Love at First Sight (and Hearing)

 

Television came to Goa in 1982 during the coverage of the Asiad games. And with it, the couch-potato syndrome, and perhaps the beginning of our own obesity epidemic. And the first wave of in-your-face commercialism and advertising.

They say it pays to advertise. But sometimes what lingers after some advertisements is everything but the product. This has been the case with me, regarding one of those early TV ads. It would have been 1985-86. I remember so much about it; it was about half-a-minute long, and a pretty model shrouded in a hooded cloak stepping into view amid a swirl of the most glorious cascading piano music I had ever listened to. The music would fade away, and the product spiel (luxury chocolate? coffee?) would take over, and the spell would be broken.

It was only several years later, during my internship year in 1989, that the identity of the music was revealed to me. An East European pianist was performing at the Kala Academy, and it was the first time I heard the work in full: Chopin Étude no. 1 in C major, opus 10.

In those pre-internet days, programme notes or any information about music works were not easy to come by. Over time, I managed to listen to different recordings of this étude. The versions by Martha Argerich, Maurizio Pollini and Vladimir Ashkenazy still stand out in my memory, and quite readily accessible online for those interested. The great Vladimir Horowitz had a healthy respect for it, and refused to perform it in public: “For me, the most difficult one of all (the études) is the C Major, the first one, Op. 10, No. 1.”

The American music critic James Huneker compared the “hypnotic charm” that these “dizzy acclivities and descents exercise for eye as well as ear” to the frightening staircases in Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s prints of the Carceri d’invenzione  (Imaginary Prisons), his capricci, or whimsical aggregates, Kafkaesque depictions of monumental architecture and ruin.

The main technical challenge of the étude is playing the right-hand arpeggios seamlessly without interruption, legato and accurately at the suggested tempo (Allegro). It is called a study in ‘reach and arpeggios’, and is aimed at stretching the fingers of the right hand.

Frederic_Chopin_photo

Chopin himself told his pupil Friederike Müller-Streicher: “You shall benefit from this Étude. If you learn it according to my instructions it will expand your hand and enable you to perform arpeggios like strokes of the [violin] bow. Unfortunately, instead of teaching, it frequently un-teaches everything.”

If one follows Chopin’s own metronome markings (MM 176, referring to quarter notes), it is a daunting tempo. Later editors such as Hans von Bülow suggested a slower tempo (MM 152), arguing that at MM 176 “the majestic grandeur [would be] impaired.” Most contemporary performers seem to follow Chopin’s original recommendation. If memory serves right, the clip in the TV ad, as well as the live performance I first heard in 1989 were taken at the slower tempo.

This étude entered popular culture in 1978 when its first few bars were incorporated by the English progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer into their track ‘Love at First Sight’ in their studio album Love Beach.

It is an odd choice, and seems to be tacked on to the beginning of the ballad for no real artistic reason. The album in general was panned by fans and critics alike; Rolling Stone magazine sniffed: “Stale and full of ennui, this album makes washing the dishes seem a more creative act by comparison”.

But the Chopin Études theselves are timeless, and form the bedrock of the concert piano repertoire. This first étude in his set of opus 10 (aptly nicknamed ‘The Waterfall’) was written by him when still a teenager; he would dedicate the entire opus to his friend Franz Liszt.

For those interested, there is wonderful video footage of a young dashing Vladimir Askenazy striding purposefully over to the keys to play this marvelous piece. The camera lets you watch his right-hand arpeggios in all their glory.

But for sheer poetry, the audio clip of Martha Argerich’s 1965 prize-winning (Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition) account of this étude is matchless. The evenness of the fingers, the fluidity of wrist are phenomenal, and the whole work ‘sings’ from the weighty left-hand bass. Magical.

(An edited version of this article was published on 19 November 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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Writing Music

 

Recently while cleaning out a drawer, I came across a blast from the past: it was a crude implement I had fashioned as a child by lashing together five ballpoint refills (with a lot of Araldite as well), to be able to draw five parallel lines to create musical staves on blank paper.

I used to enjoy just copying out music that I liked; I somehow felt ‘closer’ to the music by doing this. One could purchase music manuscript books at Pedro Fernandes, of course. But in my mind those books were for ‘serious’ stuff, to be used for music lessons, while my hand-made sheets were for fun.

I learnt a lot from the sheer act of copying and writing out music; I familiarized myself with clefs that were beyond the need of my instrument the violin. And when you copy out great music, you can’t help discovering what the composer does with his creation, both horizontally and vertically. I guess you can learn this by reading a score as well, but there’s something to be said for the physical act of putting pen to paper. It is like at least to a small extent, retracing the creative steps that the composer took in writing it him/herself.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the term for a five-pointed implement like this to draw music staves is a rastrum. I’m reading a fascinating book by English conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner, titled ‘Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven.’ It is extensively researched, and the all footnotes put together are perhaps just as long as the book itself.

The seventh chapter is titled ‘Bach at his Workbench.’ It describes in great detail how Johann Sebastian Bach actually wrote his music. The manuscript paper would be stacked on one of the shelves in his studio, ready for use; “heavier than ordinary writing paper and more expensive, since the sheets needed to stay upright and rigid on the music stands.”

Once he had conceptualized his composition in his mind, he would plan the layout of the manuscript page, and draw the necessary set of staves using a “special five-nibbed pen called a rastrum.”  With repeated use, these rastra would “spread or distort”, and we find the resulting unevenness in some of his scores, leading to confusion regarding intended notation in some cases. For instance Gardiner informs us that in Bach’s fifth Brandenburg concerto, the outer, lowest prong of the rastrum was “virtually broken.” And not all rastra were created equal. Rastra of extra prominence could sometimes be given over to indicate the harpsichord part, for example.

Writing music

What else would have been on Bach’s work-desk? “Quills, lead pencils, knives for sharpening pens and for correcting mistakes once the ink had dried and a straight ruler for inscribing long bar-lines in fair-copy scores.” And “inkpots filled with black, sepia and red tints and a supply of copper-gallic ink powder ready for mixing with water.”

Unfortunately, like other manuscripts of their time (do contemporaneous manuscripts in our own archives in Goa also have the same sort of ink and their set of problems?) the acid content of this ink caused it to bleed through the pages and in some cases cause severe damage.

Another point of interest: blotting paper had not yet been invented, so Bach would have had a box of fine sand to do this instead, although it didn’t always succeed in drying the ink before the page could be turned.

Gardiner describes three stages to Bach’s compositional process: inventio (the initial “germ or creative spark”), elaboratio (fleshing out of the idea), and executio (the performance of the work). All three stages are “complementary and vital” to each other.

With some composers, the work could gestate a long time in the first stage in a sketchpad, as with Beethoven. Many composers have not left these behind for posterity, and only fair copies of compositions survive. It is thought that Bach too might have worked from preliminary drafts which are either destroyed or lost.

Telltale evidence of the compositional process does sometimes does survive, however, and when it does, it can be illuminating. Bach in his Leipzig years was Cantor of the Thomasschule at the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas church) there, and his duties included having to provide music for four churches under his jurisdiction, a phenomenal output that meant at least one cantata a week for the Sunday service. This meant he couldn’t afford the luxury of time or error. In the score for one of his cantatas (Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder, BWV 135), he seems to be writing so furiously as the ideas come thick and fast. Manuscript paper isn’t cheap, so he can’t waste it to sketch his ideas before they disappear into the mist. He still has to wait for his current page to dry before continuing on to another page. So what does he do? He scribbles at the foot of the page a mnemonic, an aide-memoire of his idea, for what is to come. We get a rare glimpse of his elaboration as it happened.

And it is a myth to assume that Bach was a stereotypical ‘solitary artist’ in his studio, hard at work. He had two paid copyists, and often pupils and family members were pressed into service if there was a deadline. Today experts pore over these scores, and are (often, not always) able to tell from the ‘musical handwriting’ whether it was Bach’s own hand or someone else’s. Much can be deduced from errors as well (the inadvertent copying out of the wrong part in the wrong place, then struck out). When pressed for time, Bach takes over from the apprentice, and the sense of urgency is evident in the writing.

So much can be learned from examining the score. I was listening to a discussion on the radio about a study of Mozart’s score of his opera ‘La Clemenza di Tito’, written in the year of his death (1791). Based on the finding of an unfortunate insect that met its demise in one of the ‘inkier’ (a crotchet, perhaps?) notes in the score, experts are able to deduce in which month of that summer he wrote that portion, even if his window might have been open!

Today, there are all kinds of software that composers can use, and it has made the process of composition so much easier in terms of legibility, planning page turns, making copies, transposing parts, and so much else. The score for a whole symphony or opera can fit onto a pen-drive, or be emailed across the world in a twinkling of an eye. But I can’t help feeling we’ve lost something as well. When I arrange music for four-part harmony for my children or for our ensemble, I still prefer the old-fashioned pen-and-paper route.

(An edited version of this article was published on 12 November 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Two Years On and Justice still Denied

 

We have reached the second death anniversary of Fr. Bismarque Dias, but the unresolved case of his brutal murder still weighs heavily on Goa’s psyche and conscience.

Justice for Bismarque

At some point, in the month following his murder, perhaps as a form of catharsis for my own grief and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, in there still not being any closure to his investigation (on the contrary, the investigation was being botched and mishandled from the very beginning), I hand-painted a banner to just give vent to how I felt. Against a white cloth background with red hand-prints splattered all over, my family and I daubed thick coats of black paint spelling out the message “JUSTICE FOR FR. BISMARQUE!” across its middle. I mounted the black flag I had carried to the massive protest meeting at the Panjim ferry point on 21 November 2015 (and which had the unexpected side-effect of procuring my arrest when I refused to surrender it to a police inspector) above it. And I vowed that as long as his family chose not to inter his mortal remains, I would have that banner stretched across the railings of my verandah and the black flag flutter over it. I got curious looks and the odd snide comment, but I was just hurting too much to care what anyone else thought of my gesture. Everyone grieves in their own way, and this was mine.

And I did the same with my presence on social media; a picture of the iconic sketch of him that appeared all over Goa became my profile picture, there to stay until the time that I was able to attend his funeral.

At the time I had naïvely anticipated that it would be perhaps a matter of weeks, perhaps a few months, before there was some resolution. When I needed to leave Goa on a trip to Mumbai, my worry was that I’d miss his funeral, and I had left instructions to my family to call me in case there was such an announcement, so that I could cut short my trip to pay my last respects to him.

Two years later, much water has flowed down the Santo Estevam sluice-gate, and my sorry little banner has been battered and blurred by two consecutive monsoons, dust and vehicle fumes, and strong winds this year broke the mast of the black flag in two. But the mortal remains of Fr. Bismarque still languish in the morgue.

Weather-beaten as that banner may be, it’s still up. I can’t bring myself to take it down; I feel that in so doing, I’ll somehow be letting down the memory of the great man I still look up to. It is a tangible connection to keeping the fight for justice for Fr. Bismarque alive. What is not out of sight will hopefully not be out of mind (and heart).

About a year ago or thereabouts, I got a late-night call from people who knew me and who claimed to be ‘close friends’ of Fr. Bismarque. They were wondering if I would persuade the family to end the stalemate and give him a burial at last. They went to great lengths to try and convince me that there was nothing more to investigate, how they had done ‘investigations’ and ‘interrogations’ of their own, and had come to the conclusion that it was all an unfortunate accident. When I pointed out to them that if they were as ‘close’ to Fr. Bismarque and his family as they claimed, they had therefore no need of my intervention, it stumped them and they hung up.

No family would delay the final rites of a deceased relative, certainly not for so long, without good reason. As the family has eloquently put it in a public letter shared with me, “the remains of Father Jose Bismarque Desidorio Dias are absolutely required to complete the additional inquest to effectively conclude the cause of death.”

Does Fr. Bismarque Dias deserve the dignity of a proper burial? Of course he does. Such a great son of Goa, such a fearless, indefatigable warrior for Goa deserves this and so much more. But we also owe it to him and his family to ensure that justice is done by him, and sadly, until this is achieved, we have to support the family in their decision to carry on their noble fight.

The public letter also asks a very pertinent question that should give us all pause for thought: “In the event of the murder and discarding of the dead body in the river of a person of high society i.e. those in power etc. would they have received the same treatment as an ordinary person like Father Jose Bismarque Desidorio Dias and if they did receive such treatment would such corrupt forensic doctors, police inspectors and district magistrates be worthy of continuing employment in government departments?”

This is not the first time justice has been delayed and therefore denied in our country. But this should not mean the fight shouldn’t carry on.

And what of the legacy of Fr. Bismarque Dias? It is hard for me to try and recapture and regain the optimism and never-say-die spirit he radiated when he was with us, of not being disheartened despite all the political and environmental setbacks Goa has endured. But collectively, we have to somehow do this. We all miss him and his positivity so very much, but we also have to move on and learn to be Bismarques ourselves.

I particularly like the suggestion of my friend Salil Chaturvedi, of instituting a Father Bismarque Award for Environmental Activism. I think it is something he would have liked. And it also endorses the need for ongoing environmental activism. The fight is far from over, be it for Justice for Fr. Bismarque, or for Goa.

(An edited version of this article was published on 05 November 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

To-may-to, To-mah-to

 

archipelago

As I listen to BBC Radio 3 such a lot, I couldn’t resist the temptation to join an online group called ‘The Society for the Promotion of Correct Pronunciation on Radio 3.’ For the most part, I’ve just been a fly on the wall there, learning a lot about pronunciation of names of composers, operas and other matters largely musical. It has been very interesting, reading the reactions often to programmes I had just listened to.

So I read detailed debates and discussion regarding articulations, stresses, emphases, accents, vowels, sibilants, consonants, concerning most languages commonly encountered in opera, oratorios, and other choral and vocal works: Italian, German, French, Russian; and a smattering of other European languages too.

But I noticed one gaping lacuna: on the few occasions that Indian names or terms pitched up on Radio 3 programmes, or indeed even place-names further afield in the Middle East, they passed without comment, even though they had been repeatedly mangled. So I posted the following on the Society’s page:

“It’s SAA-vitri, not Suh-VEE-tree, and it’s PAAR-vati, not Puh-VAA-ti, thank you very much, dear overseas radio presenters. It’s a lazy assumption that stressing the second syllable of any Indian word is the correct way to pronounce it. And it’s not Shank-CAR (for Shankar) either. Or Muh-HASH (for Mahesh) or Rum-MASH (for Ramesh). And moving over to another country, it was never Bag-Dad. But it’s been mangled for so long that it’s become common usage. Still wrong, though. It’s really not that difficult to pronounce words properly. Not taking the trouble signifies either laziness, or a post-colonial hangover (“we’ll say what we bloody well like!”) or both.”

I was referring to references to Gustav Holst’s opera Savitri, to the token Indian girl Parvati at Hogwarts in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, to Ravi Shankar, and to Baghdad in the discussion of William Walton’s oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast. I had heard them mispronounced so often and no-one else on the group, or elsewhere, was pointing it out.

I was, however, gobsmacked when the reaction from a member of the group, ironically surnamed England, was: “Could this inappropriate post be deleted, please?”

I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was inappropriate about my post. Perhaps the remark about a “post-colonial hangover” had ruffled England’s feathers a little? ‘England’ was offended!

Thankfully the administrator of the group stepped in quickly enough, to say there was “nothing in your comment that would cause offence. It is suitably rigorous.” A few other members also spoke up in my defence, and England withdrew into a sulky silence. The last time I checked, he’d left the group.

But it brought into focus the double-standard regarding pronunciation and diction. There is an expectation on the part of peoples of the formerly-colonised world to ‘correctly’ pronounce words, names and place-names in English and many of the commonly used European languages (French, Italian, and to a lesser degree, German and others), but very little effort is made in the reverse direction.

Some years ago, a famous English writer was reading extracts from his books at a literary venue in Goa. Among several examples, he chose one passage where he mimicked an Indian’s accent in clumsily attempting to pronounce the name of an English cricketer, with hilarious double-entendre consequences. But he made a dog’s dinner of every Indian term, name and place-name in the same extract, and seemed to be oblivious to this irony, until someone in the audience pointed this out to him.

Similarly, we’ve all listened to overseas cricket commentators refer to Gavas-CAAR and Ten-dull-CAAR, and even worse contortions of the names of Pakistani and Sri Lankan players, but this is taken as the ‘norm’.

When I began living and working in England, I found people from ‘my’ part of the world (and not just India) who had learned to adapt to the host country’s ‘difficulty’ with their names. So my South Indian colleague had learned to answer to ‘Nathan’ instead of Ranganathan, Harish had become ‘Harry’, Raveendran was ‘Rav’, Mohammed had been shortened to ‘Mo’, and (this took the biscuit in my opinion) Acharya was answering to ‘Archie’!

There are two episodes from ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ (the popular sketch comedy TV show featuring Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal, Kulvinder Ghir and Nina Wadia that explored the conflict and integration between traditional Indian culture and modern British life) that deals with Indian names. In one episode, the Kapoors prefer to be called ‘Cooper’ in a farcical attempt at social climbing, and outdoing the British in British-ness. (Not too long ago, on a BBC TV programme, Indian and Pakistani officials were referring to the problems in ‘Cashmere’, presumably just to match their host’s pronunciation of Kashmir!).

In the other sketch, the setting is a white-collar firm of some sort in Mumbai, at which an Englishman named Jonathan has just begun work, but there’s a hitch: all the locals have difficulty pronouncing ‘Jonathan’, so they decide to christen him ‘Janardhan’ instead!

At one hospital posting as O&G Registrar, I walked into delivery suite early one morning to find the senior midwife having a go at my Pakistani junior colleague because she had mispronounced an English consultant’s name: “It’s Davies, not Davis. Not that difficult, is it?” she said, rolling her eyes.

I decided to speak up for my colleague. I felt the midwife was nit-picking (I had found nothing amiss in my colleague’s pronunciation of ‘Davies’, at least to my ears); and she ought to have been the last person to give lectures on correct pronunciation, as she had been distorting my colleague’s name (and mine, and about everyone from ‘our’ part of the world, which meant anywhere but the UK or Europe, I guess) since the time we had begun our stint at the hospital. She was quite deaf to her own phonetic, linguistic double-standard.

So, as the song goes, should we “just call the whole thing off” when it comes to pronunciation, or is there a middle ground? How does one pronounce names, places, or just words that fall remotely outside one’s own comfort zone?

In my view, a first-time slip due to ignorance or clumsiness is only human. But it is laziness not to even try, when it is a word you will encounter and/or need to say often, and common sense tells you that people from that part of the world enunciate it differently, and their version is therefore the norm we ought to follow. Conversely, I think it is only decent and courteous to make this effort.

To give an example: German visitors to Goa often pronounce Calangute as‘Kalangooter’; perhaps they subdivide the word into two, and they therefore pronounce the second half as they would the German word ‘gute’ (for ‘good’). But if the same individual visits frequently or takes up residence here, and persists in this mispronunciation, either the person doesn’t get around that much, or is too lazy to make an effort. If the latter, it is unfortunate.

(An edited version of this article was published on 29 October 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

 

The Romance of the Horn

A soprano, horn-player and pianist walk into a church. No, not the opening line of a joke, but what promises to be the concert of the year: Patricia Rozario and her husband Mark Troop (who need no introduction) will be joined by Timothy Jones in “a recital of Romantic music for Horn, Voice and Piano” (entry by invitation passes) at the St. Francis of Assisi church, Old Goa on 26 October 2017.

So, although there will also be works for voice and piano (Schubert Lieder and Benjamin Britten’s song cycle ‘On this Island’, opus 11 based on texts by W.H. Auden) and for horn and piano (Romanze opus 7 by German composer and virtuoso horn player Franz Strauss 1822-1905, father of the more famous composer Richard Strauss), there are three substantial works for all three. They are worth examining, as they do not often get a public hearing due to the unusual combination.

As the concert title suggests, all three works are by composers of the Romantic period: Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), with an eclectic distribution in terms of geography, style and language. Interestingly, all three are songs of farewell.

The Donizetti offering even has Farewell in its title: ‘Dirti Addio’ (‘To bid you Farewell’), although it is also known as ‘L’Amor Funesto’ (Sad or Baleful Love) or by its first line ‘Più che non m’ama un angelo’ (‘More than an angel loves’).  It is termed a ‘Romanze’ in the score as well.  Scored for voice, horn and piano or harp, it opens after a brief chordal introduction, to a lovely lyrical bel canto line for the horn floating above a rocking arpeggio piano accompaniment. By the third line after the singer’s entry, it becomes a duet worthy of a Donezetti opera. There is tenderness, laced with bitterness and anger (in the agitated, stormy third stanza) with opportunity for marvellous coloratura singing.

“Fleurs des landes’ (Wildflowers, or Flowers of the heath) is a collection of five songs for voice and piano published by Berlioz in 1850. ‘Le jeune pâtre breton’ (The young Breton shepherd) was written in 1834 and later arranged for soprano and orchestra (with the French soprano Cornélie Falcon in mind) with an ad libitum part for horn. Although eight stanzas long, often just the first four are sung in concert performance. But the last line of the last stanza is a farewell greeting.

The highlight of the concert will certainly be Schubert’s ‘Auf dem Strom’ (‘On the Stream’), D. 943. Written in 1828, the last year of his life, it is a particularly poignant farewell song. Schubert had been an admirer of Beethoven all his life. When Beethoven had died in 1827, just the previous year, Schubert had been one of the pall-bearers. Beethoven looms large in ‘Auf dem Strom.’

The first and only time Schubert held a public concert of his own music was on 26 March 1828, the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death. ‘Auf dem Strom’ was composed specifically for this occasion. It is a setting of a poem by Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860), who also provided the text for Schubert’s song collection ‘Schwanengesang’ (‘Swan Song’). It is believed that Rellstab had given ‘Auf dem Strom’ to Beethoven, who died before he could set it to music. This gives Schubert’s setting of this poem additional significance.

As in many of Schubert’s ‘water’ songs, the ‘musical current’ is suggested at the outset by the fluid triplets in the piano accompaniment (which would have been played by Schubert himself in the 1828 concert).  The text of the poem dictates the inexorable flow of the piece: ‘Already the waves of the stream are pulling briskly at my boat’ in the first verse; and ‘the waves bear me forward with unsympathetic speed’ in the second.

In its expression of yearning, Schubert would also have noticed the parallels between this text (particularly in the second verse: ‘Hopelessly my lament echoes around my fair homeland, where I found her love’) and Beethoven’s own (and only) song cycle ‘An die ferne Geliebte’ (‘To the distant beloved’).

There is even a ‘quotation’ from Beethoven, from the second movement of his Eroica symphony (Marcia funebre), a very apt quotation, bearing in mind both the text, and the occasion. It appears several times in the work.

The French horn part was written with the noted French-German horn-player Josef Rudolf Lewy (1802-1881) in mind. Schubert had written a piece ‘Nachtgesang im Walde’ D. 913 for male voice quartet and four horns, for Lewy’s own benefit concert the previous year, so Lewy perhaps agreed to return the favour by allowing himself to be included in Schubert’s concert. But the French horn also has musical symbolism: heroism, nobility, and heroic death.  Schubert writes a noble, elegiac passage for the instrument at the beginning and between the verses. It could also be a tribute to Beethoven who wrote for the horn in his orchestral and chamber music (notably his Wind Quintet Op. 16, Horn Sonata Op. 17, and Septet Op. 20). The inclusion of the horn perhaps dictates the choice of key, E major, with the part for natural horn written (but not sounding) in C major.

Although several programme notes cite this work as the “first” work for valved horn by a major composer, it is apparently also playable on the natural horn. Nevertheless, it is a challenging work for the instrument; a version for obbligato cello (instead of the horn part) was also published posthumously along with the horn version. Whether this was at Schubert’s behest or the publisher’s whim is unclear.

‘Auf dem Strom’ has a completely different mood from that other Schubert Lied for voice, piano and another obbligato instrument, the clarinet, ‘The Shepherd on the Rock’ (‘Der Hirt auf dem Felsen’, D. 965) that Rozario and Troop performed here last year with Spanish clarinettist Joan Enric Lluna, and also written in Schubert’s final year.

As I said before, Rozario and Troop are well-known to our audiences; it remains therefore to summarise the impressive biography of Timothy Jones. He is Professor of Horn at the Royal College of Music London. When still in his teens, he gained a position in the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. He is currently Principal Horn of the London Symphony Orchestra, a position he has held since 1986, and has played guest principal with the world’s top orchestras, most recently the New York and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras. An active chamber musician, he has collaborated with Andre Previn, Daniel Barenboim, the Borodin trio and the Emerson quartet among many others. He is owner/director of the renowned French horn manufacturing company ‘Paxman Ltd.’

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 October 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

How Beethoven brought Mirabehn to Gandhi

 

Mahatma Gandhi of course was a central figure in our school history books in the chapters devoted to the Indian freedom struggle. But I don’t remember Mirabehn getting any mention; if she did, it must have just been in passing.

She “came to life”, as it were, for my generation, in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 hagiographic film ‘Gandhi’. At almost the exact midpoint of the film, she arrives at Gandhi’s Sabarmati ashram, Ms. Slade, the “daughter of an English admiral”, but who prefers the name Gandhi has given her: Mirabehn.

Mirabehn played by actress Geraldine James in Richard Attenborough’s film ‘Gandhi’ (1982)

Mirabehn Gandhi

But who was she, and what could have caused her to leave the comfort of her home in Britain to work with Gandhi? It was her love of classical music, and specifically her adoration of the music of Beethoven, that propelled her on her journey.

Mirabehn (1892-1982) was born Madeleine Slade, to an aristocratic British family, daughter of Rear-Admiral in the Royal Navy, Sir Edmund Slade. As her father was posted overseas for long stints, she grew up at her grandparents’ country estate, inculcating a love for nature and animals.

The music of Ludwig van Beethoven was another abiding passion that began early in her childhood. She had started on the piano, and her father had bought her a “player-piano”  or pianola, a self-playing piano containing a mechanism that operates the piano action by “reading” or “decoding” a complex patterns of holes or perforations on a roll of strong sheet of paper, called a piano roll. The pianola was extremely popular until superseded by the phonograph and radio in the early 20th century.

In her autobiography ‘The Spirit’s Pilgrimage’, Mirabehn writes:  “I played and listened, but nothing interested me particularly except one piece which held me from the moment it began. It was Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 31 No. 2 [popularly called ‘The Tempest’]. I played it over and over…. I …procured one Beethoven sonata after another…. I was finding something far beyond the music…. I threw myself down on my knees in the seclusion of my room and prayed.”

She visited India when her father was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the East Indies Station; but the experience “meant nothing to me but a life of social functions and formalities in a very restricted society which did not appeal to me.” So at some point during her family’s return to England, she preferred to stay on there, where she “played and listened to Beethoven day after day… I imbibed, more surely than if there had been words, a sense of fearlessness, strength and purity passing, especially in the slow movements, to those regions of the spirit which lift one into that which can only be felt but never spoken.”

She became a concert impresario, and in 1921 organized a series of concerts featuring Beethoven and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, ending the British boycott of German composers during the Great War.

Her Beethoven obsession prompted a pilgrimage to his birthplace in Bonn and to Vienna, where his career was established. She then heard of the “epic novel” by French novelist and mystic Romain Rolland (1866-1944) on Beethoven. She took a year out in France in order to improve her proficiency in French, just so that she could read the book.

She met Rolland at his home in Villeneuve, Switzerland. It was then that he mentioned a book he had just completed (1924), on the Mahatma. (Incidentally, Rolland had written the book without even meeting Gandhi). Mirabehn describes her reaction in her autobiography: “I looked blank. “‘You have not heard about him?’ he asked. “‘No’, I replied. So he told me, and added: ‘He is another Christ.’”

She read Rolland’s biography of Gandhi, and it changed her life. She corresponded with Gandhi, expressing her wish to become his disciple at Sabarmati ashram.

The book ‘Romain Rolland and Gandhi correspondence’ makes very interesting reading, as it chronicles, through extracts from letters, diary entries and press interviews the awakening of Rolland’s interest in Gandhi and the freedom struggle. His diary entry in September 1925 states:  “I write to Gandhi to recommend my “daughter” Madeleine Slade who is leaving for Bombay on 24 October… She says her example has carried along her parents; her mother is spinning, and her father, the admiral, is weaving (cursing Gandhi all the while).”

There are several references to Beethoven in the book. On more than one occasion, Rolland calls Beethoven “the European Mahatma”. In a postcard to Gandhi’s secretary Mahadev Desai (February 1924), he signs off: “As our European Mahatma – Beethoven – sings in his Ode to Joy: Let us – millions of human beings –embrace each other.”

In a letter to Mirabehn (25 April 1927), he writes: “If Gandhi knew him [Beethoven], he would recognize in him our European Mahatma, our strongest mediator between the life of the senses and eternal Life. And he would bless this music which perhaps, for us, is the highest form of prayer, a permanent communion with the Divinity.”

Rolland chronicles Gandhi’s visit to him in 1932 in a letter to a friend: “On the last night, he [Gandhi] asked me to play him something by Beethoven; for he knows that Beethoven was the link between his great European disciple Mira (Miss Slade) and myself, who then did the same between her and Gandhi. So all three of us brought our gratitude back to Beethoven.” He even mentions what he played: a piano reduction of the Andante (second movement) from his Fifth Symphony. Piano reductions of orchestral works were a common way of acquainting oneself with such compositions, again before the era of the phonograph and radio.

He then went on to play ‘The Elysian Fields’ (Dance of the Blessed Spirits) from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera ‘Orfeo ed Eurydice’, and Rolland elaborates: “(the first orchestral melody and the flute melody, for I know from Tagore’s example that there’s no page of European music better attuned to an Indian’s sensibilities)”.

In another letter to a friend in 1932, Rolland reassures him not to worry about Gandhi’s impending prison sentence, as “Prison is his time of rest and reading, and there is nothing better for his health.” He further writes that Gandhi’s secretaries informed him that in preparing for a stint in prison, Gandhi was “setting aside your [Rolland’s] books on Beethoven for that time in the cells.”

And what did Gandhi think of the “European Mahatma”? If he expressed an opinion, I’ve not come across it yet in my reading.

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 October 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carissimi and the Jesuits

 

Recently a German research scholar liaised with me on her visit to Goa. She was researching “the music of the Jesuits in South India from the time of the formation of the order to their suppression in 1759.” It was a pleasure chaperoning her and poring along with her over documents in the Archives, Bishop’s Palace Altinho and the Xavier Centre for Historical Research Porvorim.

While discussing secondary sources, the name of Italian composer Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674) cropped up more than a few times. Several sources quote the passage by visitor to Goa in the 1660s (he was in India between1656-1665), Monsignor Sebastiani Fr. Giuseppe di Santa Maria (1623-1689), of the Order of the Scalzi Carmelites, First Bishop of Hierapoli (Greece) and First Baron of the Hagia Sophia.  In his communication from his Seconda Speditione all’Indie Orientali (Second Voyage to the East Indies), he marvels at the musicianship of the ‘Canarins’: “Non può credersi quanto rieschino nella Musicaquei Canarini, come ci si esercitino, e con quanta facilità.”

The term ‘Canarin’ is an interesting one. Is it a generic term for all non-white inhabitants of Goa at the time, or did it indicate a social group distinct from the Brahmins and Chardós, terms that the Portuguese and visitors were already using in their descriptive writing even in the 1500s? This came up for discussion during the lecture series “Goa in the making of the Portuguese empire (16th-18th centuries)” of Dr. Ângela Barreto Xavier as well. Perhaps it meant different things to each observer, so it’s difficult to generalise.

Anyway, Giuseppe di Santa Maria mentions in particular a work by Carissimi performed at “the Professed House of the Fathers of the Compagnia [Society of Jesus], where the body of St. Francis Xavier is located.” If I’ve translated the entry (with some reading between the lines as well), the performance might have been on 31 July 1663, the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of order of the Society of Jesus.

I first learnt of Carissimi through this entry of di Santa Maria, and this time I decided to look him up further. More specifically, was there a reason and some significance in the performance of a work by Carissimi in particular? Did he have a special relationship with the Jesuit order?

It turns out that he did, very much so.  Very little is known about Carissimi’s early life; we know he was born in Marino, near Rome,  that his father Amico was a cooper  (a maker and repairer of casks and barrels),his mother’s name was Livia  and that he was the youngest of six children (he had five sisters and a brother).

We have no details of his musical training, but he first surfaces at the Tivoli cathedral (under maestri di cappella Aurelio Briganti Colonna, Alessandro Capece and Francesco Manelli); he began as chorister there in October 1623, and a year later was organist until 1627.

1628 is an important year in Carissimi’s life. He first took up a position as maestro di cappella at the Cathedral of San Rufino, Assisi. But the same year, he then took up the maestro di cappella post at the church of Sant’Appolinare belonging to the Collegium Germanicum et Hungaricum in Rome. He stayed at this post for the rest of his life.

Carissimi

Again, ‘reading between the lines’, Carissimi seems to have held the post and the institution in high regard. Why else would he give up a maestro di cappella post in Assisi, which had just obtained, and relocated almost 200 km north of Rome, only to return perhaps a few months later for this post? He must have displeased his employers in Assisi; or perhaps he quit because of interpersonal differences. We do not know.

The Collegium Germanicum is a German-speaking seminary for Roman Catholic priests in Rome, founded in 1552. Saint Ignatius of Loyola was actively involved in its establishment and inaugurated it himself. The administration of the college came under Jesuit jurisdiction. It rapidly acquired a reputation for the “splendour and majesty” of its functions, with particular emphasis on music. It attracted great composers under its ambit: the Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611); and a host of Italian composers Annibale Stabile (1535-1595), Annibale Orgas (1585-1629), Lorenzo Ratti (1589-1630), Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni ((1657-1743). It is therefore not surprising that Carissimi felt drawn here as well.

He received several attractive offers while at his post here, including the very prestigious position of maestro di cappella at the basilica of San Marco in Venice to replace the great Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi after his demise in 1643. In 1647, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, son of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II tried to entice him as well. But Carissimi turned them all down. We can only speculate on his reasons, but perhaps the Jesuit order had become ‘home’ to him. We know he was ordained a priest in 1637. A Jesuit priest? Quite likely, but I couldn’t confirm this.

Although he perhaps never left Italy, Carissimi’s legacy is vast and far-reaching, despite the unfortunate fact that “much of his music was destroyed when the collections of the Sant’Appolinare and the Gesù were sold as rubbish (!) at the time of the suppression of the Jesuits.” (entry in the 10th edition of the International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, 1975). (Incidentally, the confiscation and destroying of documents at the time of the suppression might also explain why the German researcher was not able to find Jesuit music scores here in Goa).

As might be expected, his oeuvre includes largely sacred music: oratorios (based on Old Testament stories), cantatas, motets and masses.  Indeed, he was an important figure in the early history of the oratorio and the cantata, and contributed substantially to the development of recitative (the style of delivery in which a singer is allowed to adopt the rhythms of ordinary speech), also utilizing the church cantata with such skill and expressiveness that it soon replaced the motet. His compositions stand out for their imagination and dramatic variety.  His pupils included Alessandro Scarlatti (father of the better-known Domenico Scarlatti) and Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

Trying to deduce which Carissimi composition Giuseppe di Santa Maria heard in 1663 requires some sleuthing. He describes it as a work for “sette Chori” (seven choirs), but it more probably was a composition for seven “voices” or parts, as we know of no Carissimi composition for “seven choirs”. Most of Carissimi’s known works for six voices or more seem to have been written after 1663; or perhaps the work heard in 1663 in Goa was “destroyed as rubbish” post-1759.Works that could fit the bill are Carissimi’s oratorios ‘Daniela propheta’ (1638) or ‘Jephte’(1648), both for 6 voices and continuo (the seventh ‘voice’?).

We can only guess. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the Bom Jesus Basilica resound to Carissimi’s ‘Jephte’ sometime soon, perhaps on St. Ignatius feast day?

(An edited version of this article was published on 08 October 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

Jo jeeta wohi Sikandar

 

I registered for the course “Goa in the making of the Portuguese empire (16th-18th centuries)” conducted by Dr. Ângela Barreto Xavier a few weeks ago because of the intriguing title, and because I had encountered Dr. Xavier’s name in much scholarly Goa-related research. I am glad I did, as each day on the course offered fresh perspectives and observations about ‘old’ hitherto unchallenged assertions and assumptions about Goan history. The idea that “Goa was a laboratory of political experimentation”, and that “if successful, the Goan experience would become a model ready to be applied in other territories of the Portuguese empire” was very new to me.

The fifth session (and the related reading material) of her course in particular caught my attention: I learnt that operas had been staged in the Cidade de Goa (today’s Old Goa) way back in 1751. And not just one, but two of them, in quick succession!

But the context in which they were staged is rather complex. The overarching title of Dr. Xavier’s paper “L’Inde mise en scène” (literally “India staged”, or “India as a theatre prop”) hints at this, and is elaborated upon in the subheading “The Tragedy of Porus: Empire and Politics in 18th century Goa”.

Dr. Xavier makes the case that both the operas staged in Goa “evoked history and memory— and this was certainly their principal goal.” Both celebrate “The Romance of Alexander the Great”, any of several collections of legends concerning the sometimes historically factual, and sometimes mythical, exploits of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), creator of one of the largest empires of the ancient world in his short lifespan, stretching from Greece to northwestern India.

British historian Andrew Roberts (b. 1963-) in his lecture ‘Alexander and Imperialism’ suggests that the conqueror has an “afterlife” as well, in the numerous times his legacy is conveniently resurrected to justify and prop up an imperialist agenda. Various western imperial powers resorted to this, from the British to Napoleon, and so did the Portuguese.

The story of the encounter between Alexander and King Porus at the Battle of the Hydaspes (326 BC), believed to have been fought on the banks of the Jhelum river in the Punjab Province of modern-day Pakistan, in particular, “helped to fashion Portuguese self-representation as magnanimous and clement conquerors.”

Alexander_accepts_the_surrender_of_Porus_by_Andre_Castaigne_(1898-1899)

According to the mists of legend surrounding that battle, the “bravery, war skills and princely attitude” of Porus greatly impressed Alexander. When asked how he wished to be treated, Porus is believed to have replied “”Treat me as a king would treat another king”. The story goes that Alexander did so, allowing Porus to retain his kingship, but as satrap within Alexander’s vast empire.

This tale well suited an imperialistic agenda, portraying bravery on the part of both the Greeks (representing the West) and the Indians (the Orient), but with an inevitable triumph for the West, who then display magnanimity in victory while the East has no option but to be gracious in defeat. Porus in effect becomes a mirror reflection of Alexander, but still a reflection, an ‘illusion’ at best.

The title of the first opera, ‘The Tragedy of Porus’, which Dr. Xavier also uses as the title of her paper, was in fact staged and better known in Europe as ‘Alessandro nell’Indie’ (Alexander in India), using the libretto by the famous Italian poet and librettist, Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782). However Dr. Xavier’s paper doesn’t mention whose musical adaptation of the libretto was used in the Goa production of the opera. This allows room for some sleuthing, which I love doing.

Many composers worked on Metastasio’s libretti, and ‘Alessandro nell’Indie’ provided the creative springboard for Leonardo Vinci (1730; and no relation to his more illustrious namesake) and Giovanni Pacini (1824). Vinci’s opera could theoretically fit the bill, as it predates the Goa staging (1751).  But it is in three acts, requiring chorus and orchestra. Details of the scale of the Goa production are not mentioned, but I’m guessing that had it been an extravaganza, it would have been noted.

Dr. Xavier does mention that “the opera consisted of six singers, five French and one Portuguese. Four of them belonged to the ‘house of the Marquis’ [Dom Francisco Assis de Távora], and had followed the [newly-arrived, 1750] Viceroy to India for his entertainment.” The six singers would have played the parts of Alessandro Magno, Poro, Cleofide (fictional queen of “another part of India”, and Poro’s lover), Erisenna (Poro’s sister), Gandarte (general of Poro’s army, and lover of Erisenna) and Timagene (confidant of Alexander, but his secret enemy). We do not know the gender of the singers, but interestingly, in the 1730 première of Vinci’s opera in Rome, all roles but Gandarte (tenor) were sung by women, who took on trouser-roles for Alessandro, Poro (sopranos) and Timagene (contralto).

But Xavier then mentions that the Távoras (the large influence was actually the spouse D. Leonor) chose a work with French libretto, which was translated to Portuguese, so this rules out the Vinci opera, whose libretto is in Italian. She then speculates that “the Goan ‘Tragedy of Porus’ was probably a version of [the great French playwright Jean] Racine’s ‘Alexandre le Grand’ (1665), to which music and chorus had been added.” The composer however is sadly not known.

Apparently the very next day, another opera (interestingly, “produced by two Goan nobles”, sons of the powerful viscount of Asseca, Diogo Correia de Sá) was staged: Adolonimo of Sidon, and this time the composer is known: António Alexandre de Lima. However an internet search about him didn’t reveal much, and although I was able to find some information about the librettist Apostolo Zeno whose text was adapted for this opera, this opera doesn’t feature among his oeuvre, at least via the means at my disposal (the internet, of course, and any books on music I could lay my hands on). But the synopsis is not dissimilar to Mozart’s 1775 opera ‘Il re pastore’ (libretto again by Metastasio) or Gluck’s opera of the same name in 1756 based on the same libretto. While Alexander (Alessandro) is the pivotal role in Il re pastore, this distinction is given to Adolonimo (‘rightful heir of Sidon’) in the opera staged in Goa, in a similar name-change to the opera staged the day before.

I asked Dr. Xavier where these operas were likely to have been staged, and she felt it could have been the Casa de Pólvora, possibly before an invited audience of a hundred-odd dignitaries and personalities. What did they make of the operas’ themes? Was it just grandiose entertainment, or did the symbolism matter?

I was also interested to learn that the Távoras, obviously lovers of culture, “immediately upon their arrival in Goa” in 1750, commissioned the French engineer Pierre Vicente Vidal, to build a theatre in their palace in Goa. Perhaps it wasn’t ready a year later in time for these operas the next year; but did it ever get completed? Or did their departure in 1754 (and their execution in Lisbon in 1759 by the Marquês de Pombal on trumped-up charges) mean the work was stalled or even reversed? I’d love to learn more.

(An edited version of this article was published on 01 October 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

 

 

 

Passages

 

On our Independence Day 15 August 2017, an extra-ordinary late-night BBC Prom concert featured at London’s Royal Albert Hall: the complete, almost hour-long performance of “Passages”, the 1964 collaborative concept album of American minimalist composer Philip Glass (b. 1937-) and the great sitar virtuoso-composer Pandit Ravi Shankar (1920-2012). It was billed as the “first complete live performance” of the work, so not surprisingly the venue was packed for this historic concert.

Passages

The other draw would certainly have been the fact that Shankar’s own daughter and pupil Anoushka Shankar would be at the sitar. The other musicians were Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar and vocalist), Ravichandra Kulur (bansuri and vocals), Ameen Ali Khan (sarod), Sanju Sahai (tabla), Prashanna Thevaraja (ghatam, kanjira, morsing and vocals), M. Balachander (mridangam), Nick Abel (tanpura), Alexa Mason (soprano), Cathy Bell (alto), Peter Harris (tenor), Oliver Hunt (bass) and the Britten Sinfonia was conducted by Karen Kamensek.

“Passages” is a work I remember well from the heady days when I had joined the salaried workforce and made my monthly raids on VP Sinari near the Secretariat every pay-day directly after having cash in hand. I began to listen much more to Pt. Shankar after that introduction.

About fifteen years later, I got an opportunity to meet the maestro at this same venue, the Royal Albert Hall, through sheer chance. I had won an opportunity to participate in a BBC Proms music quiz, to be recorded there for later TV broadcast. I had heard through the music grapevine that Pandit Ravi Shankar would be coming to a concert that day, and persuaded the staff to let me meet with him. I was taken by an usher through a backstage service elevator to meet with him very briefly.  He was extremely polite, and when he heard I was from Goa, he told me how much he loved visiting our land, and to my surprise, even exchanged a few pleasantries in halting Konkani with me.

“Passages has always been one of my favourite examples of collaboration, said Anoushka Shankar in a BBC interview. “This concert for me is a real treat. It’s a premiere of an album that people have loved, for nearly thirty years.” She remembers Passages being recorded when she was about 9 years old, and being fascinated by the way her father and Philip Glass each came up with themes and allowed the other to write music around them. Looking back, she feels it was ahead of its time, and probably a major influence of the way she is able to work between musical cultures, authentically, and with respect, which, to her, “Passages” is all about.

She revisited the album when she herself began composing music, and that was when the genius of the album was brought home to her. “It celebrates and sort of explores the separateness and togetherness of western and Indian classical instruments, in a way that only my dad and Philip Glass could have done.”

In 1964, Glass, having studied at Juilliard, received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Paris with the eminent composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. It was life-changing, not just on account of her influence, but also the exciting, stimulating milieu that Paris offered, from music to film and theatre.

In 1965, he was hired to transcribe the music of Ravi Shankar into western musical notation for a film. This experience changed his approach to composing in general, encouraging him to “drop the bar lines”, as he put it, “making all of the notes equal”.

In contrast to the Western approach to composing music, “which slices time in the same way one slices bread”, Indian music is created by a stringing together a succession of small units or beats.

Glass began studying with Shankar, and at some point in their friendship, they decided to work on a piece together, and ‘Passages’ was the result. According to Anoushka Shankar, each composer gave the other three pieces of music, and the collaboration began on the six pieces in the album: 1. “Offering” (Shankar); 2. “Sadhanipa” (Glass); 3. “Channels and Winds” (Glass);  4. “Ragas in Minor Scale” (Glass);  5. “Meetings Along The Edge” (Shankar); and 6. “Prashanti” (Shankar). The “seed of my dad’s brain” is found in the Glass pieces, and the other way around as well

Conductor Karen Kamensek has a lifelong attachment with ‘Passages’, saying it ‘blew her mind’ when it was first released. She began working with Glass at around the same time, in the 1990s, and secretly hoped that someday, she could perform the work.  “This album has been in my life for so long that I’ve forgotten where the actual click came. It changed my world immediately. I think I was at university, and I said ‘I want to conduct this piece with Ravi Shankar.’ That was always a goal. And of course he passed away five years ago, and the honour is just as great to do it with Anoushka.”

With the help of Philip Glass and the Indian musicians, Kamensek prepared a performing score for ‘Passages’. She describes it as a “labour of love.” Ironically, to make the work playable for the musicians of the Britten Sinfonia, the bar lines had to be re-introduced.

“My score doesn’t look like their (the Indian musicians’) score, but you have to kind of have enough that means we can communicate with each other.”

The concert is now up on YouTube for those interested. The differences between the Indian and western musicians come through quit visibly: the orchestral musicians are slaves to their written score and to the conductor’s beat, while the Indian musicians are much more at ease, and have no need for playing from a score. But all of them seem to feel and revel in the music.

The Vedic prayer in the last segment “Prashanti” (Shankar) has a timeless message that seems ever more relevant in our own time: “Oh, Lord. Be benevolent to us. Drive the darkness away. Shed upon us the light of wisdom. Take the jealousy, envy, greed and anger from us, and fill our hearts with love and peace.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 24 September 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Handel with Care: The Harmonious Blacksmith and Great Expectations

 

“Would you mind Handel for a familiar name? There’s a charming piece by Handel, called the Harmonious Blacksmith.”

“I should like it very much.”

In this fashion is the protagonist and narrator (Pip or Philip Pirrip) christened Handel by Herbert Pocket, the son of his tutor, in chapter 22 of ‘Great Expectations’, the thirteenth and penultimate completed novel of Charles Dickens.

In my early years, I saw a few film adaptations and read the abridged version of Great Expectations, and they actually put me off the book for a long time, with their dreary depictions of the woeful tale of orphan Pip, ill-treated by his abusive sister and by society in general, and the nightmarish vision of Miss Havisham clad in her wedding gown, with her wedding cake still in the hall decades after her fiancé jilted her at the altar.

It is only more recently, thanks to so many classics being freely available on Kindle, that I ventured to begin reading the original unabridged novel. And it is turning out to be a very good read indeed. Despite the gloom of much of the storyline, Dickens injects much wry humour into the first-person narrative of Pip.

Pip apprentices with his brother-in-law Joe Gargery as a blacksmith when he gets older. This accounts for the nickname (“We are so harmonious – and you have been a blacksmith”, says Herbert to Pip), as Georg Friedrich Händel (later anglicised to George Frederick Handel) wrote a “charming piece” by this name.

Harmonious Blacksmith

Or did he?

“The Harmonious Blacksmith” is the popular name that has stuck to the final movement (‘Air and Variations’) of Handel’s Suite number 5 in E major, HWV 430, for harpsichord. It belongs to the set of his first eight harpsichord suites published in 1720 shortly after leaving his native Germany the same year to accept his new position at the Royal Academy of Music, London. But Handel himself did not give this particular movement its nickname. It gained currency only in the nineteenth century. Several theories therefore abound.

One version claims that Handel had once taken shelter from the rain in a smithy, and the sound of the hammer striking the anvil and got the inspiration for the tune. The ‘proof’ of this is the regular repeated ‘pedal’ note in the first variation, which is said to give the impression of a blacksmith hammering away. A slight ‘variation’ on this story is that Handel heard the blacksmith in the smithy humming the tune of the Air and incorporated it into his composition. Handel was known to ‘recycle’ melodies he came across in real life, so this sounds plausible as well.

But it is now believed that neither of these stories is true.  In his 1836 book ‘Reminescences of Handel’, a good three-quarters of a century after Handel’s death in 1759, Richard Clark fabricated this neat story, even going to the extent of finding an old anvil in a smithy near Whitchurch, Edgware, and identifying one William Powell as the fictitious blacksmith (never mind the fact that he had in fact been a parish clerk). The makeover persists to this day: there still is a tombstone over Powell’s grave which reads “In memory of William Powell, the Harmonious Blacksmith, who was buried 27 of February 1780, aged 78 years. He was Parish Clerk during the time the immortal Handel was organist of this church. Erected by subscription, May 1868.”

Handel apparently did visit Whitchurch, smithy or no smithy, but he had already written the work much before this, so this cannot explain the nickname.

The actual reason for the title as for so many other musical works with interesting nicknames, might have more to do with advertising and money than anything else. The following is an extract by William Chappell (1809-1888) in the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music: “A few months after Clark’s publication the writer saw the late J.W. Windsor, Esq., of Bath, a great admirer of Handel and one who knew all his published works. He told the writer that a story of the Blacksmith at Edgware was pure imagination, that the original publisher of Handel’s lesson under that name (The Harmonious Blacksmith) was a music seller at Bath, named Lintern, whom he knew personally from buying music at the shop, that he had asked Lintern the reason for this new name, and he had told him that it was a nickname given to himself because, he had been brought up as a blacksmith, although he had afterwards turned to music, and that was the piece he was constantly asked to play. He printed the movement in a detached form, because he could sell a sufficient number of copies to make a profit.”  Nothing sells like a good story, and veracity should not come in the way. Our media today have taken this philosophy to greater heights (or lower depths), with their own ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’.

William Chappell was a music historian (and partner in the London-based piano-manufacturing firm Chappell & Co.), so it is likely that his account is true. But to date, no copy of Lintern’s edition of the piece has been found. The earliest copy of music with the title ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’, an arrangement for pianoforte duet, has the watermark ‘1819’.

So if not from a Harmonious Blacksmith pounding away at his anvil in his smithy, where did Handel get this tune from, then?  As he so often did, Handel probably drew inspiration from himself. A passage in his opera ‘Almira’, written in 1708, is very similar. And others, from Beethoven, to Louis Spohr, Italian guitar-composer Mauro Giuliani, Francis Poulenc to Percy Grainger have mined the melody for their own use.

The Harmonious Blacksmith consists of the opening theme (Air) and five Variations upon it. At Child’s Play India Foundation’s annual monsoon concert (“Let the Children Play”, 23 September 2017, 6 pm at Menezes Braganza hall), two of our children, Irfan Shimpigar and Natsalene Estrocio, will play the opening theme of the Harmonious Blacksmith, arranged for two violins. So do come along; we promise to meet your Great Expectations Harmoniously!

(An edited version of this article was published on 17 September 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)