The doctor from Porto who wants to set poems from the PALOP and East Timor to music

  • Dulce Pereira Abrantes

  • Article




Rui Soares da Costa, surgeon, composer and musician, granted an interview to “Porto.”, and explained a project of his that has been around for a while, which he is now trying to get to new horizons: to set to music a project themed “Natal Português”, with poems written in the PALOP (Portuguese-speaking African countries, also known as Lusophone Africa) and East Timor, and offers cues on how to assess music, by explaining the difference (or not), between lyrics and music, as well as clarifying how he composes music, and also relevant, how is it possible to excel in two apparently dissimilar areas – Medicine and Music – and finding the time to say that “I am happy because I do what I like”.

Just as Mendelssohn put it, “It's not that music is too imprecise for words, but too precise."

Rui Manuel de Melo Soares da Costa is a surgeon and a composer. His life experience shows that one does not have to choose between the passion for music and the calling for Medicine. Combining these two facets may not be easy, but Rui Soares da Costa shows that it can be done.

A project occupies the days (maybe nights) of the surgeon/composer, which started some years ago, but has been somewhat suspended; still, his goal is to conclude the project and to show how we, the Portuguese, are sung and spoken in the PALOP and in East Timor. The particularity of such project is that the theme has to be poetry about Christmas or the Christmas season. “Not that I am nostalgic, but I thought that there should be texts on Christmas or the essence of Christmas, which is what interests me the most, in any corner of the Portuguese world”.

On the topic being Christmas, Rui Soares da Costa points out that “Christmas is that time of year when there is fraternity between all people or at least there should be”, and that “I would like to make a song that would touch people’s heart and souls, and once again combining music and verse”.

The prelude of such endeavour was the fact that Rui Soares da Costa attended a performance ta the Palácio na Bonjóia, in Porto, a while ago, and it was about the Timorese culture, and someone was reciting a poem about Christmas; “I asked them to show me the poem and the moment I got home I immediately started writing music. This was the starting point to move forward with the project, always having in mind that this would be one of the five pieces that would make the “Natal Português”; unfortunately, I was not able to find any good poems on the topic yet; I want to find texts from those places where we have been to, and perpetuate our presence there, with Xmas songs” Rui Soares da Costa explains and furthers that “Portugal is easy; then there is Brazil, where I have not looked into yet; East Timor, I was fortunate to find already; and then there is Africa – Guinea, S. Tomé and Príncipe, Mozambique, Angola and Cabo Verde; I always thought it would be easy to find, but I was frustrated; all I could find was poetry related to work and war”, clarifies Rui Soares da Costa.

Born on 25th May 1958, in the parish of Cedofeita, in Porto, Rui Soares da Costa completed high school in Liceu D. Manuel II and graduated with a degree in Medicine at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Porto, in the specialist area of General Surgery at the Hospital de Santo António. Between 1998 and 2020, he worked at the Hospital de S. João, where he was Director of the Outpatient Surgery Service, from 2011 until his retirement, in 2020.

His musical studies and medicine classes have always gone hand in hand, with Rui Soares da Costa having attended the Higher Piano Course and the undergraduate Composition Diploma in Porto Conservatory of Music. A big part of his active life, he combined his job as a surgeon and his job as a Music Training teacher, for more than 12 years, in the Curso de Música Silva Monteiro.

In addition to the musical achievements of this surgeon from Porto, which are the motto of this interview, it is only appropriate to name his laudable accomplishments in Medicine, namely the innovative technique he has invented to treat inguinal hernias. As in medicine, also in the music field, Rui Soares da Costa has been widely acknowledged; in 2011 he was awarded the Golden Medal of the City by Porto City Hall, for outstanding achievements in Music.

About the Medal, the composer - has as he likes to describe himself – affirms that “it was quite a surprise; I have always been low-profile, as I don’t like these things interfering with my peace, in that sense. I never thought I had been noticed. I took the award as a responsibility, to try to do more, I don’t mean to be an example, but, at least to make people understand that it is possible to do more than one thing and try to be the best we can”.

And, in fact, Rui Soares da Costa has managed to successfully combine, two apparently different fields of interest: Medicine and Music. The latter being “a world that I think everyone should know or, at least, have some connection with”.

“This was the beginning of my musical life”, explained Rui Soares, furthering that “I would have been four years old, when my mother took me to the Porto Conservatory of Music, where there was a course for children based on the Edgar Willems method. I was singing, hand in hand with my mother and the Director of the Conservatory, back then, Ms Maria do Céu Diogo, heard my singing and asked my mother if I would like to join the Conservatory to learn music and my mother gave me that opportunity in life, which I think I could never thank her enough”.

Rui Soares da Costa followed the typical path: attending classes, with teachers, until he was 12 years old; but, as with every teenager and adolescent crisis, he dropped classes and only the following year, at the insistence of his parents, resumed the learning of music, only this time attending private lessons, tutored by Aida Monteiro. “And this”, clarifies Rui Soares da Costa, “clicked with me, so much so that I never stopped working on music, writing music and to that lady I owe to be able to understand how music works”.

Once the Higher Piano Degree was concluded, Rui Soares da Costa states that “I had to choose a life”. Referring to the Revolution period in Portugal, he says that “those were the times following the 25th April 1974, and what I wanted to do was in music was to become a maestro, a composer, because I never saw myself as a pianist; I was well aware of my technical shortcomings; and although I perform in numerous concerts, that was not the type of life I wanted for myself, for a pianist is a very lonely person, and also, I had constraints that would not have permitted me to be among the good pianists. I did away with that idea”, he concludes.

But Rui Soares da Costa didn’t do away with music. He studied medicine, in the specialist area of General Surgery, like his father, who also was a surgeon, although he claims that that fact did not determine his choice. His father and close members of the family pushed for him to devote full time to Medicine, but for Rui it was clear that he would continue to study music, as well.

“I’ve always thought that, a bit like the Renaissance time, it is not sensible for a man to do just one thing, even because if something goes wrong, he may get depressed as he has nothing to cling to; by doing more than one thing, he can have merit in one of those. I concluded my Medical course and continued studying music, and I was only able to finish my Music course the year following my graduation in Medicine; in those times, because of the 25th April, it was not possible to enrol in two higher degrees at the same time”, observes Rui Soares da Costa.

To the question, whether he sees himself more of a pianist or a composer, Rui Soares da Costa responds with a categorical “composer. I play the piano; I perform in concerts, which I see, personally, as challenges I have to overcome, that is my motivation when I prepare a concert. I write music for poetry, I try to set the poems that mean the most to me, and there are plenty because we have amazing poets. Let me explain with a preamble: to me, music is a way of speaking, it is a language, an universal language that everyone understands; it might not be the same way, but it will speak to our brain at deep level; music influences us a lot, indeed”, ascertains the surgeon/composer.

“I will not dwell on the fact that cows produce more milk under the Mozart effect, but the same effects occur in our way of being and acting; actually, music puts us in a different place than this one, where we speak. With the “sound” language, let’s say, we can develop more powerful images, richer ones, when we combine those two languages”, Rui Soares da Costa explains.

As regards the project that was the most rewarding (and was also more laborious, as he puts it) to carry out, so far, in the musical field, Rui Soares da Costa pinpoints the composition of the musical piece of the Inês de Castro episode , “which I named INEZ”. “The text is wonderful, it was sort of “commissioned” by my beloved friend Manuel Ivo Cruz, who loved that episode; it took me one year to address the text and four to write the music”, notes Rui, the composer.

On the composition process, Rui Soares da Costa affirms that “each time I compose I don’t do it by the piano; I can say that Inês de Castro was first composed in my head and only then transposed to the piano. In music, I find it fascinating to put ideas on paper. I write notes in the most incredible places; I recall a particular piece, which was “O Mar Português” by Fernando Pessoa, and that was an adventure: nine very intense months. I remember driving to the hospital, to go to work, and I would have this idea and could barely wait to stop the car and write that down”, enthuses Rui Soares da Costa.

Rui Soares da Costa music curriculum is far too extensive to be enumerated here; however, we highlight that he began studying with Leopoldina Vieira da Cruz, at the age of five, and studied under the guidance of Odete Gouveia and Aida Monteiro, and concluded his studies with Amélia Vilar. He graduated in Piano Higher Studies in 1984, in Porto Conservatory of Music, with Fernanda Wandschneider and later on, studied under the guidance of Helena de Sá e Costa, Jean Martin, Carlos Cebro and Paul Trein.

In 1994, he studied Choral Direction under the guidance of Hubert Velten, and in 2015 he completed the degree in Conducting by the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), with maestro Afonso Alves. He was a Musical Training teacher at the Curso de Música Silva Monteiro, from 1979 to 1992.