About this Recording
9.70231-32 - PINHO VARGAS, A.: Os Dias Levantados (The Raised Days) (Coro do Teatro Nacional de São Calos, Lisboa, Portuguese Symphony, Santos)
English  Portuguese 

António Pinho Vargas (b. 1951)
Os Dias Levantados (The Raised Days)

 

Short Historical Note

Portugal’s fascist regime, dating from 1926 to 1974, was the longest lasting in Europe. The regime headed first by António de Oliveira Salazar and then, from 1968, by Marcelo Caetano was authoritarian and anti-democratic with one single party, fraudulent elections, and high national levels of both poverty and illiteracy. 1961 saw the start of the Portuguese Colonial War and this brutal and wasteful conflict gave the army a degree of political consciousness hitherto unseen. In 1974 a group of young Captains formed the clandestine Forças Armadas Movement (MFA), the group which was the driving force behind the bloodless coup of 25 April. Their manifesto consisted of three points: Democracy, Decolonisation and Development. The coup was followed by a troubled period of internal disputes over political and social supremacy with the first free elections held one year later. On 25 November 1975 the Portuguese people graduated to a Western-style parliamentary democracy.

A Guide to Os Dias Levantados

Prologue

“… after several years of doubts and confusion, I think I now understand that the essence of my music lies in its impurity…Stylistic purity is completely alien to me”

“The events of 25 April¹ were illegal, indisciplined, incoherent, unjust, insufficient and at times ridiculous, but also marvellous and unforgettable.”

These excerpts from the programme notes I wrote for the première of my opera Os Dias Levantados at Lisbon’s Teatro de São Carlos in 1998 stand as a personal statement of my own memories and emotions, and as a declaration of the principle that impurity and creative freedom must be safeguarded. The latter is also my attempt to define my stance as regards the range of possibilities that always exist at the start of the composition process, and a metaphysical attitude towards the act of creation: the idea of the nonexistent that is becoming something, the realisation that a work of art is a process, subject to outside forces, interruptions and events.

While what follows is a guide to the opera, its aim is not to explain either the libretto or the music, but simply to illustrate how I composed the music from, with, in spite of, or in contradiction to, the text, striving to understand its sense of drama and how it encapsulated our memories of the events it portrays. I kept very closely to the structure of Manuel Gusmão’s libretto (the CD track numbers correspond to his scene breaks), but although the text gave me the form, it did not write the music for me. It influenced it in various ways, contextualised it, gave it a full depth of meaning, but by the same token I wanted the music to extend the meaning of the text, reflect back its poetic and emotional significance, from my musical perspective. As I shall explain in more detail below, I made use of arbitrary materials derived from letters and numbers. I want to make it clear, however, that I see the text as an integral part of this opera’s music. When “there is no music”, when the singers are “only” speaking, that was the music I wrote. The words are written there by me as music.

Guide to “Os Dias”

During the compositional process, I found I was drawing on letters and numbers relating to the historical theme of the opera. I wrote an instrumental passage to precede Act I which I christened “the symbolic section”: this is a passacaglia bass that reappears at two key moments in the opera: in Act II Scene 4, “O tempo é a mudança” (“Time is change”), and in the final tutti of Act IV Scene 3. In both cases, the choruses or soloists involved express different perspectives, opposing or antagonistic, on the events in question. Feelings of confusion, doubt or fear are contrasted with others of delight and enthusiasm for the changes taking place. In “O tempo é a mudança”, the passacaglia bass figure gradually contracts and is played at different speeds simultaneously within the instrumental tutti. This, together with the changes in metre, creates a sense of mounting tension. In Act IV, although the different voices articulate texts of different political, emotional and expressive content, the passacaglia bass remains unaltered. This bass regulates and frames the different musical lines, in the same way as the formal democracy established in the interim frames and regulates the possibility of various approaches to life being expressed.

I composed the “symbolic section” using the time-honoured process of finding equivalences between letters/numbers and musical notes, durations or rhythmic values. The starting point, of course, was 25 April 1974; from the first three letters of the Portuguese “Abril” I took the notes A, B and D (= “R”: D is “ré” in Portuguese); then I applied the numbers, above all 25 and 74, to intervals, using both the traditional system—seconds, fifths, etc.—and the more recent classification of intervals by semitones (e.g. 1 = a semitone, 4 = a major third, 7 = a perfect fifth), as well as attributing durations, rhythmic values, and so on to them. I decided to add to my three notes with their associated sharps and flats, thus increasing the number of notes to eight, giving particular significance to B flat (“B” in German). I created a hierarchy by grouping the various options into families in accordance with a range of levels of interest or importance. When writing the “symbolic section” I was always aware that these choices were—had always been—completely arbitrary. Many composers had used them in the past but they are merely pretexts on which to begin composing or establishing connections.

A network of possibilities of this type offers the advantage of a relatively structured starting point which nevertheless has vast potential in terms of possible derivations. It functions not as a restricted set of paths or rules whose deductive logic ensures consistency, but as a defined place from which to set off and whose “tumultuous” horizons all lie open. This network exists on a profoundly abstract plane which, in itself, has no obvious perceptive status or semantic significance. These are acquired as the work unfolds: meanings are attributed and perceptions evoked (whether these are linked to or independent of the text) by the system of connections created by the appearance, repetition, disappearance and reappearance of certain elements.

The connections that link or separate the Prologue, the four acts and the different scenes vary in nature. The Prologue, for example—“Conversa de espectros sobre o vivo” (“Talk of spectres about the living one”)—clearly precedes the main action. It was written at a fairly advanced stage of the composition process, because I needed the “life” that followed this scene to have been defined before I could compose this “spectral” prelude. The Prologue plays a pivotal role in that it explains both who is speaking when, in subsequent scenes, the Angel of History and the Peasant Angel appear, and the philosophy of history underlying the libretto. This opera has no “fully-rounded characters, or types; what it has are voices, segments of speeches, quotations, parts of ways of life”², and it is no coincidence that perhaps the “only” aria is that sung in the Prologue by Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish philosopher who committed suicide in 1940 in the French town of Port Bou, close to the Spanish border, when he was fleeing the Nazis and attempting to reach the US via Portugal. Benjamin’s final work, On the Concept of History, is the inspiration behind the two central aspects of this opera: firstly, the idea that revolution is a non-linear time, a “tiger’s leap…under the open sky”, and secondly, the figure of the Angel of History: “immortal—it lives as long as human history endures”, but it cannot stay “to waken the dead and make whole what has been shattered” (On the Concept of History, Thesis IX). By contrast, the “Anjo Camponês” (Peasant Angel), a creation of poet Carlos de Oliveira,³ “is mortal and enables others to see by recounting what it sees”. The two angels are “figures of witness”.

Act I opens by evoking two notable features of the final years of the old regime: firstly, the ongoing lack of freedom(s) and the persecution, imprisonment and torture of its opponents (organised in clandestine networks and groups); secondly, the colonial war that played a decisive role in the army’s gradual realisation that a political solution was needed, not only to end the war but to save the country itself. The music for the scenes featuring the pides (secret police) and the colonial war (and a few asides on the antifascist struggle) presents the obsessive continuation of the status quo: the oppressive, backward-looking, stagnant, inescapable situation that prevailed before 25 April. The various ostinati used here are made up of chords derived from the “symbolic section”.

Act II sees the fulfilment of the prophecy made by Benjamin in the Prologue: “when the present, with many futures loaded, bursts” and contains the opera’s greatest contrasts. The quotation from Hamlet, “The time is out of joint”, is reflected in the historically disordered musical idioms, in turn closely linked to the changes of style—the intertextualities—of the libretto. Act II Scene 1, the confrontation of the morning of 25 April, when troops led by army captain Salgueiro Maia arrived in Lisbon’s Terreiro do Paço4 and a GNR5 force disintegrated, alternates and superimposes the military encounter and a literary depiction of popular celebration: the (15th-century) text by Fernão Lopes, “as gentes que esto ouviam saiam aa rua” (The people, hearing this, took to the streets), and the final chorus, “a gente começou de se juntar” (The people started to get together), which uses the main “symbolic” notes A, B and C sharp (= D flat).

One particularly stunning moment in Manuel Gusmão’s libretto is the intercutting of the “voices on a balcony, years later” in the poem by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, “Esta é a madrugada que eu esperava” (This is the dawn I’ve longed for) and Gusmão’s own “Este é o som e a fúria do sentido” (This is the sound and fury of meaning). This occurs at the start of Act II Scene 2 amid the celebrations (of which the first poem, written on 25 April, is part), as the cynical or regretful reaction of those who had later changed position. My musical response was to build the stylistic tension up to its highest point in the opera. Between two versions of a chorale of considerable consonance but some tonal ambiguity, is a fantasia for 4 male voices, piano, 2 trumpets and 2 trombones, in which an avant-garde musical cynicism interweaves and inverts the everyday utterances about progress and regression.

The tripartite (tonal–atonal–tonal) nature of the start of Scene 2 is echoed elsewhere. “O tempo saiu enfim dos eixos” (The time is finally out of joint) has an introduction with repeated notes in the extreme registers, tonal variations and varied tempos, before the chorus divides into three to utter the words in several different ways and, again, at varying tempos. In a now atonal–tonal–chromatic modal tripartite division (the passacaglia) there follows Scene 3, “Elas acendem o lume” (They light the fire), which combines fragments of a text written in 1975 by Maria Velho da Costa with another adapted by Gusmão from a documentary made in 1974 by Fernando Matos Silva about a group of women from the Beira region. Having watched these women talk about their lives and their hopes post-25 April, I felt I knew them. The links between the two texts—one sung by the 8- voice madrigal choir, the other by the three sisters—inspired the opera’s most tonal section, a song from my own imagined folk tradition. Scene 4, “The time is out joint” II, which I subtitled “O tempo é a mudança” (Time is change), uses the passacaglia with a gradual acceleration in both figuration and metre. At the climax/end of this scene, the third sister cries out, “Eu quero um arco com o sol a lua…” (I want a bow with the sun the moon). Overall, Act II expresses in music Benjamin’s idea that several different times coexist at a given moment in history.

Act III deals with the period known as the PREC (Ongoing Revolutionary Process), which lasted until April 1975, Scene 3 containing the peripateia, or reversal of circumstances, of Greek tragedy. When those with strongest opinions about the events in question, expressed in various ways throughout this act, find themselves affected where it most hurts, ie their pockets, they find their music. The moment at which the walking bass of the workers’ arguments gives way, through lengthening rhythmic values, to a march-like binary rhythm, is the opera’s main turning-point. Like the passacaglia bass, this music makes two further appearances. The first is at the end of the Act IV Scene 1 recitative “A desavença” (The falling-out; a fragmented form of Act III’s introductory material), when the irreparable divide within the army becomes clear, and the “centre” (“Nós queremos salvar a revolução” – We want to save the revolution) and the “right” establish an alliance that would last till 25 November. The second appearance comes at the end of Act IV, and it is now a ghostly apparition, a march disfigured by flutter-tonguing, when the attempt of the right, “Agora é limpar este lixo, esta doença que se pegou” (Now that litter must be disposed of, this disease that spread), is stopped in its tracks by the democratic faction’s “Não! Chega!” (No! Enough!). Each of the four soldiers in “A desavença” represents a different political standpoint: the socalled “group of nine” (“A divisão cresce. Assim a democracia perde-se.” – Dissent grows. This way democracy will be lost.), the followers of Vasco Gonçalves (“merecíamos este espanto” – we deserved this wonder), the “extreme left” (“Vocês são todos burguesia.” – You are all bourgeoisie.) and the military “right” (“Vocês saldaram Africa. Vocês espalham o terrror.” – You’ve sold Africa in the sales. You’ve spread the terror.).

There are two other musical aspects I’d like to examine here: the development of the vocal styles used for the various representatives of the “right”, and that of the above-mentioned peripeteia music, which I refer to as a march. In Act III Scene 1, the landowner always expresses himself in Sprechgesang. His speech is clear but “unformed” in the sense of not having yet found its form. In Scene 2, the opponent of the regime (the second man) is now using traditional song but without any sense of autonomy: he has no Leitmusik, instead singing on the same level as the other characters. In scene 3, at “O que há é cada um com a sua tarefa” (All there is is each one with his task), the Boss both sets out his vision of the world and establishes C as the leading note as he finds the music with which to express his obsession: regaining the power under threat. In this scene the music continues to alternate when the workers intervene in the subsequent political dispute, but in Act IV Scene 1, from “O poder não pode estar na rua…mas a vocês apoio-vos a fazer o tempo entrar nos eixos” (Power can’t be let loose in the streets…But you I support to make time get back on track), the other characters have to express their doubts and worries above the march as it becomes overpowering, imposing itself at key moments in the narrative until the final return of the passacaglia.

Act IV Scene 2, “Il Combattimento”, a metaphorical representation of 25 November, when Portugal stood on the brink of civil war, uses a description of Ajax by Sophocles, a text spoken over a recitative interspersed with instrumental musique concrète. Scene 3, “Acabou e não acabou” (It’s over now. It’s not over) is the final tutti in the opera, with the aforementioned return of the passacaglia. The four final choruses express widely varying and superimposed reactions to the aftermath of 25 November: relief (“Agora acabou…A vida volta ao normal” – It’s over now. Time goes back to normal); belief in the possibility of continuing some kind of utopia (“Não acabou. Há mais coisas para escrever” – It’s not over. There are still things to be written); cynical defence of the democratic norm (“Vocês elegem. Nós representamos” – You elect. We represent); sadness for the loss of the colonies (“Lá a vida era mais quente” – Life was warmer there); and conviction that it had all been worth it (“Ninguém pode fechar o céu aberto” – No one can close the open sky).

The Exodus is a short coda featuring Gusmão’s incredibly beautiful laudatio. The held chord that emanates from the previous scene is made up of the main “symbolic” notes and is articulated one last time as a semiquaver quintuplet.

Exodus

Working with Manuel Gusmão for a year and a half was a pleasure surpassed only by the inspiration and joy of spending a year with his libretto in front of me. Hearing people’s reactions to the work after the première was a very valuable experience, in that it both verified on a political level that this is, even today “a traumatic and divisive subject”6 and gave me greater insight into just how problematic human nature is. The countless hours I spent listening to and working on this wonderful recording by José Fortes, the shared pleasure of hearing this music, these words, the power of the singers, the commitment of the chorus at the Culturgest, all of this, no one will erase. The result is this album, an artistic creation whose fate is as uncertain as is, now, everything it has to say about the world.

António Pinho Vargas, December 2014
English translation by Susannah Howe

¹ Translator’s note (T.N.): On 25 April 1974, an essentially non-violent coup led by junior officers of the Portuguese army (with broad popular support) brought the country’s 50-year dictatorship to an end.

² Manuel Gusmão, Os Dias Levantados, Lisbon, Caminho, 2002

³ T.N.: His poem Descrição da guerra em Guernica in which the Peasant Angel appears was inspired by Picasso’s Guernica.

4 T.N.: The great square close to the Tagus officially known as the Praça do Comércio.

5 T.N.: The pro-régime Republican National Guard.

6 Gusmão, Os Dias Levantados

Synopsis

Prologue: Talk of spectres about the living one

The prologue takes place in Port-Bou, 1940, near the French-Spanish border, with three characters: Walter Benjamin, a Jewish-German philosopher, trying to escape from the Nazis across the border, and two imaginary characters: the Angel of History (Benjamin, Klee) and the Peasant Angel (Carlos de Oliveira, Picasso). They engage in a poetic and philosophical exchange of ideas on time in which ‘the leap of the tiger’ will happen; ‘when the present bursts’; when the time will be ‘out of joint’. Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history forms the background of these dialogues.

Synopsis

Prologue: Talk of spectres about the living one

The prologue takes place in Port-Bou, 1940, near the French-Spanish border, with three characters: Walter Benjamin, a Jewish-German philosopher, trying to escape from the Nazis across the border, and two imaginary characters: the Angel of History (Benjamin, Klee) and the Peasant Angel (Carlos de Oliveira, Picasso). They engage in a poetic and philosophical exchange of ideas on time in which ‘the leap of the tiger’ will happen; ‘when the present bursts’; when the time will be ‘out of joint’. Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history forms the background of these dialogues.

Part I. THE TIGER’S LEAP UNDER THE OPEN SKY
Part I alternates Scene I ‘Statue of silence’ with a political prisoner’s interrogation by the political police of the former regime and Scene 2: The 4 soldiers: ‘What shall we do with this sword?in which the four soldiers exchange critical opinions on the dead-end colonial war that lasted until 1974.
Scene 3 The raised days, begins with an aside, a short dialogue on the preparation of the military action, and poetic exhortations by the Chorus and the two Angels, exalting what is going to happen.

Part II. THE RAISED DAYS
Scene 1 The 4 Soldiers: ‘The time is out of joint’ is a depiction of the real events of the 25 of April, when a confrontation between troops faithful to the regime and revolutionary troops ended with disobedience in the regime troops’ chain of command. Concurrently a crowd, gradually amassing, shows its support and enthusiasm for the unfolding events.
Scene 2 ‘The time is out of joint’ starts with the Peasant Angel singing a famous poem by Sophia de Mello Breyner, written on 25 April 1974; it follows an interlude of ‘voices on a balcony, years later’ in which a group of singers attempt to ridicule the moment of the revolution: ‘It was one blunder after another’. The Chorus responds by evoking the idea of rebirth, and then divides into three parts with different perspectives.
Scene 3 The 3 sisters: ‘They light the fire’. In this scene the three sisters speak about their lives and their expectations of the future, while a small choir simultaneously addresses the female condition and the several kinds of hopes raised during the Revolution. In the continuation of scene 2 the chorus is once again divided into three parts: choir A exults over the changes, choir B expresses doubts, and choir C is clearly opposed to the coup d’état, showing a connection with the former regime. In the continuation of Scene 3 the three sisters sing of joy and freedom, Choir A sings a Camões poem on change
and three soldiers remember those who died in the colonial war.

Part III SPEAKING OUT: WRITING TIME
After a short introduction by the Angel of History, three scenes follow debating aspects of the social and political confrontations that happened in 1974 and 1975.
Scene 1. On the ground of history
Peasant workers from Alentejo talk about their centurie-sold relationship with the land, while the landowner expresses his displeasure with events and claims that ‘power was let loose in the streets’.
Scene 2. The walking houses
Supporters of the regime occupy the abandoned houses of the rich. In contrast to their joy and delight, one man speaks out against what they are doing.
Scene 3. The threshold citizenship.
The occupation of a factory. A confrontation between the boss and workers takes place about the legitimacy of property and capital. The boss’s discourse becomes more threatening: ‘Disorder is a disaster’ and ‘hunger will tighten the siege’. Then two female voices simultaneously declaim two opposing versions of events.
Scene 4 ‘Power can’t be set loose in the streets’
This scene refers explicitly to the so-called ‘Hot Summer’ of 1975 when negativity towards the Left flared up. There were confrontations in the streets and many homes destroyed. (shots, shots, stones, stones)

Part IV. Il COMBATTIMENTO
Scene 1: The 4 soldiers: the falling-out
The four soldiers engage in an intense argument about the differences gradually festering between several factions of the military movement.
Scene 2: Il Combattimento
The Angel of History and the Peasant Angel describe, using Sophocles’s Ajax as a model, the events of 25 November. After the country had teetered on the brink of civil war, a new political situation was established, with the neutralisation of the Left and the installation of the new democratic and liberal regime.

EXODUS: It was and it wasn’t; it’s over and it isn’t over.
The various choirs and the 3 sisters express with different modes and voices their diverse and opposing attitudes towards the new regime, in blocks of text that are superimposed on one another. The ending is a spoken laudatio by the Angel of History, a paean to the men of the military movement who made the events of 25 April possible.


Close the window