The Star-Spangled Banner and the Indian connection

This year marks the bicentenary of the writing of the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States of America.

The poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry” was written by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843), lawyer and amateur poet. During the Anglo-American War of 1812, Key was witness to the 25-hour bombardment of American-held Fort Mc Henry at Chesapeake Bay, at the entrance to Baltimore harbour, by British ships of the Royal Navy on the night of 13-14 September.

Key was sent across a few days earlier to the British flagship HMS Tonnant as part of a two-man delegation sent to secure the exchange of prisoners between the warring sides. However, since he and his colleague had heard details of the plan for the attack on Baltimore, they were held captive aboard British warships until after the battle.

According to historical accounts, the Americans imposed a complete black-out in Baltimore, and the only light that rainy night was given off by the exploding shells over Fort McHenry (“the rockets’ red glare”), illuminating the American flag, then with fifteen strips and fifteen stars, the “star-spangled banner”, still stubbornly fluttering atop the fort. At dawn, it was still waving, and Key knew that the British attack had failed. It inspired him to write the poem on the back of an envelope in his pocket while returning to Baltimore.

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Key’s brother-in-law Judge Joseph H. Nicholson realised that the words of the poem fit the melody of a popular tune “The Anacreontic Song” by English composer John Stafford Smith. It eventually took on the title “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Although it became the official tune to be played at the raising of the flag in 1889, and at military and other occasions in 1916, there was no official anthem. Robert Ripley (of Ripley’s Believe it or Not fame) in 1929 drew a panel in his syndicated cartoon, captioned “Believe it or not, America has no national anthem.” The Star-Spangled Banner was officially adopted as the national anthem of the USA in 1931.

It is not the easiest of anthems to sing, on account of its wide note range, a twelfth (an octave plus a perfect fifth).

The rockets referred to in the anthem are the Congreve rocket, designed and developed by Sir William Congreve (1772-1828) ten years earlier. It was developed at the Royal Arsenal after the impressive performance of the Mysore rockets deployed by Hyder Ali (1721-1782) and his son Tipu Sultan (1750-1799) against the British East India Company in India, in the Second, Third and Fourth Mysore Wars, until the ‘Tiger of Mysore’ Tipu died valiantly in battle in 1799 and his kingdom fell with him. Several of the Mysore rockets were sent to England for analysis. From 1801, Congreve began a research and development programme at the Arsenal’s laboratory, leading to the Congreve rocket, an improvement upon the Mysore rocket.

In Tipu Sultan’s military manual Fathul Mujahidin, 200 rocket men were assigned to each Mysorean rocket artillery brigade called Cushoon. He had 16 to 24 such cushoons at his command. The military success of his rockets was their iron casing. It acted as a combustion chamber and also contained densely packed black powder propellant. This gave Tipu superior firepower compared to the British, whose rockets were not iron-cased, and could not withstand large chamber pressures and therefore their range was significantly reduced. Tipu Sultan is widely considered to be the father of rocket artillery in battle, and the devastating use against the British especially in the Third and Fourth Mysore Wars is regarded as a milestone in military history.

According to one British observer, a young English officer named Bayly: “So pestered were we with the rocket boys that there was no moving without danger from the destructive missiles …..The rockets and musketry from 20,000 of the enemy were incessant. No hail could be thicker. Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column, passing through to the rear, causing death, wounds, and dreadful lacerations from the long bamboos of twenty or thirty feet, which are invariably attached to them.”

Other accounts corroborated this. It was claimed that “the British at Seringapatam had suffered more from the rockets than from the shells or any other weapon used by the enemy” and an eyewitness told Congreve that in at least one instance, “a single rocket had killed three men and badly wounded others”.

The rockets contributed hugely to the military successes that pressured the British East India Company to sign the Treaty of Mangalore in 1784, bringing the Second Anglo-Mysore War to a close. It is of historical significance as it would be the last time that an Indian power would be able to dictate terms to the British. The humiliation of the treaty and the concurrent loss of the Thirteen Colonies in America made the British determined to put an end to Tipu Sultan. It was the writing on the wall for the British East India Company, whose stock shares dropped markedly after this, a matter of great concern to the British as its trade represented a sixth of the national income.

The Science Museum in London still has two Mysore rockets in its collection.

The Congreve rockets were to see action in the Napoleonic Wars as well in the War of 1812.

There is another “Indian” angle to the War of 1812. The real losers of the war were the Native American people, in particular those tribes that were allied willingly or otherwise with the British. Occupation of the Midwest by white ‘settlers’ had been fiercely opposed by Indian tribes, but the War of 1812 changed all this to the detriment of the Indians. At the post-war peace conference, the British had initially demanded an independent Indian state in the Midwest, but the withdrawal of British protection to see this through and the disintegration of the Indian confederation ensured that the Indian state never materialised.

(An edited version of this article was published on 14 September 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

I was pleased to receive today this feedback and information from Mr. Arun Prakash, and I reproduce it in full:

Dr Dias,
I enjoy reading your articles in the Navhind Times, even though I am often out of my depth as far as your learned commentaries on issues related to classical music are concerned.
However your latest piece on the Indian connection with the Star Spangled Banner gives me an opportunity to interact with you on a subject that I know a little about – ships.
In fact, when I read the title of the article, I assumed that you would be discussing the fact that Francis Scott Key was incarcerated on board HMS Minden (not the Tonnant),in Chesapeake Bay, when he was inspired to write, on the back of an envelope, the poem “Defense of Fort McHenry”, which later became the Star Spangled Banner.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to find you, very ingenuously, building upon the tenuous Tipu Sultan-William Congreve rocket connection to construct your fascinating piece.
Should you wish to return to this subject ever again, the ship Indian connection is much stronger………
HMS Minden was a Royal Navy 74-gun ship of the line (frigate), built in the Duncan Dock Bombay by M/s Wadia Master Shipbuilders. Built of stout Indian teak, she was launched on 19th June 1810, and saw half a century of service before being de-commissioned in 1861.
Incidentally, the oldest warship afloat today is HMS Trincomalee, Also built by the Wadias of Bombay in 1817 she is anchored in Hartlepool UK.
Regards ,
Arun Prakash

This month in Music History: 250th death anniversary of Jean-Philippe Rameau

Rameau

This month marks the 250th death anniversary of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1784), one of the most important French composers and music theorists of the Baroque period. He was the successor to Jean-Baptiste Lully as the leading composer of French opera, and like his contemporary compatriot François Couperin, a great French composer for his instrument, the harpsichord.

His Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels (Treatise on Harmony reduced to its natural principles) of 1722 earned him great fame as a music theorist, but it is as an operatic composer and composer for the harpsichord that he is chiefly remembered today.

Very little is known of his early life. The son (seventh of eleven children) of an organist in the main church in Dijon, he was taught music before he could read or write, and he later would claim that his passion for opera began when he was twelve. He was educated to be a magistrate, but took to music precociously, soon mastering the harpsichord, organ and violin, and teaching himself the elements of harmony and composition.

In his watershed Treatise on Harmony, he set forth for the first time the law of inversion in chords, evolved the system of chord-building by thirds (with the common chord as basis), and established a principle of chord progression by a “fundamental bass” not identical with the real bass of the music. His initial work did have flaws, which he amended and developed in subsequent publications. Rameau’s work stood out from previous treatises on harmony because he added a philosophical dimension in addition to the purely practical aspects of the subject, earning for himself the title “Isaac Newton of Music”.

Rameau was almost fifty when he made his operatic debut with Hippolye et Aricie. It generated great controversy for its revolutionary use of harmony and was lambasted by the supporters of Lully. It sparked off a pamphlet war between the ‘Lullyistes’ and the ‘Rameauneurs’. The latter was a pun on the word “ramoneur”, which meant chimney-sweep. But Rameau eventually won the day, and was in turn attacked in his own later life as an “establishment” composer.

The Querelle des Bouffons was the tussle of rival musical philosophies that raged in Paris in the 1750s, pitting French tragédie en musique against Italian opera buffa. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is known to us today as a philosopher, but he also fancied himself as a composer. He had written an opera, Les muses galantes (inspired by Rameau’s Indes galantes), but failed to impress Rameau with this musical tribute. In 1745, Voltaire (who was Rameau’s close friend and collaborator on many productions) and Rameau, who were busy on other works, commissioned Rousseau to turn La Princesse de Navarre into a new opera. Rousseau then claimed the two had usurped the credit for the words and music he had contributed, though most musicologists believe that the claim was spurious. Nevertheless, Rousseau held a life-long grudge against Rameau over this.

The Querelle des Bouffons had Rousseau and others in favour of Italian opera; and in one of life’s supreme ironies, the Lullyistes and Rameauneurs united in their support of French opera. The controversy did however help to steer the course of opera in a new direction, in favour of simplicity, something much after Gluck’s heart as well, as we have seen a few weeks ago. Indeed, Gluck’s three ‘reform’ operas of the 1760s betray an intimate knowledge of Rameau’s works. So when Gluck came to Paris in 1774 to produce a series of French operas it could be regarded as a continuation in the tradition of Rameau. Sadly, while Gluck grew in popularity, Rameau’s star soon waned, and interest in his music has only been revived in the latter part of the 20th century.

Rameau’s other operas especially his masterpieces Castor et Pollux and others were very successful, even though they were too often constrained by poor libretti. In 1745, he was appointed composer of the King’s chamber music. He was about to receive a patent of nobility before his death in 1784. Despite amassing wealth, he lived a simple life, and upon his death, his personal effects included worn-out clothes, his single pair of shoes, and a derelict single-keyboard harpsichord.

Rameau was an innovator not only in the theory but also the practice of harmony. His bold modulations and his varied part-writing are a significant step forward over his predecessors. He was one of the first to exploit the tone-colour resources of the orchestra, and by expanding the structure of the overture he pointed the way to the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart.

The music of Rameau made a dramatic impact on my life, through the Soweto Buskaid String Ensemble at the BBC Proms 2007 at the Royal Albert Hall London. Their programme highlighted the dance music of Rameau from his operas and ballets. Indeed, danced interludes were obligatory in Rameau’s operas, even his tragic ones. He is hailed by German scholar H.W. von Walthershausen as “the greatest ballet composer of all times.” Excerpts of dance music from his operas (Dardanus; Hippolyte et Aricie; Castor et Pollux; Naïs; Les Boréades) and his ballets (Zaïs; Les fêtes d’Hébé; Platée) were played and danced to on the Soweto Buskaid programme, a feast for the ears and eyes. I went to the concert as I was intrigued that the ensemble featured disadvantaged children who had been taught to play to such a high standard. This concert (and that of Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Orchestra, also comprising disadvantaged youth) was the decisive influence that led to the eventual creation of Child’s Play India Foundation www.childsplayindia.org. The poise, confidence and high standard of playing of the music of Rameau by those young boys and girls from Soweto had a profound effect on me. In that sense, the music of Rameau quite literally changed the course of my life, and I hope through Child’s Play it will touch the lives of so many others.

(An edited version of this article was published on 7 September 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Classical Music at the Movies: Tosca becomes a Bond gal!

Bang in the middle of the fast-paced James Bond film Quantum of Solace, the action spills over onto the stunning set of Giacomo Puccini’s opera thriller Tosca on a floating stage (Seebühne) of the historic opera house on the shore of Lake Constance or Bodensee, in Bregenz, Austria.

When the publicity director of the Bregenz Festspiele (Bregenz Festival) received a phone call from an English-speaking film producer who didn’t want to divulge too many details about the film, she jokingly said to her colleagues that it could be a Bond film. Many months later, she was surprised to find her hunch had been correct.

The Bond production team had originally been interested in the sets for the previous opera production Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (“The Masked Ball”) and one can see why. The very title suggests concealed identity and classic cloak-and-dagger potential. The set for this opera had a large skeletal hand turning the pages of a book. However, once a Bregenz opera production completes its two-year lifespan, the sets are destroyed. Fortunately, QoS director Marc Forster loved the set of Tosca as well. Both he and producer Barbara Broccoli were profoundly impressed – by the unique location on the shore of Lake Constance, the imposing stage set with its high level of technical sophistication, and the modern architecture of the Festival Opera House. This set featured a gigantic moving eye.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE

In an interview, Forster explained “I just loved the location, and I think the eye just has a great metaphor for Bond. Eyes and titles of Bond films and the gun barrel in the circle at the beginning. And I liked that it was ‘Tosca.’ And Puccini’s opera is also a metaphor of what is going on as well. I thought the whole thing was convenient…Tosca is a terrific metaphor for Bond on so many levels”.”

In the film plot, for some reason the “bad guys” choose to have a conference meeting through microphones and earpieces during a performance of Tosca while seated scattered about the opera house. Bond (Daniel Craig) eavesdrops on their conversation before breaking it up. The conspirators begin to exit from their seats, revealing their identities to Bond, and prompting the lone one of them who stays behind to shrug as he says “Well, Tosca isn’t for everyone”.

Both the sets and the scenes from Tosca add atmosphere to the Bond film. The roving big eye also is an emblem for the police state that 1800s Italy had become in the opera, with the evil Baron Scarpia at its apex. And Bond is the eye in the film, spying on the clandestine meeting unobserved until he reveals his hand. The very word ‘spy’ apparently derives from the Indo-European root meaning to observe, behold, or look.

The choice of excerpts from the opera is also significant. Scarpia’s lustful aria “Va Tosca”, the finale of Act I, is a meeting of the sacred and the profane as it is juxtaposed with the Te Deum by the chorus as it rises to a swell to the heavens. It is as good a metaphor as any for the forces of good pitted against those of evil, as Bond does battle with the villains.

This is a powerful example of Puccini’s brilliant writing, and this particular episode possibly inspired Francis Ford Coppola in the Godfather trilogy, where the baptism of Don Michael Corleone’s godchild is played out at the same time as his enemies are being systematically and ruthlessly eliminated.

Back to Quantum of Solace. The execution of Tosca’s lover Mario Cavaradossi by firing squad on stage launches the gun battle that then erupts between Bond and the villains. It is depicted brilliantly, like a silent film, interspersed with flashes of scenes from the opera

The German magazine Der Spiegel applauded the way in which under Forster’s direction, “the aria drowns out the hail of bullets”. It went on to say “This artistic intent is new in the Bond film series. Action before never meant anything other than action…..Forster by contrast stylises the shoot-out as a fascinating ballet of death, and Bond is just one of the dancers”.

The scene where Tosca stabs Scarpia to death at the end of the Bregenz sequence in the film seems to foretell what will happen in the film. In the opera, this happens before the execution of Cavaradossi, but this is artistic license.

It all happens in seven-and-a-half minutes in the film. But short as the sequence was, the film crew spent a lot of time, effort and money on it. It took thirteen days to shoot, during which time the whole area was cordoned off. 1500 extras were recruited (from the thousands more that applied) to play the part of opera-goers at a sold-out performance in which the action takes place. At the time, all the extras knew was that they were being cast in “Bond 22” as the film title was still a closely guarded secret. Every one of the 1500 extras had to go to the make-up and grooming department, to be worked upon by dozens of stylists. Those who didn’t have their own tuxedo or evening gown had one provided for them.

In the Bregenz production of Tosca, Sebastien Soules and Karine Babajanyan sing Scarpia and Tosca respectively, with Brandon Jovanovich as Cavaradossi.

The raw emotions of power, love, deception, jealousy and revenge are common to both the opera and the film, and this is why the Bregenz sequence works so well.

Die-hard opera fans however had a field day discussing this in cyberspace, at the very gall of people talking during an opera performance, (never mind that it’s just a film) without being shushed by those seated next to them in the audience! You may have a license to kill, Bond, but please everyone keep quiet during a performance. The world can be saved after the fat lady has sung and the final curtain falls.

(An edited version of this article was published on 31 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Telemann’s Viola Concerto

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Last Sunday, Camerata Child’s Play India conducted by Prof. Santiago Lusardi Girelli played a concert at Santa Cruz church. One highlight of the programme was Georg Philipp Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G major (TWV 51: G9), with visiting musician from Spain, Pablo Trave Gonzalez as soloist. I try to avoid making absolute statements, but I can certainly vouch for the fact that during the years I’ve been in Goa, we’ve not so far had a viola concerto performed here before. So this in itself made this performance quite special.

This concerto is one of Telemann’s most famous of his surviving concertos, and still performed quite regularly for its beauty. It is also perhaps the first viola concerto ever composed (written around 1716-21 while Telemann was in Frankfurt as its music director) and the sole Baroque concerto for the instrument in the popular repertoire. It is thought to have been first performed in Frankfurt for one of the concerts held by the Frauenstein Association, an early form of philharmonic society that sponsored “weekly great concertos”, a subscription series of orchestral concerts.

It is precisely because of concerts such as these that Telemann resorted to writing concertos of any kind. In his autobiography of 1718, he actually confesses to being unmoved by the form: “I must own that since the concerto form was never close to my heart it was indifferent to me whether I wrote a great many or not”. Despite this assertion, he went on to write over a hundred concerti for solo instruments as well as other combinations. He is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the most prolific composer in history, at least in terms of surviving oeuvre. He wrote 20 complete Lutheran church year cantata cycles, which amounts to around 1700 cantatas! And he wrote over 50 operas or secular cantatas, 125 orchestral suites, 125 concertos, 40 quartets, 130 trios and much, much more.

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Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was born four years before J. S. Bach, Handel and Scarlatti, and outlived them all; Bach by seventeen years, and Handel and Scarlatti by eight and ten respectively. He knew Johann Sebastian Bach well enough to stand as godfather to one of his sons, and lent his middle name to the child: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. And he also was more than a passing acquaintance to Handel.

In his day, Telemann was regarded as the greatest musician in northern Europe, and commanded much more respect than even J. S. Bach, incredible as it might seem to us today. In fact, the prestigious post of Director of Music in the principal churches in Leipzig, where Bach produced so much of his sublime sacred music from 1723 until his demise in 1750, was only offered to him because Telemann turned it down in favour of the much better post of cantor of the major churches of Hamburg. Interest in Telemann’s music then receded until a revival of interest in Baroque music in the latter half of the 20th century.

In the same autobiography of 1718, Telemann also writes some of his own humorous verse, among which are the lines: “Give each instrument/what is suitable for it/So he who plays will do so with joy/ and you will take pleasure in listening to it…”

Telemann’s formative years in his birthplace Magdeburg Germany were spent learning to play various instruments. His intention was to familiarise himself with the basic techniques and sonorities of as many instruments as possible, rather than to become a virtuoso player. This knowledge was what he needed as a composer. His viola concerto displays a marvellous grasp of the unique, rich dark chocolately deep-throated timbre of the instrument.

The purported ‘weakness’ of the viola as an instrument that has led to much less music written for it as compared to its string cousins the violin and the cello, is also its greatest asset. The viola might not have the sweet brilliance of the violin or the low bass sonority of the cello, but its mellow tone is in a class by itself. It is conventionally used as a ‘filler’ in the orchestra, to add depth and tone colour to the harmonies of the string section. It is precisely for this that so many great composers loved and played this instrument, from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Schubert to Dvořák.

The viola concerto in G major has four movements (unlike concertos by Vivaldi and Bach, who followed the more ‘modern’ three-movement format for their concertos) in typical contrasting slow-fast-slow-fast fashion of a “church sonata” (sonata di chiesa): Largo-Allegro-Andante-Presto. The orchestral forces that support the solo viola are light: strings and continuo (2 violins, viola, cello, double bass and harpsichord). It can also be played by just a string quartet and solo viola.

The first movement Largo is slow and stately, with a beautiful expansive line for the viola in calm confident conversation with the rest of the orchestra. The second movement, Allegro, bubbles over joyfully in its syncopated, elegant melody, and is a good example of the ‘stile galante’ (galant style) that began to sweep away the high Baroque style towards the end of Telemann’s life. The Andante is in the melancholic key of E minor (the relative minor of the main or ‘tonic’ key G major) in which both the soloist and the ensemble seem to be in dialogue with each other, in search of an elusive truth. The finale, Presto, begins energetically in the ensemble, with contrapuntal cross-rhythms within its sections, and is joined in by the soloist, leading up to a robust conclusion.

(An edited version of this article was published on 24 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Pavane for a Dead Princess

Camerata Child’s Play India is delighted to have Professor Santiago Lusardi Girelli again as its visiting conductor, with a new group of visiting musicians from Spain.

On the concert programme, Girelli chose a work that is worth looking into, ‘Pavane pour une Infante Défunte’ (Pavane for a Dead Princess) by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Ravel originally wrote it as a solo piano work in 1899 as a student of composition under Gabriel Fauré at the Conservatoire de Paris, and his first significant success. Fauré himself had written a Pavane also for solo piano in 1867, and this must certainly have been the imaginative springboard for Ravel. Ravel published the orchestral version of the Pavane for a Dead Princess in 1910. Fauré had also orchestrated his own Pavane in 1887. Clearly the teacher had set a path for the student.

The pavane was a slow processional dance that was immensely popular in the courts of Europe at the peak of the Renaissance period, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The word ‘pavane’ is believed to have come from the Italian ‘danza Padovana” (‘dance typical of Padua’), or from the Spanish “pavón” meaning peacock.

Ravel candidly confessed when questioned about the intriguing title, “I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c’est tout. My only thought was the pleasure of alliteration.”  At another point, he elaborated: “Do not attach to the title any more importance than it has. Do not dramatize it. It is not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the pavane which could have been danced by such a little princess [infant] as painted by Velázquez at the Spanish court.”

It was an extension of the fascination bordering on obsession that so many French composers around that time (Édouard Lalo, Emmanuel Chabrier, Georges Bizet and Claude Debussy come to mind) demonstrated for all things Spanish.

For those interested, it is possible to hear on YouTube a piano roll from 1922 of Ravel himself playing the Pavane. It is fascinating to actually watch a specialised self-playing piano (‘piano player’ or ‘pianola’) play such a roll. Not just the notes, but the pedalling, the dynamics, the lightness or heaviness of touch and other nuances are all reproduced faithfully. It is as if the invisible ghost of the performer is making the music at the instrument.

What is also instructive from this piano roll is the pace or tempo at which Ravel wished his Pavane to be played. He plays it in under 6 minutes, and was critical of pianists who were more self-indulgent. He admonished one such musician: “Remember that I wrote a pavane for a dead princess, not a dead pavane for a princess.”

On the other hand, Ravel’s biographer Benjamin Ivry tells us Ravel intended the piece to be played far more slowly than it tends to be played today. A contemporary music critic complained that Ravel’s playing of the work was “unutterably slow.” Obviously tempo is relative.

Ravel dedicated the Pavane to his patron Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. She also commissioned works from other young composers of the generation, which included Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Manuel de Falla and Kurt Weill.

Ravel was a master orchestrator, and his orchestral version is in lush colours of a symphony orchestra that our Camerata currently does not have the resources to perform, opting therefore for an arrangement for strings and flutes.

When Ravel mentioned Velázquez, he was of course referring to the series of portraits that the great Spanish painter Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), the leading artist in the Spanish royal court, had painted of the Infanta (royal princess) Margarita Teresa (1651-1673), daughter of Philip IV of Spain (who also reigned over Portugal and her dominions as Philip III of Portugal) during much of her tragically short life. One of these paintings, Las Meninas, which hangs at Madrid’s Museo del Prado, is considered Velázquez’ magnum opus. Margarita Teresa also features in Pablo Picasso’s interpretations of Velázquez’ Las Meninas, now in the Las Meninas room of the Museu Picasso in Barcelona.

Diego Velázquez Infanta

The Infanta was married at 15 to her much older uncle, her mother’s brother Leopold I of Austria. Despite the great difference in their ages, the marriage was a happy one, especially because the couple shared a love of theatre and music. It is said that even after they were wed, she addressed him as her uncle, and he used her nickname ‘Gretl’.

Her life was not an easy one. In keeping with the austere etiquette of the Spanish royal court , mundane pleasures such as reading or even looking out of a window, laughing or smiling or displaying her feet or footwear in public were forbidden.

Her dismal obstetric history (numerous miscarriages and four births of which only one child survived to adulthood) progressively weakened her, leading to her death in childbirth at just 21. Obviously continuous inbreeding within the Spanish Habsburg dynasty that she belonged to, contributed to this.

One of her prize jewels, the 36-carat Wittelsbach Diamond, was auctioned at Christie’s in 2008 for $24.3 million, the highest price ever for a diamond sold at auction. The diamond was obtained from India, either from Hyderabad or Bihar, as was customary for European royal families, and is one of the few remaining valuable Indian diamonds, in the league of the Kohinoor, Régent, Orlov and Hope diamonds.

Ravel’s ‘Pavane for a Dead Princess’ features in the 2012 Batman film ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, in Batman’s comeback-from-retirement scene at a charity ball, and is a clever musical means of foretelling the revelation of Miranda Tate as villain Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter (‘infanta’) Talia al Ghul. The ‘Dead Princess’ rises from oblivion to threaten the safety of Gotham City.

An edited version of this article was published on 17 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Three Paths to Peace

Composers draw inspiration from their environment and their circumstances. And since human conflict seems to unfortunately be part of the human experience through history, the horrors of war, tyranny and oppression have ignited the creative spark in composers as well. Josef Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli (Mass in time of War) also known as Paukenmesse (Kettledrum Mass) is believed by scholars to express anti-war sentiment (although there is no clear indication from Haydn that this was his intention) from the ‘unsettled nature’ of the music quite atypical of the composer. Nearer our time, Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, Alban Berg, Witold Lutoslawski, Michael Tippett have all worn their pacifist hearts on their sleeves in their music.

Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) lived through the German occupation of Warsaw during World War II, forming a piano duo with his friend and fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) and playing in cafés there. Panufnik composed several illegal Songs of Underground Resistance, especially “Warsaw Children” which became very popular. Other compositions of his with pacificism at their core include Tragic Overture, Symphony of Peace and its revised version Sinfonia Elegiaca dedicated to those who perished in World War II; and Katyń Epitaph, a commemoration of the 22,000 victims of the Katyń Forest massacre in 1940. This being Panufnik’s centenary year, a number of celebratory events and concerts are being held across the world.

It is perhaps not surprising that his daughter Roxanna Panufnik (b. 1968) should inherit a similar commitment and passion for peace.

In 2004, she wrote a violin concerto for Daniel Hope called “Abraham”, which explored the story from Genesis 22, the story of Abraham and Isaac. The story is common to Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths and her composition incorporated music elements from the three faiths.

Commissioned by the World Orchestra for Peace to write music for their concert in 2008, she sent them a recording of “Abraham” which they loved. “They asked me to make an orchestral prelude out of it which included making it two-thirds of the length and also assimilating the solo violin part into the rest of the orchestra.”

The result was “Three Paths to Peace”, which received its European premiere last month at the BBC Proms 2014 at the Royal Albert Hall London, and performed again by the World Orchestra for Peace and Valery Gergiev.

In an interview to the BBC last month, Ms Panufnik explained, “It opens with a quasi-Islamic ‘prayer’. I took advice from various mullahs, and used the rhythm of the words, the quarter-tones, the lovely elaborate ornamentation of them, and the way it moves. With the Jewish music, I’ve used a traditional prayer [Ashkenazi Jewish chant] and Shofar horn calls. And then with the Christian music, I’ve used church bells and there’s plainsong as well. So the idea is that at the last minute as Abraham is about to kill his son [Isaac], there is a reprieve, the angel coming down to stop him. And this leads to the last section of the piece which combines all these different musical elements from all the three faiths in a joyous and harmonious conclusion.”

The work also uses Sufi drum patterns. Panufnik spent much time on research to avoid any chance of inadvertently offending any faith. Muslim clerics advised her to listen to actual calls to prayer to derive inspiration for her music. She listened to calls to prayer in the United Kingdom and from Pakistan and Turkey and took musical elements from these sources.

Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(c._1603)

At a time when the cradle of all three faiths in the Middle East is being torn apart yet again by bombardment, with children the most vulnerable casualties, such music could not have greater urgency and resonance.

For those interested in listening to “Three Paths to Peace”, it is still available to hear for a few more weeks on internet radio at this link: http://bbc.in/1nbB40C.

Panufnik’s interest in faith has found expression in other compositions too, notably her Westminster Mass (1997), Magnificat (2012), Nunc Dimittus (2012) and most recently her Tallinn Mass –Dance of Life, with our own soprano Patricia Rozario singing the part of Life itself.

A word or two about the World Orchestra of Peace. It was created in 1995 by noted conductor Sir George Solti to affirm, as he described it, ‘the unique strength of music as an ambassador for peace’.

It is an expression of harmony on several levels. It comes into existence for special occasions, attracting musicians from top-notch orchestras and ensembles all over the world, many of them concertmasters and section leaders. Status becomes a secondary issue however, with “the first being last and the last first” as their seating positions rotate, and they take turns leading. Even a simple matter of tuning becomes an issue, as orchestras around the world play at different pitches. None of the musicians in the World Orchestra for Peace draw a salary, but the fact that they keep returning to it is testimony to the value they attach to the cause of peace through their music.

In an interview to the BBC last month, the orchestra director Charles Kaye said, “They listen to each other from the first bar, in 10 minutes of coming together. It doesn’t matter what is happening in their countries. There’s conflict and war all over the place. That’s put aside, and they make music as best as they can, and the way they do it is by communicating with each other, listening to each other.”

“In the orchestra, we have one daughter of a man who fought and was medalled in WW I; four grandchildren of similar people whose lives were totally affected by WW I, and any number of great-grandchildren. But each of them comes to make music together and, a hundred years later, I hope that we’re doing something special to tell everyone ‘Let’s make beautiful music together for peace, rather than war.’”

“We are representing the whole world to the highest level of the profession. We can’t do more than set an example. And that’s why, as long as I can bring them back together, for special occasions, like this year, I’m very pleased, because, we keep reminding the world that musicians care about peace, and we’re doing our bit.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 10 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Dido & Aeneas: In Love’s Delights a Precious Hour

A significant milestone was crossed in operatic history on the Indian subcontinent with the four-city tour of Giving Voice Society’s production of Henry Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’. The cast, chorus, conductor, and the production team (director, music director, choreographers, set fabricator, costume designer, stage manager and production manager) were all Indian, as were three of the five musicians. The opera was fully staged in all locations but one (Pune). But the most important selling point of it all was the high quality of sound attained by the singers and musicians, the like of which had never before been produced by Indians, most of them home-grown and trained right here in India. It was the first time to my knowledge that a three-act opera had been taken on tour in India.

The opera was preceded by a half-hour of songs, also by Purcell, and sung in turn by members of the cast and chorus; solos, duets and trios accompanied by Mark Troop at the piano. They provided an opportunity for individual members of the troupe to showcase their ability. ‘Sound the Trumpet’ is cleverly written to suggest the qualities of a pair of trumpets, with a gradual swell of sound first in tandem and then the lines moving together but an interval of a third apart, trilling joyfully along the way. ‘What can we poor females do’ and ‘Man is for the Woman made’ stood out for their flirtatious humour.

Purcell’s stately three-act chamber opera ‘Dido and ‘Aeneas’ was effectively staged, with a minimalist set: three glass tanks representing Earth, Fire and Water. The sea is an important setting to the plot, as Aeneas arrives by ship, and at the end sets sail for Italy to found what would eventually become the city of Rome and the Roman Empire. The wooden backdrop also served as reflecting panels to transmit the sound back to the audience. The use of three-legged stools for the cast was handled very efficiently, but seemed a little fussy as they were lifted and replaced by the individual members.

The string quartet (with Troop at the ‘harpischord’, a Yamaha Clavinova) produced a really magnificent, delicate sound, despite intonation issues in the opening bars of the prelude to the first act. Two of the players (Raja Halder, first violin; Steffan Rees, cello) are seasoned players from the London professional circuit. Halder is an orchestral musician in England’s top orchestras (London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields), and Rees is a highly accomplished chamber musician in ensembles of the same calibre. The other two musicians (Aditya Mukherji, second violin; Omprakash Roy, viola) on the other hand do not have this level of experience. But the work put in by the quartet and Troop certainly yielded fruit.

The cast were well-chosen. Ramya Roy’s Dido was sung with even control across the range, and her presence well reflected the tragic queen’s torment and eventual acceptance of her fate. Aeneas is not an easy dramatic role to play, as the emotions change so quickly during the 50-minute opera. But Oscar Castellino has by now had some experience treading the boards in England, and handled this very well. The decision to cast the Sorceress as Sorcerer was a very good one, and baritone Rahul Bharadwaj was in his diabolical element. He said to me in a stage whisper backstage after the performance, “I won!” as all the Sorcerer’s plots and curses (with more than a little help from his evil friends, the Witches) bring the story to its inevitable tragic conclusion. And Bharadwaj ‘won’ in more than ways as well. The Destruction scene was the most compelling and abiding scene of the production. Tanisha Herbert’s Belinda was a dutiful lady-in-waiting, even shedding real tears at Dido’s deathbed at the finale.

Dido Goa concert

The real ‘winners’ however were the entire chorus. They blended so well, and the dynamic contrasts came through beautifully, lending much dramatic effect to their lyrics.

Josias Priest (in whose School for Girls in London the opera was first performed in the summer of 1688) was a master dancer, so dances probably were an important component of the premiere of Dido and Aeneas as well. The dances in this production certainly helped lighten the mood of the plot line, strewn as it is with sorcery, fallen heroes and broken hearts.

All in all, this was an invigorating reading of Dido and Aeneas by Giving Voice Society, and we are privileged that Patricia Rozario and Mark Troop included Goa in its concert tour. This is the first time a complete, fully-staged opera performance of this exceptional quality has ever graced the Goan stage. It is a shame that there were just two singers from Goa (Melwyn Noronha and Preethi Coutinho) in this production. One hopes that there will be more participation from Goa in future Giving Voice projects.

The most heartwarming aspect was the spontaneous outpouring of interest and enthusiasm from the general public in Goa. Who says heavy rains are a deterrent to concertgoers? Passes vanished with incredible speed in the run-up to the concert evening.

The Kala Academy indoor auditorium is not a flattering concert venue to perform in, at least in terms of its acoustic quality. It has been the experience of many performers that they are not able to hear each other clearly (or sometimes not at all) even on the same stage. The sound carries across to the audience in the most un-uniform manner, with the experience of someone seated in the middle very different from other in the front, or from left to right, etc. And it is a very dry, non-resonant acoustic.

So it is vital to have a sound check before the concert. It is to the credit of the music directors (Patricia Rozario and Mark Troop) and conductor (Parvesh Java) that they got such well-shaped co-ordination from the singers on stage and the musicians in the pit. Would it have been even better if the musicians had been on the same level, stage left or right? Perhaps.

Nevertheless, it still underscores the crying need for a complete, expert acoustic overhaul of the Dinanath Mangueshkar auditorium if we really seriously want to take classical music and the concert experience to an even higher level.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 12 August 2014)

Last month in Music History: Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is considered one of England’s greatest composers, with no other native-born composer quite approaching his fame until Edward Elgar. His first opera and only all-sung dramatic work Dido and Aeneas is one of the earliest English operas and one of Purcell’s foremost theatrical works.

Its first known performance was at a girl’s school in Chelsea London, run by a Josias Priest, in July 1689. The story is based on Book IV of the ancient Roman poet Virgil’s epic Aeneid. It describes the love of Dido, Queen of Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) for Trojan hero Aeneas, and her desolation upon being eventually abandoned by him.

The opera is believed to be allegorical. The prologue (the music of which is sadly lost) makes mention of the joy of a marriage between two monarchs, possibly a reference to the marriage between William III and Mary II of England. The opera’s libretto (text) is derived from a play The Enchanted Lovers (1678) by Nahum Tate, who served as England’s poet Laureate from 1692 to 1715 and better known for writing the words to the Christmas carol “While Shepherds watched”. In an earlier poem by Tate, he had compared James II to Aeneas, who is led astray by the Sorceress and her witches, (a common metaphor for Roman Catholicism in Protestant England), abandoning Dido, who symbolizes the British people. This probably explains the addition of the Sorceress and witches in the opera, as they do not feature in Virgil’s Aeneid.

Another interpretation is that the opera carries an important moral nugget within it, cautioning young women not to be swayed by suitors’ promises, as men could always betray their trust. A timeless lesson indeed.

The opera was not performed again in Purcell’s lifetime after the Chelsea performances. Its next noted performance was in 1700, as a masque (entertainment within a play) within Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in London. It then gradually faded into obscurity until 1895, the bicentenary of Purcell’s death when it was performed by students of the Royal College of Music London.

The opera is in three Acts. The first act is set in Dido’s court, with Dido already quite downcast, presumably due to her affection for Aeneas. She fears her love will make her a weak monarch, while her sister and handmaid Belinda and another woman try to reassure her. Aeneas makes an entrance, is at first snubbed, but Dido accepts his marriage proposal.

In the second act, scene one, we are transported to the cave of the Sorceress (sometimes depicted as Sorcerer in an example of gender equality for villains) who with her witches plots and schemes the ruin of Carthage and of Dido. Scene two moves the action to a forest grove where Dido and Aeneas are out hunting. Here Aeneas is tricked by the Sorceress’ elf disguised as Mercury into believing that the gods have commanded him to set sail at once for Italy, to create a new Troy on Latin soil. He is heartbroken at having to leave Dido, but complies.

Act Three opens at the harbor in Carthage, where the Trojan fleet is ready to depart. The Sorceress has a cunning plan to do away with Aeneas on the high seas.

Back in the palace, Dido and Belinda have returned from the hunt, shellshocked by Aeneas’ abrupt disappearance. Aeneas appears and tries to explain himself, but Dido now urges him to leave. Dido sings her last aria, famously known as Dido’s Lament “When I am laid in Earth”, before she dies. The chorus brings the opera to a close, commanding “cupids to scatter roses on her tomb, soft and gentle as her heart. Keep here your watch, and never never never part.”

Purcell precedes both Gluck and Handel in his emphasis of the text over music, and “word painting”, the use of musical tools to enhance the meaning of the text. He believed that “as poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry”.

He uses melismas (several notes of music on the same syllable) for example to ‘paint’ the word ‘storm’ in Dido’s recitative ”Whence could so much virtue spring”, to conjure up its impression; and the word ‘soft’ is ‘coloured’ by a sighing, descending semitone.

Dido’s Lament “When I am laid in Earth” is considered the masterpiece of the opera, and is included in many textbooks of classical music on account of its excellent use of the passus duriusculus (melodic fragment spanning an interval of a perfect fourth, in chromatic steps) in the ground bass. Purcell largely uses major keys to evoke happiness, and minor keys for sadness. Dido’s Lament is in the key of G minor, a tonality also exploited by Mozart for emotions of sadness and tragedy. Purcell uses word painting here too. A descending chromatic line is commonly understood to depict sighing, sobbing, a ‘lamentation’. The word ‘laid’ is painted by this descending line, connoting agony and death. The words ‘darkness’ and ‘death’ in the opening recitative secco “Thy hand, Belinda” preceding Dido’s Lament also get this treatment.

Giving Voice Society headed by Patricia Rozario and Mark Troop present a fully-staged performance of Dido and Aeneas at the Kala Academy on 4 August 2014 at 7 pm. Free limited passes at Furtados Music stores in Panjim and Margão.

(An edited version of this article was published on 3 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

An all-Indian operatic first

Mark Troop was in Goa recently as part of Goa University’s Visiting Research Professors’ Programme, the Anthony Gonsalves Chair for Western Music. He spoke in an interview to the Navhind Times about the lecture series and about Giving Voice Society’s opera production ‘Dido and Aeneas.’

This is the first session of your lecture series at the Goa University. How has it been?

It’s been great! The way they’ve set it up has been very good. The response has been quite encouraging, especially from the university students who took the one-credit course. And the University’s idea of setting up a music department is a very good one.

Tell us a little about the ‘Giving Voice to India’ project and Giving Voice Society.

One thing my wife Patricia Rozario and I noticed over the many years of coming to India to her family was that the whole area of vocal training needed much improvement.

We first began work in August 2009, to raise the standard of western classical singing, both art song and opera, in India. The project essentially implements a singing course, in line with the format of international singing academies, during which Patricia and I work with Indian singers on various skills such as vocal technique, musical style and interpretation, foreign language skills and score-reading skills.

We have taught around 30 courses so far, each usually five days long, and have worked with over 100 students in several Indian cities (Mumbai, Goa, Delhi, Pune, Ahmedabad.

We have also trained local singers who demonstrate a sound understanding of the principles, to carry on our teaching work in between courses and in order to provide continuous learning opportunities to singers in India.

Giving Voice Society was formed in 2012 to provide a support structure for the project and to augment its impact. One of the key objectives of the Society is to create performance opportunities for Indians who have proved worthy of the stage. In July 2013, singers of Giving Voice performed Benjamin Britten’s operetta ‘The Little Sweep’ for a full house at the Con Brio Festival at the NCPA, Mumbai. This was a landmark performance because it was the first time an opera was performed with a cast comprising entirely of Indians.

And this year you take Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ on tour?

Yes, this year the Society brings fully-staged performances of Henry Purcell’s opera ‘Dido & Aeneas’ to some of the most important cities for western classical music in India: Mumbai, Pune, Goa and Delhi, once again with an all-Indian cast. Not just that, but it is an all-Indian production as well. The conductor and director are Indian, and the lighting, design, and stage manager are Indian as well. Almost all the musicians are Indian too. This is a significant step for operatic history in India.

The opera is a delight. It is about an hour long, and in English. In fact it is the first great opera in the repertory in the English language.

The opera plot is based on an episode in Virgil’s timeless epic The Aeneid, the mythical story of a queen, a soldier and the illicit love that tore them apart.

The Goa performance of the fully-staged opera will be at the Kala Academy on 4 August 2014 at 7 pm.

(Free limited passes available at Furtados Music stores in Panjim and Margão)

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 30 July 2014)

This month in Music History: Tercentenary of Christoph Willibald Gluck

Gluck

This month marks the tercentenary of Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (2 July 1714 -15 November 1787), opera composer of the early Classical period, and a great reformer and contributor to the development of opera as an art form.

He was born in a little town, Erasbach in modern-day Bavaria, to a long line of foresters. His early years are not clearly documented. In 1717, the family moved to Bohemia, where he was introduced to music through the church choir. He began studying logic and mathematics (but failed to complete the degrees) in 1731 at the University of Prague, where both Italian opera and oratorio thrived. In 1737, he was in Milan, studying “practical knowledge of all the instruments” under Giovanni Battista Sammartini, and generally immersing himself in Milan’s vibrant opera scene, especially in one of its emerging opera houses, the Teatro Regio Ducal, where his first opera Artaserse was performed in 1741. It was performed at the Milanese Carnival in 1742 to much acclaim, and subsequently Gluck wrote an opera for each of the next four Carnivals, often with renowned castrato Giovanni Carestini in the lead roles. He wrote operas for other cities (Turin, Venice) as well.

In 1745, he travelled to London to take up the post of house composer at the King’s Theatre. Unfortunately, the theatre remained closed for most of his time there, due to the Jacobite Rebellion. But some good did come of his visit, as he became familiar with Handel, who he acknowledged as a great influence on his style. Handel’s remark “Gluck knows no more of contrappunto (counterpoint) than my cook” is often interpreted as a putdown, but Handel’s cook was Gustavus Waltz, a fine singer and contrapuntist, so the comment might not have been meant as such an insult.

Gluck’s travels took him to Dresden, Vienna, Copenhagen, Paris, Rome and Prague among other destinations. In 1756, he was awarded the Order of the Golden Spur by Pope Benedict XIV. He finally settled in Vienna, where he became Kapellmeister.

He is remembered for his great contribution to opera reform, and the influence he had on composers that followed him, from Salieri and Mozart to Berlioz to Weber to Wagner.

Gluck felt that both of the main Italian operatic genres (opera buffa and opera seria; ie comic and ‘serious’ opera) had veered too far off course. In his view they had become tired, stereotyped, dull, superficial and ossified. He wished opera to regain its focus on drama and feeling, and make the text matter as much as the music. He wished also to do away with recitativo secco (dry recitative accompanied only by harpsichord) which crippled the flow. This was a radical idea, and would pave the way for the through-composed operas of Puccini and the grandiose, larger-than-life music dramas of Wagner. Through the reforms, Baroque opera was ‘cleansed of much of its fat’, and Italian opera took on the spirit of French opera.

Orfeo ed Euridice (1761) is widely considered the first of his ‘reform’ operas and one of his major works. Gluck explained himself at the writing of his next ‘reform’ opera Alceste (1767): “I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situations of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless superfluity of ornaments”.

Gluck was able to spread his ideas to France. His former pupil Marie Antoinette had in 1770 married the future King Louis XVI. Under her patronage he signed a contract for his operas to be staged at the Paris Opera. The première of his opera Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) was hugely controversial, with the city sharply divided into ‘Gluckists’ and ‘Piccinnists’ after the famed Italian composer Niccolò Piccinni. Unhappy with the progress of rehearsals, Gluck postponed the performance, despite the fact that the King and Queen were due to attend. This and several other actions by him sorely tried the patience of the monarchy, behavior that might have lost ordinary mortals their head. To say the Gluck took opera seriously is a gross understatement.

Gluck’s health was plagued by a series of strokes through his mature years, and died of one in Vienna in 1787.

His musical legacy includes around 35 complete full-length opera, and about a dozen shorter operas and operatic introductions, and several ballets, trio sonatas and other instrumental and choral works. He left behind in Paris a lively school of disciples, which included Salieri, Sacchini, Cherubini, Méhul and Spontini, and who would go on to dominate the French stage during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic years. Gluck’s music had a deep influence on Mozart, particularly in the writing of his opera Idomeneo and the Masonic passages in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). The influence extends to Rossini in his serious operas, to Berlioz in his opera Les Troyens, and to Wagner’s own quest for the high moral ground in opera.

Although Gluck wrote no operas in German, his most celebrated work Orfeo ed Euridice in particular was deeply inspiring for German opera. Variations on its plot (the subterranean rescue mission in which the hero must control or conceal his emotion) emerge in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Beethoven’s Fidelio and Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

Although the Gluck milestone is regrettably not being celebrated in opera houses around the world with as much fuss as the recent bicentenaries of Verdi and Wagner or the centenary of Britten, Gluck’s place in music history as the radical reformer of 18th-century opera is secure.

(An edited version of this article was published on 27 July 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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