Get to Know a Brazilian – Vinícius de Moraes

This week’s entry in the Get to Know a Brazilian series focuses on the poet, songwriter, playwright, diplomat, and musician Vinícius de Moraes (1913-1980).

Vinícius de Moraes (1913-1980) was one of the more important cultural figures of mid-twentieth century Brazil and played a central role in the rise of Bossa Nova and other Brazilian songs of the 1960s and 1970s.

Marcus Vinitius da Cruz e Mello Moraes, known publicly as Vinícius de Moraes, was born in 1913 in Gávea, today one of Rio de Janeiro’s wealthiest neighborhoods but at the time of his birth still a relatively unsettled and rural area. The second of four children, de Moraes’s upbringing was relatively modest – his father was an officer in the city government, and his mother was a housewife – but both of his parents were amateur musicians, and he was exposed to music from a young age. While in high school, he also began to write short theatrical pieces, and in 1928, his first published song, “Loira ou Morena” (“Blonde or Brown-haired”) appeared. He continued writing lyrics that other artists then performed into the 1930s and soon became friends with renowned Brazilian poets like Oswald de Andrade and Mário de Andrade (no relation), even while he attended law school at the University of Brazil (today known as the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). While in school, he became friends with rightwing Catholic Otavio de Faria, and de Moraes himself proclaimed himself to be an integralista, or supporter of Integralism, a fascist political movement in Brazil in the 1920s and 1930s (pre-dating Nazism).

After serving briefly as a film censor for the Getúlio Vargas government in the early years of the Estado Novo dictatorship, de Moraes won a scholarship to study literature and language at Oxford. Upon returning to Brazil in 1941, he found work as a film critic in a newspaper; he also enrolled in classes in the Palácio Itamaraty, the renowned foreign relations ministry in Brazil. He also began publishing his poetry, including Cinco Elegeias (Five Elegies) and Poemas, Sonetos e Baladas (Poems, Sonnets and Ballads), which contained lines that would later become song lyrics, including the song “Eu Sei que Vou Te Amar” (“I Know that I Will Love You”). Moraes also served as a diplomat throughout the world in this time, including a stint as vice-consul in Los Angeles, as well as posts in Paris and Rome.

It was in the 1950s that de Moraes became a national and international figure, however, thanks in no small part to his new friendship with a young musician and composer, Antônio Carlos “Tom” Jobim. In 1954, de Moraes published the play Orfeu da Conceção, a re-telling of the tale of Orfeus and Euridice, and in 1956, he and Jobim released the soundtrack for the play; both the play and the music would become the basis for the classic 1959 film Orfeu Negro, (Black Orpheus). Although de Moraes continued in the diplomatic corps, including a three-year term in Montevideo, Uruguay, he became closely tied to the Bossa Nova movement, which exploded in Brazil in the late-1950s and in the international arena in the early1960s. Bossa Nova (roughly translated as “New Trend”) saw Brazilian artists and musicians, including João Gilberto, Luiz Bonfá, and Jobim (among many others) combining the samba rhythms of Brazil with jazz inflections. The music became remarkably popular among Brazil’s middle class in Rio de Janeiro, with its sophistication and style seen as complementing the efforts to modernize Brazil, best symbolized in the contemporaneous construction of Brasília in the late-1950s. Although he was out of the country, many Bossa Nova musicians performed de Moraes’s songs, making him a key figure in the movement in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil. When he returned to Brazil, he continued his song-writing partnership, resulting in 1962 in the duo’s biggest hit and one of the most popular and well-known songs in the world: Garota de Ipanema (“The Girl from Ipanema”), which became an international hit in 1964 when Astrud Gilberto (João Gilberto’s wife at the time) sang the song with Stan Getz performing.

Seventeen-year-old Helô Pinheiro, who passed by a bar where de Moraes and Jobim would sit and write songs, was the inspiration for the worldwide song and perhaps Bossa Nova’s most famous song, “Garota de Ipanema” (The Girl from Ipanema.”

With his success as a songwriter, de Moraes began performing and recording his own songs. De Moraes continued to write songs that embraced the themes of Bossa Nova, including women, love, loss, and reflections on youth; married eight times, de Moraes was personally familiar with many of these themes. After the military coup of 1964, his lyrics, like that of other Bossa Nova artists, took an increasingly politicized and angry tone, marking a subtle shift away from its earlier focus on upper- and middle-class lifestyles and issues. In this time, he also expanded his partnerships beyond Jobim, working with younger performers who reflected a more politicized Bossa Nova, including Edu Lobo, Baden Powell, and others, leading to one of his most famous later-period works, a set of songs collectively known as Afro-Sambas.

In 1968, the military dictatorship issued the Institutional Act No. 5, ushering in the most repressive phase of military rule and purging much of the government, including the diplomatic corps, of “subversives,” homosexuals, and drunks. This included de Moraes, who was fired for drunkenness, something that was publicly known; he once had said that whiskey was man’s best friend, “the bottled dog” (in reference to the phrase “a dog is a man’s best friend”). He continued performing with artists like Maria Bethânia, Chico Buarque, Toquinho, and Nara Leão, composing, and writing plays, books, and poems throughout the late-1960s and 1970s. A professed lover of “women, smoking, and drinking,” de Moraes’s health declined throughout the 1970s, and after retiring to his room on July 9 of 1980, de Moraes passed away at the age of 66.

Highly regarded and respected in his time, Vinícius de Moraes’s stature as a Brazilian artist and man of letters has only increased since his death. His lyrics continue to be interpreted and re-interpreted by new generations of Brazilian musicians even today, and many of his collections of poems and plays remain in circulation as well. In 2004, the U.S. Library of Congress added “Girl from Ipanema” to the National Recording Registry as a song that is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” Additionally, with the return to democracy, his diplomatic reputation was rehabilitated, as Brazil’s Congress posthumously amnestied him in 1998 and in 2010 named him “first-class minister,” the highest position in the diplomatic corps. Last year, the samba school Império Serrano based its theme around Vinícius de Moras for Carnaval. “Girl from Ipanema” may be 50 years old this year, and de Moraes may have been gone for 32 years, but his influence on Brazilian music and culture remains firm even today.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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