Monday 19 March 2018

Music puts fate at heart of Portugal's soul


A Portuguese national flag flies above the parliament building in Lisbon
A Portuguese national flag flies above the parliament building in Lisbon
Joao Domingos Bomtempo

George Hamilton

This evening in the Portuguese capital Lisbon, the European football season will reach its climax. For the first time two teams from the same city – Madrid – will contest the final of the Champions League.

There's sure to be plenty of singing in the stands, but the chants that will feature in this soccer opera will be nothing like the native sounds of the host country.

Portugal's national song is the fado (with the stress on the second syllable) which comes from the same Latin root as our word "fate", and has been described as being at the heart of the Portuguese soul.

It's essentially a sad, mournful type of music, dealing in loss – in love and in life – and destiny. You can find parallels across the world – the American blues tradition comes immediately to mind. And just like the blues, it's not the sort of music you get up and dance to. It's music that's felt.

Some years ago, in Lisbon for a football tournament, we took ourselves off to a singing restaurant to sample this cultural phenomenon. The show was an essential part of the experience.

Our fadista – the singer – was female, and the performance was powerful, and meant to be taken seriously.

There was an interruption when one table of diners allowed their conversation level to rise to the point at which the backing guitarist felt the need to intervene.

While it mightn't be music to lift the spirits, its emotional pull is intoxicating, and it's a style of singing that is very much in the theatrical tradition.

What there isn't so much of in Portugal is a huge history of classical music, but that is not to say that there is none.

João Domingos Bomtempo, a direct contemporary of Beethoven, born five years after the great German master in 1775, was Portugal's most important composer of the period.

Bomtempo (the Portuguese variant of his surname) was the son of an Italian father, Francesco Buontempo, who played the oboe in the royal orchestra in Lisbon.

João began as a boy soprano, and learned to play several instruments.

He joined the orchestra on the death of his father, but wanted to expand his experience, so he was soon off to Paris and London, where he made a name for himself as a pianist, and also a composer of fine chamber music.

He was in London when the Philharmonic Society was formed there, and he would take that idea back to Lisbon, where he became the principal promoter of contemporary music.

Politically liberal, he wasn't always flavour of the month, and, when his music was banned, he ended up taking refuge in the Russian consulate where he lived for five years until the situation eased.

Bomtempo was the first Portuguese to compose a symphony. The two that he produced are very much of their time, the first showing influences of Haydn and Mozart, finely textured and accessible, the second more in the Romantic idiom.

There were also two requiems and piano concertos.

You'll find his music on a Naxos recording by the Algarve Orchestra, directed by Portugal's leading conductor, Álvaro Cassuto (8.557163).

For an introduction to the fado, try Maria da Fé's album Divino Fado (CNM101CD).


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