Tony Haynes, composer/director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.
In the early 1990s, I first had the idea of creating a show about the rise and fall of empire, but thought it would be more dramatic, and more varied and colourful, if seen through the eyes of the Portuguese. Dating from the first voyages of famous ‘navigators’ like Vasco da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias, the Portuguese was the first European empire to be established, and the last to collapse – not until the early 1970s, in the last throes of the fascist dictatorship founded by António Salazar fifty years before. During the course of the project, I had the privilege of meeting many Portguese artists, intellectuals and politicians – among them the celebrated poet Manuel Alegre.
In the 10 or 15 years leading up to the 1974 Revolution, many dissidents and opponents of the régime – and especially critics of its catastrophic attempts to hold on to its colonies at all costs – were exiled abroad; like many others, Manuel Alegre lived in Paris for a long time. After the Revolution, they returned as heroes and helped build the new democracy in Portugal – often quite literally, since until recently many musicians, writers and artists served as ‘deputados’, members of the Portuguese parliament; and Manuel Alegre himself has twice been a presidential candidate – though sadly never elected.
Above all, Manuel Alegre is a great poet, and has also written a couple of powerful novels. His seminal work O Canto e as Armas takes its title, with deliberate irony, from the first line of Vergil’s Aeneid: ‘arma virumque cano’ – ‘I sing of arms and the man…’ (Aeneas) who was regarded as the founding father of the Roman Empire. Such ambiguity is key to Alegre’s writing, and in this case on the surface he appears to be extolling Portugal’s imperial ambitions – interpreted as such, and welcomed, by the fascist régime; while his admirers and supporters will see only the withering sarcasm directed at the yearning of Salazar and his cronies for a return to a golden age. (Look up boy-king Sebastian for further research…)
Artists critical of totalitarian régimes have always used code like this to communicate their critical views. Another of Alegre’s devices is to write what appear to be love-songs, couched as romantic ballads about the freedom of a sailor’s life at sea, but in reality paeans to political freedom, and (paradoxically under a fascist dictatorship) expressing genuine love of his country and concern for the welfare of its people. Meu Amor é Marinheiro, which I also set in the Rhythm of Tides, is a prime example.
Depois o Bosque se fez Barco, as you will have realised, is another manifestation of this ‘code’. Harking back to the early voyages of discovery and the maritime history which resonates so deeply with Portuguese people even today, he delivers a stinging rebuke to rulers who continued – from Africa to East Timor in the post-war period – to neglect domestic affairs and send so many young men to their deaths (or condemn them to a life of misery and alienation) in a pointless and indefensible cause.
With his permission, I set three of Manuel Alegre’s poems for The Rhythm of Tides (Por Mares do Imaginário in its Portuguese title). The full-length version of Depois o Bosque… can be found on the CD, featuring two great Portuguese singers Paulo de Carvalho (one of whose hits was used on the radio to launch the Revolution!) and Maria João Silveira; and the poetically complex As Colunas de Madrugada, about the Angolan war. Maria João, her voice drenched in the richness of her Angolan parentage, can also be heard on Meu Amor é Marinheiro.
My settings of Manuel Alegre’s poems are described in these Posts:
9 (Duet With A Great Poet): Depois o Bosque se fez Barco
23 (Adventures in Portugal): Meu Amor é Marinheiro
33 (April 25th): As Colunas de Madrugada