The Symphony of State: São Paulo's Department of Culture, 1922-1938 Dissertation

(2016). The Symphony of State: São Paulo's Department of Culture, 1922-1938 . 10.25148/etd.FIDC000773

thesis or dissertation chair


  • Oelze, Micah J


  • In 1920s-30s São Paulo, Brazil, leaders of the vanguard artistic movement known as “modernism” began to argue that national identity came not from shared values or even cultural practices but rather by a shared way of thinking, which they variously designated as Brazil’s “racial psychology,” “folkloric unconscious,” and “national psychology.” Building on turn-of-the-century psychological and anthropological theories, the group diagnosed Brazil’s national mind as characterized by “primitivity” and in need of a program of psychological development. The group rose to political power in the 1930s, placing the artists in a position to undertake such a project. The Symphony of State charts this previously unexamined intellectual project and explains why elite leaders believed music to be the most-promising strategy for developing the national mind beyond primitivity. In 1935, they founded the São Paulo Department of Culture and Recreation in order to fund music education, train ethnomusicologists, commission symphonies, and host performances across the city. Until now, historians of twentieth-century Brazil have praised music as a critical site for marginalized groups to sound out political protest. But The Symphony of State shows the reverse has also been true: elite groups used music as a top-down civilizing project designed to naturalize racial hierarchies and justify class difference.

    The intellectual history portion of the dissertation turns on archival sources, newspaper accounts, personal correspondence, modernist literature, and the period’s scholarly journals. The examination of literary form, discourse analysis, and marginalia lends depth to a carefully-documented study of ideas. Then, The Symphony of State brings to bear an innovative reading of ethnographic field books, vinyl records, and music scores to show that the department’s scholarship and symphonic compositions alike furthered the narrative of a nation jeopardized by primitivity. What is more, the department’s composers employed musical properties such as harmony and dissonance as metaphors to convince listeners that a harmonious society required the maintenance of racial and class hierarchies. In bringing further clarity to the department’s intellectual project, the sections featuring music analysis speak to the value of reading music as an historical text.

    The dissertation accomplishes multiple goals. It uncovers the theory of national psychology driving the musical institution; examines ethnographic material to further understand racial and regional prejudice in the period; and analyzes concert music commissioned and performed by the municipal department. The examination of the musical institution reveals a moment in Brazilian history in which national identity was constructed atop the notion of a shared psychology and in which modernity was believed to come with the musical tuning of the body politic and the training of its mind.

publication date

  • June 24, 2016


  • Brazil
  • Ethnography
  • History
  • Literary Criticism
  • Modernism
  • Music
  • Musicology
  • National Identity
  • Psychology
  • Race
  • São Paulo

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)