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Timeline: Cacilda Borges Barbosa (1914-2010)

Through all her years of teaching, Cacilda Barbosa considered herself a composer first and an educator second.
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Through all her years of teaching, Cacilda Barbosa considered herself a composer first and an educator second.

Sometimes you run across the name of a composer you’ve never heard of before and when you read about their life and their work, you start to wonder, why? Why have I never heard of this person? That was certainly my experience when I started researching the life and work of Brazilian composer Cacilda Borges Barbosa.

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Cacilda Campos Borges Barbosa was born in Rio De Janeiro in 1914. She was only 14 when she published her first piece, a solo piano waltz written to raise funds for a hospital. That was also when she began her studies at the National Institute of Music in Rio. After graduating, she worked as a piano accompanist playing for many different dance groups. Barbosa started composing original works for the dancers and these waltzes and chorinhos opened up new opportunities.

Barbosa was 16 years old when she began to work with another Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos had in mind to bring musical instruction to elementary education; imparting a sense of nationalism and Brazilian pride, while also encouraging the next generation of music creators. Heitor Villa-Lobos was not classically trained as an educator or a musician, so he employed a team of talented musician/educators. Cacilda Barbosa was one of those individuals. She served as the director of the Villa-Lobos Institute and Rio De Janeiro’s Music Service. Later she became a sought after conductor leading many instrumental and choral ensembles, including the Radio Mayrink Veiga orchestra.

Cacilda Barbosa's music was heavily influenced by the folk tunes and rhythms of Brazil.

As an educator, Cacilda Barbosa taught at the National School of Music at the University of Brazil and the Popular School of Music Education. In the 1950s she began publishing extensive works about music education including “Brazilian Studies for Singing.”

Barbosa’s compositional style was in line with Heitor Villa-Lobos’ call for musical nationalism. Her music was heavily influenced by the folk tunes and rhythms of Brazil. She wrote many dances and etudes for solo piano and voice, chamber works, choral and orchestral music as well. She also had an interest and focus on technology. Barbosa was a pioneer of electronic music in Brazil.

Probably Cacilda Barbosa’s most influential creation was Ritmoplastia which translates as the “study of rhythm.” From the time she was a teenager, Barbosa was heavily involved in the world of dance. For this project she teamed up with choreographer Clara Semeles and together they developed a brand new system of notation. They created new symbols that paired with musical/rhythmic notation to graphically represent bodily gestures. It was a way to write down dance. Barbosa’s desire was to preserve the folk dances of Brazil much in the same way that ethnomusicologists preserve folk music.

Barbosa retired from active teaching in 1973, but continued to write pedagogical material for decades including new musical examples. Through all her years she considered herself a composer first and an educator second. Barbosa self-published her last two volumes of musical examples and techniques in her 90s. She passed away in Rio in 2010, at the age of 96.

Find out more about Cacilda Borges Barbosa and follow the Timeline at VPR.org/timeline.

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