twentieth-century music


Between Political Engagement and Aesthetic Autonomy: Fernando Lopes-Graça's Dialectical Approach to Music and Politics



In this article the highly contested relationship between art and politics in the twentieth century is discussed by way of the life and work of the Portuguese composer Fernando Lopes-Graça (1906–94). Lopes-Graça, who described himself as ‘a communist from birth’, lived for almost fifty years in Salazar's ‘New State’, a Fascist-type dictatorship, which emerged from a military putsch in 1926 and lasted until 1974. His experience as a communist under a right-wing régime was therefore very different from that of either communist composers living in Western democratic countries or those active in the Eastern bloc. Lopes-Graça stood apart from most other party intellectuals in his resistance to the doctrine of socialist realism. Yet from 1945 onwards he composed revolutionary songs in which his communist engagement is directly evident. Understanding this apparent tension within his output requires both a careful and nuanced understanding of his own personal position and a clear distinction between political engagement in music on the one hand and socialist realist or neo-realist tendencies on the other. It is that latter distinction – between (in the composer's own terms) ‘lived action’ and ‘imagined action’ – that accounts for the seemingly contradictory coexistence in Lopes-Graça's thinking of aesthetic autonomy and political commitment, and in his music of (to adopt categories posited by Heinrich Besseler) both ‘presentational’ music (for conventional concert settings) and ‘colloquial’ music (to be sung and played ad libitum in political meetings, at demonstrations, in the home, or even in political prisons).

Mário Vieira de Carvalho is Professor of the Sociology of Music at Universidade Nova de Lisboa and Chairman of CESEM (Research Institute for the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music). He has taught as a guest professor at the Humboldt University, Berlin, and at the universities of Innsbruck and São Paulo. He is a member of the Lisbon Academy of Sciences and the board of directors of the Europäische Musiktheater-Akademie, Vienna. His publications include the books Fernando Lopes-Graça: pensar a música, mudar o mundo (Campo das Letras, 2006) and A tragédia da escuta: Luigi Nono e a música do século XX (Imprensa Nacional Casa da Moeda, 2007), as well as books on music and literature (1999, 2005) and on the staging of opera (2005) and its social history (Denken ist Sterben: Sozialgeschichte des Opernhauses Lissabon, Bärenreiter, 1999). He is editor of the volume Expression, Truth, Authenticity: on Adorno's Theory of Music and Musical Performance (Colibri, 2009).


I would like to express my gratitude to the Museu da Música Portuguesa, Cascais, for their support and collaboration, and to the two anonymous reviewers for this journal, who provided insightful comments on an earlier version of this article.