História Trágico-Marítima (Tragic Maritime History) by Miguel Torga, as put to music by Fernando Lopes-Graça

Watch/listen on YouTube (player shrunk here to minimize distracting and clichéd still images)

I stated a month ago that I wanted to vary my April poetry blogging with some reviews of audio and video texts, but somehow it’s April 30th already and the only non-book I’ve managed to review was that videopoem chapbook by David Tomaloff and Swoon Bildos. So let me include an appreciation of a cantata that I’ve loved for years, Fernando Lopes-Graça’s História Trágico-Marítima — one of my all-time favorite pieces of choral music. I’ve included a player for a YouTubed copy of the same performance I have on record, which is also available through Amazon, used. Gyula Németh conducts the Budapest Symphony Orchestra with Oliviera Lopes, baritone, and the Hungarian Radio Chorus. If, like me, you don’t know Portuguese, it probably won’t be too distracting to listen to the work while reading the rest of this post. Here’s the composer’s description from the liner notes in my LP:

From its formal standpoint the work is articulated as a seven-lieder cycle (following the order and number of the poems by Torga under the same heading), the first and last relating to each other both in material and expressive intentions, as prelude and epilogue of the plot. A kind of idée fixe or recurring theme somehow ensures the unity of the work.

While collaborations between poets and musicians may sometimes seem like an exciting new development of the digital era, they have of course been going on since the dawn of time — if it isn’t too artificial and ethnocentric to presume any fundamental separation between poetry and music in the first place. In the Western classical tradition, librettists haven’t always been recognized as the poets they are, but in this case, Miguel Torga is generally lauded as one of the two or three greatest Portuguese poets of the 20th century, nominated several times for the Nobel Prize — on a par with the composer, who’s similarly among the top three 20th-century Portuguese composers (and in my opinion the greatest). I collected the LP years ago out of enthusiasm for Lopes-Graça, buying up all six records available in a catalogue of international classical music that my brother Mark used to get in the mail. For years — in fact until I could research him on the internet — the name Miguel Torga meant nothing to me, and I still haven’t read any of his work aside from this seven-part poem, included with English and French translations in the liner notes.

The poetic sequence, however, I learned nearly by heart, reading the imperfect translation just often enough to internalize the approximate meaning of the Portuguese. I guess professional-level classical and opera singers do this all the time, though, don’t they — memorize or nearly memorize whole texts in languages they don’t really know, but learn to love through music. The addition of a tune makes it of course so much easier to remember poetic texts. I’ve struggled to memorize even the most regularly metered, end-rhyming poems, yet here I am lip-synching with the chorus:

Vinha de longe o mar…
Vinha de longe, dos confins do medo…
Mas vinha azul e brando, a murmurar
Aos ouvidos da terra o tal segredo…

(From far away came the sea…
From far away, from the ends of fear she came…
But she came blue and gentle, whispering
that secret into the earth’s ear…)

There was a video going around last week on Facebook, produced by Oliver Sacks, that shows an elderly man stricken by dementia perk up and begin to speak in full sentences after listening to a few of his favorite songs from when he was young — he hadn’t spoken that much in years, they said. It seems the weave between music, language and memory is even tighter than anyone had imagined. If (God forbid) I ever get that way myself, listening to História Trágico-Marítima might very well help me remember who I am — an odd thought, considering my lack of connection to the country whose own identity and memory are so much at issue here. Miguel Torga’s poem derives its title and some of its material from an 18th-century book by Bernardo Gomes de Brito, an anthology of tales about shipwrecks and other disasters that had befallen Portuguese navigators. Torga’s poem is more than a simple retelling, though. As the liner notes by Nuno Barreiros put it (recasting somewhat the wretched English provided),

It is more of a meditative than an epic evocation of one of the greatest achievements in Portuguese history, presented in a non-triumphalist fashion and seen from an anti-colonialist point of view. Lyrical and dramatic elements merge in a literary style of vigorous strokes with allusions to the popular narrative. The sea is demystified, while preserving the lyrical quality proper to an evocation. Graça’s musical setting stays well within these lines, magnifying the deep universal resonances of the poem.

And I suppose it’s the way in which the sea symbolizes — or more than symbolizes, embodies longing that makes me catch my breath every time the music shifts from the stormy shipwreck in Part 6 to the calm of Part 7 and the chorus singing mar.

You had a name no one feared:
It was a soft soil to till
Or some tempting lure…

You had the weeping of the sufferer
Who cannot either stop, or yell,
Or raise, or stifle the wailing…

We then went to you full of love!
And you were neither a soil for tilling
Nor a body wailing her pain!

Deceitful raucous sad mermaid!
It was you who came to seduce us.
And it was you who then betrayed us!

And I always get at least a lump in my throat when the music changes pitch for the last verse and the baritone’s voice rises to near the top of his range for the last two syllables, leaving the melody unresolved, his question hanging in the air:

E quando terá fim o sofrimento!
E quando deixará de navigar
Sobre as ondas azuis o nossa pensamento!

And when shall the suffering end?
And when on the blue waves
Shall our thoughts cease to sail?)

“História Trágico-Marítima” is an indictment of romanticism that doesn’t try to deny the allure of the romantic; I think that’s what appealed to me when I first heard it as a teenager, and it’s not surprising that I later learned to appreciate American blues music, which is similarly drenched in unsentimental sentiment. The poetic sequence appeared in Torga’s Poemas Ibéricos (Iberian Poems) from 1952, evidently a “reinterpretation of the collective past of Portugal as an Hispanic nation,” within which “História Trágico-Marítima” appears as “an original mythic-symbolic rereading of the Portuguese sea adventure, under the intertextual shadow of the homonym work by Bernardo Gomes de Brito and the shipwreck imagery coming from it.”

Ten year ago, when I was seized with the idea for a book-length anti-heroic poem about culture contact in what is now the American Southwest — Cibola — I think these poems must’ve influenced my decision to preserve the mystery about what really happened, why the Cibolans killed the African conquistador Esteban, and to simply present the reader with multiple alternatives. “O Regresso” (“The Return”), Part 4 of the cantata, features a blind bard who may or may not be telling the truth, and whose retellings seem to be influencing events themselves, as in the observer’s paradox.

The man scanned the horizon…
“Land, land, Captain…”
And the Mother knew no more:
Was it the man at the topsail,
Or the singing blind man?
“My soul is only God’s,
My body shall go to sea…”
And the Mother nodded her head
And waved with her hand…
“The devil burst with a bang,
The wind and sea abated.”
And when the blind man stopped
They were aground beaching the ship…

I love that. But more than anything, I love and acknowledge the lasting influence of Torga’s idea that the dream of being elsewhere is a dangerous thing, at the root of the colonial adventure. In fact, I’ve come to believe it’s the fundamental sickness of urban civilization. But that perhaps is an argument for another day.

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