Canções dos Desassossego (Songs of Disquiet)
Canções dos Desassossego (Songs of Disquiet) is a six-movement work for soprano
and string quartet. Each movement contains three parts: a Cancão (Song) framed by
two Intervalos (Intervals). The text of each Intervalo is taken from both phases of the
incomplete novel Livro do Desassossego (Book of Disquet) by Vincent Guedes and
Bernardo Soares. The text of each Canção is a poem by either Álvaro de Campos,
Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caerio, or Fernando Pessoa. All of these authors (including
Fernando Pessoa) are heteronyms of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. A
heteronym (Pessoa’s term) is an invented character that the author writes as. They are
individuals with their own dates, influences, literary styles, and topics.
I have chosen to reflect the multiplicity of each authors language in the piece.
All of the Intervalos are in English translations, while the Cançōes set the original
Portuguese. The heart of each movement is its Canção, with the Intervalos acting as
musical and textual Preludes and Postludes. The Intervalos introduce and expound
upon ideas found in each poem. I have selected passages from Jerónimo Pizarro’s
edition of Livro do Desassossego and translated to them to English. Writings from the
Book of Disquiet then frame a poem by other heteronyms of Pessoa. The poems deal
with a variety of topics: apathy, music, weather, politics, the nature of reality, dreams,
The text is found below.
The death of Harold Bloom in October of 2019 caused me to reflect upon my
dearth of literary knowledge. My mother gifted me Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet for
Christmas a few months later as recommended in Bloom’s The Western Canon. I
finished it in February 2020 in Amherst, MA, and being the beautiful college town
Amherst is I walked to a bookstore and bought all the Pessoa I could find. A month
later, on St. Patrick’s Day, I could no longer read at my favourite bar in Davis, CA, so I
spent the next few years in my studio apartment with Fernando Pessoa and all
seventy-plus of his heteronyms and the many translations that exist of his work. I had
the time of my life.
The first line I read from the Book of Disquiet (which Pessoa called “The saddest
book in Portugal”) captures the essence of the diary-like prose of a manic-depressive
assistant bookkeeper living in Lisbon.
“Sometimes I think I will never leave Rua dos Douradores. And having written this, it
seems to me eternity.”
– from the second phase of the Book of Disquiet by Bernardo Soares, translation
by Margaret Jull Costa
Canções dos Desassossego was awarded a Chamber Music America Classical
Commissioning Grant in 2021. It was composed for soprano Sharon Harms and the
Lyris String Quartet, to whom the score is dedicated. I desperately wanted to write
songs for these five musicians and I hope I succeeded.
“And I am offering you this book because I know it to be both beautiful and
useless. It teaches nothing, preaches nothing, arouses no emotion. It is a stream that
runs into an abyss of ashes that the wind scatters and which neither fertilize nor harm
– I put my whole soul into its making, but I wasn’t thinking of that at the time, only of
my own sad self and you, who are no one.
And because this book is absurd, I love it; because it is useless I want to give it
to you, and because there is no point in wanting to give it to you, I give it anyway…
Pray for me when you read it, bless me by loving it and forget it as I forget
those women, mere dreams I never knew how to dream.”
– from the first phase of the Book of Disquiet by Vincente Guedes, translation by
Margaret Jull Costa