José Maurício Nunes Garcia
Musician, composer, harpsichordist
The story of Brazil's greatest sacred music composer is a fascinating journey for any historian through the winding roads of oral history, legends, myths, and provable facts gleaned from historical archives.
I was first introduced to this towering figure of Afro-Brazlian history through the myths that had survived his near erasure from any official Brazilian history. I was told that, as a young mixed-race child, José Maurício was orphaned to the streets of Rio de Janeiro. To escape the streets, he became a priest, studied the harpsichord and rose through the ranks of the Church to become the Chapel Master of the Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro. The legend held that later, a high ranking official arrived from Portugal and was utterly scandalized that a Black man occupied such a high station in the Church, and summarily kicked José Maurício out! He returned to the streets where he lived in poverty, teaching music and music theory from a keyboard carved on a piece of wood.
What an amazing story! However, 2005 marked a renewed interest in this historical figure (following a biography published in 1997) and today we knew a lot more about the real life of Padre José Maurício Nunes Garcia.
José Maurício Nunes Garcia was born Rio de Janeiro, on what is now Rua Uruguaiana to a free mulatto couple. That means both of his parents were likely the children of enslaved African mothers and white Portuguese fathers. His parents were married in Saint Rita of Cascia Church and he was baptized in Our Lady of the Rosary and Saint Benedict Church. His father died when he was six years old and his mother and aunt saw to his education, noticing his early talent for music.
He began teaching music at the age of 12, using a keyboard to instruct society ladies, as he had not yet played an organ. His first known composition was done at the age of 16, and at 17, he joined the guild of professional musicians. He didn't pursue holy orders until the age of 24. However, at that time, one had to prove he was free from any "color defect" to join the priesthood. Nunes Garcia successfully requested to be dismissed from this requirement and was ordained a year later.
José Maurício indeed became the Chapel Master of the Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro, and with the arrival of the Portuguese Crown, he was also named Master of the Royal Chapel. He did lose both stations, the former seemed to be mutually beneficial and the latter happened when the Crown returned to Lisbon. Though there were financial ups-and-downs, the discovery of old payslips proved that José Maurício was a rather wealthy man. Eventually, he opened a music school where he taught for 28 years until his death.
There are 240 known compositions remaining, and scholars know of at least 170 that have been lost.