António Victorino D’Almeida
In the program notes to the published score of his 3rd Symphony,1 António Victorino D’Almeida refers to a saying attributed to Portugal’s King, Dom João II (ca. 1455-1495): “there is the time of the owl, but there is also the time of the hawk”. The King’s quotation emerges in the context of an appraisal of experimentalism, where the hawk conjures the image of the sly, opportunistic predator (the composer of seductively sonorous but undeveloped sketches), in contrast with the shrewd owl (the methodical craftsman who painstakingly constructs a complete work). Already this context speaks volumes about the perspective of a composer who attributes opus numbers to works published in 2007 and 2009 (op. 142 (Symphony No. 3) and op. 154 (Symphony No. 4), respectively)2: it is as though the composer wishes to confirm that the listener stands before a complete and carefully thought-out whole, presented in a four movement plan, as happens in both works recorded here – hence the name, symphony. But this term should also be understood in its most “ancient” sense (i.e., originating in Italy during the late Renaissance), where it implied a group of heterogeneous instruments playing sounds [-phonia] together [syn-]. In fact, it seems that by evoking this dialogue with tradition, D’Almeida provides a framework for the listener’s interaction with his music.3
Understanding “how time passes”4 is an extremely important issue, one that has shaped much of the music written in the twentieth century (and considering the Portuguese King’s astute observation, the problem has apparently been known to everyone else since at least the fifteenth century). Returning to the owl and the hawk, but this time, focusing on the temporal issue behind the King’s quote, may provide some insight for understanding the various kinds of time or the way musical time may function in D’Almeida’s music. In fact, there seems to be a careful utilization of both hawkish and “owl-like” approaches at work here, in order to construct an internal balance of “opposites.” Traditional multi-movement symphonic form lends its built-in contrasts: fast – slow – dance – fast. A D’Almeida symphony typically begins with a more complex (read: owl-like) first movement (although in these works, any real vestiges of sonata form are virtually eclipsed), is followed by a lush singing movement (which always manages to go “off the rails” here and there), proceeds to a wry (read: hawkish) dance (often a scherzo or waltz) and closes with the inevitable finale, typically acting as a counterbalance to the opening movement (though the finale of the Fourth Symphony is a noteworthy departure from the expectedly frantic closing speed).
If these contrasts are more or less inherited attributes, then the way time passes within each of these movements is where the composer’s invention lies. As previously mentioned, the traditional sonata shapes (with all of their tonal implications) have been jettisoned for formal procedures akin to those in Stravinsky’s landmark piece, Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1921). In this work, the title “symphonies” refers to the three kinds of music that make up the piece, each with a different tempo and character. In Stravinksy, these are combined in order to form a new continuity, as the kind of music sounding at any given moment is interrupted by what follows, creating a kaleidoscopic form of changes.
Something similar happens in these symphonies by D’Almeida, which again summons the dynamic of the owl’s and hawk’s times. The Portuguese composer prefers to take some material, perhaps a sardonic scherzo (Sinfonia 3, III), an invented, nostalgic song recalling his youth (Sinfonia 4, IV), or even thematic material from his own incidental music for his film, A Culpa (Sinfonia 3, IV), and use it as the basis for his “temporal” variations within a movement. Aspects of the basic material will be re-worked in a variety of settings, where each successive version clashes in some way with the former’s tempo, harmonic world or musical texture (as though what follows presents us with a different kind of time). In this way, the composer creates a parade of coherent (read: owl-like) successions of seemingly opportunistic (read: hawkish) changes.
But, if the composer has let go of the sonata approach traditionally associated with symphonic movements, this parade of on-stage characters constantly changing their costumes does receive some structuring from two other formal archetypes, namely, the broad arch-forms associated with more lyrical movements and rondo-forms. This achieves a bow in the direction of the classical masters: one cannot help but recall Haydn’s delicate movements when encountering D’Almeida’s indication, Allegretto, in Symphony 3, and Mozart’s loathing of symphonic Adagios seems aptly reflected in the absence of any prolonged stretches of lethargic music.
Large-scale, arched shapes are employed in both the dance movements (the 3rd movements of both symphonies recorded here), where, in the fourth symphony, for example, sinuous waltzing interrupts a more barbed Allegretto. In the “slow” second movements (here, a Moderato and an Andante, respectively) the juxtaposition game from the opening movements continues, imbuing the entire time-span of the symphony with a certain higher-order unity that glides above the tumult of the surface changes of speed and character. Neither is the rondo limited only to the finale – instead, it permeates all stages of the formal parade. The traditional return has been substituted with the idea of the refrain, since, although characters may revisit the stage, there is almost always subtle variation in their orchestral guises, their written-out reappearances (to paraphrase Bartók, the time of the exact formal repetition has passed). But in D’Almeida’s music, the return itself partakes in the interplay of times, since one excellent way to sense the passing of time is by standing still – a feat accomplished musically by returning “to square one” and repeating the game all over again. This heightens one’s awareness of the different juxtapositions and makes any changes all the more dramatic.
And finally, if the reader will indulge one last musing of an ornithological nature: does all of this make António Victorino D’Almeida an owl that hunts by day or a hawk who flies by night?