When Child’s Play India Foundation was offered an opportunity to co-host with Fundação Oriente a chamber music performance by a string quartet from the Orquestra Sinfónica Juvenil de Lisboa, we eagerly said yes.
It was a win-win situation. The musicians would work with our children and teachers. In addition, Goa would get a string quartet performance (something we don’t get every day here) of an extremely high standard. I am optimistic also of building from this connection a Luso-Indian bridge that could help not just Child’s Play, but music pedagogy for everyone in Goa on a long-term basis.
Another fringe benefit that excites me greatly is the opportunity to embark upon a voyage of discovery into yet another facet of the Portuguese contribution to classical music, something that is sorely neglected even in the most learned music circles around the world. We in Goa are fortunate to attract Portuguese performers so often, and we therefore have a higher probability of hearing music written by Portuguese composers.
So although the musicians (Rui Pedro Mendes Cristão and Luís Filipe Calhau Guimarães, violins; David Brito, viola; and Pedro Serra e Silva, cello) will also perform mainstream repertoire (Mozart Divertimenti or ‘Salzburg symphonies’ nos. 1 in D major K. 136/125a and 3 in F major K. 138/125b; and Antonin Dvořák’s string quartet no. 12 in F major opus 96, the ‘American’), it is their Portuguese music that I am looking forward to even more.
In an earlier column, I had described my first encounter with the music of Portuguese composer and conductor José Manuel Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988) at the concert of Álvaro Pereira (violin) and Pedro Emanuel Pereira (piano) in May 2015 when they played his ethereal Nocturne for violin and piano. And now, we will hear the third movement of his second string quartet in A minor, opus 27 (1957). A leading Portuguese symphonist of the twentieth century, Braga Santos deserves to be far better known than he is at present. His Piano concerto opus 52, composed in 1973, only received its UK premiere last year!
The second Portuguese composer featured on their programme is José Vianna da Motta (1868-1948), eminent pianist-composer and pedagogue. Unless I am mistaken, this is the first time at least in the recent past that Vianna da Motta’s music will be performed in Goa, so it might be worthwhile studying his life history.
Born on the West African island of São Tomé where his father had a pharmacy, Vianna da Motta’s musical ability became obvious soon after the family relocated to Colares near Sintra. He gave his debut public performance at the piano aged thirteen, already playing some of his own compositions.
After completing his tertiary studies aged just fourteen, he then studied piano and composition in Berlin with the famous Scharwenka brothers (Franz Xaver and Ludwig Philipp, both composers and teachers) and in Frankfurt with Hans von Bülow. He expressed his support for the music of Richard Wagner in several publications and conferences.
He wrote about his years in Germany: “I was able to observe at close hand the incomparable world of music in Germany during the transition from the 19th century to the 20th, one of the richest periods ever in the history of music in all respects: creation, interpretation, aesthetic and philosophical research, and historic and academic discoveries.”
Vianna da Motta was student at Franz Liszt’s final classes in Weimar, which had a profound influence upon him. He describes the momentous meeting in vivid detail: “It was in July 1885, at around three o’clock in the afternoon. When I entered the room where Liszt received people, it was packed. The Master was a majestic figure dressed in a long Abbé coat. He had a serene, severe expression, which was not intimidating but rather paternal. He was standing, surrounded by a sea of heads of all descriptions, of which the female variety stood out for the familiarity with which they addressed him…. After I was introduced, he invited me at once to sit down at the piano where I played his study Ronde des Lutins. He did not stop me but after I had finished he said, ‘A little more cautiously; don’t rush into the start. You can come back.’ This last sentence was my dream come true: I had been admitted to Liszt’s circle”.
This was the beginning of a relationship that lasted beyond Berlin, to Rome and other cities, and continued until Liszt’s death in 1886. But Vianna da Motta remained one of his chief exponents through his life.
Vianna da Motta’s Berlin years also brought him close to the great Italian pianist-composer, conductor and teacher Ferruccio Busoni, who dedicated his transcription of Bach choral preludes to him “for having understood so well” the music. da Motta would write “We were linked by a true communion of ideas, although we could never agree on two points: one was (in my opinion) his excessive admiration for Berlioz, and the other was my admiration for Wagner which he never shared”. But despite their artistic differences, the friendship only grew stronger. Busoni said as much when he wrote a note to da Motta while sending him some of his music “To his now doubting, now believing, near, distant, approving, rejecting, constantly faithful and highly esteemed friend”.
Busoni composed two cadenzas to Mozart’s piano concerto in E flat minor specially for da Motta, which the latter performed under the latter’s baton in Berlin.
He shared the stage with some of the greatest contemporaries of his time, including the virtuoso violinist-composers Eugène Ysaÿe and Pablo de Sarasate.
He finally returned to Portugal in 1917, becoming director of the Conservatório Nacional two years later. In 1957, the José Vianna da Motta Music Competition was founded in his honour.
A direct connection between the two composers on the programme is the 1948 orchestral work by Joly Braga Santos titled ‘Elegy to Vianna da Motta’.
I was able to listen to the string quartet by Joly Braga Santos (performed with much feeling by the Quarteto de Cordas de Lisboa, 1989) on YouTube, and it would have been really wonderful to have heard this true masterpiece performed in its entirety in concert. It really deserves to join the standard chamber music repertoire, and be heard much more often. The string quartet by Vianna da Motta has not yet found a niche in cyberspace, so it is with great eagerness that I await listening to this very significant concert.
(An edited version of this article was published on 21 August 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)