About this Recording
8.572334 - FREITAS BRANCO, L. de: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 / Prelude (Damas, Tomasik)

Luís de Freitas Branco (1890–1955)
Music for Violin and Piano


While the great literary prophet of modernism in Portugal, Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935), achieved, uniquely, a synthesis of possibly every direction in which the modernism for which he is acclaimed could go, this chameleon-like versatility (expressed through his heteronyms) is hardly reflected in any other artist, of his generation or after. This is not to say, however, that the arts in Portugal during the first years of the 20th century lacked strength: far from it. But it would have been an impossible task to imitate the range of Pessoa—in his cosmopolitan breadth he resembles the similarly inimitable Cavafy (1863–1933)—and, fortunately, nobody attempted to do so, though this meant that Pessoa remained a vox clamans in deserto, a voice crying in the wilderness.

The great renaissance in Portuguese music that had been initiated by such composers as Alfredo Keil (1850–1907), Vianna da Motta (1868–1948) and Óscar da Silva (1870–1958), was, inevitably, very much built on Franco-German models.

At the age of sixteen, Freitas Branco went to study with the Belgian composer and organist Désiré Pâque, at that time living in Lisbon. It was Pâque who introduced his young pupil to the music of César Franck, whose influence on the young Portuguese composer was to be paramount. Not that Franck was to be the only thing that Freitas Branco absorbed during his studies: his practical skills as a performer, on violin, piano and organ, as well as his studies in orchestration, developed under the tutelage of Luigi Mancinelli, further instruction in composition was received from Humperdinck in Berlin, and his first experience of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande provoked him later to observe that “That masterpiece of modern music” was the most important event in his artistic development, hitherto “essentially Germanic”.

The conflict between the German and the Latin in him was, in fact, to be the spark that gave rise to Freitas Branco’s most important and lasting work. His earlier pieces meld the influences of Wagner and Liszt and at the same time show the results of his time spent abroad: it was a relatively short step from the quite Franckian Sonata for Violin and Piano of 1907 to the shimmering harmonic world of the utterly remarkable Debussy-influenced symphonic poem Paraísos Artificiais (Naxos 8.572059) of 1910 (whose première under Pedro Blanch in 1913 scandalized the Lisbon public). Equally astounding is Vathek (Naxos 8.572624), written in 1913, particularly remarkable for its third variation, a fugato for strings in 39 parts, foreshadowing Ligetian “micropolyphony”.

Rather more radical, in the context of the period, was Freitas Branco’s lack of interest in folk-music (or, to be more exact, his suspicion of the propagandistic uses to which it could be put), and his increasing return to the classics, most clearly manifested in his Violin Concerto of 1916, with its constant glances back towards Beethoven. By the time he came to write his First Symphony (Naxos 8.570765), in 1924, Freitas Branco had run the gamut of avant garde techniques and had exhausted what the older Vianna da Motta described in a speech on the centenary of the death of Beethoven as “wearisome impressionism and orientalism”. The search for a genuine Portuguese nationalism meant, for Freitas Branco, not simply disappearing into an exotically coloured Iberian sunset, but dealing with the classical past, and if Vianna da Motta emphasizes rather too much, later in the same speech, the debt his younger contemporary had to Beethoven, one can understand that such a posture must have seemed at the time, to this protégé of Liszt, to represent a bastion of traditional compositional values.

Of course there are many Beethovenian qualities in the First Symphony, but they lie in Freitas Branco’s sense of formal poise, of balanced phrasing, rather than any out-and-out attempt at neo-classicism. Franck is a different matter: the Portuguese composer is very clearly indebted to him in this work, as he is also in the Sonata No. 1 for Violin and Piano from 1910. This is especially obvious structurally. Franck’s use of cyclic structure is very audibly reflected in the sonata, in the thematic cells that recur and mutate throughout the work: the principal motif in this case appears immediately after the exposition of the first movement, which is a bi-thematic sonata form. What strikes one about the work, however, is the great variety with which Freitas Branco imbues this cyclic structure, a truly impressive unity-in-diversity. Franck is also present harmonically, but it is equally clear that this is not a case of mere imitation: like Chausson, Freitas Branco absorbed Franck’s example and processed it through his own compositional personality. In addition, both his melodic style and his rhythmic vocabulary are substantially different—precisely because of the classical equilibrium innate to him.

The work won first prize in a competition chaired by Vianna da Motta held in Lisbon the following year, in spite of its harmonic language and evolving tonality (the work ends in A major, having begun in D), which were positively scandalous for the conservative Lisbon milieu of the time.

After from the brief but lovely Prelude, written in 1910, Freitas Branco would next write for solo violin in his Concerto of 1916, a work that presages the newfound diatonicism of his second creative period, a phenomenon fully evident in the Sonata No. 2, written in 1928. The clarity of its world of neo-classical modality stands in fascinating contrast to the dreamy flow of the First Sonata, and structurally it also represents in a sense a return to the classical past, though Freitas Branco undertakes this return, as he does in his symphonic writing from the time of the First Symphony onwards, in a quest to renew his own vocabulary: again, there is a constant and fruitful pull between the Latin and the German (or evocation and structure: in any case a productive dichotomy). And it should perhaps be emphasized here that Freitas Branco was a considerable melodist. Though the first movement of the Second Sonata is particularly memorable, the composer’s imaginative melodic writing is in fact evident throughout the work.

Freitas Branco falls into no convenient category (that, at least, he had in common with Pessoa), and yet he was one of the most accomplished and influential Portuguese composers of the twentieth century. His vast range makes him at the same time utterly unique and quite inescapable.

Ivan Moody

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