The Easter Hymn in Cavalleria Rusticana

Easter Sunday might be the perfect time to take a closer look at an opera that is actually set on that day. A handful of us were fortunate to be able to play the whole operatic score, seated in the pit of the Siri Fort auditorium in an Indo-Italian production of Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry).

It is a one-act opera written by Italian composer Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) to a libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci, and adapted from a play and short story by Giovanni Verga. It was written as a submission for a competition to all young Italian composers who had not yet staged an opera. Mascagni got wind of it barely weeks before the deadline. The librettists sent him the text in snippets, often on the back of a postcard; the complete opera was submitted on the final date of submission. Of the 73 entries, Cavalleria made it to the winning three.

Its first performance was a grand success, with Mascagni taking forty curtain calls and it took the world’s major opera houses by storm after that.

The synopsis in brief: It is Easter morn in a 19th century Italian village. The main characters are Santuzza, a peasant girl (sung by soprano); Turridu, an army recruit recently returned to his village (tenor); Lucia his mother (contralto); Alfio a cart-driver (baritone); and Lola his wife but formerly Turridu’s fiancée(mezzo-soprano).

Turridu has returned to his village and is distraught that Lola has married Alfio. He therefore seduces Santuzza, making Lola jealous enough to start an adulterous affair with her old flame. You have to suspend your disbelief when it comes to operatic plots. Santuzza is viewed as the fallen woman by the village who are even contemplating getting her excommunicated, possibly because she might be pregnant although this is not overtly stated. She considers herself unworthy to enter the church for the Easter service. It is at this point that the famous Easter Hymn is sung, by the villagers and by Santuzza.

Spurned one time too many by Turridu, Santuzza blurts out to Alfio that he is being cuckolded by Turridu. Alfio swears vendetta (revenge); Santuzza, horrified, tries unsuccessfully to dissuade Alfio. After the Easter service and a right royal knees-up at Turridu’s mother Lucia’s tavern, Alfio challenges him to a duel. Turridu in acceptance bites Alfio’s ear which apparently is Italian code for ‘fight unto death.’ He seems to have a premonition of his own death as he bids farewell to his mother before rushing out. An off-stage shriek by a woman “Hanno ammazzato compare Turiddu!” (They have murdered Turridu) is followed by onstage swooning of Santuzza and Lucia as the curtain falls. The ending is in fact the beginning of a tit-for-tat blood feud that will play out, perhaps for generations to come.

Cavalleria Rusticana was considered the forerunner of a then-new operatic style called ‘verismo’ (realism). In the post-Romantic period, composers, notably in Italy, sought to bring the naturalism of 19th century writers such as Henrik Ibsen and Émile Zola into opera. The style is distinguished by realistic, and often violent (as in this opera) depictions of contemporary everyday life (as opposed to historical, mythical subjects favoured in the Romantic era), especially among the lower echelons of society. Other composers in addition to Mascagni who wrote verismo opera include Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano and Giacomo Puccini. In fact, Cavalleria is often staged alongside another one-act opera by Leoncavallo, I Pagliacci. The double bill is affectionately called Cav & Pag in operatic circles.

The backdrop of Cavalleria Rusticana was used to telling effect in the last of the Godfather trilogy written by Mario Puzo and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It is in this opera that Don Michael Corleone’s son Anthony makes his operatic debut as tenor (Turridu) in the film’s finale, in Palermo Sicily. Scenes from the opera are mirrored in the film as well: the Easter Hymn procession is echoed in the feast procession where the Corleones’ foe Joey Zasa meets his end. In fact a similar procession is the backdrop in Godfather II, where Vito Corleone wipes out the local Don and starts the whole Corleone legacy. And the “duel to the death” challenge by biting the opponent’s ear is exactly what the Don’s illegitimate nephew Vincent poses to Zasa, flushing the enmity out into the open.

Easter-Hymn-Cavalleria-Rusticana

The Easter Hymn begins with the sound of solemn chords played on a church organ, and an off-stage choral acclamation in Latin: Regina coeli, laetare quia, quem meruisti portare, resurrexit sicut dixit (rejoice Queen of Heaven, because He who thou didst bear, has risen again as He had prophesied). This is sung to the same melody that opens the famous Intermezzo featured a little later in the opera.

The onstage chorus then sings in Italian “Let us sing hymns to Him, He is not dead! He is radiant; He has risen from the grave! We hail the risen Lord, today ascended to the glory of Heaven!”

Then Santuzza sings a beautiful soaring descant melodic line to the same lyrics, the personification of the ecstasy of the Resurrection, and the interplay between her and the four-part chorus reaches a feverish climax at the end, in true Italian operatic fashion. It is sung to English lyrics as well, and was a particular favourite on Easter Sunday service with the choir I sang with at St Augustine’s, High Wycombe.

To hear Maria Callas singing Santuzza in the Easter Hymn, go to YouTube and type in the search words. If you like that, you’ll like the Intermezzo. And if you like that too, why not listen to the whole opera? 70 minutes of your life, and very well spent. A very good recommendation is Franco Zeferelli’s brilliant 1982 film of the Teatro alla Scala Milano production, featuring an impossibly handsome, young Plácido Domingo as the adulterous, fickle Turridu.

(An edited version of this article was published on 20 April 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Two days in the life of the LSO: Day 2

As I wasn’t sure I’d get tickets to the LSO concerts, I had booked a ticket for the afternoon screening of Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor from the Met Live in HD series.

I was just beginning to get absorbed in the opera when I had to tear myself away to go attend the LSO rehearsal.

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I wish I had made better notes, and/or that I had blogged my thoughts ASAP after, because I am scrambling to remember salient points that struck me, and I know there were several.

I did however make notes during the pre-concert talk.

Conductor Daniel Harding (in conversation with Principal Flautist Gareth Davies) spoke for example of the danger of ‘knowing’ a piece before hand. He cited the example of listening as a child to his father’s record collection, which had Nathan Milstein playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which obviously left a huge huge impression. He had heard it “hundreds of times, and knew it inside out.”

“But that’s quite dangerous, because what you know is what someone’s telling you about the piece.”

But, he says, “however wonderful it is, it isn’t the piece. The piece is what’s written down on the page…. In the end, the relationship has to be between yourself and what’s written on the page. And you allow these other things to inform you and inspire you, but you have to go to what’s written…. It’s very important to treat every time as fresh. There’s always be things you discover that you haven’t noticed before.”

“The greatest works have been played for hundreds of years, but still, their majesty remains something of a mystery. Nobody finds the answers. And the important thing is that we do not just churn out what we did the last time.”     

Davies asked Harding what his experience was, playing the same piece with different orchestras.

“I think that music is something that happens between people.The great American conductor James Levine is a wonderful pianist, and he said how important it was for him always to have the piano, because however much it is a privilege, to stand in front of hundred players of the great orchestras, there are moments when you do want to sit by yourself in a room and make music on your own. But basically, music happens between people; it happens between the musicians, and it happens between us and you (the audience). It’s the thing of sharing. It’s the thing of hearing something in your imagination and finding it fascinating, finding it beautiful, and you want to recreate it in the real world, so that you can say to someone ‘Do you hear what I hear?’ In that sense playing a piece with a different soloist or with a different orchestra changes everything.”

“We all know soloists who travel the world playing the same piece week after week, and they insist that this orchestra play it the same way as the orchestra the week before. But the great musicians that we aspire to emulate are the ones who always listen to what they’re being offered, and react to it. Your ideas are never something that you should or can impose on musicians. Some orchestras need more space; you have to see what works best with the human beings you’re with.”

Davies then remarked how different it has been, playing Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka under Harding, and how they’ve done something different every night (“You mean something different has gone wrong every night”, Harding quipped). And also how different it has been playing this piece with the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, and now with Harding: the tempi are different, the colours Harding is asking for as different, etc. Despite the fact that the score is exactly the same!

“That is the fascinating this about music. Over 300 years or so, the instructions one gets from composers are more and more detailed, more and more complex. In Baroque dances, they don’t tell you much about dynamics, or the speed. You should know this, because it is implied in the music, and everyone grew up dancing to this music so they knew what the tempo was, and what the musical gestures were. Fast forward to today; Mahler is a classic example. He’s not only telling what to do, but also what not to do. For example in Mahler’s Sixth, his instructions state that it should be a realistic impression of a herd of cows who are slightly scattered and then they come together and disappear into the distance. Incredibly detailed instructions. But yet you can listen to several performances of this symphony, and despite the detailed instructions, they all sound completely different. It illustrates how music is a living thing. It sounds like a cliche but it’s true.”

The discussion touched upon the humbling experience a few of the LSO layers had playing for the children of the charity Songbound in Mumbai. They were children of trafficked women, sex workers, disadvantaged in every sense of the word. The kids even got a chance to conduct the musicians; Davies thought they were “pretty good.”

“It was such a humbling experience”, said Harding, “to see the complete whole body enthusiasm with which they threw themselves into singing ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor’, or finding miming actions to go with a Donizetti aria. It was extraordinary.”

“I think that for those of us who make music every day, there is a real danger that music becomes a comparative thing. ‘I heard it last year with so-and-so’, etc; a sort of ‘trainspotter’ attitude. This was an opportunity for us to remember that music is a way of expressing things that you need to express that you might not be able to express in another way. And that is something that is actually so much more important as human beings than being able to compare if you preferred Gilels or Horowitz.”

“I’ve had a wonderful trip with the LSO, and we’ve had many wonderful concerts, but the strongest musical experience I’ve had was singing ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor’ with these kids.”

Click here for the video of their experience with the children.  

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In the Q&A session that followed, Harding spoke a iittle about the opening work that evening, Modest Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on the Bare Mountain’. The traditional version is a work by Rimsky-Korsakov. “And it’s wonderful, but if you know this version well, you’ll hear lots of things [in the version we’ll play tonight] that you’ll recognise. But you have to remember that this is where it call came from.”

I get the impression that Harding doesn’t like Tony Blair very much. let me explain why:

In comparing the Mussorgsky and R-K versions of this piece, he felt that the Rimsky-Korsakov version was like a Tony Blair speech: well crafted, polished, but lacking sincerity (or something to that effect), whereas the Mussorgsky version might take its time getting to the point but is more from the heart. I’m not quoting him verbatim, but he did use the Blair analogy.

And funnily enough, I was also fortunate enough to hear Harding rehearse the Los Angeles Phil in Mahler 5, at the Walt Disney Hall in October 2012. And he mentioned Blair there too. He asked the players to imagine a particular phrase and play it the way Blair would give a speech, with the false smile and lack of sincerity. Again, not his exact words, but I think I got the gist accurately.

Back to the present:

Harding also explained the rationale for the orchestra’s seating arrangement. (Read my earlier blog post). Harding explained that this was the standard seating plan until the 1920s, when it was felt that the arrangement we see today (first violins, second violins, viola, cello) would sound better on recordings.

He spoke of Mahler’s writing sometimes for the violins: even though they might be playing the same melody, the first violins might start softly and get louder, while the seconds did the opposite, or vice versa. so if you seat them together (which Mahler never did), it just evens out. If they are seated away from each other, you can hear this changing, and the shift.

“I believe it is very important to have the first violins and the cello, bass, together. It’s a question of taste. But Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, would all have been played in this way.”

Davies reminded us of an old picture of the LSO perhaps from the 1930s, in a recording studio, with a funnel feeding into the microphone, with the quietest instruments (“Which are the quietest instruments in the orchestra?” quipped Harding) seated nearest the funnel, and the louder ones seated away from in in a triangle, with the funnel being its apex.             

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In addition to the Mussorgsky, the concert featured Tchaikovsky Violin Cooncerto (Roman Simovic, soloist), and the Petrushka suite.

To me, the Tchaikovsky sounded better, and was better played in rehearsal than in concert.

Each time I hear the LSO, I remember Alan Hazeldine at Corinthian Chamber Orchestra rehearsals, where he would tell us to relax during difficult passages: “Think of the LSO on a Sunday night. Roots out of your backsides.”

There were two encores: John Williams’ Star Wars theme music from the film, and Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise from Eugene Onegin.

Dastān-i Masiḥ (The Life of Christ), the court of Akbar and the Goan connection

Upon my last visit to the British Museum in London, I came upon a fascinating book, “Mughal Miniatures” by J. M. Rogers in their store. I have been fortunate to view examples of exquisite Mughal miniature paintings scattered all over the world, from the Metropolitan Museum New York, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum Lisbon, British Museum, British Library and the V&A (Victoria & Albert) Museum, London, and closer to home, the National Museum New Delhi, Salar Jung Museum Hyderabad, and the wonderful collection in the Prince of Wales Museum (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya) Mumbai. I suppose somewhere down the line, the interest developed and compelled me to purchase the book.

Tucked away in the chapter “Painting at the court of Akbar” was an intriguing picture, titled ‘Christ’s entry into Jerusalem’. I thought it pertinent to share it with readers today, on Palm Sunday. The caption accompanying the painting described its medium (gouache on paper) and stated that it was “an illustration (c. 1602) to the Dastān-i Masiḥ (The Life of Christ) which was composed by the Jesuit Fr. Jerome Xavier and presented to Akbar in 1582.”

Following the conquest of Goa by the Portuguese in 1510, they turned their attention to other strategic locations along India’s west coast, among them the port city of Surat. The Mughal conquest of Gujarat and the siege of in 1573 brought Emperor Akbar into direct contact with the Portuguese there. It was vital for Akbar that friendly relations exist between the two powers, to enable the security of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina for the ḥajj, as the Portuguese by this time ruled the waves in the Arabian Sea and beyond. Furthermore, Akbar acknowledged the superior artillery and firepower of the Portuguese and needed these for his own goal of conquest in the subcontinent.

Lastly, his increasingly syncretistic religious theories spurred him to study Christianity more closely. In 1575 he proclaimed the foundation of a central institution, the Dār al-Ibāda wherein not only the religion officially tolerated by the Islamic world (Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism) but Hindus and other faiths too would be reconciled. He followed this in 1579 with an even more radical proclamation of a universal faith , Dīn-i Ilāhī, which saw a brief lease of life during his reign and petered out thereafter.

A Mughal mission was sent in 1575-78 to Goa to acquire European rarities for Akbar’s court. This was followed by several Jesuit missions from Goa to Akbar’s courts in Agra,Fatehpur Sikri and Lahore.

This is where we encounter Fr. Jerome Xavier, grand-nephew of St. Francis Xavier and a Jesuit priest. Like his illustrious predecessor, he was also born in Navarra Spain and was sent to Goa in 1581. After several stints in Bassein and Cochin, he was appointed Superior of the Professed House in Goa. Historical accounts seem to indicate that Fr. Xavier’s stint in Goa was an unhappy one, as he was Spanish and his subordinates Portuguese. So it was perhaps providential that he was sent with two other companions Fr. Emmanuel Pinheiro and Brother Bento de Góis on the third Jesuit mission to Akbar’s court and arrived in Lahore in 1595. There he was taught the Persian language. Xavier accompanied Emperor Akbar on several Deccan expeditions and the move to Agra.

During this time Xavier composed Dastān-i Masiḥ. It was originally written in Portuguese, and a note written in Latin in the copy held by the British Museum states this: ‘Liber dictus Dastan Masih i.e. Historia Christi, primum Lusitanice composite a Patre Hieronymo Xavero’ (the book called dastan Masih, that is, History of Christ, originally written in Portuguese by Fr. Jerome Xavier). It was later translated into Persian as ‘The Mirror of Holiness.’ Both Akbar and his son Jahangir after him seem to have been greatly taken by the text.

Fr. Xavier himself seems to have secured the confidence of Akbar, much to the dismay and envy of the English, rivals to the Portuguese in India. Contemporary traveller Nicholas Withington writes: ‘The Mogul would do nothing against the Portuguese so long as that witch Savier liveth, (for so the Moores themselves term him), which is an ould Jesuit residing with the King, whom he much affects.’

Xavier certainly took his mission very seriously. He became proficient in Persian, and the visitor Pimenta reported that the ‘Persians themselves took pleasure in hearing Xavier speak, and admired the propriety of his vocabulary and the choice of his words.’

As in the other missions, Akbar gave the Jesuits much leeway. They were free to baptise anyone who so desired it, and to build a church. But Xavier yearned to do more to ‘clear the ground of brambles and sow on the rocky ground of the Muslims and the thorny places of the Hindus.’

Xavier continued his mission after the succession to the Mughal throne by Akbar’s son Jahangir. By now he began to harbour serious doubts about the success of his efforts, owing to the ‘harndess of the Muslims and the motives of the converts.’ Matters were made worse when war broke between the Portuguese and the Mughal empire in 1613. Although peace was restored two years later, Xavier returned to Goa shortly after, a “broken man.” He wished to return to Spain but was too weak. In 1617, he was found “burned to death in his room” under inexplicable circumstances.

dastan

It is not known if Xavier himself oversaw the composition of the illustrations that accompanied Dastān-i Masiḥ and his other religious texts. It is a remarkable work of art, depicting the entry of Jesus Christ astride a mule or donkey into Jerusalem. The ‘crowd’ of people to receive him are reduced to three, who are attired in 16th century European dress, and not waving palm leaves. Christ himself is barefoot and appears to be in Indian or Persian attire. A pack mule trots alongside, laden with provisions.

The Jerusalem landscape is stylised, and the building in the background would be more at home in Agra than in the Holy Land.

As is true of Mughal miniatures, the painting is unsigned, and was probably worked upon sequentially by a whole workshop of artists. It is an extraordinary manifestation of the confluence of disparate cultures.

(An edited version of this article was published on 13 April 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The ‘Cello of the Shoulder’ makes a comeback after 200 years

Can a cello be played like a violin, upon the shoulder? It seems like a ludicrous suggestion, but bizarrely, forgotten in the mists of time there once existed an instrument precisely so: a small-sized cello played like a violin, and called violoncello da spalla (‘cello of the shoulder’).

violoncello da spalla

The now-extinct 18th century instrument had music written for it by composers ranging from Antonio Vivaldi to Johann Sebastian Bach. It is even thought that the five-stringed version of the violoncello da spalla is what Bach had in mind when writing his Cello Suite no. 6.

It was designed to be performed upon by musicians who were otherwise accustomed to playing the violin or viola and who were unfamiliar with the viola da gamba or the conventional cello, played held in a vertical position between the legs. The violoncello da spalla is held by a strap on the shoulder and chest, and larger than a viola but smaller than a cello. It also emits a much lighter bass sound, due in part perhaps to its lack of direct contact to the ground.

The instrument is being revived, and made its London ‘debut’ as part of a programme from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) on 25 March 2014, at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. The concert formed part of the OAE’s Gamechangers series, looking at turning points in the history of classical music.

It was played upon by Sigiswald Kuijken, Belgian violinist, violist and conductor widely known for his interest in authentic instruments, and who teaches baroque violin at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague and the Koninklijk Muzieconservatorium in Brussels. The featured work showcasing the instrument was Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violoncella da Spalla in D, which had lain forgotten until as recently as 2004.

Kuijken believes that many compositions by Bach, Vivaldi and Corelli were written not for the modern cello, the instrument we associate them with today, but for the violoncello da spalla. The fact that it was often referred to as ‘violoncello’ makes this all the more confusing. Its more penetrating sound is what Bach intended for his Brandenburg concertos and cello suites.

Kuijken’s instrument was made specifically for him by the luthier Dmitry Badiarov in 2004 based on three surviving specimens and historical documents. Gregory Barnett’s scholarly book ‘The Violoncello da Spalla: Shouldering the Cello in the Baroque Era” was a great resource. I was fortunate to have seen two of the three instruments used as templates for the newly built instrument. They are housed at the truly magnificent Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels.

In an interview, Badiarov shared the results of some of his research. The violoncello da spalla was meant to be” a soloist instrument, or to be played as basso continuo, and never in a section. Either part is extremely exposed and requires formidable technical proficiency and musicianship.”

There are innovations being made to the revived instrument, most notably in the matter of strings. Gut-based strings which would have been used in the heyday of the instrument are fragile and extremely difficult to keep in tune. The renowned string manufacturers Thomastic have fashioned new modern synthetic core strings for the violoncello da spalla which Badiarov regards as “simply perfect.”

Playing the instrument is apparently not as cumbersome as it might look. It is suspended by a thick leather belt, so the left arm does not need to bear the burden of its weight. It gets slung across the chest and approximates the right shoulder. Obviously the instrument is too large and the chin makes no contact with it. However the left hand position is quite different to that used in violin playing: violoncello da spalla players stretch their first finger more often than the little finger, and ‘roll’ the palm to minimize the strain in stretchy passages or chords, as cellists or players of plucked instruments would do. It can be four- or five-stringed, and is played upon with a baroque bow.

What happened to the instruments after their heyday had passed? Over 40 surviving instruments are listed. A lot of specimens were either rebuilt as cellos for children, or turned into violas.

Will this revival of interest in the violoncello da spalla be fleeting, or will it be more long-lasting? Badiarov is convinced it is here to stay. He acknowledged that it will not become a commonly played instrument’ and that there will be no spalla discipline of study, or dedicated courses in conservatories in the foreseeable future. But its survival is ensured by that “tiny group of soloists curious enough to explore what else they can do in music.” Future tomes on the violoncello will have to give the spalla its rightful place in history. And the advent of better fractional strings for children’s cellos is making life easier for new spalla enthusiasts who can use these improved strings for this curious, old, yet ‘new’ instrument.

To see and hear the violoncello da spalla in action, go to YouTube and type in its name.

 

(An edited version of this article was published on 6 April 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Angel and the Devil

 

Pietro Locatelli (1695-1764) Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder (1697-1764)

Pietro Locatelli (1695-1764)                   Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder (1697-1764)

This year marks the 250th death anniversary of two violin legends: Pietro Locatelli (1695-1764) and Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder (1697-1764). While Locatelli’s milestone falls today (30 March), Leclair’s death anniversary is in October.

Pietro Antonio Locatelli was born in Bergamo, and comparatively little is known about his early years, apart from the fact that he held the title of virtuoso in the cappella musicale of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore there. He was probably taught in his hometown by Ludovico Ferronati and Carlo Antonio Marino, and composition by Francesco Ballaroti. In 1711 he left for Rome, where his teachers included Arcangelo Corelli. Here is where he began to compose music, with his 12 Concerti Grossi Opus 1, in 1721.

1723 to 1728 were spent travelling through what is today Italy and Germany, during which he wrote most of his violin concertos and capricci. Historical accounts are sketchy, but his performances of these works certainly seem to have built his reputation as a virtuoso across Europe.

In 1729, Locatelli moved to Amsterdam where he lived to the end of his life. Here he found himself at the epicentre of European music publishing, and he got a lot of his own music published in Amsterdam and in neighbouring Leiden. His library with over a thousand documents is a testament to his deep interest in the arts and sciences: literature from Dante onward, treatises on mathematics, theology, history, geography, the collected works of Corelli, and paintings by Dutch, French and Italian masters.

Locatelli’s music can be broadly divided into three categories: works for his own performance as virtuoso; chamber music and works for small ensembles; and works for larger ensembles.

His Capricci in particular are virtuosic showpieces, played a lot in the high register, and with double-stopping, chords and arpeggios with wide fingering and overextension of the left hand, harmonics, trills in two-part passages (for example in his Trillo del Diavolo or Devil’s Trill), double trills and varied bowings. They certainly inspired Niccolò Paganini a generation later; Paganini’s Capriccio Op.1 nr.1 is similar to Locatelli’s Capriccio nr. 7.

Thus we have an almost seamless line of Italian violinists or the ‘violinisti’, embodying the Italian violin school: Corelli of Rome, Vivaldi of Venice, Somis of Turin, Tartini of Padua, Geminiani of Lucca, Veracini of Floerence and Locatelli of Bergamo, passing on the torch to Paganini and others.

This was in contrast to the French school, and Locatelli’s counterpart here was Jean-Marie Leclair (known as the Elder to distinguish him from his younger brother of the same name). Born in Lyon, he was a ballet dancer there before going off to study violin under Giovanni Battista Somis in Turin. He returned to Paris where he was employed briefly as ordinaire de la musique by King Loius XV. Subsequently he worked at the court of several nobles, including Anne, the Princess Royal and Princess of Orange, daughter of King George II of Great Britain, a fine harpsichordist herself, and a pupil of Handel. Like Locatelli, he gained great renown as a violin virtuoso and composer, and also like him he toured Europe giving concerts and gaining acclaim as he went. He met an ignominious end, stabbed to death under extremely mysterious circumstances, and motives ranging from a family feud to professional rivalry to financial gain have been ascribed to his murder.

The two titans, Locatelli and Leclair, are believed to have met in Kassel in Germany, and there is an account of them giving a concert together there on 7 December 1728. What transpired between them? Was it a ‘high noon’ moment, like the face-off between keyboardists Handel and Scarlatti, Mozart and Clementi, Beethoven and Wölfl, or Liszt and Thalberg? Or was it more like a ‘friendly’ match? Did they perform one of the many sonatas for two violins that Leclair wrote?

There was certainly a ‘pamphlet war’ between the French and Italian styles of playing, especially in Paris, and it began decades before, with Abbé François Raguenet in 1702 with his ‘Paralèle des italiens et des françois, en ce qui regarde la musique et les opera’. While Raguenet seemed to be in awe of the Italian style, de la Viéville argued that the Italians “use too many spices, pleasing to the taste at first, but ultimately destructive of it”. The French philosopher Denis Diderot joined the fray as well.

This is an existing written account of the clash of the titans: “Once he [Locatelli] and Leclair were at the court of Kassel at the same time, prompting the court jester to say that both of them ran like rabbits up and down the violin, the one playing like an angel, the other like a devil. The first (Leclair) with his practised left hand and through his neat and lovely tone knew how to steal hearts, while the second (Locatelli) brought forth great difficulties and mainly sought to astound the listener with his scratchy playing. But as far as being steady in the saddle and playing in time went, the French musician could, unless he applied himself with utmost attention, be easily unhorsed by the Italian.”

The imagery of ‘the Angel and the Devil’ (sounds rather like the Dan Brown novel) has persisted to this day. But perhaps the gladiatorial rivalry and blood-sport was more a figment of the imagination of the ‘spectators’, the audience, than in the minds of the protagonists themselves; at least one account seems to indicate that Leclair “sought to perfect his art” by further contacts with Locatelli in Amsterdam. Music has the power to unite even angels and devils!

(An edited version of this article was published on 30 March 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Messiah in Old Goa

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Almost exactly a year ago, Bom Jesus Basilica played host to a marvellous Lenten concert of sacred choral music by the famed Jesus College choir from Cambridge, England. News of the success of that concert and of the wonderful acoustic in the Basilica encouraged another choral ensemble from England to perform here, on 25 March 2014.

The South West Festival chorus (SWFC) were joined in an equal partnership by the musicians of the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) to present to the Goan audience, possibly for the first time ever, a near-complete performance (a few arias were docked from Parts II and III) of Handel’s masterpiece, his sacred oratorio Messiah, arguably one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in western music.

The Messiah is a British staple, particularly at Christmas and Eastertide, and I have lost count of the number of performances I must have been to in my England years. So hearing it on home soil felt like welcoming an old friend here for the first time, with hopefully many more in the future.

Handel wrote Messiah in 1741, incredibly within 24 days, to a scriptural text by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, and from the version from the Psalms included in the Book of Common Prayer. In contrast to most of his other oratorios, in Messiah the singers do not assume dramatic roles, and there is no single dominant narrative voice. The three-part structure of the oratorio resembles that of Handel’s three-act operas, and Jennens further subdivides the “parts” into “scenes.” Handel used a technique called ‘text painting’, where musical lines mimic the lines of the text. It tells the majestic yet intensely human story of Jesus Christ that continues to entrance audiences and performers from all works of life.

Much has been written about the ‘authenticity’ of performances of period compositions, the Messiah being a good case in point. Sir Colin Davis summed it up well when he said “What matters is: Does the music speak to us now?” The Messiah performance we heard in Old Goa not only spoke, but stirred the blood as well.

The opening Sinfonia, in the style of a French ouverture, served as a curtain-raiser to the oratorio and amply displayed the full-toned maturity of the string ensemble of the SOI.

The four soloists (Angela Brun soprano; Marie Elliott mezzo-soprano; Edmund Hastings tenor; Jan Capinski bass) also sang with the chorus, and one has to commend all of them for moving back and forth efficiently and unobtrusively so the performance could proceed smoothly.

It is difficult to select for particular mention specific segments of the performance. In Sir Colin Davis’ words, Handel was a wizard with melodies and each aria is not only beautifully crafted, with thought given to the text, but eminently hummable, and they vie for your attention in your mind as you leave the concert.

My favourite choral excerpt from Messiah has been ‘For unto us a child is born’ ever since the 1980s, when a British exchange medical student left her music cassette collection behind for me after she left Goa. How appropriate that I should be introduced to this during my OBGYN stint as a student! And it has played in my head for many a delivery thereafter! It bubbles over with the unrestrained joy that accompanies any birth, let alone a Divine one.  

It is devilishly difficult to sing, and sing well, but the SWFC did it with practised trademark British equanimity.

The other choral numbers that stood out for me were ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’ and ‘And with his stripes we are healed.’ ‘Surely’ brilliantly conveys the horror of the murder of Jesus; when the choir sings “He was bruised for our iniquities”, this last word is dramatically almost spat out in a descending dotted figure, musical ‘underlining’ at its very best.

The fugal element and even the actual notes themselves of ‘And with his stripes’ almost certainly inspired the Kyrie of Mozart’s Requiem. Mozart gave us a richer counterpoint, but the DNA is still Handel’s. Handel offers us marvellous counterpoint several times as well, notably in ‘Let us break their bonds asunder’. SWFC rose to the occasion, barring occasional lapses in attack and precision in some entries.

All four soloists have impressive biographies, and we heard this in their performance. Brun’s ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ and ‘How beautiful are the feet’ eloquently conveyed the unshakeable faith and conviction of the Biblical text. Brun specialises in coloratura repertoire, and ‘Rejoice greatly’ was the perfect platform for this.

Elliott’s rich velvety voice sparkled in her arias (‘But who may abide the day of his coming?’ and ‘O thou that tallest good tidings to Zion’ come to mind).

Eight arias were given to the tenor, the highest among the soloists; Hastings’ clear bright unforced tenor tone rang through in all of them, with particular reference to ‘Comfort ye my people’, ‘every valley shall be exalted’ and ‘Thou shalt break them.’

In terms of audience reaction, the bass Jan Capinski made quite the impression, with spontaneous applause elicited after the sheer energy of his virtuosic ‘Why do the nations’. ‘Behold, I tell you a mystery’ and ‘The Trumpet shall sound’ also stood out.

Nick Walkley’s clear ringing trumpet tone added heroism and fanfare to ‘The Trumpet shall Sound’, and beautifully highlighted the much-loved Hallelujah chorus as well. ‘The Trumpet’ had shades of the pomp and circumstance of Handel’s other gem, Music for the Royal Fireworks.

Gavin Carr’s conducting reflected his own other background as a singer, and he balanced the orchestral and choral forces with sensitivity and grace.

The musicians of the SOI played their hearts out right through, and amateur string players like me ate our hearts out at the verve and nobility of their playing. Five out of the nine Indian musicians featured were of Goan origin, illustrating my oft-repeated argument in favour of an outreach music education programme of the SOI in Goa, where it is most likely to yield fruit in terms of future recruits to their own orchestra.

Another pertinent observation after this concert is this: although we have now a significant groundswell of enthusiasm for amateur choral singing here, the music literacy to sustain the ability to take on large works is just as important. In England it is not uncommon to encounter Bank Holiday choral workshops attracting singers of all abilities, at the end of which large choral works are performed. But being able to read music is a given. We have to throw away the crutch of MIDI files and video recordings to learn our lines. It is not that difficult to learn to read music. The future of the choral effort (among many other things) rests on this.

Child’s Play (India) Foundation is grateful for the thoughtfulness and generosity of the chorus and musicians in thinking of having a collection in our benefit during the concert.

(An edited version of this article was published in the Navhind Times Goa India on 30 March 2014)

“Blessed are they that consider the poor and needy”

George Frideric Handel’s masterpiece, his sacred oratorio Messiah is a turning point in music history for a whole host of reasons quite apart from its creative brilliance.

Handel had lived in England since 1712, and had built his formidable reputation there largely on the back of his Italian operas. But by the 1730s, public taste had begun to change, a reflection of a growing middle class. Opera then as now has been a financially risky business, and it fell largely to the lot of the composer to rent the theatre and pay for the sets, costumes, and the singers and musicians. Italian opera seemed to be falling out of favour, and box office returns were becoming dismal. Handel turned increasingly to the English-language oratorio; this allowed him to stage an opera in all but name, with soloists, full chorus and orchestra, but without the expense of costumes, sets and props. The oratorios drew inspiration from mythical and Biblical themes for their subject. Messiah was his sixth such work, and after its phenomenal success he never ever returned to Italian opera again.

Handel also would have heartily approved of the modern-day catch-phrase “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.” He recycled (music, that is) much before the word was even coined. For instance, the coronation anthem Zadok the Priest appears in his oratorio Esther; another oratorio Israel in Egypt reuses sections of his funeral anthem for Queen Caroline; and Messiah itself borrows from some of his earlier Italian music. He borrowed from his contemporaries like Telemann as well. But this was not regarded as plagiarism; far from it. Contemporary composer William Boyce lavished high praise on Handel for it: “He takes other men’s pebbles and polishes them into diamonds.” And so it was that the famous Hallelujah chorus from Messiah finds its way into London’s Foundling Hospital Anthem.

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The story of the Foundling Hospital is closely linked with Handel. His sacred oratorios, like his operas, needed a large venue for their performance. A public theatre was seen as too profane a site, especially for a subject as holy as the life of the Messiah. Although Messiah premiered in Dublin in 1742, its London run at Covent Garden Theatre did not fare well, and might well have faded into obscurity. But here Fate and Charity lent a helping hand.

The foundation stone had been laid in 1742 in north London (today Bloomsbury) for the Foundling Hospital, an initiative of the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram that had come to fruition after decades of public campaigning. He was given a royal charter by King George II in 1739 to start a charity that would care for babies abandoned on doorsteps and garbage piles by unwed, destitute mothers; “the education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children”. From the outset, it had a strong link with the creative arts: the painter William Hogarth, a personal friend of Coram, was its first Governor; and he persuaded his contemporaries Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough to donate their paintings as well. The Foundling Hospital in effect became the first public art gallery in the British Isles. Visitors could not only admire the art, but observe the work of the charity and be encouraged to make a contribution.

Handel saw an opportunity here too. In the Foundling Hospital’s chapel was a ready-made performance venue for his oratorios. And it was being funded by his own royal patron George II. In 1749, he offered to conduct a benefit concert, with his own “specially written” Foundling Hospital anthem, which starts with the text of Psalm 41: “Blessed are they that consider the poor and needy…they deliver the poor that crieth, the fatherless.” The anthem is a pastiche of his recycled tunes that culminate in the Hallelujah chorus, which at that time was still unfamiliar to English audiences. Also on the programme was his Music for the Royal Fireworks, which had premiered a month prior, with its Vauxhall Gardens rehearsal causing a three-hour traffic jam of horse carriages, a testament to the popularity of Handel’s music.

The Foundling Hospital benefit concert was a whopping success, and Handel returned the next year for another benefit concert. And this time he chose Messiah. This concert was sold-out, and patrons had to be turned away at the door. A repeat concert was held two weeks later. In gratitude, the hospital made Handel a governor of the charity. And Messiah was performed there annually thereafter as a benefit concert until the 1770s. Handel conducted or attended every performance until his death in 1759.

Foundling Chapel. text

It proved to be a symbiotic relationship. The Foundling Hospital succeeded in making Messiah a British favourite; and Messiah earned thousands of pounds for the charity. The original score and orchestral parts for Messiah were left by Handel in his will to the Foundling Hospital, where they are still on display.

The charity continues to this day as Coram, or the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, and is one of London’s largest children’s charities.

This exciting interface between charity and the creative arts exemplified in this true story inspires us at Child’s Play India Foundation as well.

(An edited version of this article was published on 23 March 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

“I respond on a visceral level to the qualities of scale in Handel’s music”

 

British conductor Gavin Carr will be leading the South West Festival Chorus and the musicians of the Symphony Orchestra of India in a performance of Handel’s Messiah on 25 March 2014 6 pm at Bom Jesus Basilica Old Goa. Entry free. He spoke to the Navhind Times in an exclusive interview.

 

Tell us a little about Southwest Festival chorus. How old is it?

It began in 2001 in the town of Frome in Somerset, as a community chorus put together for the Frome Festival. The first concert was such a success and met with so much enthusiasm that it was decided to repeat the event the following year, and the Chorus has built steadily on this basis. 

What is the audition process? And how often does the chorus rehearse? I ask this because there is a surge of interest in amateur choirs here.

The Chorus is open to all singers of whatever ability, and we do not have auditions for them. Consequently, we get a very broad range of singer, from the highly experienced to the novice, and thus fulfill one of our functions, which is to give training to whoever wants it.

We meet twice a year, generally, in a Winter and a Summer School, at the end of which there is always a concert. These ‘Schools’ take place over a Friday night-to-Sunday evening span, and are very intense and full on, with much laughter and hard work side by side.

The Southwest Festival chorus as come as far East as China in the past, but this is its first tour of India. We hope this will be the first of many more.

We hope so too! These long-haul tours are such wonderful experiences for us, and I have always longed to travel in India, and so for me this is a dream come true and I look forward to developing friends in the country and possibly getting more involved in the country’s music-making. It is particularly good to hear that you, like the UK, are experiencing an upsurge in interest in choral singing. 

I guess you were a true-born musician, given your parentage. And your brother is a composer. How early in your life did you just ‘know’ that you wanted to devote your life to music?

With a Covent Garden Prima Donna for a mother, music was always as much a part of my life as the air itself. Truth to tell, I was always interested in both music and art, and have juggled painting with singing and conducting throughout my life. At present, conducting and singing are in the ascendant and occupy virtually all my time, but as a young man in my early twenties I emigrated to Australia (birthplace of my mother) and focused on painting, before the ‘secret’ of my musical proclivities got out and I became ever more enmeshed in the musical life of Melbourne and Sydney. Once this happened, I decided to take things to the next level, and trained in the USA and Europe. There has never been a moment, however, when I said ‘I will be a musician’; for me, that would have been akin to saying ‘I will now breathe air’ – music has always been there, and always will be so long as I have air to breathe. 

Is it easy, being both a singer and a conductor? Each has its own demands, and its own itinerary. Does one take precedence over the other?

A very interesting question, and one which I wish more people would consider! It is not easy being both a singer and a conductor – for a start, people find it hard to hold two concepts about one thing in their head at the same time, and for most agents, casting-directors, Intendants etc either I am a ‘singer’ or a ‘conductor’, but not both at the same time. The reality is that I have had to focus on my conducting for the last ten years to bring it to the level of my singing, and in this time my singing underwent something of an hibernation for a while, from which I am now very pleased to say it has awoken. I have fulfilled occasional singing contracts over this period, in particular with conductors who value my own particular vocal talents in certain repertoires, but I am now at a point with all my skills that I feel able to give my singing career some more attention whilst maintaining the conducting component at a high level. Once a singer, always a singer, it seems!

On a more philosophical level, it is a fascinating experience to come back to singing having become a successful conductor – I see so much more of what is really going on in a rehearsal or performance, and my body listens with a sharp-pointed focus that it only guessed at previously. I hope that this makes me a better singer, and I look forward to exploring the two side by side, as I am now at an age to attempt this synthesis in my life. 

I was interested to read about Wexford Festival Opera of which you are Chorus Master since 2011, and that it uses promising artists from around the globe, who have made first appearances there. We hope that this becomes the nurturing ground for young Indian talent as well.

Indeed, this Chorus at Wexford is something I am very proud to have founded and developed. I have a particular sympathy for the needs of young artists, and my twofold experience as singer and conductor makes me uniquely placed to appreciate the pitfalls of our profession and the skills required to circumvent them. It is an irony I am still not comfortable with, that I have had to give up my Wexford work this season to accommodate the other conducting work that makes up my year. However, I still stay in close touch with the Festival, and feed it promising young singers to keep its strength up! There is a young Indian baritone beginning to make his way that I am concerned to help as I can – Ross Ramgobin – an exceptionally promising singer, and I would be delighted to see more from India make their way into the profession.

In your career as a singer and conductor, you must have worked with the whole spectrum, from amateur to semi-professional to professional ensembles and choruses. Do you feel, like Sir Colin Davis, that there is a certain freshness and excitement working with amateurs? Is it easier to work with the pros in that they are more disciplined and ‘fine-tuned’? Which do you prefer, or is it fun working with everyone?  

If I had the sort of career that meant only working with pros I would certainly miss the element of exploration and dedication that amateur singers bring to the experience. There is nothing like the ‘glow’ of amazement and glory on the face of an amateur chorus when they achieve the very highest levels of expression in music. It is an experience full of a never-ending humility, to work with amateurs – I am at the service of their dedication, in one way: the choice they make to dedicate a portion of their busy lives to music-making finds it focus in the work I channel with them, and this is something I try never to forget. It is such a joy to see how very far a group of amateur musicians can rise into the stratosphere of achievement: in my work with elite Symphony Choruses, such as the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, whom I have the honour to direct, and the Philharmonia Chorus of London, we aim at the very height of musical expression, and we achieve incredible things with our amateur singers. With a chorus such as South West Festival Chorus, the joy is in aiming at the highest and surprising ourselves with both the journey and the achievement.  

Handel’s Messiah is a British ‘standard’, widely performed at least twice a year, at Easter and Christmas, and the British public knows it well. Do you feel that ‘less is more’ when it comes to performing this work? What are your thoughts regarding ‘mega’-performances, with large choral and orchestral forces?

Well, we know from Handel’s own large-scale performances of some of the celebratory music he wrote for the Monarchy that this was a composer unafraid of the grand gesture, and I defy anyone to look at the ‘Amen’ chorus in Messiah and think it small scale (although I did recently Chorus Master a performance in which an eminent Handel conductor had the chorus and orchestra sing the final cadence mezzo piano – which is not only an absurdity in itself, but was shatteringly demoralising to audience and performers alike). I have grown up within the nascent traditions of the Early Music movement, and have been delighted to reap its benefits as a singer, conductor, and listener, but at the same time one of my three or four Desert Island discs is the old Beecham recording of Messiah, which in its chorus work is quite simply the most thrilling thing – that final Amen chorus is the greatest single expression of grandeur and nobility I know of in recorded sound. So it is fair to say that I straddle the fence. I cannot agree with Joshua Rifkin that Bach intended his Passions for solo voices – having conducted Bach in the Thomanerkirche in Leipzig and Buxtehude in the Marienkirche in Lubeck, I think this approach is a moderately intriguing absurdity and nothing more. I like performing Baroque music with chamber-sized forces, fleet of foot and lean and hungry; but I also like challenging large-scale forces to sing and play with such finesse that the clarity of this chamber approach is manifested whilst incorporating the sonic exhilaration and splendour that only large forces can achieve. I respond on a visceral level to the qualities of scale in Handel’s music in particular, and I feel in my blood that here was a man who loved sound in itself as a means of bringing his listeners closer to the Sublime, and there is nothing more sublime or noble or grand or human than the music of Messiah, and so I will be working with our choir and orchestra to elicit that response from our listeners.

 

(An edited version of this article was published in the Navhind Times Goa India on 19 March 2014)

Two days in the life of the LSO: Day 1

Life can be really strange. When I was a Londoner, and even when I moved away but within commuting distance of the Barbican, even though I was a regular at their concerts and got the Barbicancard discounts and everything, I never got as close or felt as close to the players as I did when they came visiting to India.

Perhaps it was the work schedule on the NHS (National Health Service) either as a hospital doctor in secondary care, or in GP-land in primary care, that would just about allow me to make it to the concerts on time, and then have to hurry back to catch the last train home,so it gave me little leeway for much else.

But here in Mumbai, I was able to watch the LSO up close, in rehearsal, for which I am really ever so grateful.

I got there a little early, and eventually found one of the violists in an aisle of the auditorium, playing through a segment of what was clearly the first movement of Dvořák’s ‘American’ string quartet. I struck up a quick conversation wit him, and he turned out to be the Sub-Principal, Malcolm Johnston.

The next thing I knew, a whole gaggle of school-children, aged perhaps 10-15 or so, and apparently not from the more well-off schools, had occupied the central aisle. I had been privy to a special concert by the Symphony Orchestra of India for a whole auditorium full (well, at least about 800 of them) of school-children, but then they had been from posher schools, so I was quite happy to see these kids for the LSO rehearsal. I watched them as they watched and listened to the rehearsal. It seemed quite obvious that this was the first time they were hearing any orchestra, let alone one as fine as the LSO, live.

 

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The rehearsal began with more or less a run-through of all three movements of the Elgar cello concerto, with only a few halts to fine-tune details that I couldn’t really hear, even though I was seated fairly close. 

I love everything about the Elgar: the beginning from nothing, the gradual build-up, the ‘rocking’ undulating them in the lower strings, the cello singing with more and more eloquence and the impassioned climb two whole octaves into the stratosphere before the tutti bursts forth. It transfixed me the first time I heard it, and it still has the same effect on me.

I also love in the third movement what I describe as the melodic ‘waves’ exchanged between the cello and the orchestra, somewhere about 2/3rds into the movement. I wish I could describe it better. Interestingly, the ending of the concerto needed some work, and the kids applauded every time they heard the end!

Harding seemed to have a difference of opinion with the timpanist, I think in the last movement. “Is that the latest research—playing semi-quavers instead of demisemiquavers?”, he asked. “I’ve always been told to play semiquavers”, replied the timpanist. I couldn’t catch the rest of the discussion after that. 

The orchestral seating plan is interesting: the double basses are to the left of the audience on stage, behind the first violins; the cellos are dead centre, and the second violins are to the right , opposite the firsts.    

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It was interesting to watch the kids during the rehearsal. There was a rich kids with a cameraphone filming a portion of the rehearsal, and the other kids were quite distracted by her; whether it was her phone or her clothes, I’m not sure.

THE LSO then had a ‘surprise’ for the kids: the Star Wars theme. THE LSO have played the soundtrack of every single film in the Star Wars series, since it began in 1976. And Richard Holttum in the viola section is the only player in the current band who played the first soundtrack and every one since. And he’s retiring in 10 days, so this seemed an appropriate goodbye to him as well. It was also being rehearsed as an encore after the LSO’s second Mumbai concert.

The kids however didn’t bat an eyelid when Star Wars was mentioned. It was obvious that it didn’t ring a bell to most of them. Once the music began, though, they enjoyed it very much.

The kids left soon afterward, and the LSO then rehearsed Mahler 1 the Titan. The opening of the symphony resembles the opening of Beethoven’s Fourth very much, but only in the first few measures. It was interesting to watch how the cues to the off-stage trumpet were rehearsed. I’d always wondered about that. Today there’s CCTV, but how did they do it ‘in the old days’?

There was a farewell (if I heard right) to the Principal Second Violin Evgeny Grach, who’s been in the LSO for 17 years. There were speeches, with some hilarious recollections of Grach’s experiences in the orchestra, on tour, his witty rejoinders. We couldn’t catch all of it.

The concert of course went beautifully. I didn’t carry my notebook, and am writing this a few days later.  The encore played was Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. 

Alice Herz-Sommer (1903-2014): “Music saved my life”

Among the slew of awards at the recently concluded Academy Awards ceremony, the film ‘The Lady in Number 6’ won an Oscar for the Best Short Documentary. It charts the life of a remarkable woman, Alice Herz-Sommer, who was the world’s oldest pianist and the oldest known living Holocaust survivor until she passed away aged 110, barely days before this award.

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She was born Alice Herz in Prague (then in the Austro-Hungarian empire) in 1904 to a merchant father and a mother who was extremely well-educated. The family salon hosted thinkers, philosophers, writers, musicians and composers, and the circle included the likes of Franz Kafka, Gustav Mahler and the pianist Arthur Schnabel. She began formal music lessons at age five, and soon studied with Conrad Ansorge, pupil of Franz Liszt. Schnabel encouraged her to become a classical musician.

The family suffered deprivation from the time of the First World War, when her father lost everything in his business. “We realised as little children, what is war.”

She was the youngest pupil at the Prague Conservatory of Music. In 1931 she met Leopold Sommer, an amateur violinist and businessman and married him two weeks later. She became a concert pianist until the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia after which the anti-Semitic laws barred her from a career or from teaching non-Jews.

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Although most of her Jewish friends and family emigrated to Palestine, Herz-Sommer stayed behind to look after her ill mother. Herz-Sommer, her husband and son were rounded up in July 1943 and sent to Terezin (Theresienstadt in German), a concentration camp that was used as a propaganda tool by the Nazis to delude the world media and the Red Cross into thinking that Jews were treated well under the ‘benevolent’ protection of the Third Reich.

Herz-Sommer played more than 150 concerts during the two years she spent here, for the prisoners and guards. Her son Stephen (later Raphael) was one of the few children who survived the camp. Her husband was sent to Auschwitz in 1944 where he perished of typhus, just before it was liberated. A friend saved his spoon and gave it to Alice. She cherished it to her dying day.

After Theresienstadt was liberated by the Soviet army in 1945, Herz-Sommer and her son returned to Prague and in 1949 emigrated to Israel, where she taught music at the Jerusalem Academy of Music until emigrating again to London in 1986. Her son Raphael went on to become a cellist and conductor.

Herz-Sommer lived a simple life in a single-room apartment in Belsize Park, practising the piano for three hours a day until the end. Until around the mid-2000s, she swam every day and attended philosophy classes thrice a week – walking to both.

Her life became the focus of much media attention, for being a Holocaust survivor and her longevity, but largely for her magnanimity, her optimism, her all-embracing capacity of forgiveness, and her passionate love of music.

She believed firmly in the elemental power of music: “Music saved my life, and music saves me still…I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion.”

Music did literally save Herz-Sommer’s life, as she was most likely chosen to go to Theresienstadt because of her skills as a pianist, and allowed to stay alive live there while nearly 35,000 others were sent to their deaths. She also knew that if she did not perform satisfactorily, or displeased her captors in any way, she and her son would be exterminated forthwith.

She spoke in an interview of the nourishment and hope that music provided the camp inmates. “People need hope when they are suffering…When the first note was played, everybody felt God is here. Somebody makes us happy. When we can play, it can’t be so terrible.”

Music was quite simply her obsession, her raison d’être. “My world is music. I am not interested in anything else…. Music is in the first place of art. It brings us on an island, with peace, beauty and love….Music is a dream”, she would say emphatically.

She attributed her longevity to two things: her optimism and music. “The life of a musician is a privilege. Of this I am sure, because, from the morning to the evening and from the evening to the morning, the musician is occupied with the most beautiful thing coming from mankind – music.”

Herz-Sommer harboured no feelings of hate for her past experiences. “I never hate. We are all sometimes good, sometimes bad.” She even went to the extent of saying she was “thankful and happy” for the experience.”Because I am richer than other people for it. My reaction to life is quite another one. People complain how terrible this or that is. It’s not so terrible.”

“My son was five-and-a-half years old [when at Theresienstadt]. He would ask ‘Mother, why have we nothing to eat?’ I didn’t know what to answer him.”

“I would laugh as much as possible. I was always laughing, even there [Theresienstadt]. How can a child not laugh when the mother laughs?”

“I believe men don’t need food, when we have something spiritual…. Music was our food. Through music we were kept alive.”

Asked what she had learned in her long life, she would reply: “To know the difference between what is important and what is not important.”

What gave her this boundless positivity in the face of unimaginable cruelty and hardship? It could be something innate, or her upbringing, but music certainly made a huge contribution as well.

She said, “We should thank Beethoven. Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, for what they gave us. They gave us beauty, they gave us indescribable beauty. They made us happy”.

Her abiding joy of life was nothing short of inspirational: “Every day in life is beautiful. Every single day … is beautiful.”

 

(An edited version of this article was published on 16 March 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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