About this Recording
8.223879 - BRAGA SANTOS: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 5

Joly Braga Santos (1924 -1988)
Symphony Nos. 1 and 5

Joly Braga Santos was born in Lisbon in 1924 and died there in 1988, at the height of his musical creativity. Although he composed only six symphonies, he was undoubtedly the leading Portuguese symphonist of this century and, in a way, of all time, considering that the symphonic output of Portuguese composers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is not very significant. Apart from an innate sense for good orchestration, his musical language is based on a strong sense of musical architecture as well as drama, with long melodic lines and a natural instinct for structural development as well as formal coherence. In his own words, he wanted to contribute “towards 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 (1890- 1955), the leading Portuguese composer of the preceding generation, who was also a symphonist (he wrote four symphonies among many other orchestral works), and a thorough theoretician. Braga Santos developed a very close relationship with his mentor, and unusual teacher-pupil rapport in Portugal’s music scene, where composers had - and still have - a rather individualistic approach to music-making and no tradition of belonging to or developing in a school. He “inherited” from Freitas Branco - and he pursued and developed a musical language based, according to his own words, on a “modalism with historic roots in Portuguese polyphony of the Renaissance". Although he was not particularly interested in Portuguese folk-lore, studying and composing at the country home of his teacher, in the south, rural, area of the Alentejo, he willingly accepted the influence of local folk-songs, which he considered “of a mesmerizing originality and grandeur.”

The first four symphonies followed one another quite rapidly. Braga Santos composed them between the age of 22 and 27 and not only were they immediately performed by the Portuguese Radio Symphony Orchestra in Lisbon but also met with great success. Yet, despite the fact that his style was far from avant-garde and very appealing, only a small minority recognised the extent of his extraordinary talent and, he therefore attracted only very limited support. Indeed, being a most generous and selfless person, he was not efficient at “selling” himself. On the other hand, he also suffered from the Portuguese tradition which supports much more the import of celebrated foreign artists than the promotion of their own.

After the period to which his first four symphonies as well as many other works including the Elegy for Vianna da Motta, the Concerto for Strings and the opera To Live And To Die belong, Braga Santos went abroad to study conducting with Herman Scherchen and composition with Virgilio Mortari. The period of travel and the time he devoted to conducting, mainly in Oporto (1955- 61), provided him with what he described as a useful period of rest, decisive for the transformation of his musical style, which evolved toward increased chromaticism and less traditional form. To this period belong his orchestral Divertimento, his Sinfonietta and his Requiem, among other works.

Braga Santos composed his Fifth Symphony when he was 41 years old (1965- 66) and it is his first large-scale work within a new musical language which he had, meanwhile, developed, a musical language that remained faithful to the basic principles he was brought up with. According to his own words, “I always maintained the point of view according to which most important in a composer is the time-frame in which his musical personality developed.” It is therefore not surprising that despite his personal contact with the avant-garde of the 1960s and although assimilating some of its influences in his music, he remained always true to his roots. Yet knowledge of the avant-garde in the 1960s he had indeed. He was very close to the younger generation of upcoming composers including myself, and he was very interested in helping them as well. For instance, he conducted the world première of my first Sinfonia Breve in 1959 (my début as a composer) and supported me despite the fact that my approach to music was very much influenced by the Darmstadt school. He was a wonderfully encouraging “older colleague” also supporting me in my first steps as a conductor. In turn I conducted many of his works and gave the first performance of his Sinfonietta for Strings (1963) which he dedicated to me, and he also complied with my request, in 1988, shortly before his death, to write what turned out to be his very last orchestral work, the Staccato Brillante. The Fifth Symphony, which incidentally won the UNESCO award, was followed by works for solo instruments, among them concertos for cello and for piano, as well as by the Sixth Symphony, for orchestra, solo soprano and mixed chorus. He also composed a large number of works for different chamber ensembles as well as three operas, and throughout his creative career he was also active as a music critic.

Braga Santos’s First Symphony was composed in 1946 and is dedicated “To the memory of the Heroes and Martyrs of the last World War.” Although it has only three movements, the feeling of a four-movement symphony with a slow introduction is due to the fact that the third movement (a scherzo) is followed by a slow coda. All movements have thematic material based on an initial thematic cell. This thematic cell is stated in the cellos, right at the beginning of the slow introduction. As the music develops, the solo viola presents a new theme, which is repeated by the woodwind, then by the strings and finally by the full orchestra in fortissimo, after which it dies away. A solo clarinet with lower string accompaniment establishes the bridge to the main Allegro section. Here again the thematic cell is the basis for the low string rhythmic accompaniment as well as for the theme played by the violins in unison with the first horn. The second theme, very lyrical in contrast, is played by the violins with a fluid rhythmic accompaniment in the woodwind and lower strings. In the development section, the horns present the initial thematic cell in slow motion, in dialogue with the woodwind, accompanied by a solid rhythmic pattern in the strings. After the recapitulation and a short coda, the movement ends with abrupt repeated chords.

The main theme of the second movement is preceded by a long introduction, where the bass clarinet precedes the lower strings (again a variation of the slow introduction to the first movement) which is followed by a bassoon solo that prepares the lyrical theme played by the solo flute. A long crescendo leads to intense dynamic outbursts of emotional intensity, after which the lower strings resume their quiet restatement of the thematic cell. In the recapitulation, the theme is played by the violins and violas and the movement ends as peacefully as it started.

In the Scherzo, as in the first Allegro, the thematic cell is responsible for the lower string accompaniment, while the main theme in the violins is a variation of that of the first Allegro. The Trio is in binary rhythm, and its very simple theme is repeated literally in a constant crescendo. A very slow chorale of church-like character, a dialogue between strings and brass, precedes the repeat of the main section of the Scherzo, which this time builds up to a new, dramatic, dimension. The Trio is repeated, but this time it leads to the slow coda, which grows to a glorious ending and concludes with a pattern of abrupt chords similar to that of the end of the first movement.

The symphony is scored for three flutes including piccolo, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons including contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings.

The Fifth Symphony of Joly Braga Santos was composed in 1965- 66. It has a subtitle Virtus Lusitaniae (The Virtue of Lusitania), the two-thousand-year-old Roman designation for Portugal. Its four movements do not follow the traditional pattern, since the first one, marked Preludio, can be considered as a long and relatively slow introduction to the remaining three movements. The use of a large percussion section is the result of the composer’s visit to Mozambique, at that time a Portuguese colony. Yet, as he himself said, “although I used certain rhythmic and melodic elements from the popular music of East Africa, mainly present in the second movement, the music is not programmatic; what matters is the architecture itself.” As in most of his musical output, this symphony is based on a melodic cell, a long melodic line of asymmetric and wide intervals, presented by the violas after a violet opening. This opening is based on a continuous rhythm in the timpani and outbursts of tone-clusters (instead of the traditional harmonic support based on tonal chords) on one side, and melodic line based on a continuous variation and the occasional restatement of the main theme, on the other. The second movement is the most original of all four. According to the composer, “the percussion section, with over twelve players, plays an important rôle evoking the marimba players of Zavala, a region south of Mozambique, with its centuries old tradition which is still practised: dozens of marimbas, tuned in different keys with different scales, some of which have an intervallic structure alien to European music”. In this movement, the strings and the brass provide mostly a harmonic background, while the wind presents short melodic phrases.

The third movement is slow and the most dramatic of all four. The composer stresses that “spaces, lines and masses of sound follow and cross one another”. Musical analysis in this movement is definitely less important than the feelings which the composer conveys to the listener.

The fourth movement opens with a short introduction, after which the main theme in its initial version is played by all six horns in unison. It is doubtless the most straightforward movement of the symphony and leads to a final section, Largamente, which builds up to a grandiose ending, based on a melodic line which embodies the best of the Romantic tradition.

The symphony is scored for four flutes including two piccolos, three oboes, English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, four bassoons, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, two timpanists, a large percussion section with more than twelve players, celesta, piano, two harps and strings. The inclusion of the First and Fifth Symphonies by Joly Braga Santos on the same CD is intentional, as it presents the composer’s two different styles of music making.

Álvaro Cassuto

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