The choral music of Javier Bello-Portu has two main facets: the first consists of his own original works and the second is made up of his adaptations of popular melodies. His composing style can be seen in the tonal order and is based on principles born out of a melodic impulse which develops in a traditional way with well-defined outlines and accessible lines. There is a predominance of the upper voice over the others and a preference for cohesive homorhythmic textures, underpinning a wide-ranging functional harmonic praxis, full of unexpected colours and “impressionistic” sonority.
His first original compositions have their origin in the Holy Week religious processions in Tolosa and are based on the Latin version of biblical texts. O vos omnes (1937) comes from “Lamentations”, a book that tries to describe the reality of the absolute suffering that results from alienation from God. Bello-Portu recreates the idea of the “austere responsory” in a three-part homophonic polyphony that starkly juxtaposes binary and ternary rhythms, as in the Miserere (1946), a penitential psalm that both highlights the situation of the penitent sinner searching for inner renewal and displays the nature of God’s mercy. The Miserere takes on the structure of a fauxbourdon, a sort of recitative in which every verse settles onto a single chord, the last syllables being articulated in a suspended semi-cadence ending in a perfect cadence, the harmony being embellished with short bursts of three-part counterpoint. The same music is used for all the verses which alternate with Gregorian chant.
Ave Maria (1949), with organ accompaniment, completes the group of religious pieces. The composer emphasizes the various parts of this well-known prayer by using canonical imitations in the angel’s greeting and homorhythmic textures for the words of praise in “Benedicta Tu”; using the major mode for the invocation “Sancta Maria”. The coda, with the repetition of the ‘Amen’, is used to great expressive effect.
His ‘secularly’ inspired music paves the way for other expressive registers, as in A mi flor (1947) where he takes on the concise lyricism of a short poem by Federico de Zavala (1916-1993). This is also evident in a first series of songs based on popular sources.
The starting point for the composer’s adaptations of traditional songs is diametrically different from his own original compositions as the text has a pre-existing melody. The composer focuses on the elaboration of harmony, rhythm and texture, and freely adapts the folk material so that the literal “translation” allows a “dramatization” of the song, based on recreating and developing the poetical subtexts. This is why he incorporates into the melody embellishments or musical interludes and literary texts of his own invention. These episodes often help to structure the piece, being like the central section of a formal three-part structure; we can see this in A Belén (1942), Lastozko zubiya (1946) and Carta del Rey (1950). A Belén is made up of two Christmas carols linked by the common theme of the adoration of the shepherds; the title piece provides the framework, while the second one: “Pastores venid!” makes up the contrasting middle section. The middle section of Lastosko zubiya contains an interesting thematic exercise which is quite different from the one undertaken in the same period by Jesus Guridi in the last of his orchestral piece entitled “Diez melodías vascas”. In the same way, Carta del Rey presents, in its central section, a brief ascending sequence of evocative and sombre colours that contrasts with the directness of the simple basic tune. It is interesting to note that Bello-Portu does not address the “letter” to the girls of Orán, as is the case with many transcriptions of this song, but to the Oráa girls, in clear reference to the Navarrese soldier Marcelino Oráa y Lecumberri (1788-1851) who fought in the War of Independence and who later became a distinguished military leader of Isabelline Spain during the First Carlist War.
Two original compositions, Llanto por Martín Zalacain de Urbía (1952) and Soule (1953), mark a clear turning point in the development of his compositional style which displays an intensification of modal elements and a more and more subtle harmonic refinement.
The music and the text of the first piece are born out of the composer’s personal experience, relating to the exciting discovery of the path that leads to the little village of Zaro, where, in the cemetery, the protagonist of Pío Baroja’s novel “Zalacain the Adventurer “was buried. The work is, according to Bello-Portu, like a “paraphrase” of this character.
The sound of a bell (a reference to Baroja’s text: “from time to time, the striking of the clock’s hammer is heard, the voice of subdued, sombre death, that echoes sadly in the valley”) opens the prelude, vocalized “like a lament”. A solo voice intones the calmly serene diatonic melody, accompanied by soli from the choir “humming”. The modal harmonies convey a sonority which has an atmospheric and rather unreal quality about it, surrounding the music like a luminous mist. After the repeat of the prelude the whole choir takes up the melody again with a different harmony. Finally, a section of the prelude turns the painful lament into a desolate lullaby. The general piano dynamic, the different vocal mixes and the array of vocal density show that Bello-Portu is trying to make use of sound semantics – this becomes clear in the whispering of the open ending, evoking the search for an horizon of secret meaning, hanging in the distance, like a mirage.
The text in Soule comes from the second verse of the traditional song “Adios ene maitia”. This is alluded to in the first bars where the words of farewell of the man who is leaving his beloved are mingled with her bewildered comments, her mumbled words then becoming part of her questioning response. This simultaneity of texts which gives an elliptical shape to the scene relies on the expressive emphasis of ascending portamenti. Then begins the melodic, diatonic, restrained and bitter section, expressing her feelings towards her beloved and her incomprehension at his departure. Long lyrical phrases express her affirmation of love. But the lover’s last farewell in the distance shows that the romance is over. This fatum could only be expressed through a particular formal structure, that is to say “through-composed” (durchkomponiert)*. As if wanting to drown memories of deep nostalgia, the composer then includes a coda that recreates the strident and monotonous recitation which ends the Souletin Pastorals. This unusual “azken pheredikia” [last sermon], that transforms the classic recitative-aria model, is a space-time signalling of a particular event: Shrove Tuesday in Tardets [Atharratze].
In Canción de invierno (1957) the composer uses a few poems from the book “La fuente pensativa” by Juan Ramón Jiménez. The relationship between the repeated fragments of the poem and the alternating of quasi recitativi passages with a different musical refrain each time, is surprising, as is the expressive effectiveness of the unison sections and the “empty” fifths of the third stanza, which is significantly different from the others (“I have no caged birds”). The whole poem is built around an acoustic stimulus, the singing of a few invisible birds, a haunting sound image that Bello-Portu uses to great effect.
The aesthetic mood of Canción de invierno can also be seen in Berceuse de Reparacea (1957). It was perhaps the aristocratic feel of this traditional melody that made the composer set it in the palace of Reparacea, built at the end of the eighteenth century in Oieregi, “on the banks of the Baztán”. The bewitching magic of the soporific verbal refrain is reflected in the suspensive effect of the texture of second inversion chords in the first phrase and the syncopated bass notes that envelop the second one in dreamy echoes. He avoids using the harmony of the dominant chord and all the cadences remain suspended in order to create a magical atmosphere in which we feel irremediably immersed.
His dedication to traditional songs is also apparent in the diptych Iparraguirre (1954) where he adapts for upper voices two songs by José Mª Iparraguirre, Nere amak baleki and Agur Euskalerriari, which had previously been adapted for mixed voices in Un Homenaje a Iparraguirre. In Nere amak baleki he now incorporates some melodic variants and new harmonic colours as well as framing the song with a “hummed” passage.
Eguerria! (1955) consists of two clearly differentiated parts. The first, written for four voices, is an original piece by Bello-Portu based on a text that is a reworking of a traditional Christmas carol quoted by Pío Baroja in “The Legend of Jaun de Alzate”:
Ay! Au egunen
The composer rejects the poems lacking in religious “tone”, although he refers rather nicely in the text to the shepherds Anton and Peru (protagonists of another well-known popular Carol), harmonizing this first evocation of Christmas Eve with the more contemplative ambience of the second part which includes the French Carol, also well-known in the Basque Country, “Oi Betleem!”.
Then, his dedication to choral composition stops for a period of almost thirty years. The only exception to this is one original composition:
No lloréis, mis ojos (1975). For this song the composer selects some verses from the Carol that the shepherdess Finarda sings in “Shepherds of Bethlehem” by Lope de Vega. The text blends simplicity and theological mystery in a tender and ingenuous way. Bello-Portu constructs a formal filigree pattern full of expression marks: dolce, “with heartfelt simplicity”, “a little anxiously”, “intense and with emotion”, “calm and imploring”, “with great feeling but without affectation”.
A tragic event, the death of Antxon Ayestarán in a car accident on December 22, 1986, at just 47 years old, leads to the composition of the work that begins Bello-Portu’s last creative stage. It is a complainte in memory of his friend, who was at the time conductor of the Orfeón Donostiarra (The Choral Society of San Sebastian): Garat-Anthon Ayestarán (1987). The title of the work is in itself an oration that links the mythical figure of the Bordeaux tenor, Pierre Jean Garat (1762-1823), a nationalized Basque from the Romantic tradition, with that of Anthon Ayestarán (also a tenor, incidentally). This association comes from an existing connection between the text chosen by Bello-Portu for the first part of the work and Garat. The afore-mentioned text, attributed to Charles Philippe Henri Louis viscount of Belzunce (1796-1872), comes, indeed, from one song - “Charmangarria“- the music for which is attributed to Garat in the collection of “Airs Basques” published by the tenor Pascal Lamazou in 1869.
The piece is made up of two differentiated parts. The first is a funeral epitaph where long pedal notes underpin a modal melody that ends in an unexpected cadence. In the second part, which is faster, the composer’s own text narrates the facts of the fatal news in Bayonne (where Bello-Portu was conductor of the “Choeur du Pays Basque”) and expresses the grief and the tributes of “Garat’s descendants”. The array of dynamics is extensive, from the solemn sonority of the ff down to the supersensitive ppppp of the coda. This section, reserved for the farewells, passes into another dimension as if the sound semantics were mixed with a voice capable of reflecting the inner song of silence.
From the analysis of the works of the 90s, a particularly prolific decade, it might be inferred that Bello-Portu’s creative power is driven principally by extending his use of expressive resources. Indeed, in his final works, a major and more decisive presence of dissonances can be seen alongside a marked development of rhythmic parameters, but the use of these “energetic” conventional tools does not prevent a certain process of abstraction and reflection, that becomes clear in Don Miguel de Unamuno: Tres sonetos (1996) and Dos Fábulas de Félix Mª Samaniego (1997).
The musical simplicity, the restrained atmosphere, the rhythmic insistence, the repetition of the same melodic fragment and the phonic appeal of diminutives are unique features of the lullaby Buba ñiñaño (1991) that Bello-Portu transforms into an enigmatic sonority expanded into a dream of eternity in the final chord with the seven notes of the scale.
In Donostiaco damachoac (1992) he adapts the transcription of the popular melody that the violinist Delphin Alard (1815-1888) interpreted for the afore-mentioned collection of “Airs Basques” by Pascal Lamazou. Bello-Portu frames the piece with an instrumental variation by Alard and surrounds it with a text of his own that places the damsels from San Sebastian in the Carnival.
The poem Ostiraletan duzu (1992) reveals a dialogue in which tears of affectionate love well up. The composer creates a charming atmosphere of nostalgia by adding an original variation at the end of every popular stanza. He also creates a stratified texture that contains an original ostenato in the tenors based on the repetition of a pattern of three quavers.
Plainte de la jeune châtelaine (1992) is based on the famous ballad of the Young Châtelaine of Tardets. Bello-Portu selects three stanzas from this touching poem and changes the narrative sequence. The prelude anticipates the insistent ringing of the Tardets bells, whose vehement and serious tones will reverberate throughout the piece, underpinning the folk tune. The first stanza describes the marriage proposal to one of the Châtelain of Tardet’s two daughters by the King of Hungary. The composer then goes on to the end of the ballad that describes the sorrow at the death of the young woman who is considered to be a saint and who receives the name of her sister Clara; the author indicates that “the courtship has to be like a parade, full of elegance, rhythm and evocation”. The last stanza contains the daughter’s reproach to her father for marrying her off, “selling her”, without her consent. Bello-Portu explains the character of the stanza in this way: It will represent the Young Châtelaine’s sobbing: the basses will evoke the mother, who would not have allowed her daughter to leave. Observe that the <Aita> (Father) is a reproach and the <Ama> (Mother) is an encouraging request… ”. The music disappears in a distant echo of laments and bells.
His last work, Dos fábulas de Félix Mª Samaniego: Las moscas, La Serpiente y la Lima, is an original piece written for the Orfeón Vergarés for his 75th Anniversary. The recipient and the town of Vergara commissioned him to choose two stories from the first Book of “Fables in Castilian verse for the use of the Royal Basque Seminar” by Félix María Samaniego (1745-1801), an active member of the Royal Basque Society (founded in 1764 by his uncle Javier María de Munibe, count of Peñaflorida) who had been linked to the Vergara Seminar since its foundation. The formal exposition of “through-composed” music, similar to the storyline of the fables gives rise to music which is differentiated for the various parts of the main narrative and the moral. The composing style is now more abstract and laconic. The composer does not use the texts in a deliberately didactic way but rather uses them from the almost ironic stance of someone who accepts and understands human frailty.
The in-depth study of Javier Bello-Portu’s work reveals that one of the keys to the seductive power of his choral music resides in the emotion and pleasure that the composer has felt during the creative process; emotion underpinned by technically demanding work and imagery fed by the thoughts of a lucid spirit, will certainly produce an identical effect in the listener. This is intensely personal music that deserves a special place in the standard repertoire just as it has in the hearts of those of us who were lucky enough to enjoy his friendship and to be enriched by his teaching.
Translation: Hilary Knight
*Translator’s note: durchkomponiert – each stanza of the lyrics is set to different music
-Tres canciones sentimentales:
Berzeuse de Reparazea
Plainte de la jeune châtelaine
-Tres canciones alegres:
Llanto por Martín Zalacaín de Urbía
Garat Anthon Ayestarán
-Tres canciones nostálgicas:
A mi amor
Carta del rey
-Dos fábulas de Felix María de Samaniego
La serpiente y la lima
-Nere amak baleki
-No lloréis is ojos
-Canción de invierno
-O vos omnes
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