The Lundu and Modinha of Brazil in the Nineteenth Century

October 1, 1967

This paper was read originally at the ninth annual meeting of the Society held in New Orleans, Louisiana, December 26-28, 1966. It was part of a Triple Session with The American Musicological Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology entitled Inter-American Musical Research.

The other papers in that session were Tepehua Thought-Songs by Charles L. Boiles and Musical Archives in Mexico City, Tepotzotlan and Puebla by Lincoln Spiess and E. Thomas Stanford. Summaries of their papers also appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 7.

The initial phase of national awareness in Brazil manifested itself musically through the establishment of the most important forms of urban popular music, achieved by means of a slow process of transformations of older folk and popular traditions. Among these forms, the lundu and the modinha were incorporated in both urban popular music and art music during the same period, by those composers who aimed at the creation of a characteristic national art. These forms which exerted varied degrees of influence on art music were used and refined by urban popular composers who, in the case of the lundu, transplanted into a rather sophisticated environment the musical expressions in use among the common people. At first these were limited to characteristics of performance practice and dancing. But the frequency of such formulas as syncopation, modulation to the subdominant, melodic ornamentation and rhythmic reiterations attracted the attention of popular composers who became intuitively aware of the subtle nationalizing quality of these traits.

Our purpose here is to examine briefly the transformations of two of those forms and to elucidate the musical peculiarities of each one in connection with "national" musical tendencies.1


The lundu, a form of song and dance of African origin, was introduced in Brazil by Bantu slaves, particularly those from Angola. It has long been regarded as having originated other Brazilian dances, such as the chula, the fado, the Brazilian tango, and the urban lundu, which developed around the middle of the 19th century.

In its original form the lundu might be included in the choreographic group called by Curt Sachs "convulsive" dances. During the reign of Dom José and Dona Maria I, in Portugal the doce lundum chorado (sweet crying lundu), as it was called, enjoyed great prestige as a salon genre, both as a dance and a song. [It should be recalled that both the lundu and the modinha were cultivated as verse forms by most Brazilian poets of the 18th and 19th centuries. The lundus and modinhas written by the mulatto Domingos Caldas Barbosa were still set to music and sung until the beginning of the 20th century. Some of Caldas Barbosa's poems are the real models of the old sentimental lundu and modinha, and, indeed, it fell to Caldas Barbosa to spread the vogue of the lundu-song in both Brazil and Portugal.]

In Brazil during the 19th century the popular lundu also became a salon dance and song, undoubtedly following the Portuguese fashion brought to Brazil by the royal court. As a salon dance, however, the lundu declined rapidly in the urban areas, maintaining only its vocal aspect. The popular lundu survived among the rural people in general until the beginning of the 20th century. In the transition from a folk tradition to an urban popular tradition the lundu-song retained some choreographic character, but adopted the melodic and harmonic formulas of the romantically inclined popular composers.

Rhythmically the composed lundu-song introduced in urban popular music most of its Afro-Brazilian characteristics. The systematization of the syncopation with its simplest but most conspicuous figure gave to the melody its "local" character. The rhythmic figure offered the most subtle and fascinating variations. The lundu-song of the second half of the 19th century was generally in duple meter and formally divided into a section of declamatory structure with short note-values (stanza), followed by a section of clearly choreographic character (refrain)—a reminiscence of the primitive form.

The social significance of the transformation of the lundu from a folk tradition to an urban popular tradition lies in the fact that it was the first form of Negro music whose Europeanization is defined by a complete acceptance of all cadential and modulatory consequences of the European harmonic tonality, as Mario de Andrade pointed out. The inevitable transformation of the dance into a song resulted from the acceptance of the lundu by colonial society. This, in fact, appears to have been simply a process of acculturation at a time when the effects of miscegenation were strongly felt in the large cities, and when African traditions were incorporated in a normal manner into the life of every social class.


The study of the popular modinha is necessarily linked with that of the modinha as an art form, since it went from the salon to the people and was significant as the precursor of art songs in the vernacular. Leaving aside the European dances adopted in Brazil, the modinha seems to be the only genuine Brazilian popular form that does not have a folk origin. We are therefore confronted here with the opposite process of transformation—that of an art form into an urban popular form.

Moda is a generic term applied vaguely to a song, or any melody. Its diminutive, modinha, however, is the musical form which best represented the evolution of popular music in Brazil during the 19th century. Originally the modinha was a sentimental song of aria cantabile character. This art-song type developed in two directions in Portugal, thus creating two sorts of modinha—one resulting in elaborate opera arias, the other retaining its original simple and sentimental character. Both types invaded the Brazilian scene during the First Empire (1822-31) as salon music. During the first phase the modinha presented no national character. As a salon piece, the modinha of the pre-Romantic period was, in its simpler form, a love song in many aspects similar to the vocal romance of the same period. The modinha was not a highly structured piece, very seldom admitting dramatic or tragic elements, which distinguished it fundamentally from the ballad. As with the romance, there was an absolute primacy of the melodic line, with a typically superficial ornamentation.

Certain European elements subsequently associated with the typical national idiom can be discovered in the modinha of the Second Empire. During the same period, the Brazilian salon modinha acquired a stronger national characterisation as a popular genre. Its binary rhythm (2/4 or C) was then either replaced by a waltz-like rhythm or the duple meter was maintained, by a Schottisch tempo. The melodic line also suffered transformations through constant use of ornamentations; but it remained essentially lyrical.

In the course of its popularization. the modinha acquired a simpler form. Instead of having a variety of structures as did the salon modinha, the popular modinha consisted of a stanza and a refrain, or of three stanzas distributed according to the ternary form (rondo) of the Brazilian waltz (ABACA).

The sentimental aspect retained by the popular modinha can be attributed to the romantic character of most urban popular music and in our specific case to the influence of the most celebrated European dances of the period.

In spite of its kinship to the European "genteel tradition," the modinha displayed some traits which came to be identified a posteriori with "national" elements. As Andrade put it:

It seems that our modinha composers of the Empire, instead of denationalizing themselves by erudition and imitation sought in European melody those elements which were pleasing to the nascent national sensibility . . .

The historical significance of the modinha lies precisely in the exemplification of these elements (as attempted here), most of which became traditional in popular forms, such as the Brazilian tango and the urban samba, and exerted fundamental influence on the beginning national art music.

Among other popular forms, the lundu and the modinha epitomise the complex background of the urban popular music of Brazil, as it is found by the late 19th century. Both lundu and modinha exerted a true fascination as salon genres, in spite of their different origin. While the lundu allowed the assimilation of Negro music in the urban centers, and therefore contributed to the formation of the Afro-Brazilian tradition, the modinha with its cultivated origin illustrates more clearly than any other form the transplanting of European musical culture into the popular music of Brazil.

1Although the Brazilian musicologists Mário de Andrade and Oneyda Alvarenga have concerned themselves with the lundu and the modinha in general, their investigations were limited to the original type of lundu and modinha, thus leaving aside the important study of the relationship of the popularization of both lundu and modinha in the urban centers and the emergence of musical nationalism in Brazil.

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