LUÍS DE FREITAS BRANCO (1890 - 1955)
Luís de Freitas Branco was born in Lisbon in 1890 where he lived most of the time until his death in 1955. He was a preeminent figure in Portuguese music of the first half of the twentieth century, and his four symphonies constitute the essence as well as the culmination of his musical development.
Born into an aristocratic family with ties to the royal family for many centuries, Luís de Freitas Branco enjoyed a highly sophisticated education, which included studies both in Berlin and then in Paris, where he worked with composers including Engelbert Humperdinck and Désiré Pâque. He started composing at a very early stage, as reflected in his Scherzo Fantastique, written in 1907 at the age of seventeen, one year before the homonymous work by Igor Stravinsky, which dates from 1908. He was active also as a leading force in the restructuring of musical education at the Lisbon Conservatory of Music, of which he became the deputy director under the leadership of José Vianna da Motta, a celebrated pianist who was one of Franz Liszt’s more distinguished students. Freitas Branco also played a significant rôle as a musicologist, having been active in research into the rich legacy of Portuguese polyphonic composers of the seventeenth century and publishing a book about the works of King John IV of Portugal, himself a distinguished composer and promoter of new music of his time.
As far as Freitas Branco’s legacy as an orchestral composer is concerned, it must be pointed out that when he entered the Portuguese music scene at the beginning of the century, no permanent orchestra existed in Lisbon apart from that of the São Carlos Royal Opera, which did not perform symphonies but played operatic repertoire, mainly Italian, and sometimes German and French. Indeed, after João Domingos Bomtempo (1771–1842), who composed various symphonies, only Vianna da Motta (1868–1948) wrote a symphony, published in Rio de Janeiro in 1899. This said, it means that when Freitas Branco composed his first symphony in 1924, he was profoundly aware that he was treading on new territory in Portugal.
His musical development began with the influence of French late Romantic composers and some of the Impressionists such as Debussy. Yet, aware of the importance of introducing into Portuguese music large scale works such as symphonies for large orchestra, he clearly opted for a neo-classical style of his own, based on thematic development as he found it in the music of the so-called cyclic school of the Belgian composer César Franck. Needless to say Freitas Branco’s First Symphony reflects César Franck’s Symphony in D minor in many ways: not only are there stylistic influences but also formal ones: indeed, like Franck’s symphony, Freitas Branco’s first symphony has only three movements, a deviation from the German tradition of the four-movement form.
Freitas Branco’s musical legacy does not only include his rich and varied body of work, but also his activity as a teacher and mentor. Suffice to say that he taught many Portuguese composers of the younger generation, including Joly Braga Santos (1924–88), most of whose orchestral works are already available on the Marco Polo label.