oly Braga Santos (1924-1988)
Symphony No. 4 Symphonic Variations
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 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 talent 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 ?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, he became a disciple of Luis de Freitas Branco (1890-1955), the leading Portuguese composer of the preceding generation. Although he was not particularly interested in Portuguese folklore, in the rural south of Portugal, the Alentejo, he willingly accepted the influence of local folk-songs, which he considered ?of mesmerizing originality and grandeur?.
The first four symphonies followed each other quite rapidly. He composed them between the ages of 22 and 27, among many other works. He then went to study conducting with Hermann Scherchen and composition with Virgilio Mortari, absorbing influences from the post-war avant-garde, which is reflected in the music he composed from 1960 onwards.
The Symphonic Variations on a popular song from the Alentejo, as its full title reads, is a work composed in 1951. In its slow introduction, and after a few initial chords in the strings, the flute plays the popular song, over a distant roll of timpani and tam-tam. The theme is then repeated by the woodwind, in chords, leading to a third statement of the theme, now with the full brass in fortissimo. As the music dies away, a first series of variations starts in the low register building up gradually to another statement of the theme, which then subsides, giving way to the fast section of the work. Here we have a series of variations which, as in the last movement of Brabms? Fourth Symphony, are woven together into a structurally coherent whole. They follow each other quite unnoticeably, as the composer was quite obviously determined to create a work based on the technique of variation, and not a set of actual variations, whence the title, Symphonic Variations. As the Allegro dies away, the initial slow section reappears, now in different orchestration, and again the music builds up, ending in a brilliant fortissimo. The work is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and cor anglais, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones and tuba, two harps, timpani, tam-tam, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum and strings.
Of the four Braga Santos symphonies of his first period, the fourth is the longest and the most grandiose. It is also the most accomplished in balance and form, as much as in orchestration. Personally, I cannot help feeling that it was a shame that Braga Santos interrupted the natural evolution of the musical style he had adopted from his mentor Luis de Freitas Branco a few years before with his First Symphony, to study and to embrace the ?modern? music of his time, but I can well understand the reason why he did it. As in his former symphonies, Braga Santos follows his mentor?s concept, which the latter inherited from César Franck, of building a whole symphony by the means of a musical cell, and developing most of its thematic material from this initial building block. The slow introduction of the Fourth Symphony starts with a Brucknerian tremolo, with a solo bassoon playing the main theme. Building up to a quite foreseeable tutti in fortissimo, the music slows down to a halt, prior to the beginning of the Allegro con fuoco. A rhythmic cell, starting pianissimo in the low strings, builds up harmonically by the addition of fourths to a fortissimo, where the woodwind plays the main theme of the Allegro. The strings then take over the theme and, after a short development, we hear a long melody, the second theme of this sonata-form movement. The development is quite clear, with different orchestral sections treated in blocks of sound, leading to a slowing down and a fermata, before the recapitulation. Here the rhythmic cell is introduced by the snare drum and timpani, again with a Brucknerian crescendo with string tremolos. The movement ends fortissimo with no surprises. The second movement starts like a funeral march with an ostinato melody in the low register. The main theme, introduced by the clarinets, is then taken over by the whole woodwind with a strong counterpoint in the strings, and the music develops naturally until reaching an intense accelerando leading to big outbursts of sound. A middle section features muted strings singing a modal monody against the low brass harmonic background. This middle section develops, again by repeats, to a fortissimo, which then subsides to give way to a recapitulation. At the end, the timpani and percussion die away in the distance. The Scherzo is clearly influenced by Sibelius, starting with string tremolos and bass pizzicati. The long cantilena of the oboe is based on a development of the initial theme. The natural evolution of the music then leads to a second theme in the woodwind in thirds, over a regular crotchet rhythm in the strings in pizzicato. After a repeat of the initial section we reach a Trio in 5/4 rhythm. Its main theme sounds like a folk-tune, opening a window into the world of the main section of the finale, where we again find music that has a folkloristic colour, although it is not actually based on any folk material. The scherzo and trio is repeated, and the coda leads to a hectic ending of the movement by means of an accelerando. The fourth movement is the most complex of all movements of the symphony, with three main sections a slow introduction, a bi-thematic Allegro and a chorale-like ending. The slow introduction presents the initial theme in the bass, in an ostinato motif which accelerates into the Allegro con brio. Here, the four trumpets playa rhythmic background which is as brilliant as it is technically difficult. The second theme of the bi-thematic finale is a folk-dance in 3? rhythm This dance is quite incisive in character and it leads to a 5/8 development and, then, to a grandiose Alla breve, melodious section, up to the recapitulation. Here the musical material is presented in much richer orchestral colours. The folk-dance builds up and leads to an abrupt ending over a roll in the timpani. The low brass then prepares the chorale-like Epilogue. This last is the climax of the Fourth Symphony. Like Beethoven?s Ninth it has an all-embracing melody of timeless character which the composer called a ?Hymn to Youth?, dedicated to the Jeunesses Musicales, of whose founding Board of Directors Braga Santos was a member. Braga Santos probably felt that, like Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, he should have composed a choral finale rather than an orchestral one. Therefore, for a performance of this symphony at a convention of the Jeunesses Musicales in Lisbon; he superimposed on it a four-part mixed chorus. In my opinion, the chorus does not enrich the music, nor does it add grandeur. Quite the contrary, it actually banalizes the originality of Braga Santos? initial concept, and covers the wealth of its orchestration. The work is scored for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and cor anglais, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones and tuba, harp, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals and tarn-tam and strings.