Tony Haynes, composer/director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.

62: What the River Brings

In Lisbon a couple of weeks ago with my daughter, we enacted a favourite ritual – take a ferry from the Cais do Sodre across the river to Cacilhas and walk a mile or so downstream. Past ancient crumbling warehouses, rusting ladders and abandoned cranes, you finish up at what used to be called O Fim do Mundo. Here there is still a down-at-heel café, the Ponto Final (‘full stop’), with tables perched perilously close to the water’s edge. Above you soars the huge suspension bridge, originally dedicated to the dictator Salazar, now renamed 25th April to commemorate the Carnation Revolution of 1974; on the other side, just beyond, is Belém, with its monument to Vasco da Gama and the first Portuguese navigators. From there, the estuary of the majestic Tagus – already broad – flows into the open sea.

I’ve made this pilgrimage countless times in the last 30 years of regular visits for projects in Portugal. I love cities that are great ports, and over the years have got to know first-hand many others across the world – Liverpool, Marseille, Barcelona, Mumbai, Shanghai, Melbourne – and I’ve had the privilege of living all my working life in East London. Ports are central to the cycle of empires that rise and fall: prosperity depends on trade; trade can only be sustained by power; power rests on military or maritime strength; maintaining an army or navy needs resources, which can only be provided by a buoyant economy, and that depends on booming trade… Once in motion, how and when the cycle can ever be broken is a mystery, but in a great port city you can at least read the past and sense the future amid the present.

Above all, port cities are centres of human traffic – the endless ebb and flow of migrants who contribute not only to economic prosperity, but also to culture and artistic vitality. This has been a recurrent theme in all my work for the Grand Union Orchestra, and we are returning to it this summer with a new show called What the River Brings – hence my musings on the banks of the Tagus! Quite simply, it will celebrate the waves of migration that have shaped East London over the centuries, and be performed by people themselves from local migrant or migrant-descended communities. There will be more about this project over the coming months; meanwhile back to this song…

Empires fade when they become complacent, decadent or corrupt; they lose sight of spiritual or artistic values, they ‘slip the anchor of the soul’ – to quote an evocative line from this song. While empires are falling and rising in these early years of the 21st century, Britain is again in danger of slipping this anchor as the vanity and folly of our leaders and politicians steer us recklessly into tempestuous waters…

Video version link       Audio version link

Originally called Depois o Bosque Se Fez Barco, the title might loosely be translated ‘when trees were turned into ships’, and that is the central image of the poem on which the song is based (see note below) – the deforesting of the land to build ships to explore and establish a world-wide empire, a metaphor also of the corresponding denuding of the country of its men to fight and control this empire. (The original poem, by Manuel Alegre, was written at the time of Portugal’s ruinous colonial wars in Africa in the sixties, which had similarly destructive results for the country.) However, David Bradford’s  English lyrics are never a literal translation, but a separate poetic commentary on the Portuguese.

At first, two singers sing independently. the first (Victoria Couper) beginning very freely:

Then the music moves into a slow beguine-like tempo, and the male voice (Richard Scott) enters with a melody that follows similar melodic contours with lyrics that express the same ideas:

The harmony for the woman’s song is predominantly minor (with an emphasis on Bb minor chords), the man’s predominantly major and augmented chords (centred on D major). The descending chord sequence of his part of the song (Ex 2) is mirrored in the second section of the Portuguese setting, but in a minor tonality:

At this point, the flugelhorn (Shanti Paul Jayasinha) picks up the melody that originally bridged the Portuguese introduction into the English verse, and then goes on to play a solo across the descending chords of the English verse:

The woman now sings another version of her previous melody and words in example 3, but this time the two voices actually duet, with the English singer interlocking with the Portuguese in rough translation:

Finally, there is a coda, introduced by the flugelhorn linking theme – this time joined by the female singer, with words added – which ties everything together, including the movement of the tonality from D major to B flat minor (the notes of these triads in fact form the basis of the flugelhorn melody):

Of course, there is more to this than meets the ear. Written during the later years of the dictatorship, when censorship was rife, the poem is effectively in code: while pretending to be a historical narrative, it’s actually a withering critique of the Salazar régime. A full account, an appreciation of the poet Manuel Alegre and links to more of my settings of his songs, appears here.

The original version of this song from the Rhythm of Tides (Por Mares do Imaginario) featured three singers: Maria João Silveira, Paulo de Carvalho (whose contribution to the Revolution is described in Post 33!) and Richard Scott; it also has an additional verse:

Lisbon today is a very different place today from the city I first encountered in the 1960s, and my daughter and I enjoyed catching up with old friends and musicians who have made memorable contributions to so many Grand Union projects, many of them celebrated in earlier Posts, including some you can hear here:

Liana singing Carta ao Mar with António Días, Portuguese guitar – see also Post 40

Maria João singing Meu Amor é Marinheiro – see also Post 23

Mingo singing Mexe Mexe – see also Post 18

Sadjo Djolô singing and playing kora on Cano – see also Post 10

…and from the show Mil e Uma Marés, described in Post 41

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