Concert for Violin and Orchestra

Luiz de Freitas Branco (1890 - 1955)

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Concert for Violin and Orchestra


Luís de Freitas Branco (1890-1955) completed his Concerto for violin and orchestra in Buçaco in 1916 at a time of great unrest in the country. It was in 1916 that Portugal entered the First World War and that the government of the Sacred Union was formed. Freitas Branco reached the last page of his work in September when the atmosphere in the capital was particularly agitated. The mutiny of the last day of August had shown how little result the efforts of the democratic and unionist forces in the government to mobilize public opinion in favour of the war were producing. It was the internal state of affairs during the ensuing year and the hunger and growing unrest of thepeople that eventually led to the Sidonist revolt.
Freitas Branco, the son of a “high-up civil servant in the Royal administration” (1), certainly viewed the situation with apprehension. He was 26 years old. It was also in 1916 that he was offered the job of teaching score reading at the National Conservatoire. This was the beginning of a distinguished teaching career which only two years later led to his participation on a committee dedicated to the reform of the Conservatoire, which possibly owes him, as it does Vianna da Motta, the credit for one of the most fruitful didactic transformations in the history.
At the time of his appointment to the Conservatoire, Freitas Branco had already written a large number of works especially when we consider his age. His more important works of this period are probably the Sonata (1907) for violin and piano; Trilogy of Death (1910) for voice and piano; the tone poem, Artificial Paradises (1910); a String Quartet (1911) and another tone poem, Vathek (1913).
As we can see, the two largest works in this list are both tone poems. In fact, Luís de Freitas Branco showed a preference for the tone poem when writing for orchestra between 1910 and 1920 and, in so doing enriched the musical heritage of his country with a new impressionist style inspired by the French (Artificial Paradises) and with techniques in some ways still balder than what Schoenberg´s school had tried until then (as in the third variation of Vathek). Later, as from 1920, Freitas Branco tended farther and farther towards a neoclassicism which lead him away from the tone poem and towards the symphony” (2).
These words of João de Freitas Branco´s(3) are responsible for our always associating Luís de Freitas Branco with impressionism and the tone poem in the 1910`s and with neoclassicism and the symphony in the 1920`s. Quite apart from all the works mentioned above we find still farther proof of this tendency in the Ten Preludes (1918) for piano: Freitas Branco evidenthy feels more at ease in the impressionist of these obviously Debussy-influenced pieces. Nevertheless there is at least one considerable exception to this generalization. If we did not know the date of the composition of the Concerto, an analysis of it would certainly lead us to believe that it belonged to the composer’s second creative period, as it has little in common with the characteristics usually associated with the first period and perfectly exhibits those of the second.
João de Freitas Branco again writes: “influenced by Liszt, Vianna da Motta in his Sinfonia “À Patria” uses thematic material from the first movement in the last. In Luís de Freitas Branco this formal is more systematic and reflects César Franck´s influence, rather than Liszt´s. His symphonies are cyclical; that is, the themes (or parts of them) all have common roots” (4). On the other hand, the composer of this Concerto defended a new diatonicism: the use of diatonic scales (whith a preponderance of whole tones) in which the semitones are arranged differently from those of the major and minor scales or of the church modes. The latter, however, he still regarded as usable in that they had become banal through overuse. And Luís de Freitas Branco´s love of Gregorian Chant certainly played an important part in his brand of modality(5). Modal exploration and cyclical techniques are two of the principal characteristics of the Concerto, in our opinion. But how do we explain this work written eight years before the 1st Symphony (1924)?
We believe that the Concerto´s foreshadowing features at least should be underlined. However, we would shun any thesis that does not keep as close as possible to the musical facts. Indeed, only the unconditional acceptance of a dualism between the impressionist and the neo-classicist can enable us to allow of any significance in the way in which the Concerto foreshadows the Symphonies. But in spite of our limited knowledge of the composer’s output as a whole, we believe that to take such a dualism too literally would fail to take into account certain important aspect of Freitas Branco´s work, quite independently of time factor.
Luís de Freitas Branco, it is true, was affected by many different influences, nevertheless he did find his own personal voice. Here are two works, very different in content but only five years apart, the sombre Temptations of Holy Father Gil and the pure Concerto for violin and orchestra: even the least experienced of listeners with recognize the composer’s fingerprint in both works. Not even the evident debussysm of certain passages of the Temptations or the perhaps more complex web of influences noticeable in the Concerto, which suggest origins in parts of Europe other than those on the Paris-Lisbon axis, can obliterate the similanties.
Another most important aspect of Luís de Freitas Branco´s music, which we consider most relevant in this context and have not yet dealt with sufficiently, is his exploration of modality which as far as we can tell interested him during both impressionist and neoclassic phases. At that time, all composers were escaping from the bounds of tonality and Freitas Branco did so in the direction of modality. Atonality is very rare in his works. Impressionist works like the Temptations are no less concerned with modality than the Violin Concerto.
We know that harmonic considerations alone are not sufficient for an appraisal of a composer’s neoclassicism. It is more usual to consider formal aspects. For example, Vianna da Motta´s thoughts on this subject (1927) are recorded: “After writing chamber music of a particularly French impressionist type, Freitas Branco has in his two recent symphonies turned more towards Beethoven. He follows the tendency of the present generation, away from impressionism and inorganic enervating orientalism towards the more severe western European spirit of Beethoven in order to create organically constructed works with long lines expression, he feels the need to turn back to a Beethoven-like form as a basis while modernizing the means of expression. His symphonies follow a Beethovenian scheme exactly while the themes are interrelated as if by analogy and by contrast”. (6)
Obviously, a formal comparison between the Concerto and the constructivism of the Symphonies cannot be made here. But it would be interesting to know whether it showed us any aspects in the former that foreshadowed the latter; or how the composer manages to reconcile the coexistence of Beethovenian constructivism, Franckian cyclic techniques and modality of the beginning of the century.
The neoclassical nature of the Concerto and the cycle techniques used in it are mentioned in the short notes that João de Freitas Branco devotes to the work (7). From these we also learn that the work was first performed on April 25th 1940, 24 years after it was written (!) in the Trindade Theatre in Lisbon, by the violinist Francisco Benetó and Pedro de Freitas Branco conducting the National Radio Orchestra.
The return to the past which seems to characterize all the “neos” is not a mere repetition of techniques belonging to another historical age. It is, in fact, a conscious appropriation which, apart from necessarily calling for historical scholarship (as in the case of adopting Beethoven-like aspects in the 20th century, for example), is always coloured by an interpretation of the information gleaned through such scholarship – which is an aspect not to be belittled in the face of apparent imitation.
Luís de Freitas Branco´s neoclassicism can in no real way obliterate the works that had previously flowed from his pen. The extent of the stylistic break represented by the Concerto in relation to the impressionism of Artificial Paradises or to the atonality of the famous 3rd variation of Vathek, even if relevant, ought not to blind us to the elements of continuity, however scarce they may be.
Freitas Branco´s precise aesthetic position cannot be understood as resulting from a refuge in the artistic values of the past in a rejection of the innovations of the present. A glance at a few passages in the Concerto which clearly show an intentional quest for harmonic innovation is sufficient to back up this opinion, at least in the harmonic field. Similarly, a look at the overall structure of the work shows that formally it owes no more to the model of the so-called classical concerto than it does to techniques which are much more of the composer´s time as regards systematic development.
Example 1 is taken from the last movement of the Concerto (bars 71-74):

What we want particularly to point out here is not so much the harmonic daring evident in the extract. Similar chord progressions with chromatic movement in one of the harmonic threads (C sharp – C in bars 2-3; B – B flat in bars 4-5) were already perfectly normal even if the melodic-harmonic context was different. Apart form the unusual progression (bars 2-3) from A major 1st inversion to c minor root position, what we especially want to point out is the general feeling of harmonic experiment that the passage generates as a whole. The harmonic texture, however, still adheres to the basic academic model of 4-part harmony so that we really only notice this passage because of its unusual chord progressions.
The next example (1st movement, bar 18-20) reiterates and farther illustrates what we have already said about Luís de Freitas Branco´s neoclassicism:
The oscillation between the chords of E Major and C Major over a pedal E in the Basses, which we see here, would hardly be worth mentioning if the composer did not insist on it for 9 bars in succession. It is this conscious and systematic use which gives a feeling of novelty, which reinforces what we wrote about the use of traditional harmony in neoclassical contexts.
The way in which the melodic context is worked out in this passage (1st violins doubled here and there at the 8eve by the 2nds) is equally relevant as regards the quality of Freitas Branco´s neoclassicism. Reflecting the underlying harmony, we find that the arpeggio of E Major is followed by that of C Major. However, it’s the A sharp at the end of bar 2 and the following C sharp that we feel really show the composer´s skill and technique: the A sharp has the clearly defined function of a false leading-note which resolves on to the B in the next bar, while the tension is increased by the formation of an augmented 6th (C – A sharp). The B, however, is delayed by the appearance of the C sharp and when it is heard it is the 5th of the chord and not the root. It is clear, therefore, that details that pass unperceived in the forest of notes that make up the work can be most important in bilding up an understanding of its principal characteristics.
As far as the use of cyclical techniques in this Concerto is concerned, we know that Freitas Branco´s interest in César Franck´s work goes back to before he was 16, that is before he left the country to study in Paris and Berlin; this influence can already be traced in the 1st Violin Sonata (1906)(8). The technique is farther developed in the Violin Concerto a decade later.
The extent of the adoption of cyclical techniques is such that in his work we can divide all the thematic material into two groups: the themes that are used in all three movements and those that are confined to a single movement.
The theme which is heard at the beginning of the work in the Cellos, Basses and Bassoons is later considerably developed in the second movement by the 1st Violins over flowing figurations in the Harp. We hear it again in the last movement after the soloist’s cadenza.

The next theme is presented by the solo Violin at its first entry. Later it reappears in a transformed version, again in the Violin, at the beginning of the 2nd movement; and yet again just before the cadenza in the 3rd movement. Its outlines are just as modally conceived as those of the 1st theme.
Another theme of the 1st movement is heard again in the Piú lento section of the last movement.
The second group of themes (i.e. those that are used in one movement only) are also based on elements that come from the three movements of the work. Thus it is perfectly possible for them to be in some degree related to themes or motifs of the other movements, even if only from one viewpoint (melodic, harmonic, rhythmic).
From the 1st movement we can extract the following, thematic fragment which functions as an answer to the principal idea of the movement (Ex. 4). The 2nd idea of the last movement (E. 9) is also derived from this fragment.

The calm melodic contours and the repetitive rhythmic structure of the following fragment are only used in the 2nd movement.

There is also in the last movement a thematic figure that acts as a sort of refrain.

Apart from the theme quoted in Ex. 1, if we can call it a theme, there is a second theme in the last movement which we do not find elsewhere in the work, although its similarity with Ex. 6 is evident.

This is the thematic material from which Luís de Freitas Branco builds his Concerto. Much more could be said about the cyclic form of the work than we have done in merely distinguishing those that belong only to one movement and those that pervade the whole work. It is natural that our interest should be drawn more to those that are found throughout the work. A study of the contexts in which each of these reappears would certainly clarify many aspects of the form and meaning of the work. However, the size and purpose of these notes to not allow us to follow this up here.
The robust character of the first theme (Ex. 3) is established from the beginning of the Concerto and immediately spreads to the full orchestra. The final rhythmic figure of what we have considered the 2nd phrase of this theme (Ex. 6) in the Dominant key of E Major, is of particular importance and is much used throughout the first movement.
A change of tempo from the opening Allegro to Andante a piacere introduces the soloist with the theme of Ex. 4. A return to Allegro brings back the initial theme with development in the solo Violin. Over an ostinato in the woodwind, the soloist then prepares a new idea (Ex. 5), gently played in the key of the tonic Major (A Major). The use of double stops in the solo part heralds the long cadenza, written out in full by the composer, in which the soloist has ample opportunity to exhibit his virtuoso technique.
Over flowing triplets in the solo Violin, first the woodwind and later the strings return to Ex. 5: a vigorous crescendo, in which the Basses stick out above the level of the syncopations of the rest of the orchestra, prepares for the recapitulation of the two phrases of the opening theme (Ex. 3 and 6). A brief reference to the theme of Ex. 5 in the cellos is not expanded and the movement ends in an energetic and definitive cadence.
The second movement opens with the soloist playing a somewhat altered version of the theme with which he entered in the 1st movement (Ex. 4) accompanied by the woodwind. The principal idea of this section (Ex. 7) – a gentle melodic line of pent up emotion – is then heard on the solo Violin, passing later to the Oboe while the Violin has an equally emotional countermelody.
The Harp then makes its first entrance in the Concerto (Freitas Branco only uses the harp in the 2nd movement) while the soloist gets involved far-reaching developments of the 1st phrase from the 1st movement (Ex. 3) which is here magically transformed by the atmosphere of intense lyricism let loose in this section. The transformation is such that the less attentive listener would find it hard to recognize the common element which lies at the root of the two versions: the virile determination of the 1st movement version has here given way to intimate confession and serene lyrical outpourings.
The final section is dominated by a return to the initial idea of this movement (Ex. 7); unlike the beginning, however, the theme is heard first in the Oboe and then in the Violin. The countermelody, played earlier by the soloist, is now heard in a less extensive version in the Flute.
The overall form of the 2nd movement is that a traditional ternary form (ABA). Using the musical idea of Ex. 7 which we hear for the first time here (but which is heard again in the final Allegro) as a framework, the composer shows us in the central section the lyrical aspect of Ex. 3 which the character of the first Allegro did not allow him to explore.
The last movement of this Concerto takes up as many pages as the first two together. Here, Freitas Branco uses certain techniques which are to some extent in opposition to the model he has chosen for his neoclassicism. With Beethoven, the first movement of a concerto is the one of greatest weight and moment (the 5th Piano Concerto is an excellent example) Freitas Branco´s decision to give more weight and perhaps a dominating role to the last movement is not arbitrary nor can it be explained simply as a wish to invert the proportions of his model. It is rather the result of the thoroughness with which the composer wants to work out his cyclical form. This last movement is the culmination point into which the material of the first two been integrated. Unlike Beethoven’s 9th Symphony which in the last movement refers to thematic material of the previous movements only to reject it in favour of a new theme, Freitas Branco uses the themes of the 1st and 2nd movements again, integrating them into new atmosphere without in any way rejecting them.
The principal debt that this movement owes to the model of the classical concerto’s last movement is certainly that it retains the Rondo form. The theme partially quoted in Ex. 8 acts as the refrain: It is first in the solo Violin at the beginning of the movement – Allegro (come nel primo movimento) – after 4 introductory bars of crescendo over a bare 5th which, in spite of all, cannot help but reminds us of the opening of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
The soloist presents the theme with straightforward energy over vigorous chords in the orchestra which, as is usual, repeats the theme immediately afterwards. The tutti ends in a unison which paves the way for the thematic fragment quoted in Ex. 1, first heard on the strings and repeated on the woodwinds. The Violin then introduces the 2nd idea of the movement (Ex. 9). This passes to the Basses and over it the soloist reminds us of the opening of the refrain. A jovial march-like passage follows which, as it leads back to the unison fragment mentioned above, reveals a latent drama. Ex. 1 in the woodwinds sets a calmer tone for the reappearance, in the solo Violin, of one of the themes of the 1st movement (Ex. 5).
A short passage with the indication Tempo primo leads back to the refrain, in the woodwinds, then the soloist and finally the whole orchestra. The 2nd idea is also repeated by the soloist, this time a 4th lower. Several martial suggestions reappear only to give way to a more rhapsodic theme associated with the Andante a piacere in the previous movements. This leads to the cadenza where the soloist has ample opportunities to prove his virtuosity again, after which we hear the 1st phrase of the principal theme of the 1st movement (Ex. 3) at its last appearance and therefore in its original form.
The end of the work is now foreseeable. The connection between the 2nd idea of this final passage and the phrase of Ex. 6 is then clarified since the former occupies exactly the position that the latter had in the 1st movement. However, the substitution alone would not of itself prove the connection if the outlines of the themes were not in themselves conclusive. The refrain returns for the last time, now in its original key of A Major, before the indication Piú mosso brings the Concerto to a close.



There were 2 recent performances of this work:

Orquestra Clássica da Madeira, directed by Cesário Costa
15-07-2017 · 18:00 | Teatro Municipal Baltazar Dias More information
Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música, directed by Eliahu Inbal
30-10-2015 · 21:00 | Casa da Música More information