He also admitted to knowing ‘a little bit’ of saxophone. His violin studies were more thorough, as he studied the instrument for eight years before switching to viola for two years as part of a string quartet. Gnattali attributes his ability to compose for strings to his violin studies and time with the string quartet.

While Gnattali’s instrumental studies were a great success, culminating in a Gold Medal at the age of 18 from the conservatory his graduating year, his harmony studies were less successful. He studied briefly with Agnelo França in Rio, but simply stated, ‘did not like it’. Gnattali’s counterpoint teacher, Paulo Silvo, admitted to Gnattali that counterpoint would not be able to cure him of ‘that anxious situation of [his] youth wonderings’ and instead should continue composing in his own way.

After graduation, Gnattali pursued a career as a pianist in Rio though he found it impossible to make a living playing classical music and seized the many opportunities presented to play popular music. He described his first years in Rio as ‘a hard time’ in which he ‘went through starving and misery’.

Though he really wanted to follow in the footsteps of pianists such as virtuosos Arnaldo Estralla and Arthur Moreira Lima, he realized that ‘you have to study at least eight hours and not to worry about raising a family or making money. I’d rather be a great pianist’. Despite his envy, Gnattali never regretted his decision to play popular music as he really enjoyed the style and working with fellow musicians such as Alfredo da Rocha Viana Filho, Aníbal Augusto Sardinha, João da Baiana and Jacob do Bandolim.

Gnattali believed that, had he lived in Europe, he would have been a successful pianist, but never a great Brazilian composer. He once remarked that if he’d had to rely solely on a career as a classical pianist in Europe to raise his family that he’d ‘have gone crazy. Or maybe committed suicide’.

Gnattali performed a melange of music from French and Italian songs, waltzes, polkas and operettas at movie theatres during silent movies with the small orchestra he formed. He also performed in a carnival band at one point.

Gnattali’s own compositions display a broad range of influences. He has written a cantata, orchestral and choral works, many concertos and an array of popular works. His favourite works are his concertos. Bossa Nova was a very important influence on Gnattali’s music, in addition to the tango, samba and jazz. Fontainha’s records introduced Gnattali to the possibilities of the saxophone. Though his music draws upon a spectrum of styles, he describes his as ‘totally Brazilian, inspired by our folk and urban themes’.

Early recordings of Gnattali were produced by RCA Victor, including trio sets for piano, clarinet and drums. The director of the company, Mr. Evans, requested that Gnattali make special arrangements for Orlando Silva, Francisco Alves and Sílvio Caldas.

Gnattali worked tirelessly for the radio since his arrival in Rio. He played at the Clube do Brasil Radio which had just one piano and no orchestra in the beginning. It was around 1930 that Gnattali started playing with radio orchestras. He worked at Cajuti and Mayrink Veiga before settling at the National Radio.

While at Mayrink Veiga, Gnattali played in all styles, from classics to pop music with all the orchestras and the singers. After they hired a violinist and offered a higher salary than what he earned, he quit. Afterwards the radio company begged him to come back as they needed four pianists to cover all the work Gnattali did on his own.

At the National Radio Station, Gnattali played with the jazz and tango orchestras in addition to arranging works for a trio with for piano, cello and violin with his colleagues Iberê Gomes Grosso and Romeu Ghypsman. At first, they played mostly short songs and waltzes, but later upon popular demand, Gnattali arranged and composed much more music. He stayed with the National Radio for 30 years. During many of those years he was the director of the programmeUm Milhão de Melodias, for which he had to compose nine arrangements per week in the form of suites of popular songs. Despite being ‘responsible for all the good things that happened’ at the radio, the salaries were inadequate due to a lack of working laws and benefits. If Gnattali had had all the rights to his arrangements and songs, he would have been a very rich man.

Gnattali’s career never included teaching, though he did apply to teach at the National Music Institute (UFRJ). Gnattali admitted that he knew nothing about teaching music and had no patience. His only student was a four-year-old boy in Porto Alegre. Gnattali once state, ‘I’d like to share my experience, but I really can’t figure out how to do it’.

Gnattali live a hard life, working many hours and earning marginal money. He advised students not to study music as ‘being a professional musician in Brazil is hard. Very hard’. He was also known for his less than pleasant temperament, to which he laughingly responded, ‘I don’t think I’ve got a bad temper […] what I really don’t like is stupidity—it makes me really upset, you know? I think that’s because you work and people don’t understand what you do. So they think you are bad tempered’.

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