L’Avventura London and their director Zak Ozmo make their debut on Hyperion with a lusciously saucy album of Portuguese love songs from the eighteenth century. Described by a contemporary visitor as ‘voluptuous and bewitching’, these modinhas have an uncertain genesis, but it is likely they reached Portugal from its overseas dominion of Brazil. Two highly contrasting styles predominate: one melancholic and lyrical, and the other bright and rhythmic, often with syncopated rhythms in the voice. Also interspersed are instrumental works from the period.
The spirited players of L’Avventura London are joined by two Portuguese sopranos, Sandra Medeiros and Joana Seara, who are also early music specialists in their own right.
Other recommended albums
Fire burning in snow – Baroque Music from Latin America
MacMillan: Seven Last Words from the Cross & other choral works
’This is an original sort of music different from any I ever heard, the most seducing, the most voluptuous imaginable, the best calculated to throw saints off their guard and to inspire profane deliriums.’ Thus the English visitor to Portugal William Beckford refers to modinhas—Portuguese love songs—in his journal entry for Thursday 7 June 1787. Some weeks before leaving the country, but with his departure already in sight, he added in his entry for Monday 15 October:
Those who have never heard modinhas must and will remain ignorant of the most voluptuous and bewitching music that ever existed since the days of the Sybarites. They consist of languid interrupted measures, as if the breath was gone with excess of rapture, and the soul panting to fly out of you and incorporate itself with the beloved object. With a childish carelessness they steal into the heart before it has time to arm itself against their enervating influence. You fancy you are swallowing milk and you are swallowing poison. As to myself, I must confess I am a slave to modinhas, and when I think of them cannot endure the idea of quitting Portugal.
The exact origins of the modinha are not at all clear, and as so often occurs in these circumstances all kinds of myths have grown and are perpetuated in text after text. If we go back to primary sources we find no mention prior to their appearance in Portugal in the early years of Queen Maria I’s reign (1777–1816). All the indications are that they reached Portugal from its overseas dominion of Brazil, but there is no documentation there from any earlier.
In any case, the distinction between the two countries prior to Brazil’s Independence in 1822 was not as great as might at first appear. The Atlantic Ocean was as much a bridge as a barrier between the two, with a constant human traffic to and fro. In due course, over the winter of 1807–08, in the wake of the first French invasion of Portugal, the Portuguese court was to sail for Rio de Janeiro, the only colonial power ever to transfer its capital to a colony. The royal family and court remained there for more than thirteen years, strengthening still further the existing ties.
Many of the earliest references to modinhas may be linked to the Brazilian half-caste poet Domingos Caldas Barbosa (1740–1800), who arrived in Portugal from Rio in 1763 to study at the University of Coimbra. However, though various authors have tried to attribute the music of certain modinhas to him, as well as the lyrics, there is no concrete evidence for his being more than a poet—a popular one certainly, yet much despised by certain literary figures, such as the poet Bocage and the wayward priest Father José Agostinho de Macedo, as much for the dark colour of his skin as for any want of poetic skill. Whatever his exact role, Caldas Barbosa was nevertheless fundamental in popularizing the genre in Portugal.
By the mid-1780s, when Beckford was writing, the modinha was already firmly rooted in the salons of the nobility and bourgeoisie, even reaching the court of Queen Maria—two collections are to be found in manuscripts at the Ajuda Library in Lisbon, which houses the greater part of the Portuguese Royal Library. To what extent she herself listened to modinhas we cannot tell, but she was certainly fond of music. Melancholic by nature and profoundly religious, she suffered two great losses within a period of two years: first her uncle and husband, King Pedro III, in 1786, and then her eldest son and heir to the throne, Prince José, in 1788. Not only did she drown her sorrows in ever-greater religious devotion, but by early 1792 she suffered from increasing bouts of madness. In that year her son, Prince João, began to govern in her name, officially becoming Regent in 1799, a position he retained until her death in Rio de Janeiro in 1816. He ruled as King João VI until his own demise in 1826.
We gain a good idea of the range of types of song considered to be modinhas from the Jornal de Modinhas, a periodical published fortnightly in Lisbon for four and a half years, from July 1792 to November 1796 (though no copies have survived from the fifth year). In broad terms we may say that they encompassed any kind of salon song in Portuguese (and in one instance in Italian), for one or two (very rarely for three) voices. Those written for two voices have vocal lines written predominantly in parallel thirds and sixths, while those for a single voice tend to be altogether freer with greater room for ornamentation.
As we can hear from the modinhas recorded here, certain styles and patterns were particularly common. Some have a decidedly languid, melancholic touch to them, as Beckford noticed, as is the case with Tempo que breve passaste, Foi por mim, foi pela sorte, Que fiz eu à natureza? and A minha Nerina. By contrast, others are bright and highly rhythmic, often with syncopated rhythms in the voice(s), associated with the Brazilian danced song genre known as the lundum. This is the case with Ganinha, minha Ganinha, Onde vas linda Negrinha, Os ‘me deixas’ que tu dás and É delícia ter amor (the last of these performed instrumentally here). In eighteenth-century Brazil musicians were typically of mixed race (often children of white fathers and black slave mothers) and it is unsurprising, therefore, that modinhas in general, and the lundum in particular, should have an Afro-Brazilian touch to them. Though most modinhas are strophic, many have a refrain repeated after each stanza, which may change key (from minor to major) and/or tempo, as occurs, for example, with Cuidados, tristes cuidados.
One difficulty that the strophic structure creates is that of prosody. The metre of Portuguese poetry is defined solely by the number of syllables per line, but without any reference to patterns of stressed/unstressed (long/short) syllables. As a result, the natural word stresses that occur fall on different syllables from one strophe to the next, coinciding randomly with strong or weak musical beats. The accompaniment was usually for fortepiano or English guitar (a metal-stringed instrument of the cittern family, popular in England in the eighteenth century and introduced into Portugal through the English colony in Oporto), though some modinhas specify the additional use of other instruments, such as the viola francesa (five-course guitar) or the mandolin. No doubt, however, there was a good deal of flexibility with regard to the instruments used, which must have depended simply on what happened to be available (flutes, violins, harpsichords instead of fortepianos, and so on). In a few instances (though not among those on this recording), the original accompaniment was for orchestra, for use in the theatre, the salon version being simply a reduction for fortepiano.
The Jornal de Modinhas was systematic in naming the composer of each piece. From this we see that most of the leading Portuguese composers of the time wrote modinhas, including those otherwise only known for their church music. This is the case, for instance, with the Coimbra composer José Maurício (1752–1815; not to be confused with the Brazilian composer José Maurício Nunes Garcia, who is often known only by his first two names). Marcos Portugal (1762–1830), through his success as a composer of Italian operas, achieved greater international renown in his own time than any Portuguese composer before or since, and was also a paradigmatic figure in Portugal (where he was born) and Brazil (where he died) as a composer of church music. He contributed significantly to the modinha genre, even if the attribution to him of the Marília de Dirceu cycle, to texts by the Brazilian poet Tomás António Gonzaga, is debatable. António da Silva Leite (1759–1833) was based in Oporto, where he was for many years chapelmaster at the cathedral and also at one time musical director of the Teatro de São João. He was also responsible for an important manual on the English Guitar, Estudo de guitarra (1796).
But if the Jornal de Modinhas is the best-known and most immediately accessible source of modinhas, an even greater number are to be found scattered in manuscripts, with many more of them still waiting to be discovered and inventoried. As well as in Portugal, there are important manuscript collections to be found, for example, in Vienna and Barcelona, and a considerable proportion of libraries and other collections in Portugal with music of this period (including churches as well as private homes) possess examples, and this may also be true in certain places in Brazil. In very many instances these sources are anonymous. None of the modinhas in the manuscript from the Ajuda Library in Lisbon (call-mark 54-X-37 (26–55)), for example, has an attribution, the title page stating simply ‘Modinhas Brasileiras’. Despite its title, this source is probably of Portuguese origin, the reference to Brazil being in relation to the genre as a whole rather than these particular examples. (In Brazil there would have been no point in indicating this origin since their being Brazilian would be self-evident.) The anonymous Foi por mim, foi pela sorte was published by P Laforge in Rio de Janeiro, but the existence of a copy at the Ajuda Library suggests it was also known in Portugal.
In Portugal itself the modinha remained popular up to the period of the Liberal Wars (1832–4) but declined sharply thereafter. In Brazil they are composed to this day, though naturally they have undergone various transformations, thanks to the multiple influences of other genres.
Music in Portugal in the eighteenth century was dominated by the voice (opera, musical theatre, church music, salon songs). The practice of playing purely instrumental music was evidently much more limited. Very few sources have come down to us, and with rare exceptions they fall into two musical categories: keyboard music and dance music. The harpsichord works of Domenico Scarlatti (who was based in Lisbon from 1719 to 1729) and Carlos de Seixas continued to be played in Portugal long after their composition, and indeed all surviving manuscripts of Seixas are late copies, confirming that they continued to be in use. Pedro António Avondano’s ‘Lisbon minuets’ were published in London in 1761, though they were presumably written for use at the so-called ‘Assembleia das Nações Estrangeiras’ (Assembly of Foreign Nations), a largely ex-patriot club in Lisbon, which included concerts and dancing among its activities.
David Cranmer © 2012