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Oswald, Henrique (1852-1931)

Henrique Oswald

born: 14 April 1852
died: 9 June 1931
country: Brazil

Henrique Oswald grew up in a musical environment. At the age of one he travelled by ship from Rio de Janeiro to Santos with his mother en route to the thriving city of São Paulo, where his father opened a beer factory and, in 1857, a piano store. The ill-fated ship caught fire, causing Henrique to remain traumatized throughout his life by the sound of explosions.

Oswald’s mother was his first piano teacher. His first piano recital took place when he was around six or seven years old. Following his mother’s tutelage, he studied with Gabriel Giraudon before going to study in Europe. Planning to study with Hans von Bülow (1830–1894), Oswald instead opted for Florence where he entered the Istituto Moriani. There, he studied counterpoint, harmony and composition, and piano with Henry Ketten and Giuseppe Buonamici. At Buonamici’s house Oswald met Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt; in 1886, the year of Liszt’s death, Oswald spent a few days with the great man in Florence, when they played some of their works for each other.

In 1881 Oswald married Laudomia Bombernard Gasperini, and the couple went on to have five children. He became well known in Italy, although he returned regularly to Brazil for concert tours—while there in 1889 he met Camille Saint-Saëns, who was impressed with the young composer, and together they performed the French composer’s Scherzo, Op 87, for two pianos. Back in Europe, Oswald was appointed to the diplomatic service—first in the Brazilian Consulate in Le Havre in 1900, and later in Genoa—but such bureaucratic work was not in his artistic veins.

In 1902 Oswald entered a composition competition sponsored by the French newspaper Le Figaro. From the 647 manuscript entries from Asia, Persia, Egypt, North and South America and Europe, Oswald’s piano piece Il neige unanimously won the first prize. The prestigious jury was led by Saint-Saëns and also included the composer Gabriel Fauré and the pianist Louis Diémer. In 1903 Oswald was named Director of the Instituto Nacional de Música (INM) in Rio de Janeiro, where he served until 1906. In 1904 he again met Saint-Saëns and performed a recital for two pianos, including the elder’s Africa Fantasy and Scherzo, in Rio de Janeiro, the city where Oswald would reside permanently from 1909 until his death. In 1909 Oswald performed his Piano Concerto at the INM under the baton of its director, Alberto Nepomuceno, soon assuming a teaching position there.

Oswald came into contact with the leading musicians of the day who were in Brazil, including Darius Milhaud, who was a frequent visitor to his home. Only later in life did Oswald use Brazilian elements in some of his works, although many of his students, such as Lorenzo Fernández, became associated with the nationalistic wave. Oswald’s final phase was devoted to religious compositions, as a result of his son Alfredo—a pianist who promoted his father’s music and a professor at Peabody Conservatory—taking religious orders. Henrique Oswald died on 9 June 1931, shortly after two concerts of his music were given at the Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro.

It has been said that Oswald wrote ‘the most refined piano music in the history of Brazilian music’, and the pianist Artur Rubinstein called him ‘the Brazilian Gabriel Fauré’, although Oswald’s music lost favour after the ‘Semana de Arte Moderna’ (Modern Art Week) in São Paulo in 1922, which marked the start of Brazilian modernism as a creative force and brought with it a preference for nationalistic music. Nevertheless, Oswald continued to compose music in all genres. French elements strongly permeate his work, although an occasional Russian or Brazilian flavour, as in his Symphony, Op 43, can be heard. He admired the contemporary works of Vladimir Rebikov, with his use of atonality, rich harmonies and unusual rhythms. Oswald received three important recognitions in Europe: the Médaille du roi Albert (Belgium, 1920), Palmes académiques (France, 1928), and Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (France, 1931).

from notes by Nancy Lee Harper © 2014

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