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Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988)
Music for Strings
Joly Braga Santos was born in 1924 in Lisbon, where he died
in 1988, at the height of his musical creativity. Although he composed only
six symphonies, he was undoubtedly the leading Portuguese symphonist of the
century and, in a way, of all time, considering that the symphonic output of
Portuguese composers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is not significant.
Apart from an innate sense for good orchestration, his musical language is based
on a strong musical architecture as well as drama, with generous melodic lines
and a natural instinct for structural development as well as formal coherence.
In his own words, he wanted to contribute “toward a Latin symphonism and to
react against the predominant tendency, of the generation that preceded me,
to reject monumentalism in music”.
Having studied the violin and composition at the Conservatory
in Lisbon, Joly Braga Santos became a disciple of Luis de Freitas Branco (1980-1955),
the leading Portuguese composer of the preceding generation. Through the influence
of his mentor, he opted, first, for a modal writing which he would eventually
abandon in favour of a free chromaticism which is nevertheless based on tonal
writing. Although he was not particularly interested in Portuguese folklore,
studying and composing at the country home of his mentor, in the rural south
of Portugal, the Aleutejo, he willingly accepted the influence of local folk-songs.
The four works for strings here included reflect clearly enough
the musical evolution of Braga Santos. For this reason the works follow the
chronological order of their composition: Concerto in D (1951), Sinfonietta
(1963), Concertante Variations (1967) and Double Concerto for Violin
and Cello (1968). These compositions give us an idea of the variety and
richness of the works Braga Santos. Indeed, each of these, though composed for
the same instrumental ensemble, strings, has its own characteristic, both stylistically
as well as instrumentally. The coherence and inter-relation between the form
and the harmonic idiom as well as of the use of counterpoint are quite obvious.
Thus, the Concerto in D has an extremely traditional form which is also
reflected in its harmonic idiom and contrapuntal writing: the Sinfonietta
for 12 solo strings, is formally condensed as a result of the reduced dimension
of the orchestra; the Concertante Variations, with its high harmonic
and contrapuntal density, is consequently divided into a series of short sections:
finally, the Double Concerto, written for two solo instruments with orchestral
accompaniment, follows basically the traditional concerto form.
The Concerto in D is dedicated to the Academy of Chamber
Instruments of the Portuguese Radio, which gave the work its world première.
The modal writing (Phrygian mode) is immediately apparent in the initial theme,
which is the basis for the slow introduction, marked Largamente maestoso.
One also notices, following the opening tutti, another characteristic
of Braga Santos’ writing: the use of instrumental solos, in this case, the solo
violin, viola and cello, contrasting with the tutti. The Allegro
which follows is based on two themes: the first one, with an incisive rhythm,
is like a fast version of the initial theme, while the second one, lyrical in
character, is played by the violins with the cellos and basses in imitation.
The movement follows the traditional sonata form of exposition, development,
recapitulation and coda. The second movement, slow, with the direction Adagio
non troppo, also tripartite in structure, with the central section in marked
contrast, is one of the most expressive movements by Braga Santos. It is certainly
not a coincidence that I conducted it at the request of the composer’s widow
during the Mass at the funeral of Braga Santos in 1988. The third movement,
Allegro ben marcato, has the character of a popular dance in 514. It is a rondo
with a coda in triple metre.
The Sinfonietta for string orchestra, composed in 1963,
is dedicated to Alvaro Cassuto and the Gulbenkian Chamber Orchestra. I conducted
its première in 1963. Scored for twelve solo strings, four first and three second
violins, two violas, two cellos and one double bass, the work has three movements.
The first of these has a slow introduction, marked Adagio, in which the
first solo violin plays a leading role immediately after the initial unison.
Following freely sonata form, although without a recapitulation, the Allegro
has a first theme played by the strings in which the twelve solo instruments
are treated like an orchestral tutti, while the second theme, influenced
by Portuguese folk-music, is lyrical, being entrusted to two solo violins with
a pizzicato accompaniment by the remaining strings. The second movement
Adagio has an introduction in which Braga Santos explores tone colours
which, to a certain extent, reflect the influence of the Second Viennese School
of Schoenberg and his disciples Alban Berg and Anton Webern. The central part
of the movement is a long melodic line in the first violins in unison. The coda
of this movement is performed by the solo violin with an accompaniment of sustained
notes by the remaining eleven players, each one of whom plays a different note.
In the last bars, Braga Santos shows clearly that he did not eschew the influence
of tone clusters of the avant-garde of the 1960s. The third movement, with the
direction Allegro ben marcato, ma non troppo, is in free sonata form.
The first theme has an incisive character while the second lyrical theme is
played by four solo instruments, two violins, one viola and one cello. Before
the final coda, the movement is interrupted by a Largo in which the first solo
violin is accompanied by the remaining strings in a fashion which is similar
to that of the coda of the second movement.
As the title
indicates, the Concertante Variations for string orchestra and harp is a
series of variations in which different instruments, the section leaders of the
first and second violins, of the violas and of the cellos as well as the harp,
play a “concertante” or soloistic rôle. Its texture is extremely dense as a
result of an enormous wealth of contrapuntal writing. It has one movement only,
basically an Adagio slow movement with a fast middle section, marked Più
mosso, and a fast coda, Mosso. In the original score there is no
indication as to which is the theme and which are the variations. We can,
however, distinguish the following sections:
The Concerto for violin, cello, string orchestra and harp has three
movements, Largo, Allegro and Adagio. The first movement of these
has an initial section with the violin and cello as soloists, starting pianissimo
and leading to a fortissimo central part for strings without harp. The
movement ends pianissimo, again with the soloists, but this time with the cellos
and basses in a steady rhythmic accompaniment. The second movement starts with
the pizzicato strings and has basically a 5/8 rhythm. It ends in a brilliant
fortissimo crescendo. The third movement starts and ends pianissimo,
with a central part which is rhythmically incisive, cast in a contrasting orchestral
tutti, which is also fortissimo.