Dec 5, 2017

"Aquarela do Brasil" and "Song of India"

I'm certainly not the first person to notice similarities between Ary Barroso's "Aquarela do Brasil" and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Song of India," but I can't resist yet another tune-detective post.

Here's the first recording of "Aquarela," by singer Francisco Alves (1939), with an arrangement by Radames Gnatelli, using big-band instrumentation with samba percussion:

Many of the accompanying riffs in this arrangement, which I'm guessing were written by Gnatelli, have become an integral part of the song as it is usually performed. Click the link above for more about Gnatelli; he was an accomplished composer, arranger, and performer, who had a distinguished career in both popular and classical genres.

Wikipedia has a nice article on "Aquarela," including Ary Barroso's story of how it came to be composed, its path to success, and some notes on the political aspects of the song:
This song, because of its exaltation of Brazil's great qualities, marked the creation of a new genre within samba, known as samba-exaltação (exaltation samba). This musical movement, with its extremely patriotic nature, was seen by many as being favorable to the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas, which generated criticism towards Barroso...the Barroso family, however, strongly denies these claims...
Anyway, back to the similarities. Here's Rimsky-Korsakov's "Song of India," more properly called "Song of the Indian Guest," from his opera "Sadko":

1) Compare the theme at 1:00 in "Aquarela" with the theme at 2:54 in "Song of India."

2) Compare 1:22 in "Aquarela" with 3:30 in "Song of India."

The themes in 1) above are more obviously similar, but the themes in 2) show a resemblance also - a high held note on the fifth of the key, chromatic descent of a third, then the held note and chromatic line repeated twice more.

There was an earlier instance of the use of Rimsky-Korsakov's piece in popular music. In 1937 Tommy Dorsey released his big-band version of "Song of India":

In Dorsey's song, the theme I have called "2" is the featured melody; you can hear references to theme "1" in Bunny Berigan's trumpet solo. Dorsey's bridge uses yet another theme from Rimsky-Korsakov's piece (this one is not found in "Aquarela").

This recording, with "Marie" on the flip side, was a major hit for Dorsey.

As a side note, Wikipedia cites "Beautiful Ohio" (1918), the Ohio state song, as borrowing a motif from "Song of India." I hear it, but Barroso's use of the theme in "Aquarela" seems a lot more obvious. On the other hand, the reference in "Ohio" to Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" is pretty blatant.

There have been countless versions of "Aquarela," but one of the most subtly perfect interpretations has to be Joao Gilberto's:

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