The Eminent Portuguese pianist, pedagogue and composer, José Vianna da Motta, was born in São Tomé Island, a Portuguese territory at the time where his father, also a great music amateur, had opened a pharmacy. His family returned to Mainland Portugal when he was a year old, and settled in Colares, near Sintra. His unusual talents for music received their first decisive stimulus. He studied first with local teacher, then attended the Conservatory of Music in Lisbon, and by 1881 (age 13) was giving his first public concert, with a programme including works of his own composition. Prince Dom Fernando and the Countess of Edla were quick to appreciate his precocious talents and decided to sponsor his studies. Consequently, immediately after finishing his tertiary studies at the age of only 14, he went to Berlin to seek new educational and artistic horizons. “I travelled there in October 1882”, recalled the Master in later years. “From then until May 1914, I lived in Germany interrupting my time only for performing tours in Europe and the two Americas. Thus I was able to observe at close hand the incomparable world of music in Germany during the transition from the 19th century to the 20th, one of the richest periods ever in the history of music in all respects: creation, interpretation, aesthetic and philosophical research, and historic and academic discoveries.”
For the first three years, José Vianna da Motta attended the Scharwenka Conservatory where he studied piano with X. Scharwenka and composition with p. Scharwenka. It was no time at all before he became strongly attracted to Wagner’s work and personality. Years later he would display his profound knowledge and purist support in countless conferences and papers, and also in his constant assistance with the Bayreuth Blätter. Later on, he had a valuable encounter with Franz Liszt in Weimar. He described the beginning of this relationship in the following way: “It was in July 1885, at around three o’clock in the afternoon. When I entered the room where Liszt received people, it was packed. The Master was a majestic figure dressed in a long Abbe coat. He had a serene, severe expression, which was not intimidating but rather paternal. He was standing, surrounded by a sea of heads of all descriptions, of which the female variety stood out for the familiarity with which they addressed him. Internationally famous artists who were there on that occasion included Stavenhagen, Friedheim, Lamond, and Adele. After I was introduced, he invited me at once to sit down at the piano where I played his study Ronde des Lutins. He did not stop me but after I had finished he said, ‘A little more cautiously; don’t rush into the start. You can come back.’ This last sentence was my dream come true: I had been admitted to Liszt’s circle”. In fact, the great Hungarian pianist showed increasing interest towards his young student, inviting him to meet up with him in Rome the following year. This direct, rich contact with the marvellous F. Liszt school, of which Vianna da Motta would shortly become one of the most brilliant exponents, was sadly cut short by the death of the composer of the Preludes. However, it continued on another plane through meetings and studies with Hans von Bülow (in Frankfurt am Main, 1887), who had no doubts about giving him a star position in this brilliant piano tradition, alongside Eugen d’Albert.
José Vianna da Motta undertook then a series of concert tours throughout Europe (1887-1888). He won secure international prestige with the concomitant need to travel endlessly although he retained Berlin as his base. He gave frequent solo concerts and performances with orchestras and also worked with other famous musicians of the period such as Ysaye, Sarasate Nachez, Emil von Sauer and Gabriele Wietrowerz, the cellist Heinrich Grunfeld and singers Amalie Joachim, Hermme Spies, Marcella Sempbrien, Elena Gerhardt and Francisco de Andrade. His first trip to the USA took place in 1892-1893, his second in 1899, and he only returned in 1906 having achieved major success there and in Brazil and Argentina (1902).
In Berlin José Vianna da Motta continued to enjoy a unique friendship with Ferruccio Busoni. The Italian pianist dedicated his transcription of chorale preludes to him “for having understood so well his editions of works by Bach”. “We were Linked by a true communion of ideas”, told the Master, “although we could never agree on two points: one was (in my opinion) his excessive admiration for Berlioz, and the other was my admiration for Wagner which he never shared”. As is sometimes the case, this friendship grew stronger due to the liveliness of their arguments. This was noted with irony in the words F. Busoni wrote to Vianna da Motta when he sent him the second edition of his “Aesthetics”: “To his now doubting, now believing, near, distant, approving, rejecting, constantly faithful and highly esteemed friend”. F. Busoniscored two cadenzas for W.A. Mozart’s piano concerto in E flat minor for Vianna da Motta and the Portuguese pianist performed them under F. Busoni’s baton in Berlin in 1913. This event completed an exceptionally brilliant period in his career. The change in atmosphere which was just about to emerge with the outbreak of World War I coincided with the development and crowning of his personality in a wealth of magnificent diversity which would lend him much greater depth. The concert pianist continued to attract new applause throughout his countless triumphs. At the height of his career, he was greatly esteemed as a fine interpreter of J.S. Bach and L.v. Beethoven.
José Vianna da Motta’s qualities as a teacher were revealed in 1914 when he left Berlin and took over the piano class at the Geneva Conservatory, following on from Stavenhagen. In 1917, he settled at last in Lisbon and in 1919 he was appointed Director of the National Conservatory, where he played an all-encompassing, productive role, retiring in 1938. There is not enough room here to enumerate the brilliant students he produced as his strong influence has been felt through many generations of pianists and teachers. During the 1919 and 1920 seasons, he directed a series of symphonic concerts in Lisbon’s Politeama, confirming the unusual breadth of his musical knowledge.
José Vianna da Motta’s was a prolific composer; among his works were Die Lusiaden for Orchestra and Chorus; Symphony; String Quartet; many piano pieces, in some of which (e.g., the 5 Portuguese Rhapsodies and the Portuguese dance Vito) he employs folk themes with striking effect. His talents as a composer are reflected primarily in his piano works and the Patria Symphony. He played an outstanding role in the development of Portuguese music thanks to his input into the nationalist school with its folk inspiration. He was also the author of countless articles in German, French, and Portuguese; wrote Studien bei Bülow (1896); Betrachtungen über Franz Liszt (a biography of F. Liszt, 1898); Die Entwicklung des Klavierkonzem (as a programme book to F. Busoni’s concerts); essays on Charles-Valentin Alkan; critical articles in the Kunstwart, Klavierlehrer, Bayreuther Blätter, etc. To this wide range of talents should be added his magnificent edition of the great masters of keyboard music (F. Liszt, L.v. Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Frédéric Chopinand some studies by Carl Czerny). Many of his essays and recollections are included in the Music and German Musiciansbooks.
In 1927 José Vianna da Motta represented Portugal in the commemorations of the centenary of L.v. Beethoven’s death in Vienna. He himself made a valuable contribution to the commemorations by performing all 32 L.v. Beethoven sonatas in Lisbon in a memorable series of recitals in the Conservatory. The profits from these were used to set up the Beethoven prize. The extraordinary talents, which had made him one of the greatest pianists of his time, meant that he retained his qualities practically until the end of his life. In 1945 he had performed for the last time in Lisbon appearing with National Radio Broadcasting Orchestra under the baton of Pedro de Freitas Branco in a spectacular performance of F. Liszt’s Dance Macabre. The audience gave him what appeared to be an endless standing ovation in admiration for this outstanding pianist and in homage to one of the greatest figures in Portugal’s musical history.
In 1951 the Vianna da Motta International Piano Competition was founded in Lisbon in his memory.