Three Composers and the Poetry of Camilo Pessanha


Mário Vieira de Carvalho*

Filipe de Sousa was born in Maputo on the 15th of February 1927. He studied music at the Conservatório Nacional (National Conservatory) in Lisbon, majoring in piano (Abreu Mota's class) and composition (Croner de Vasconcelos' class). At the same time, he obtained a degree in classical philology at the Faculdade de Letras (Faculty of Arts) in Lisbon. He won a scholarship that allowed him to study under Swarowsky at the Staatsakademie in Vienna, from which he obtained his conductor's diploma in 1957, and to work in Munich with Mennerich and F. Lehmann, and in Hilversum with Albert Wolf.

Besides his work as a pianist, to whom Portugal owes numerous performances of works by, among others, Bela Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Shoenberg [Schönberg], Alban Berg and Darius Milhaud; a composer, whose foremost works are the "Dance Suite" for orchestra (1954), the "Sinfonietta" (1956) and numerous pieces for voice and piano; and a conductor who has led orchestras in Portugal and overseas, Filipe de Sousa has taken it upon himself to do systematic research on Portuguese music from the past, which has led to the recovery of various masterpieces whose whereabouts were unknown. His classical training and literary background are determinants of his personality. His favourite poets (whose works he has set to music) include Reiner Maria Rilke, Jean Moréas, Sebastião da Gama, Fernando Pessoa and his pen names, Camilo Pessanha, Orlando de Carvalho, Manuel Bandeira, Ferdinand C. S. Schiller, Federico Garcia Lorca, Langston Hughes and Paul Éluard. [...]

In "Dois Sonetos de Camilo Pessanha" ("Two Sonnets by Camilo Pessanha"), composed in 1950, the simple introduction of a figure consisting of three eighth notes on the piano (A sharp -- B -- A sharp), added to two others (F sharp -- G sharp), until then immutable in the accompaniment, concentrates a conjunct movement in a brief episode (beginning with the dominant) that, through inversion, answers a similar movement of half notes beginning with the tonic. This represents the gust of wind that blows the leaves off the roses, something that is made clear right after in the vocal phrase. The question: -- "What are you dwelling upon, my love?" is stylized in a 'melody of speech', in which the tension increases in a movement that ascends towards the dominant, culminating in "As Vozes" ("The Voices"): "Porque me calas /As vozes com que há pouco me enganavas?" ("Why do you silence / The voices with which you wronged me a short time ago?").

The harmonic texture is radically altered, becoming unstable, as the above-mentioned motif of half notes, which until then was the bottom voice, is given prominence in the top voice of the accompaniment. This musical change corresponds to the transition in the poem from the observation of nature, and the dialogue with nature and with 'the other' to introspection: the harmony marches 'without direction' as in the poet's image: "Castelos doidos! Tão cedo caístes! / [...] / Onde vamos, alheio o pensamento, / De mãos dadas?" ("Crazy castles! You fell so soon! / [...] / Where are we headed, absentmindedly, / Hand in hand?").

With the return to nature and to the dialogue the initial harmonies are restored. The snow falls... "Em redor do teu vulto é como um véu!" ("It is like a veil around your face!")--this passionate exclamation begins on the dominant, in a sharp key, and then descends softly to the tonic. Then, it is as if the universe stood still: the movement loses speed and is suspended. The question: "Que mas esparze-- quanta flor! -- do céu, / Sobre nós dois, sobre os nossos cabelos?" ("Who is sprinkling them -- so many flowers! -- from the sky, / Upon the two of us, upon our hair?") is left in mid-air, unanswered (ending on the dominant, the Halbschluß in German terminology). Meanwhile, the persistence, from beginning to end, of the recurring motif of half notes in which the descending effect of (B-A sharp - G sharp) is always featured again is the auditory counterpart of a poetic image that is repeated several times: petals fall, snow falls, the "Castelos doidos!" ("Crazy castles!") fall. [...].


The musico-dramatic coherence of the composer's work, which (as follows from this brief analysis) does not reject or dissimulate, but rather assumes, when it is deemed appropriate, the classic heritage of functional harmony as an integral part of its modem musical thought, is still expressed in the unity of the composition of each cycle of poems. Written in B and b minor, respectively, in 3/2 time, and ending on the dominant, with a related melodic configuration, the "Two Sonnets by Camilo Pessanha" constitute an inseparable diptych. □**

Translated from the Portuguese by: Paula Sousa

"Floriram por Engano as Rosas Bravas" ("Wild Roses Blossomed by Mistake")

See: In Clepsidra by Simão Barreto, p.89

"Passou o Outono Já, Já Torna o Frio"

("Autumn is Over, The Cold Is Returning Once Again")

See: In Clepsidra: Eight Poems by Camilo Pessanha for Piano and Voices by Fernando Lopes-Graça, p. 117

** Excerpt taken from PORTUGALSOM, Filipe de Sousa (1927), Lisbon, Strauss -- Music and Video, 1995 [insert from the compact disc].

* Musicologist.

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