In focus

Clotilde Rosa (1930-2017)

Photo: Perseu Mandillo


How did you awaken to music, and what was the role of your parents and family in your musical initiation?

Clotilde Rosa: My father, José Rosa, was a tenor, and my mother, Branca Belo de Carvalho Rosa, was both a harpist and a pianist. I followed the footsteps of my mother... Both of my parents died, when I was 9-10 years old.
Then I was brought up by an great-aunt, who was a very big music lover (just as my great-grandmother, by the way). This aunt possessed some goods, and she run an amateur orchestra. Ultimately... there have always been artists and musicians in my entire family. For example, my mother's cousin was a cello professor and the National Conservatoire in Lisbon. I really enjoyed listening to a lot of her concerts – she used to perform frequently and had a broad repertoire.
I passed my youth and adolescence inside music – I used to go to concerts and to study music a lot. I studied the piano and the harp simultaneously, what meant spending hours and hours on playing these instruments...

Nevertheless, eventually you chose the harp...

CR: I chose the harp, yes, because my mother was a harpist. I have always kept that illusion... that fixation... that lyrical and romantic idea of my parents. And then, obviously, I went to perform in orchestras.
As a performer I used to suffer a lot – my life was filled with distress and nerves, because I had to play the harp, on many occasions as a soloist. Sometimes I wasn't even able to sleep. I should have studied violin, viola or cello to be in the group! The harpist is always alone on the stage.
I used to perform a lot in operas and ballets, where the harp parts are quite sophisticated – The Swan Lake by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Tristan and Isolda by Richard Wagner whose music I love (for me Wagner is truly extraordinary), or The Spanish Hour by Maurice Ravel... This work I performed under a French conductor, who was quite ironic. During one of the rehearsals he looked at me and said – “it's a pleasure to look at you”. When I was young, I think I had quite a lot of charm...
Being a musician inside or outside the orchestra is very difficult – the ones who play well have true nerves of steel. And performing with an orchestra means being always alert and attentive, while counting the measures. In music everything must happen in the right moment.
Perhaps initially I chose the wrong path, but it led me to what was right, to composition.

Was it Jorge Peixinho, who directed you towards contemporary music and composition?

CR: I got to know him in the 1960s. Jorge Peixinho wrote a piece for two harps, Imagens sonoras (1961), and at that time he came back to Portugal from his musical studied in Europe. He was looking for somebody to perform this work, and in this context a friend of mine, also a harpist – Mário Falcão – contacted me. In the beginning I found the harp part in Imagens sonoras very difficult, due to the work with pedals it required, and the constant shifts of tonalities – the piece is atonal or even serial...
Nevertheless, since always I have been very eager to get to know this universe of contemporary music. I remember one time making a question to professor Jorge Croner de Vasconcellos, with whom I studied at the Conservatoire – “what is dodecaphony, the twelve-tone technique?” He answered that it was a new system invented by a very pretentious gentleman, and which left the old tonal system without reasons to continue... He was a quite ironic and sarcastic person. But then, I heard about contemporary music, I did not know what it was like, and I became very curious. This different and new universe attracted me so much that I have never abandoned it – since 1962 until 1995 (the year, when Jorge Peixinho died), I always worked with him. And Jorge Peixinho never stopped working with me.
Jorge Peixinho was the introducer of contemporary music in Portugal. In the first half of the 1960s I went with him for the first time to the famous Darmstadt Summer Courses in Germany. In that time, 1962-63, I was studying harp in Amsterdam with Phia Berghout. In June 1963 I left the Netherlands and went to Darmstadt, which I visited a couple of times during the 1960s. There I heard the piece Atmosphères by Ligeti, and I was completely ecstatic. I felt as if something had been completing... perhaps it was my education, which actually is never complete, isn't it so?
I loved the Darmstadt experience – attending the courses by Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and György Ligeti, listening to Yvonne Loriod performing Olivier Messiaen's music. I remember the Kontarsky brothers playing extraordinary works... Stockhausen's Hymnen and his improvisations. All this experience continues extraordinarily alive inside me.

And then you had your first experiences with composition...

CR: Yes. In the fashion of the piece Musik für ein Haus by Stockhausen, Jorge Peixinho composed a work, which he entitled In-Con-Sub-Sequência (1974). The work had various authors, musicians from the Lisbon Contemporary Music Group (GMCL) – among them Jorge Peixinho himself and I. Every author created his or her own fragment, and then all of them were joined into one work. The performance was conceived in a villa with a cellar, ground, first and second floors, and the music occupied this whole space. The audience entered it and went on listening. And then the whole music was filtered in the cellar downstairs with a reading... it was very interesting.
And actually I had a very good result in this project – my composition piece distinguished itself among the others. Something inside me was born... a seed started to flourish, and it has never stopped ever since.

And thus we have come to another decisive moment in your life, which was the creation of the piece “Encontro”, sent to the International Composer's Tribune...

CR: The story connected with the composition of Encontro (1976) is quite funny. During one of those family and homely environments, on a Sunday, my sons and Carlos Franco – who at that time was already my husband – were playing cards. I have never liked playing cards, I become easily distracted and suddenly I forgot the ones that had already come out. So they put me out of the game, as, according to them, I was jeopardizing it. So I went to the piano and I started thinking...
In that time, after the April 25th (the Portuguese Carnation Revolution), there were many misunderstandings and discussions within the GMCL. The musicians got very easily upset with each other – some were rightwing, the other ones were more leftwing, and then there were the communists... some were always on time for the rehearsals, other ones were always coming extremely late... and my role inside the Group was to act as a conciliator. I used to say – “don't get angry”, “don't bother”, “it's not worth it...” … until today all the musicians in the Group treat me as their “mum”. So these reflections resulted in a work for flute – representing the melodic part – and string quartet, representing a unity. This music is a kind of path, whose end is the encounter and understanding between all the elements... between all the “people”.
Jorge Peixinho liked this work very much and he insisted with Joly Braga Santos and Nuno Barreiros to send Encontro to the International Composer's Tribune. They were very surprised – “but Clotilde is a composer?”... Among 30 countries and 60 works Encontro was distinguished with the 10th place ex aequo! Not bad at all. Since then, I have never stopped composing. Until today. Presently, I haven't only been writing for a couple of days because of my arm. It is difficult to remain always in the same position in front of the computer...

What since “Encontro” has been distinguishing your musical language?

CR: There are various elements. On the one hand there is a series, which I came up with during an interval in a lecture conducted by professor Álvaro Salazar in Cascais or Estoril. I remember that during this lesson he spoke about Anton Webern and serial music. And I thought – “I also want to have a series of my own!” So I made it: C, F-sharp, E, B, A-sharp, F, G, C-sharp, A, G-sharp, D and D-sharp. All the 12 sounds!

Does this series reappear in various of your works?

CR: Sometimes... it appears sometimes. But there is also another important element in my language. I am very romantic!
Everyday I listen to the Antena 2, and a moment ago I was listening to a concerto for piano and orchestra. I thought – “this is by Sergei Rachmaninov... but I don't know this concerto...” In the end do you know who it was? It was Alexander Scriabin – his first and only concerto, which he composed when he was only 24. Beautiful! With all these very romantic phrases! He was 24, so it means that this concerto was written more than 120 years ago... And I am 87...
Since always I have had this feature, which is very mine – I am very romantic and lyrical. Despite constantly being inside contemporary music, there are a lot of people who tell me that when they listen to my music, they can instantly understand that it's “mine”. Perhaps this is the reason. Because I have this very lyrical side. I've never betrayed the contemporary language, but I've reinvented it in my own way. Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, György Ligeti… are some of my references. I admire profoundly all the currents that have come to innovate the musical path.

When you write music, where do your musical ideas come from? Do you work systematically, or do you let yourself be led by creative impulses?

CR: Inside of me there's always a part, which I don't let out, because there has to be an organization. I have rules, it's obvious, but I also have a lot of impulse. I am quite free, but – I repeat – there is an organization, which is absolutely indispensable. Because otherwise, where would I end up?
There are musical phrases that are very mine and actually I have never been an integral serialist – I've always used to work quite freely with my series. And then I begun liberating myself more and more, so presently I write more using threads of intervals.

Are there any extra-musical elements that influence your work?

CR: Yes, painting! My culture and education is quite pictorial. I also developed it with my family – my sister-in-law Helena Almeida is a great, internationally renowned painter and visual artist. In the beginning I was fascinated with the paintings by Jackson Pollock and Josef Herman, for example. In 1983-84 I composed the work for orchestra Ricercari – it was very well received. This music is influenced by the lines and textures of abstract painting. Ricercari is constituted by a texture with various lines, whose paths meet and disconnect. It's as the title suggests, they keep on looking for each other – Ricercari – but also establish a texture. The same phenomenon happens in painting.
Then I also made a monographic CD with my music – Clotilde Rosa: Música para Poesia Portuguesa (2008, la mà de guido; Clotilde Rosa: Music for Portuguese Poetry). I like literature a lot, and poetry in particular – for example the one by Eugénio de Andrade, a very lyrical poet, there it is... And Luís de Camões, whose poetry I approached in the work El Vaso Reluciente (2003), for example. I also admire the poetry by Armando da Silva Carvalho, who passed away recently, and with whom I worked a lot. The libretto of my opera O Desfigurado (original title: Portugalex; 1986-89), which has never been publicly performed, is of his authorship.

More recently, in 2012, you also composed a work in collaboration with a psychiatrist...

CR: The work's title is Espiral and it was created for a psychiatric congress in collaboration with Lucas Manarte. When he was 10, Lucas was my harp student. Then he stopped the instrument studies, but he has always remained my good friend. He dedicated himself to psychiatry, and since he was organizing this congress, he decided to commission this work to me.
In Espiral I want to transmit in music some characteristics of mental perturbations – obsessions, fears, phobias and self-recriminations (when people blame themselves for everything in a completely irrational manner, for example for having caused the horrible disaster of the Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima...). In the end, they are various states causing people's suffering.
In order to create this work Lucas Manarte gave me various explanations. The easiest was to transmit the obsessions with repetitions of the same material, infinitely. In Espiral there are also parts overpowered by statism... Nevertheless, in the piece's instrumentation I decided to include a feminine voice performing texts by various authors, including one by Lucas himself. He was constantly asking me – “oh professor, but wouldn't it be better for us not to have any text?” I don't think so. Sometimes music is difficult and subjective. It is a very personal universe, which not everybody understands. For me, it is a different way of feeling.

Again moving a little more backwards in time – performing and studying early music was for you an important experience?

CR: CR: I used to belong to professor Macario Santiago Kastner's group, which was the Menestréis de Lisboa (the Lisbon Minstrels). I also had lessons with him on early music and I studied basso continuo in Cologne – not on the organ, neither on the harpsichord, but on the harp. And also me and my husband, Carlos Franco, we had a duo dedicated to early music. Then we were joined by Luísa de Vasconcellos, who was an excellent cellist – unfortunately she passed away a couple of years ago.
I don't know if early music has directly influenced my way of composing, but it is natural that if I hadn't had harmony lessons, for example, I wouldn't have had the possibility to write music later on. Early music belongs to our culture and to our education – for example to know how to write chorals. I used to write dozens of them. I remember professor Croner de Vasconcellos saying – “Miss Clotilde...” – he used to call “Misses” all the girl students, even if they were 14 years old – “Miss Clotilde is very good at writing chorals...” And this is how my life goes, until today.

Are you working on something at the moment?

CR: Some time ago a saxophonist, who belongs to the Police Musical Band, payed me a visit to ask if I would write a concert for saxophone and music band. I didn't want to say “no”, that is, I always say “yes” to interesting challenges. So... now I am occupied with this work. It is a new thing for me – I am composing for a band, only of wind instruments, with the exception of the cello and the double bass. The rest is only a group of wind instruments and percussion. It is a good challenge, but it has cost me some effort. I still haven't finished the piece. I am more or less in the middle of it...
Some time ago I also composed a piece for oboe solo and electronics, A Lira de Orfeu (2017), that was commissioned to me by a music school movement from Aveiro (editor's note: the work A Lira de Orfeu was premiered in February 2018 at the Aveiro_Síntese – Biennale of Electroacoustic Music, organized by the Arte no Tempo Association). A similar commission was made to other Portuguese composers, to create pieces for different solo instruments. It is an interesting project.

Working with electroacoustic music is not typical for you...

CR: Yet I like it a lot, and I have already approached it a couple of times. I regret a lot not having had more possibilities to study better electroacoustic music creation – in my time there weren't many studios. One of the pieces with electronics that I composed is Densidades (2002-03) for violin solo. I composed it when João Pedro Oliveira was still in Portugal – he has always been my great friend. From one day to another, me and one of my sons who is a violinist, José Sá Machado, we went to visit João Pedro Oliveira in Aveiro. It was him who made the electronics in Densidades for me. I wrote the score, and the electronics was created from the recording of the violin, “above” the instrument. For me this was extraordinary, a gift... João Pedro Oliveira is an excellent composer. Jorge Peixinho had a lot of hope in him, and he surely hasn't been wrong.

Since we mentioned João Pedro Oliveira... what do you think of Portuguese music in the present, of the new generations of composers?

CR: In terms of creation, what is happening now is for me the most interesting. We have composers, man and – I need to stress – women, what is very important!
I really think that it wasn't in vain that Jorge Peixinho contributed significantly for the introduction of contemporary music in Portugal. It wasn't in vain, because since then good music schools have been founded, and they have given us excellent composers and performers. And all of them are very different one from another, what is also very important.

The variety is great, without any doubt. But what do you think about the opportunities that Portuguese composers have to create and have their works performed?

CR: This has always been much more difficult, since the governmental subsidies aren't that great and regular. There's no stability, because there's no entity that would provide us with continuity. The composer always lives, facing the unknown... that is why there are also lots of people who go abroad – Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands... they do very well.
In this sense, for example the GMCL founded by Jorge Peixinho, and also by me, has had a historical role. The GMCL has developed and continues developing and extraordinary work – making commissions to composers, organizing performances and competitions, recording CDs... Probably I am one of the eldest musicians, still living, who performed contemporary music in that time, that is in the 1970s...
I remember the time when the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation used to make much more commissions to composers. I used to participate in the famous Contemporary Music Meetings there, with Madalena Perdigão... one does really feel the lack of her. There, I had a lot of my music performed.
Presently, it would be good for us to have more opportunities for our works to be publicly presented. I have been waiting for 17 years to hear my work for orchestra Paisagem-interior (2000), which was performed this year in May by the Portuguese Symphony Orchestra under an extraordinary conductor: Alan Buribayev from Kazakhstan. Fortunately, the work has been a success. And I was very pleased, because I have wanted to listen to it for so long. Obviously, I will probably never hear the opera (O Desfigurado), which I composed still in the 1980s. I also have a Concerto for piano and orchestra (2003), which most probably I will also never listen to, because there are no possibilities... That's really a shame.

And what is, in your opinion, the composers' and musicians' role nowadays in the society?

CR: This question is difficult... I am not sure... To my mind, when a composer makes part of the present context, has his or her ears open to the modern world, to the novelty, and looks for innovation – then everything is fine! There's a really good material, nowadays in Portugal. There are a lot of people – both composers and performers. Some of them appeared for example in the context of the Young Musicians' Award (Prémio Jovens Músicos). In fact, recently, I have heard young people playing marvellously.There are string quartets, which I know to be very difficult... pianists... an excellent clarinet school. Nowadays in Portugal we have lots of musicians, with lots of talent!
I am curious, where all this shall get us... But most probably I already won't be here to see it...

Clotilde Rosa, October 2017
Transcription, edition and translation: Jakub Szczypa

MIC.PT In Focus from June 2012, dedicated to Clotilde Rosa