Any anthology of music for Christmas would be incomplete without the inclusion of the work of Fernando Lopes-Graça who is considered by many to be the outstanding composer of the 20th century. Starting at the age of only fourteen as a pianist in the Cine-Teatro of Tomar his musical career was chequered by his political activities as an opponent of the fascist regime. This resulted in the continuous harassment of his studies at conservatoires in Portugal and France including both banishment and imprisonment .

Despite such extreme vicissitudes, Lopes-Graça enriched Portuguese musicology by his assiduous research of traditional songs and dances which enabled the writing of two “Cantatas do Natal”. They were first performed on the Eve of Christmas in 1950 and in 1961 and consisted of a total of thirty-four carols and ballads of mainly religious sources for the Nativity, New Year and the Kings. Nearly one half were rooted in the secretive Trás-os-Montes region and reflected some of the most ancient Iberian folklore.

Fernando Lopes-Graça: Cantos do Natal (‘Christmas Songs’), LG 203, Op. 97

Between 1934 and 1958 he wrote seven other concert performances for the Christmas season culminating in “Presente de Natal para as Crianças” (a Christmas gift for chidren) with eight song-poems devoted to the humility and holiness of the boy-child.

Strangely for such a national figure, there seem to be only a few recordings of this vast output and these are mainly digital adaptations of LPs. These are available in Cd or MP3 format from companies such as Naxos or from academic sources such as university libraries .

From the Folkways Collection of the Smithsonian Institute I obtained a copy of the recording made on tape in December 1955 at the Estrela Basilica church. It has a duration of only 28 minutes with ten tracks featuring Christmas songs both secular and religious none of which appear to be attributable to Lopes-Graça but are interesting nevertheless as examples of Portuguese anthems of celebration. The choir is not named but the sleeve notes claim that the ensemble included a bagpiper and an elephant although its trumpeting is not audible !

By Roberto Knight Cavaleiro