Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988)

Joly Braga Santos was born in Lisbon in 1924 and died in this city in 1988, at the peak of his musical creativity. Having studied violin and composition at the National Conservatoire of Lisbon, he became a disciple of Luis de Freitas Branco (1890-1955), the leading Portuguese composer of the preceding generation. After the war, he was able to go abroad, having studied conducting with Hermann Sherchen (Venice, 1948; Lugano, 1958) and Antonino Votto, and composition with Virgilio Mortari (Rome 1957-1961). Although he composed only six symphonies, he was undoubtedly the leading Portuguese symphonist of the 20th century. Apart from an innate sense of orchestration, his musical language is based on a strong musical architecture as well as drama, with long melodic phrases and a natural instinct for structural development. It reaches a perfect 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”.

In his first works, the composer showed a modal tendency motivated by the desire to establish a connection between contemporary music and the golden period of Portuguese music: the Renaissance. We also find a melodic outline of the oldest folk songs of his country. Although he was not particularly interested in the Portuguese folklore, studying and composing at the country home of his mentor, in the rural south of Portugal - the Alentejo - he naturally accepted the influence of the very old local folklore that he considered "of mesmerizing originality and grandeur".

The first four symphonies followed each other quite rapidly (between the age of 22 and 27), were immediately performed by the Portuguese Radio Symphony Orchestra in Lisbon, and met with great success. The conductor and founder of the Portuguese Radio Symphony Orchestra was the great Portuguese maestro Pedro de Freitas Branco, a friend of Maurice Ravel, Manuel de Falla, and former director of the Orchestre Lamoureux. Pedro de Freitas Branco early recognised his brother’s pupil’s talent and launched Joly Braga Santos international career during the fifties, conducting several international premieres of his works around Europe. Other works of this period are the Concerto for Strings, Variations on an Alentejo Theme, and three Symphonic Overtures. Most of the works were recorded, from the seventies onwards, by the Portuguese label Strauss SP, and more recently, by the Naxos / Marco Polo label.

Following closely the works of post-war European composers, his style became, from 1960 onwards, more chromatic. The period of travel and the time he devoted to conducting provided him with what he described as a useful period of rest, decisive for the evolution of his musical style, toward increased chromaticism and less traditional form. To this period belong the works Three Symphonic Sketches, Sinfonietta, the Requiem, his 5th and 6th Symphonies, and Divertimento nº. 2.

Joly Braga Santos also wrote three operas, chamber music for a wide variety of instruments and ensembles, film scores, and several choral works based on poems from the great classical and modern Portuguese and Spanish poets such as Camões, Antero de Quental, Teixeira de Pascoaes, Fernando Pessoa, Garcilaso de la Vega, António Machado and Rosalía de Castro.

Joly Braga Santos lectured composition at the National Conservatoire of Lisbon, were he introduced the chair of Musical Analysis. He was also director of the Oporto Symphony Orchestra and one of the founders of the Portuguese Musical Youth. As music critic and journalist he produced a vast range of work for several Portuguese and foreign newspapers and journals.

Awards The Three Symphonic Sketches (1962) were distinguished by Donemus in 1963, and the 5th Symphony, by the «Tribune Internationale des Compositeurs» (UNESCO) in 1966. In 2004 the recording of the Symphony No. 4 by Naxos/Marco Polo, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland conducted by Álvaro Cassuto received de Cannes Classical Award for the CD Premier category.

ReferencesGroves Dictionary, Who’s Who in Music, Marquis Who’s Who, Dictionnaire de La Musique (Marc Honnegger), The World of Twentieth-Century Music, etc.

Honours In 1977 Joly Braga Santos was distinguished with the Order of Santiago de Espada by President of the Republic of Portugal.


This composer has 66 works on AvA:

Orchestra (32)

Wind Band (3)

Chamber Music (5)

Woodwinds (6)

Brass (4)

Strings (12)

Voice (3)

Choir (3)

Piano (11)