Living in Goa has its advantages. We are much more likely to hear visiting Portuguese musicians than the rest of India, and therefore much more likely to hear Portuguese music.
‘Portuguese music’ makes us instantly think of fado. When one thinks of western classical music, Portugal is unlikely to be the first country that comes to mind. Textbooks of classical music tend to overlook the country or reduce its output to a few lines, if that.
Since returning to Goa in 2008, and getting involved with organising concerts here, I’ve been fortunate not only to hear musicians perform works by Portuguese composers, but also talk to the performers about them.
In 2010, Nancy Lee Harper (piano) played for us a Nocturne in D flat major (1912) by the Portuguese composer- prodigy António de Lima Fragoso (1897-1918).
He might well have become Portugal’s greatest 20th –century composer had it not been for his tragic death due to pneumonic flu at 21. More recently, Pedro Emanuel Pereira played the composer’s Prelude (from the “petite suite”). In both, one hears the influence of the French ‘Impressionist’ composers, particularly Debussy. Both have a dreamy, nostalgic quality. The Nocturne might be reminiscent of Chopin in its form, but has an almost Lisztian central stormy section.
In 2012, Pedro Rodrigues (guitar) played transcriptions of piano music by contemporary pianist-composer António Pinho Vargas (b. 1951). He is equally at home in jazz and classical music, and his oeuvre reflects this. Rodrigues’s eight guitar transcriptions gave us a taste of Vargas’ eclecticism, with influences ranging from canções to fado to poetry and, memorably, the American singer-songwriter Tom Waits.
In 2013, we had Filipa Meneses (viola da gamba) and Hug o Vasco Reis (Portuguese guitar) perform four Canções by virtuoso Portuguese guitarist-composer Carlos Paredes (1925-2004). His compositions are suffused with the melancholy one expects to find in Fado, and the last work ‘In memory of a murdered peasant’ painted a particularly bleak landscape, but still somehow tinged with hope. Paredes spent many years imprisoned by the Salazar regime for being a member of the Communist party, yet shrugged off any heroic status for his suffering, saying “Many suffered worse than I.”
Nancy Lee Harper in her book on Portuguese piano music, mentions ‘O Dio dos Mortos’, 1 November 1755, “one of the greatest tragedies in Portuguese history”, the devastating earthquake that destroyed much of Lisbon, with a huge loss of life, and also of thousands of invaluable music manuscripts. These included at least 500 works of the great Portuguese composer for harpsichord José António Carlos de Seixas (1704-1742). This loss has contributed to his undeserved relative obscurity compared to his contemporaries J.S. Bach, Scarlatti and Handel. So accomplished was Seixas that when Scarlatti was in Portugal and the royal court arranged for Seixas to take lessons from him, Scarlatti replied that it was Seixas who should give him lessons instead! Fortunately, 105 of more than 700 of Seixas’ sonatas for harpsichord still survive, and we heard three of them transcribed by Reis for Portuguese guitar playing the right-hand part and viola da gamba the left.
We also heard an original composition, Suite no. 1 in four movements (Prelude, Romance, Invention and Fantasy) by Hugo Vasco Reis himself.
In the same year, we also heard our Andrea Fernandes (who did her higher studies in piano in Lisbon before taking on the post of repetiteur at the Budapest Opera House) play ‘Roda o vento nas searas’ by Luís Costa (1879-1960), a student of the famed Ferrucio Busoni, and with a great interest in the Impressionistic composers, particularly Debussy and Ravel. He taught at the Conservatório of Oporto.
This brings us back to the concert on 23 May at the Kala Academy, at which Álvaro Pereira (violin) and Pedro Emanuel Pereira (piano) played two other works by Portuguese composers: Nocturne for violin and piano by Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988); and Suite no. 1 for violin and piano by Óscar da Silva (1870-1958).
Braga Santos’ Nocturne is an ethereal work, written when he was eighteen, when he was student of violin and composition at the National Conservatoire of Lisbon, where he became a disciple of another great Portuguese composer, Luís de Freitas Branco (1890-1955), the “Father of Modernism” in Portugal. (Incidentally, the earlier-mentioned António Fragoso was also Freitas Branco’s pupil). The Nocturne begins with a descending four-note melody in fourths, rising back up again and quickly developing into an idée fixe, which moves restlessly across the chromatic register until attaining a measure (literally!) of calm at the very end.
Óscar Courrège da Silva Araújo was a student of the great pianist-composer Clara Schumann and is widely considered “the last of the great Portuguese Romantics, and simultaneously, the initiator of modern music in Portugal.” Clara Schumann discerned da Silva’s “unequalled capacity” to interpret the works of her celebrated husband Robert Schumann.
I was surprised to find that Braga Santos’ Piano Concerto Opus 52 would be receiving its ‘UK premiere’ in June this year! It is astonishing how little this great Portuguese symphonist of the 20th century, and perhaps of all time, is known or played outside his national borders.
Why are Portuguese composers not better-known? Portuguese music reflects its country’s own fortunes, bouncing, in Lee Harper’s words, “between dominion and loss, between identity and anonymity.” The great ‘Restaurador’, D. João IV (r. 1640-1656) who founded the House of Braganza that ruled Portugal until 1910 was a musician and theorist, creating the largest music library in Europe. D. João V (r. 1705-1750) imported Italy’s greatest musicians, notably Domenico Scarlatti to start the Patriarchal Seminary, which pre-figured the National Conservatory in 1835.
The setback due to the 1755 earthquake has already been mentioned.
The Estado Nov dictatorship stifled true expression of creativity in favour of empty propaganda, and those composers who opposed the regime (notably Fernando Lopes Graça 1906-1955) were excluded from institutional circuits. Much music remained locked in vaults and unpublished until the 1974 Carnation Revolution.
If there is a lesson for us amidst this brief exposure to Portuguese music, it is this: it was the setting up of conservatórios (tertiary centres of higher learning in music) in Lisbon, Oporto etc that facilitated such a crop of creativity from the mid-1800s onward. We discern lineages: Luis Freitas Branco (who had studied under Engelbert Humperdinck in Berlin) teaching Fragoso, Braga Santos and Lopes Graça; Luis Costa going on to teach and become director of the Oporto conservatory after receiving instruction from Busoni. A top-notch music conservatory in India is long overdue.
(An edited version of this article was published on 12 July 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)