Entrevista a Alexandre Delgado / Interview with Alexandre Delgado
The most important person, who in fact decided this change in my life for me and who made me become a musician, was a teacher in my preparatory school - the pianist Fátima Fraga. It was her who called my father and said that it was a crime that I wasn't learning music and so I then went to the Children's Friends Musical Foundation (Fundação Musical dos Amigos das Crianças). This was when I must have been 11 years old. I had always loved music and thought that it was too late to start learning. But fortunately that was not so and I went to a school. I kind of had the idea that I wanted to learn the harp. I didn't have the idea at all of learning the violin, but that was where they put me and later, thank God - because after less than a year I was already playing in the children's orchestra -, this was also a decisive experience. The fact of performing a concert in public with other kids, after just one year of playing violin, was a pleasure. I had a sensation of importance, of doing something so important and so stimulating that it was in fact the touchstone for me wanting to be a musician.
It was almost at the same time that I began to learn music in the Foundation and also to compose. There was a Music Reading teacher in the school - my teacher Deodata Henriques -, who, right from the start, said that I had perfect pitch. She therefore became very close to me, and used to tell me that I when I got home I should write melodies, to write whatever, so the next day she could use them for dictation in class. In fact it was her who encouraged me to begin composing. Later I began to write pieces, played by the others. We therefore got a quartet or a quintet together and played what I had written on the previous days and this was even before I had learned anything about composition. So everything I was doing was hyper-intuitive. Then, the orchestra teacher - Leonardo de Barros, agreed for one of my pieces to be performed by the orchestra. He himself suggested that we should do a concert and that was what we did. By chance it is a piece which I still like today, it is funny, something very tonal – G minor – very sad, it has a hint of Sibelius, that we played in the Gulbenkian and which Joly went to as a critic for the Diário de Notícias. He then did a write-up in the Diário de Notícias saying that it was a worthy work, but which denoted the conservative education I was being given. And the funny part was that I had learned absolutely no composition whatsoever. I didn't even know theoretically what was a perfect chord. And therefore everything I did was absolutely intuitive. But it was at that time that I began to have private classes with him. It was Leonardo who spoke with him, and he accepted me as a private student. Later, from then on, from 1981 to 1985, I had private classes with him.
Meanwhile, in 1986, I went to France to study with a grant. But in terms of composition, the two decisive people were first Joly - as it was Joly who helped to organise me, helping me to understand what it was to really begin to compose given that everything I was doing was intuitive. So he gave me an extremely traditional grounding, beginning with counterpoint – which was something that in terms of the teaching of Composition was not done here –, then Harmony and later giving all the disciplines of traditional education, resulting in me writing somewhat cautiously. When I was in my intuitive stage I was a little looser than I turned out after that. After those years with Joly, I wrote my first pieces – Prelúdio, which was played by an orchestra. It was in 1982, I was 16 when I wrote Prelúdio para Orquestra, which had its debut by the National Portuguese Radio (RDP) Orchestra. Then I wrote a piece for Grand Orchestra, which had its debut by the S. Carlos Orchestra in 1983, but I was going in leaps and bounds as, for example, while Prelúdio was an extremely tonal work, Três Momentos was already touching on the dodecaphonic.
I remember there was one class with Joly where he had asked me to do an exercise with 9th, 11th and 13th chords, and I did it, and when he began to analyse the exercise after a bit he stopped and said: “You know, now we have to think: you have to go and see Jorge Peixinho”. I liked Peixinho a lot, but I told Joly “Oh Maestro, I sincerely want to learn with you, it's really you I want to learn with.” But after that, what happened was that I went to France to study with Jacques Charpentier and he opened up my horizons immensely. Right in the first classes with him, simply by analysing all the music I had taken with me, he made me understand that everything I was writing was extremely harmonic and thought extremely vertically, therefore on a harmonic basis. He told me that perhaps it was something that was really a part of me and that this would therefore always be the case, but that we needed to extend this with other things. And most of all, to explore music in all its parameters which, for me, was a revelation. From then on, I began to find a much more individual language, rhythmically and timbrically richer, exploring all the parameters at the same time.
In terms of books, those which influenced me most, as a composer, were firstly Fundaments of Musical Composition by Schoenberg - which opened up a world for me where I had never imagined that things could be constructed with that degree of coherence from the most elementary particle to the construction of an entire work. In fact, Schoenberg explained this like no one else and this was an eye-opener for me. The second was The Classical Style by Charles Rosen, which was also a “revelation” for me, when I understood that all of those marvellous works that I adored, were saying such concrete things with A plus B, and constructing in such an amazing way that they could be de-constructed note by note and bar by bar. And to top it all was a book which I read last year in the summer - just before starting to write Rainha Louca -, The Language of Music by Deryck Cooke. Within quite conservative aesthetics, (basically limiting music just to the tonal system and not going beyond this), within the tonal system he finds meanings which I had always understood intuitively but which are analysed here in a systematic, exhaustive way… each sequence of chords… why is it that the subdominant gives us the sensation of rest? All the expressive meanings associable with music are there, broken down into a fantastically explained system. This confirmed everything I felt intuitively and which I now apply, not within the tonal system, but resuming some points of reference. For example, one of them which is very important for me, is the relative pitch of notes... The plane – I don't mean exactly the tonal plane as it is not a tonal work in the traditional sense – tonal, which are the pivot notes throughout each act and each scene, are fundamental for stating the expressive content exactly. As I have perfect pitch, I associate, for example, an F sharp and a C natural - something amazing which should be explored. I think that one of the things that was very much lost in the 20th century, and that I am most sorry about losing is exactly this “colour” concerning each tonality. That weight and expressive capacity there used to be in tonality was very much lost, this chromatic capacity of music which you get when it completely changes area, to be in one tonality and then move to another. It is an effect of variety which I think is fundamental in music. For me, these pivot notes have to be there, these moments where we go from one point of influence to another in order to give a sensation of modulation.
I mean, it does not fit into the traditional categories of modulation in the sense of dominants – tonics, it obviously doesn't fit. But there is another system which I still wouldn't be able to theorise in the same way as Esteván does in relation to Bartok. Only later when I read the book on Bartok's language, and I understood how that - a system so amazingly well brought together that I had never seen it done - had a tremendous effect on me without me even knowing. For example, one of the works which influenced me the most in my adolescence was Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, and then, one or two years ago, I discovered to what point it is constructed within a coherent system and that it can be deconstructed into A plus B. Bartok's axis system is a fascinating system, which I had never understood in theory and which I now see that I, intuitively, already used to use a lot. I relate very much with the axis system.
One of the things that I always have in mind is to always keep certain notes. There is a certain area which I am not using and which is to be used to full effect immediately following. For me, what drives me away from contemporary music the most is the idea of grey, it is the idea of an indistinct magma where you cannot vary, where you can't have the effect of modulation. I think that the effect of modulation is one of the most fascinating effects in western music and is one of the reasons why you can go so far. Modulation, which is a concept which purely and simply did not exist in the Middle Ages, allows you to approach whole areas and change between atmospheres. It is also the feeling of perspective, it is a bit like perspective in painting, don't you think? And I think that has been lost…
The contemporary composers which had the most effect on me, which attracted me the most, were Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Xenakis to a degree, but I confess that I later got fed up of him… but these were the ones that I felt moulded music in a more physical way and closer to our intuitive way of feeling… The music I am attracted to is music which has to have a certain “balance”. I have to feel it minimally with my body. Not to feel a pulsing is something which leaves me without any points of reference. In terms of rhythm, it is the equivalent of total abstractionism, something I do not relate to. I need concrete things to be presented. I need ideas, I need motifs which stick in your memory. When I hear a work I want to be able to retain those basic ideas to later understand what is going to happen to them. This is what fascinates me in music. This is why I adore the classic style so much. For me, Haydn has been one of the most marvellous immersions in my life. It is a privilege to be able to do these programs on Antena 2, where, every two weeks, I have a new symphony by Haydn to analyse and which have been a discovery… When I get to the end of the symphonies it is going to be awful because it is an abundant world and it is amazing how you can construct an entire universe within a scheme which can be considered so rigid and at the same time is so free that it allows infinite, millions of combinations. But for me, what fascinates me in this music is to be able to understand that it tells a story… and when a theme appears, and then another theme. You know exactly what is happening to the themes. It is like in films. I cannot stand films where there is no storyline. I think it is meaningless… There has to be a story in the film. The essence of a film is to be a story well told, and in music it is the same. Music should always have a well told story. This is what I look for in music – in music which I like to listen to and in the music I make - to tell a story.
I think it conditions it immensely. There were many pieces with which, before playing in an orchestra, I was fascinated, and for which after playing them I lost an enormous part of this fascination. For example, those which had a great impression on me for having been such a disappointment were Ligeti's micropolyphony works. Atmospheres, when played in the orchestra… we see that it is completely abominable to play, because the music is totally unconnected from the concrete reality of the instrumentalist. Here we are playing the role of machines and the vocation of the instrumentalist is precisely to have nothing to do with the machine. What I am striving to do is to create music which can be played and which has something idiomatic, which allows people to express themselves beyond the score. Above all to be idiomatic, to be a technique of the instruments, as the new techniques which appear throughout the 20th century can be very fascinating, in which, in certain cases, there are fascinating effects. I have used some, sometimes in a grotesque way, making fun of it somewhat…- what I call the folklore of the avant guard. There are fascinating effects, but one mustn't confuse things. They are not, nor will they be the essence of each instrument. This is not what instruments were made for and this is not what they do best. This is a condiment, it is something amusing which can be used on certain full justified occasions, it can be used, but for the players it is extremely frustrating. This type of effects is like those flutes which have to be like this for three minutes until you can make those four notes at the same time. I don't have the patience for that, I think it is a waste of time. There are fantastic computers for that. This is the area in which electronic and electro-acoustic music allow you to do things that instrument themselves, only in a very tiring, very tiresome manner… I couldn't live my life with that, I'd die of boredom. I find it a torment. And that is why I must make extremely idiomatic music, conceived for each instrument. And then there's something else, which is that theatrical element, I think that each instrument has a personality. One of the reasons I like the fiddle so much is because it is an instrument with lots of personality. It is unmistakable amongst the strings. In fact, each of the instruments in the string family has a very pronounced personality, but the fiddle embodies a personality with which I identify a lot. It is the one that stands out from the others, and which has its own little world and which is a blend of the comic and tragic and which at the same time is a loner, but with a certain good nature, with a certain charm. It is an instrument that fascinates me, an instrument with lots of personality.
It is curious that it was as from the time that I wrote the Concerto for Fiddle and Orchestra, which I played solo, that I had to pluck up heart and show whether I could play or not. I just couldn't stand there and pretend I was an instrumentalist, you “either play or you can't”. This forced me to move up a level in technical terms and, from then on, I started to want to also do recitals which I now do regularly. Every year I do some three or four recitals with piano. As I also found a fantastic companion - Bruno Belthoise - and now, systematically, I am running through the repertoire of the viola. Only now, so it's something that came along late. I didn't know most of the repertoire of the viola. It's not very well known and is not as small as is generally believed. There are many fantastic pieces which no one plays.
I usually compose outside of Lisbon, generally on my grandmother's estate where there is no piano. And for me that's great. Because the piano is extremely limiting. In fact, I am now playing around with an opera scene which has been the most difficult thing to squeeze out. After being on my grandmother's estate where I wrote four minutes of music, where I just had to sit down and write, now I had to sweat it out as I just had the piano and therefore wanted to try everything and this is something that restricts me. With things just in my head, I can imagine everything much more freely. It was something that Charpentier taught me. “I never compose at the piano” is what he used to tell me. And this very much changed the way I compose. All of my musical education with Joly was at the piano, always composing at the piano, and, considering above all that I am not a pianist - I am not very good at piano -, my lack of development does not give me sufficient freedom. So I would be even more limited due to this. The fiddle is ideal for this, as it lets you play those sounds, allows you to see the right effect of the chords and to then create the sound within my head. It is as if the instrument gives me the master strokes but which then leave me free within my head to create independent lines and more complex textures. The piano itself does not make me feel so loose, it makes me feel more restricted.
For me, the most difficult part in a work is always finding that initial point, that beginning. It has to be the first notes, the beginning – which is so important. If I don't identify with it with my body and soul… I spent years working on that first phrase of the opera. Where the queen is alone in front of the fireplace and she says: “If I were free, I wouldn't be here”. And I just couldn't find the music for that. Until last summer, one day I just sat down… and boom… and there it was. And that first phrase of the queen is the touchstone for the whole work. The whole opera arises from that. The organisation of all the rest comes from this beginning.
By chance here I don't start with the beginning as there will also be an overture, but I don't like to have a completely rigid scheme like that where you then try to fit everything in. As you proceed with things, they always turn out a little different from that which you imagined at the outset. For example, one of the things that passed me by in the process is the fact that the opera was betting a lot bigger and bigger, of much vaster proportions than I had thought. What I had thought would be an overture of one minute and a half, or one minute – O Doido e a Morte has an overture of one minute -, here it will need at least five minutes. It will need a real overture, because the first act itself already lasts 25 minutes. Therefore, it has to have a real overture. And the sensation of the relative size of the sections, and above all of the contrast which is necessary… What bothers me most is the idea of music without contrasts. I think that, in fact, the essence of music is in its contrast, grabbing the attention of whoever is listening. And therefore, it is very important to have a notion of size, accompanying the evolution of the work, in order to have a sense of psychological evolution. For me, this psychological path is the key to being “a pain” or being very interesting for the listener.
I write music that I like. The music which gives me the most pleasure… This is the essence of it all. Now obviously I think that it is healthy for a person to also think if the work will say something to someone. I think that writing music just for ourselves would be something extremely onanist and stupid. We also need to have music which contributes towards society and which can bring something to people, tell them something. It is therefore a mixture of both these things. If I don't like it, no one will like it. On the other hand, if I write some music to which I really don't relate, simply so people can later say well, this then is the death of the artist, I think that this is the “end of the game”.
My first phase was one of writing extremely tonal things, but a totally intuitive tonal, with parallel fifths, and with all the traditional defects. Then I discovered that I was freer than I thought, as I was doing these things without thinking. And so this was the first stage, it's like the stage before learning to read and write, isn't it? That first intuitive and primordial stage. Then it was that more sensible stage with Joly, with those first Poems for Soprano and Piano - the first thing that Joly asked to me to do really as work. And the Prelude for Strings, which was a sonata form for string orchestra, then the Três Momentos para Orquestra and Concerto para Metais, which was the last work I wrote, in 1985, before going to Nice to study with Charpentier.
I was concerned with finding a way of arranging a system equivalent to the tonal system, something which could also be a system. And so I arranged a system which was all based on fourths and fifths, then with the necessary alternatives to the fourths and fifths to create tension, but which was a whole table based on fourths and fifths. But then Charpentier opened my eyes and made me understand to what point I was stupidly limiting myself. Then, there was a series of apprentice works with Charpentier, which went in other directions. One work which was very important for me, which was one of those discoveries, a Columbus' egg where I became fascinated with myself, it was a Quartet for percussion which I wrote, in which I invented a kind of a canon. It was a canon, where you didn't understand that it was a canon, where the various voices appeared somewhat like “ant music”. Charpentier looked at it, got very excited and said that it seemed like “ant music”. It was as if each line was growing like an organism and the others were imitating it at a very small distance, making it seem like a body that is still and which begins to move until there are millions of bodies moving at the same time. And I understood how I could rhythmically, without that thing of thinking about chords and in the vertical dimension, be able to free myself and do something much looser. For me, it was very important as an experience. Then Turbilhão were works in which I was trying to explore, to find a language. This stage which was the Turbilhão, based on a poem by Mário de Sá-Carneiro, for bass and string quartet; a concerto for woodwind which is Os Nossos Dias, where I applied precisely this “ant music” and was inspired by a poem by Alexandre O’Neill, then, still in the Nice stage, the third year was with the Flute Concerto. The Flute Concerto was where I put all of these things into practice at the same time. And then, after that, I took this trend to perhaps its limit. Where I went furthest was with Evoluções na Paisagem, a work which even won a prize here, in that Nova Filarmonia fidelity contest. Where it goes further than ever before is in the total multiplication of the voices in the orchestra, and at that time I still knew practically nothing about Ligeti, and which I discovered a posteriori. It's funny how he had seen this 20 years before and I was doing something which after all was something comparable. But this work is an extreme of this conception in terms of textures. Very much based on textures, on colours, on timbres, on blocks of sounds. Then the turning point was in 1990 with Antagonia, with a piece for solo violoncello. Suddenly going from an orchestra to a single instrument…I had to start from scratch.
I did three or four works for solo instrument, which at the time they were composed changed the course of what I was doing. It's funny, Antagonia happened in 1990 and then, all the works I wrote from then on followed on from Antagonia, culminating in O Doido e a Morte. O Doido e a Morte is the condensation of all those years, but where I tried to create music much more centred on each line, I sought to give meaning to each line, rather than a multiplicity of lines which you cannot distinguish very well. Antagonia was also going into the depths of my being, as in a kind of existential crisis when I came back from Nice. It was when the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra had its debut here at the Gulbenkian and then there was a criticism which said that it was a worthy piece of work but which displayed a surprising academism in such a young composer. And that was a blow for me. I felt that was an insult right to my core. I think that when I wrote Concerto for Flute, in 1988, in Portuguese terms I was almost revolutionary, as there was no one, the only one of a new generation, who wasn't doing music completely aimed at the atonal vanguard. So Concerto for Flute resumed ties with certain impressionist aspects, certain Neo-classic aspects, but in a personal way, my own. Even today I identify Concerto for Flute as something completely mine. And I think it is the antithesis of academism, sincerely. And the idea of writing a piece in three movements, in the classic structure, an Allegro, an Adagio and then a Presto to finish, all of that was done on purpose - ultimately to use traditional mechanisms in a way which went against an academism which I felt was rife.
Then there came Evoluções da Paisagem – this is a piece with which I no longer relate. I think that within that direction, probably, for those who appreciate the more abstract and more atonal side, it is the most interesting work I have done. And it is quite a complex work in orchestral terms, with things, with effects, which I find interesting, original. It has a multiplicity of lines and textures which is in fact interesting. I am now amazed at how I did that. There are certain pages of Evoluções da Paisagem which are a sea of notes, like an enormous page with millions of what look like organisms leaping around there, it looks like a hive of microbes, something amazing, but with which I no longer relate at all. Nowadays I wouldn't be able to do anything like it.
It was with Antagonia that I began this journey towards a new and more tonal language, a language more convincingly supported on pivot notes and on tonal centres. I no longer wanted to call them tonal centres because what I think we have to find is the equivalent for the tonal system, which is in fact completely worn out. But there are equivalents, basic things in the tonal system which we have to find. And this is what I try to do, and this is where pivot notes and poles of attraction are very important. It began with Antagonia, then there was Langará for clarinet, The Panic Flirt, first for flute. These are pieces which forced me to get to know the instruments better. I was very addicted to the world of strings. All of my education was in the world of string instruments and I only awoke to the issue of other timbres much later on. I remember when I went to Nice, and still didn't know timbres very well. I could never tell the difference between a trumpet and a trombone. There were certain things I still wasn't aware of. My area was completely strings, the world of the string quartet, the string quintet, of concertos. For many years I played in the orchestra of the Foundation, so that was what I lived, that was what meant most to me. To later start to discover the instruments, this was fascinating for me. And these works for solo instrument, in fact, were therefore a fantastic opening up to each of these instruments. I think the flute and the clarinet influenced the type of language a lot. Then it was in O Doido e a Morte, that I brought all of this together. And it is an opera which has a lot to do with the clarinet, it's curious that the opening theme of Langará is exactly the background theme of O Doido e a Morte, it is exactly the same tune. And there are five notes tá-rá-rá-rá-rá, and from these five notes I construct a whole opera. This is the type of mechanism that fascinates me. To take something very small, discover its essence, transform it and make it grow, turn it into something a little different, and then after that, something else a bit more different, to be able to construct a cosmos from this primordial seed. This has everything to do with what I understand as interesting music, with substance. There is nothing that turns me off more than the idea of music which functions simply as add-ons, like unconnected parts. I detest post-modernism, I think it is the vomit of a completely decadent period, incapable of creating new music. The idea of taking bits from here and there, sticking them together and making a work, for me, is something repugnant. I detest Andy Warhol, and I think pop-art is something deplorable. I think it is the art of a totally impotent period. After centuries of civilisation where people did extraordinary things, for that then to be considered the thing which is most representative of a certain period is proof of a perfectly nuclear void. It was as if there had been a massacre and we had been reduced to nothing and on the other hand it is like the idea of a supermarket of styles, which is something that appals me. I think that in any work there can be citations – and I like to use citations, my opera A Rainha Louca is full of citations – but all of this was introduced organically, it cannot be simply by the citation. The organic coherence, it can all be analysed, - that it gives so much to people who understand nothing about music, that they understand, even without knowing how it is that they understand, to follow the thread of the story. To allow these and to also allow the “nit-pickers”, those who take the score and deconstruct it and who see all the bits and bobs, and who manage to make a very detailed analysis. I think that the A Rainha Louca, just like O Doido e a Morte – O Doido e a Morte is probably more complex in contrapuntal terms, with greater independence of voices, but the Rainha is much more elaborate -, this is me now. O Doido e a Morte is me ten years ago. Now I am a different person.
After O Doido e a Morte was a frankly difficult period, because it was as if I had used up all my resources. I suddenly felt as if I was in a void, what do I do now? Mainly because O Doido e a Morte had such an impact, it was something that got such fantastic reactions and fantastic criticism. It was the turning point in my career. Practically no one knew me and then after O Doido e a Morte I became known. So it was really a landmark work for me. After this I really began to have one of those blocks typical of those who don't want to disappoint. When those expectations had already been created I became totally blocked without knowing what to do so as not to let down those expectations that had been created. And by chance, it was an error to want to do another opera straight away. It was like hedging all my bets. I found the libretto of the A Rainha Louca and I became fascinated. After 1995, 1996, from then on, I was giving everything I had in that direction without realising that first I had to find paths for my language, in order to then be able to adapt them. Exactly as it had happened before. If I had began by doing an opera when I went to study with Charpentier, it would have obviously turned out rubbish, because first I had to find my own language. And it was after maturing this language that I applied everything in this opera. And with the A Rainha Louca exactly the same thing happened. A number of years went by… perhaps the least productive years I ever had. It was in 1997, with Bamboleio, initially a piece for harpsichord and marimba, commissioned by the Gulbenkian - which I later transformed into a piece for piano, this being the version I prefer, as it is one of those rare pieces that I composed on the piano, conceived really for piano - where I think I found something for a new personal path. It was another turning point, which later turned into the Three Variations – a piece for the Gulbenkian orchestra. Then I did some pieces for a capella choir – a commission from the S. Carlos – where the fact of writing for choir was also very important for me as it obliged me to have a much more harmonic conception of music. With a choir you really cannot be thinking about it absolutely switched off. It cannot be a piece of music so based on semitones and things which are too indistinct, too chromatic. The choir needs that clarity of fourths, fifths and thirds. Those nicely euphonic intervals and which make a choir multiply itself and create harmonics. I think that in good writing for choir, for me, the things which work have to always be very linear intervals, very clear. This is what propagates the harmonics in the voices and which therefore works so well in writing for choir. These pieces which I wrote for choir were also good for finding a way, as well as finding music from other times. The first are Cansonâncias, which are pieces based on poems based on phonetic repetitions. I began with the poem by D. Dinis which goes: “The beauty arose, the dawn broke, and she goes to wash shirts in the river, she goes to wash them at dawn”. So, the first piece is almost an organum, it is almost something Medieval, therefore all the writing are in parallel fourths and fifths, although in a rhythm of mine which is quite fluid, quite variable. Then the second, going from the Middle Ages to decadence, with a poem by Eugénio de Castro – which is an incredible poem, comic.
“Na messe, que enlourece, estremece a quermesse…/ O Sol, o celestial girassol, esmorece…” and it's all like that: "esmorece, estremece…" and for this I therefore did a decadent waltz tempo with oscillations of perfect fifths at a distance of an augmented fourth, with a certain languid decadence. And then the last, which is based on a poem by Fernando Pessoa - the poem I like the most by Fernando Pessoa - which is “Em horas inda louras, lindas/Clorindas e Belindas, brandas/Brincam no tempo das berlindas/As vindas vendo das varandas”. Where the music is all very playful, dotted with fun… in the typical discontinuity of modernism. These are three pieces in each of which I tried to stylistically conjure up the feeling of the poetry's period and this was important to later find the right atmosphere for the A Rainha Louca, as I knew exactly what it was I wanted to do, I just had not yet found the vehicle. And it is this idea of an imaginary 18th century. The music has to do with the 18th century, but just that it could have been written today.
The Rainha is getting a little out of proportion but I think that even so, it will end up by being possible. I think that the Rainha only with Doido, already makes a spectacle and I want to have the debut of the Rainha before D. Sebastião - D. Sebastião is the last one. This trilogy was conceived precisely in the reverse order. I began in the 20th century with O Doido e a Morte, then in the 18th century with A Rainha Louca and then the 16th century with D. Sebastião. Finally, the order will have to be, almost certainly, precisely the opposite, because Rainha is taking on much vaster proportions and O Doido e a Morte is much smaller, it is an opera with a much more chamber orchestra environment. Rainha will almost have a full orchestra, so we will do O Doido e a Morte as a prelude and A Rainha Louca as the main dish.
One thing which is fundamental for me, and I hope to never make this mistake again, is to not go along with scenographical options and staging with which I do not relate. I want to have something decisive to say as to exactly what will be done, because I adore the theatre. I have always gone to the theatre, since I was a child, and I am extremely connected to the world of the producer's work, to the world of the theatre. If there is something that shocks me it is to what degree it departs from the score, staging opera independently of the score and, above all, of the very text itself. I think that when an opera is good and the librettos are good, the didascalics, everything is written exactly as it should be, it is precious and should be followed metronomically, you have to do exactly what is there when they are good. Of course some things have to be altered, there are piles of impossible librettos in the 19th century, which have to be got around and do something completely different, but when the librettos are good… For example, Pucinni's operas are paradigmatic. The music he wrote only makes sense with those scenic indications exactly as he wrote them. Either we get some very well thought-out equivalents, but it will be difficult to find something psychologically and almost cinematographically as appropriate for the music that he wrote, it is almost impossible to find the perfect equivalent, so one thing I do make a point of, as Miguel Rovisco's text is masterly in this sense, is to follow exactly what is there. Miguel Rovisco's didascalics are fascinating. He designed the setting and now I am transposing it into music. Then one needs to follow exactly what the dramatist did, and what I did and then, simply, convert it onto the stage. Nowadays it has extrapolated in a way that producers are frustrated creators. They are people who want with all their might to show their creativity and their personality, to do something different, without realising that they are contradicting the works themselves. It is absurd… there is a such an absurd discrepancy: we are increasingly disciplined in musical terms, in terms of exactly using period instruments, to follow the indications to do more the “Urtext” and more exactly, more than you can imagine. And then, in terms of the text, it is total and absolute irreverence. A dramatist chose a period and it has to be necessarily in another period that has nothing to do with it? We are in the 18th century and we have to see horrendous things with slogans on the stage? This was very interesting and very important as a trend and of course it brought a breath of fresh air to the world of opera which was somewhat like a wax museum, but now I've grown sick of it. I mean, I still go to the opera, there is little opera to go to, but even in international terms the average for stage scenarios that we see is off the mark, according to my tastes, it is off the mark because it is not theatrical and, above all, it is not musical. It doesn't even follow the text, and for me following the text is fundamental, if the text is good.
There will almost certainly be some in A Rainha Louca, because there are various moments which are totally hallucinating, and which would be impossible to put on without seeming ridiculous. For example, there is a small detail I can tell you about – and this is one of the most poetic touches of the text, which is marvellous – which is the queen, in her head, her life's great work, the thing she loved the most was the Estrela Basilica and this is something historic – in fact, the whole of Miguel Rovisco's text is extremely historic. The queen’s character is fascinating, our Queen Maria 1st has been so denigrated, she has been denigrated for two hundred years, and when you go and see what is really known of her letters and of what she was like as a person, she was a marvellous person, she was a person of poetry, with a sensitivity for the arts and poetry, she simply was not born to be queen, she didn't want to be queen. Then she was very religious and was totally tortured and devastated by the Churches persecutions, led by the Marquis of Pombal, and they tried to convince her with all their might that her father was burning in hell. This was an idea she just couldn't tolerate and so was completely plagued and crushed by her confessors. This was her great tragedy. She then had other tragedies like the fact that her first born son, who was a perfect prince, marvellous - described by Beckford in his book as an extraordinary young man - died of smallpox. They were already experimenting the vaccine at the time but the priests did not authorise for it to be tried on him, as they thought it was going against the divine will. And so he died, and this was another major blow. Another factor which made her go mad was the French Revolution and the fact that Marie Antoinette was guillotined. You can imagine what it would be like today, for a fragile, sensitive queen, very closed within her world, to know that the queen of France, the dauphine of France, had been guillotined. This was the last straw. I think this was, for sure, the moment that she went definitively mad.
This oneiric side is because she speaks of the Estrela Basilica, in that room, where there are no windows and she wanted to have a thousand windows which all looked onto Estrela Basilica. And then, another episode, another very poetic moment, is when she tells of the experiment with the air balloon, which was an experiment that was performed in Portugal, very a la par, at the same time as it was elsewhere in the world. Very shortly afterwards it was done here, with an air balloon, which rose over Ajuda Palace, and she had the idea, which she told to no one, of putting a monkey inside the balloon who she, secretly, called Estrela. Then, while the people were all looking up at the balloon going up with the monkey, she contained herself and shouted within, a truly revolutionary shout, - as the whole topic of the revolution is very present in her discussions with her lady in waiting -, this truly revolutionary shout which was “Fly away Estrela, fly far away from this misery, to a better world, far from the dogs and waste of this country”. Then at the end of the piece, there is a clash with her confessor and when she faces up to him we realise that her son died because of the confessor. What caused her death was the whole of that terrible tourniquet that the Church wrapped around her. After confronting her confessor, she remains alone on stage, and she hears something shaking to one side, where there is a kind of forest, with lots of flowers and plants which almost form a forest in the corner, and asks: “Is anyone there? Is it you?”. And then Estrela the monkey appears to take her away. And she exits led off by the monkey and that is the end of the opera. This kind of thing is impossible to put into practice. I remember that in the National Theatre they put this on with a child playing role of the monkey. It was grotesque. It is absolutely unthinkable to use a real monkey, so this is the type of sequence that has to be done with video projections which have to conjure up these surreal moments. I am a little allergic to multimedia, I think it is a bit of a theatrical idiosyncrasy of the times, it is a whirlpool which will pass, but when it is used with care, for things which only multimedia and video can do then it can really create the effect you want, in that case, well why not use it?
The question of “verticality” in O Doido e a Morte and in A Rainha Louca
Perhaps O Doido e a Morte, the opera, is the farthest I reached with this. It is an opera in which I did not compose at all on the piano, I composed directly for the instruments, and where I took my idea of the total independence of the voices to the limit. It is therefore very contrapuntal in the sense that each instrument is an actor with his or her line, and so they are not there playing chords. Each one has its personality and an independent voice. I always associate a personality with each instrument and each line. And here I very much connect music with the theatre. This is why the opera for me is something very inborn, where I find exactly what I want to do because it is where we have the two worlds that I most adore. If I hadn't got into music, I would have certainly gone for the theatre, because it was also my greatest passion. And so what this theatricality brought was this freedom, multiplication. What fascinates me about opera, in relation to the theatre, is to be able to put several people singing at the same time, which is something you cannot do in the theatre. And do this also in instrumental terms. I wrote O Doido e a Morte, however, ten years ago, and after this I have a work which I had planned eight years ago which is A Rainha Louca. I was going to make a second edition of O Doido e a Morte but it wasn't this that I wanted to do. Mainly because I already knew the libretto I wanted to use which is a play by Miguel Rovisco which fascinated me ever since the first time I saw it, about Queen Maria 1st, the “mad queen”. I wanted to find the right music for that, which was a kind of imaginary 18th century. An 18th century which didn't exist, but which could have existed. Not in the sense of a pastiche, not at all, but very different from O Doido e a Morte, much more harmonic music, but which maintains the same independence of voices except in a more harmonic sense. Only after eight years of planning this opera did I find the music. It was last year that I began and now I am at cruising speed, I am reaching the middle of the opera and already it is a very different path than the other one.
What I feel intuitively since I first began to learn music is that music, of all the arts, is the one that most directly expresses millions of things. They may not be concrete things, but they are things which, associated to concrete things, can exponentiate their expressive potential. And this is what I find fantastic. To be able to take a text – it is not the text which gives meaning to the music, but it is as if it were illuminated. For me, the music is born from the text, the text is something which gives me ideas automatically. I think this text by Rovisco was created to be put to music and only in the words of the text, finding the right music which I think expresses exactly what the text wants to say. And this is where both worlds meet
I should say that I really like opera. What I try to do is opera music which exists as music, which even if you don't know anything of what they are saying, only as autonomous works, as independent pieces, that it would already be interesting. I think I have already managed that in the duet. I think that even if someone doesn't understand a word of what is going on, it is musically coherent, it makes sense and is varied and can therefore be listened to. I think therefore that what determines the perpetuity of any opera is the music above all else. There are lots of fantastic works with bad librettos. But the music in itself has to be sufficiently interesting. Obviously then, the perfect conjugation between the music and the text is wonderful. But in relation to musical theatre, what I am lacking is, when you put a text to music, to be able to find a sufficiently interesting vocal line to compensate, to justify, the fact that they are not talking but singing. The thing that I dislike most in operas from all periods are “recitativos”. I find the “recitativo” to be a terrible compromise. There are certainly some interesting “recitativos”, but these are rare. The “recitativo” in itself is a compromise, neither one thing or another. It is neither really music, nor truly theatre, it is just a half-way house. A kind of theatrical Morse code. I think that the essence of opera, of true opera, is to find music which will make the text sound as if it has to be sung and not spoken. Because if it is to be spoken then it is better to have an excellent actor or actress speaking.
In relation to Portuguese music, the fact of my being so interested, is something which began immediately when I began to learn music. It was something for which I have always had a natural attraction. It was at the same time as Portugalsom's records appeared. My mother worked in the Ministry of Culture – and still works there – and so she had all these records at home. It was here that I started to adore the music of Luís de Freitas Branco, long before I knew Nuno Barreiros who was his student. I already had an enormous adoration for Freitas Branco, for Bomtempo, their music was something I knew and listened to as much as Mozart and Beethoven. I listened to them so much, and they were part – and are part – of me. I identify with this music one hundred per cent. For example, one thing which had a big impression on me was when I heard Serrana, by Alfredo Keil, an opera I saw just two years ago in the S. Carlos. I heard a recording on the radio, one of those nameless recording from the sixties, awful - I mean very valuable artistically but very badly recorded - the oboe was impossible and the orchestra was very poor… but when I heard Serrana for the first time, and I understood “What, but we have a work like this!?” Sung in Portuguese with a fantastic text, so theatrical, so Portuguese, so unmistakably Portuguese, so musical, so interesting and so exciting. Serrana sent me crazy, it was just something…
Then, ever since I was very young I began to analyse works. I still remember that I was studying in Nice, right in the first year, and Carlos Achman from the radio, asked me if I would like to write texts on Portuguese music for his program. Every time I took a composer and all the works I found and analysed. It is something that I feel is a part of me, because I see my grandparents in all of these composers…
I was already a composer when I found out that I had a great grandfather who was a composer. Obviously I adore my great grandfather, but the person I truly feel… for example Luís de Freitas Branco is my grandfather, completely.
When we see, even in times of deepest crisis that there was a person like that… for example, Bomtempo at the beginning of the 19th century, then it was Vianna da Motta. What Vianna da Motta and Alfredo Keil did is to make us all kneel down, we can never thank those men enough for what they did. The Sinfonia à Pátria, in any normal country, would be a work that everyone knew and which everyone would adore. And it would be played at least once a year. And what we see is that no one gives a fig. No one knows it. There wasn't even a recording of the work for decades. It wasn't edited for decades.
It is an amorphous indifference! It's just crass ignorance and even amongst the experts. Amongst musicologists! And I see that there are certain musicologists with work, with a proven track record, and so on, who know nothing! I was asked the other day if the Madrigais Camonianos were by Vianna da Motta, I mean to say, these things appal me. The level of disinterest is atavistic. Someone else I adore and look on completely as if he were my grandfather is Frederico de Freitas. I love him. The Bailados by Frederico de Freitas is some of the music I most adore since adolescence. For example A Lenda dos Bailarins was one thing I heard in a concert directed by Silva Pereira, in the days when this music was still performed as something normal, and I went crazy with that, completely crazy. No one cares about it. If it weren't the centenary of Frederico de Freitas now, twenty years would have gone by without one work by Frederico de Freitas being played. It is unbelievable.
At the moment we run the risk of the first half of the 20th century being as unknown as was the case with the 19th century. That is the risk we are running at the moment.