Alfredo Napoleão – also known as Alfred Napoleon – was a Portuguese pianist and composer who was born in Porto in 1852 and died in Lisbon, in 1917. The places of birth and death of the composer fail to reveal a life of constant travel, full of successes as a pianist and as composer in Portugal, in Brazil and Argentina – countries where he lived several years – but also in European cities like London or Paris. In these countries he presented his valuable output of numerous compositions (more than 60 opus numbers), which were not limited to his own instrument, but included works for full orchestra, piano concertos, sonatas and other works for solo piano, chamber music, etc.
Alfredo Napoleão grew up in a musical family. His father, Alexandre Napoleão (1808-1886), was a musician born in Italy who established himself in Porto, Portugal, in 1840. His brothers Artur and Aníbal Napoleão were also distinguished composers, pianists and, curiously, chess players. Artur Napoleão was the most famous of the three brothers. Aníbal was a promising composer who, unfortunately, died when he was 35. Artur developed an international career as virtuoso pianist. He established himself in Brazil, where he founded a music publishing company in Rio de Janeiro, becoming quite prolific as a composer.
Alfredo was the youngest of the three brothers. His mother died when he was 1 year old, so he was raised by his maternal grandmother in Vila Nova de Gaia. His musical education was given, at a first stage, by his father, who took him to London in 1858. However, he delegated that role later to the British musician and music critic William Thorold Wood.
In 1868 Alfredo travels to Brazil, following his brother Artur’s footsteps. He establishes himself in Rio de Janeiro, managing a piano store. Nevertheless, he only kept this activity for a year, since his wish to dedicate himself entirely to music became stronger. His dedication was such that in 1869 he participates in a concert at Rio’s Teatro Lírico Fluminense, together with the American pianist-composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, playing with him and with his brother Artur on two pianos. Afterwards he plays, with success, at the Teatro Lírico of Rio de Janeiro, concert that was attended by the emperor D. Pedro II. This concert was crucial to the launch of a tour that took him to several Brazilian provinces.
Around 1870, Alfredo travels to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he stays for about 6 years, giving music lessons and concerts. During this period he visited Montevideo, Uruguay, for the same purposes. He goes back to Rio de Janeiro in 1879, city that always appreciated him. He tours once again through the North of Brazil. It was in South America where Alfredo Napoleão was admired the most through his life.
Alfredo returns to Porto, Portugal, in 1883. He is invited to be part of its Chamber Music Society, between 1883 and 1884, that included, among other members, Ciríaco de Cardoso (cello) and Moreira de Sá (violin). He also plays concerts, in Porto, as a soloist. One of the highlights is the premiere of his 1st Concerto for Piano and Orchestra op. 31 in Teatro S. João in 1885. He also gave concerts in other places in Portugal, like Coimbra, Aveiro and Lisbon. Afterwards he travels twice to London. On the first trip, in 1887, he plays at Willi’s Room and at Prince’s Hall and, in 1888, he plays at the Steinway Hall. His performances were received with praise.
In 1889 he goes back to Brazil where he stays until 1893. He gives many concerts in Rio de Janeiro and in other cities, receiving critical acclaim in various periodicals of the country. In 1893 he travels to Lisbon, but goes back to Rio de Janeiro right away in 1894. Here, at the Teatro Lírico, he makes his Brazilian premiere of his 1st Piano Concerto op. 31, premiering as well, in 1896, his 2nd Concerto for Piano and Orchestra op. 52, together with the Brazilian conductor and composer Alberto Nepomuceno.
It was also in 1896 that a truly historical concert took place. Vianna da Motta and Moreira de Sá visited Rio de Janeiro joining Alfredo and Artur Napoleão, Alberto Nepomuceno and the singer Maria Risarelli, for a memorable concert. One of the highlights of the concert was the fact that Alfredo played on two pianos with Vianna da Motta and with his brother Artur, which was a common practice between the two brothers.
In 1897, Alfredo Napoleão returns to Buenos Aires, where he gave the Argentinian premiere of this 2nd Piano Concerto op. 52, with great success. Nevertheless, Napoleão feels out of place in Buenos Aires, quickly returning to Brazil, where he gives several concerts around the country.
He returns to Portugal at the beginning of the XX century. At first he establishes himself in Porto giving several concerts in the north and south of the country. We can point out the ones he gave together with the cellist Guilhermina Suggia and the violinist Moreira de Sá. Afterwards, he moves to Lisbon, given several concerts at this city. One can highlight the premiere, in 1914, of his Fantasia e Grande Polonaise op. 59 for piano and orchestra, performed with a small orchestra, at the Hall of Liga Naval. At the same venue and on the same year he performs his 3rd Concerto for Piano and Orchestra op. 55, but this time he is accompanied by a string quartet.
Napoleão’s last concerts had poor box office revenue. He lived in extremely difficult economic conditions and his health was rapidly declining. Napoleão died in poverty, on November 23, 1917, in anguish and revolt for not having the same level of success and recognition in Portugal compared to what had reached outside of his own country.