“Barcelona – La musica vibró”: Montserrat Caballé (1933-2018)

Like so many of you, I am eagerly awaiting the release of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the upcoming 2018 biographical film about the British rock band Queen, focusing on lead singer Freddie Mercury’s life.

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Each of us will have a favourite (or more) of his songs. For some of us, that list may include the 1987 song that has been described as the “a rare textbook example of a combination of pop and opera singing which accentuated their differences”: ‘Barcelona’, the single released by Mercury and operatic soprano Montserrat Caballé.

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It became one of the biggest hits of Mercury’s solo career, and such a sensation that it, for better or worse, defined Caballé as “the opera star who duetted with Freddie Mercury on Barcelona” even when the press worldwide broke the news of her death on 6 October 2018.

Mercury’s affinity for classical music in general and for opera in particular is well known. One would need to have a strong classical music background to be able to conceive and write a song as complex as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ It has been dubbed a “mock opera”, following “a certain operatic logic: choruses of multi-tracked voices alternate with aria-like solos, the emotions are excessive, the plot confusing.”

In the Queen song ‘It’s a Hard Life’, he opens with the ‘Vesti la giubba’ (‘Put on the costume’) theme from Leoncavallo’s opera ‘Pagliacci’. In the music video, the sets borrow heavily from the world of opera.

In 1979, he performed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ with the Royal Ballet. He had never done any ballet before, but it was something he had always wanted to try.

In the video for ‘I Want to Break Free’, he emulated famed ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky in the legendary Ballets Russes production of Debussy’s symphonic poem ‘Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune’ (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun).

He was especially fond of the singing voice of Montserrat Caballé and said so on Spanish television in 1986. They met the following year in Barcelona, Caballé’s home city. When she was asked to produce a song for the opening ceremony of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, she roped him in. The idea excited her so much that it was decided that rather than just a single, they record a whole album together.

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Caballé’s tight schedule complicated the planning of recording sessions, so Mercury recorded the song, with him singing her part as well, in falsetto, and then sent a tape to her to prepare her for the joint studio sessions.

During those sessions, Mercury was reportedly amazed at Caballé’s voice control; in the fadeout of the ‘Barcelona’ song, he had to step away from the microphone to decrease his voice intensity, whereas “she didn’t move at all”.

Merury’s own voice range was quite phenomenal for a ‘non-classical’ singer. Although his speaking voice fell in the baritone range, he sang most of his songs in the tenor range. He could sing a vocal range from bass low F (F2) all the way to soprano high F (F6).

He certainly impressed Caballé, who said that “the difference between Freddie and almost all the other rock stars was that he was selling the voice”.

She elaborated, “His technique was astonishing. No problem of tempo, he sang with an incisive sense of rhythm, his vocal placement was very good and he was able to glide effortlessly from a register to another. He also had a great musicality. His phrasing was subtle, delicate and sweet or energetic and slamming. He was able to find the right colouring or expressive nuance for each word.”

The music video that plugged the song was unforgettable, and broke new ground with the conductor wielding a light-sabre as baton, and the audience waving shimmering lights in a pre-mobile phone era.

Maria de Montserrat Viviana Concepción Caballé was born into a family of humble financial circumstances in Barcelona.

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She graduated with a Gold Medal from the Liceu Conservatory in 1954 and then moved to Basel, Switzerland, where she made her professional debut in 1956 as Mimi in Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’.

A succession of roles in operas by Mozart, Richard Strauss, Gluck, Massenet followed, taking her to Bremen, Lisbon, and as far as Mexico.

But her big international breakthrough came in 1965, when she stood in for an indisposed Marilyn Horne in a semi-staged performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s ‘Lucrezia Borgia’ at Carnegie Hall New York, at which she deservedly received a 25-minute standing ovation. It was her first bel canto opera role which she learned in less than a month, and her achievement created waves in the opera world.

Subsequently she was invited to all the world’s opera capitals, singing a wide range of roles. She is best remembered as an exponent of the works of Verdi and of the bel canto repertoire, notably the works of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.

A 1994 review in the Independent gushed:  “Caballé is one of the last of the true divas. Callas is dead, Kiri Te Kanawa is busy making commercials for Sainsbury’s, and Mirella Freni has never really risen out of the narrow confines of being an opera lover’s opera-singer. Caballé, on the other hand, has always had an enormous following, and it’s still with her today.”

In 2003, Gramophone magazine declared that “no diva in memory has sung such an all-encompassing amount of the soprano repertory, progressing through virtually the entire range of Italian light lyric, lirico-spinto and dramatic roles, including all the pinnacles of the bel canto, Verdi and verismo repertories, whilst simultaneously being a remarkable interpreter of Salome, Sieglinde and Isolde.”

Her voice was described as “pure but powerful, with superb control of vocal shadings and exquisite pianissimo.”

Paying homage to her after her death, tenor José Carreras said the world of opera had lost its “best soprano”, adding, “Of all the sopranos that I have heard live, I have never heard anyone like Montserrat.”

Queen guitarist Brian May in an Instagram tribute wrote: “RIP dear Montsy – inspiration to us all but especially to Freddie. Your beautiful voice will be with us forever.”

It will indeed. Those interested could visit YouTube not just for her ‘Barcelona duet with Freddie Mercury, but for so much of her operatic oeuvre. You can listen to a very young Caballé singing the aria ‘Al dolce guidami’ from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, to which inevitable comparisons have been made to the great Maria Callas herself.

Or ‘Casta Diva’ from ‘Norma’ (Bellini)

or ‘Com’é bello’ from ‘Lucrezia Borgia (Donizetti); ‘Caro nome’ from ‘Rigoletto’ (Verdi);

‘Un bel di from ‘Madame Butterfly’ (Puccini).

She lives on, immortal in cyberspace and in our hearts.

(An edited version of this article was published on 14 October 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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Active Listening

A year ago, I had written an article titled “How should we Listen?” in this Sunday column. I’d like to resume the discussion and build upon some ideas from there.

In this relatively ‘new’, 21st century, music is statistically more accessible and available to the public than it has ever been before. Looking back to the time of my own childhood, one couldn’t have dreamt of the portals available today: YouTube, Spotify, internet radio, and so many others that I haven’t even sampled yet. Just a few decades ago, this would have been outlandish, far-out science-fiction territory. But it is a reality that this generation takes for granted, as they perhaps should.

A 2013 survey of Global Recorded-Music Sales by Genre indicated that pop music accounted for 30.6%; rock 26.1%; and classical music a meager 4.9%; with “others” making up the remaining 38.4%.

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Such statistics have been brandished time and again, as yet further proof of the moribund state of classical music. People have been sounding its death knell for at least the last two hundred years.

The British commentator (and author of the widely-read if often-controversial classical music blog ‘Slipped Disc’) Norman Lebrecht has in his writing, notably his 2007 book ‘Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry’, (marketed in the US under the title ‘The Life and Death of Classical Music’) lamented the decline and demise of the classical recording industry, if not of the genre itself, although his book expectedly raised hackles everywhere for different reasons.

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But music education, especially for classical music, has been under attack for decades now, especially in the Western world, where one would imagine it to be nurtured the most; it is a soft target for cuts in funding whenever governments consider it necessary to do some financial belt-tightening.

Part of the problem with the failure to appreciate the importance of classical music is that we aren’t being taught how to listen well to it anymore, which contributes to the notion that it is “boring” or difficult to follow” or enjoy.

When I was a young child and began exploring my father’s bookshelf, one of the books that caught my attention was “William Shakespeare: The Complete Works”, which as you can imagine, was a weighty tome and difficult going for someone my age. But over time and keeping at it, I gradually began to unlock its secrets, and the process still continues. But the first time I cracked open the book’s spine, had I been daunted by the (then, to me) near-incomprehensible prose, the number of characters, the tangled plotlines, I would have been much the poorer for it, and a whole exciting world close off to me, merely for want of a sporting chance.

It is the same with classical music: one has to give it a chance, and repeated listening reaps huge rewards.

If one reads online forums devoted to music, and music listening comes up, often the well-intentioned advice is “Let the music just wash over you”, sometimes with the implied idea that the listener is passive in the process.

I submit that listening to classical music differs from many other genres of music in that to get its full benefit, one has to be an “active” listener. Be it a Mozart sonata, Beethoven symphony, Chopin waltz or even a Kreisler bonbon, one has to actively follow its musical “argument” and emotional “journey”, which is impossible to do if one is distracted and not giving it one’s fullest attention.

It is then that one better appreciates the beauty, the power and emotional intensity of the music. It helps us to become more intimately connected with the music, and it will stir emotions within us in ways that a cursory, distracted, “passive” way of listening to the same work never could.

In some ways, it is like reading a novel by a really good author. One has to follow the storyline, what happens to the protagonist(s), the villain(s) in the piece if any, but also the clever use of language, the painting of word-pictures, and so much more. The obvious difference of course is that one can put a bookmark in a book and take a break before returning back to it, whereas a piece of music needs to be listened from beginning to end. A possible exception could be the interval between Acts of an opera, or the gap of a few seconds between movements of a sonata, concerto or symphony, which are the equivalent of a ‘bookmark’, a pause before returning to the musical action.

Without meaning to denigrate pop music, which I love and enjoy as well, generally in pop music a much shorter attention span is necessary, with three-minute songs, with emphasis quite often on the lyrics and/or repetitive chord sequences and beats.

Listening to classical music is a different kind of experience which requires more “work” in comparison, but the rewards are huge. But active listening is an acquired habit that, like anything else, gets better and better with practice.  It is this discipline of active listening which dictates much of the concert etiquette: maintaining silence so that you focus completely and do not disturb others who are doing the same. It is courtesy and respect for others in the audience as well, to say nothing of the performers and the music as well.

How should we Listen

It is so easy to begin practicing “active listening”, with the wealth of choices, from CDs (with the additional advantage of so much information available on the booklet that often accompanies CDs, although today anything can be Googled as well) to MP3 to all the internet options as well. Over time, one may (or not) gravitate to ‘favourite’ performers, composers, or even recording eras. Getting used to a new style or ‘musical language’ requires repeated acquaintance through repeated listening before one is really familiar with it and how it works.

Although one doesn’t need state-of-the-art music equipment, listening through decent speakers or headphones and at a reasonable volume is important.

Coming back to giving classical music a chance: it applies to composers as well. There were composers I initially disliked, or whose music left me cold or unstirred, but over the years, with repeated listening and understanding more about their lives, the background to those works, and what motivated their writing in the first place, I have come to really love them and install them among the ever-growing pantheon of my demi-gods of music.

(An edited version of this article was published on 07 October 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

That Slytherin chap!

Ask my nine-year old son “Who was Salazar”, and he’ll probably be unstoppable in sharing all that he knows about the character Salazar Slytherin from J.K. Rowling’s runaway successful Harry Potter saga.

The same question asked to an earlier generation, will evoke a different answer. To most of us adults, “Salazar” refers to the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970), who served as Prime Minister of Portugal from 1932 to 1968, and was responsible for the Estado Novo (“New State”), the corporatist authoritarian government that ruled Portugal until the 1974 Carnation Revolution.

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Few of us would know more about him, apart from the fact that he was in power in Portugal at the time of Goa’s Liberation movement and the brutal suppression of that movement at his orders.

And of course his edict to Portuguese Goa’s last Governor-General Manuel António Vassalo e Silva that his forces should fight “to the last man”:  “Do not expect the possibility of truce or of Portuguese prisoners, as there will be no surrender rendered because I feel that our soldiers and sailors can be either victorious or dead”; orders that Vassalo e Silva disobeyed in order to prevent unnecessary loss of human lives and destruction of bridges and other infrastructure, “um sacrifício inútil” (a useless sacrifice)”, as he termed it.

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In a Twitter response to a fan last year, Rowling acknowledged, “I did indeed take his [Slytherin’s] name from António Salazar, the Portuguese dictator.”

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In the early 1990s, in response to an advertisement in The Guardian, Rowling moved to Porto, Portugal, to teach English as a foreign language. In her years in Portugal, she would inevitably have heard of Salazar.

He would have perhaps have been the predictable choice as one of the founders of Hogwarts. For her own reasons, Rowling chose the letters G(ryffindor), H(ufflepuff), and R(avenclaw), S(lytherin) for each of the founders, and each of them have first names starting with the corresponding letters. Therefore Godric Gryffindor; Helga Hufflepuff; Rowena Ravenclaw; and Salazar Slytherin.

Slytherin is described by the Sorting Hat as “power-hungry”, “shrewd”, and “a notorious champion of pureblood supremacy”. The name of a dictator would match such a character profile best.

What would Rowling’s reaction have been had she known that around barely a decade later, in 2007, viewers of the TV series Great Portuguese – having been asked to vote for the greatest figure in Portuguese history – chose Salazar, with him receiving 41 per cent of the 159,245 votes cast, beating the nation’s more illustrious monarchs and even the much-celebrated explorers of the ‘Age of Discovery’?

This hankering after a past, even a dictatorship, as a knee-jerk reaction to political scandal and economic instability in the present, is by no means unique to Portugal. But it is a dangerous trend when public memory erases or diminishes the human rights abuses of barely a generation ago.

The words of Portuguese historian, scholar and editor A. H. de Oliveira Marques perhaps summarise Salazar best: “He considered himself the guide of the nation, believed that there were things which only he could do (‘unfortunately there are a lot of things that seemingly only I can do’ — official note published in September 1935) and convinced more and more of his countrymen of that too… He became more and more of a dictator, more and more inclined to deify himself and to trust others less.”

This cloying overdependence on just one man’s supposed capability to administer, to the total exclusion of all others, is a phenomenon by now familiar to us in Goa as well.

If one goes through official correspondence from the time of the Estado Novo, even in Goa, it is interesting to see how often “por Bem da Nação” (“for the Good, or for the Sake of the Nation”) is invoked, even for something as perfunctory as signing off on a letter. The words ‘Nação’ and ‘Nacional’ become almost talismanic, and attach themselves to everything: Escola Nacional, Clube Nacional, Cine Nacional.

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How different is the situation today, where the raising the mere bogey of accusing a person, or a film, book, or action to be “anti-national” can be enough to scare one into silence and submission? The definition of “national” or “anti-national” becomes ever narrower and blinkered, and sanctimoniously decided by ever-fewer and fewer, who wield more and more power.

A sizeable part of the reason that a unique bond of friendship still exists between Portugal and Goa today is that its free-thinking people in both parts of the world, in the decades of the Estado Novo were united in their determination and efforts to rid themselves of the yoke of the same oppressor, Salazar. This is something that many Portugal-hating ‘hyper-nationalists’ here do not, or pretend not, to comprehend.

Some years ago, I was told very casually by an elderly Goan lady of obvious influence, in her living room, how she had rung up Salazar upon her arrival in Lisbon when he was in power, “to let him know I had arrived.” The anecdote was clearly meant to impress me and my companions; was it meant to shock as well? I think the conversation drifted elsewhere before we could ascertain what she thought of Salazar’s legacy in Portuguese political history.

The name Salazar turns up again in popular culture, in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. In the 2017 instalment Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (and actually titled Salazar’s Revenge in North America), Javier Bardem’s Captain Armando Salazar makes his first appearance, as a Spanish, “undead” pirate-hunter.

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Interestingly, the etymology of ‘Salazar’ is actually Spanish. It is thought to be a habitational name, from a place called Salazar in northern Burgos, a city in northern Spain and the historic capital of Castile. Salazar is a Basque surname meaning ‘old hall’, from Castilian ‘Sala’ (hall) and the Basque ‘zahar’ (old). Although today northern Burgos is not a Basque-speaking region, it was during the early Middle Ages when the surname appeared.

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The Portuguese dictator Salazar however, although he aided and supported his Spanish contemporary and counterpart Francisco Franco across the border, kept their meetings to the barest minimum, reflecting the wariness and distrust Portugal has had of its larger neighbor through their shared history.

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According to some fan websites of the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, the “ruthless, merciless” Captain Armando Salazar may also have been named after the Portuguese dictator. It appears that long after his death, the name Salazar continues to strike terror and send chills down one’s spine.

(An edited version of this article was published on 30 September 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

“Music is medicine”: Robert Vijay Gupta

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I had heard of and read about Robert Vijay Gupta perhaps about two decades ago. His is a remarkable story on so many levels.

Gupta was born in 1987 in Walden, New York State, to first-generation emigrés from India. In a recent interview with Dateline NBC, he described his parents’ struggle in their adopted country. His father Vivek worked in kitchens all over New York, as a baggage handler in JFK airport, eventually becoming a travel agent while his mother Chandana worked as a bank teller.

He began playing at age four. “I don’t remember a time without playing. Music has always been a part of my life”, he said in that interview.

Gupta described the initial years as “painful”. “The motivation wasn’t mine.” He acknowledges that his parents lived vicariously through their children, fulfilling their own dreams through them.

When Gupta’s parents took him aged four to a music teacher, he was offered a choice of either piano or violin. The size of the piano was too daunting, so he chose the violin instead.

His trajectory since then was nothing short of meteoric: a successful audition aged just six at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music’s pre-college program; a solo debut with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta at eleven.

However, despite these incredible achievements, the family still felt that a medical career would ensure a more secure future. A tug-of-war began between music and medicine; while Gupta di have both the aptitude and interest in medicine, music was far more important, “like oxygen”.

At 16, Gupta accepted a research assistant position at Hunter College where he studied spinal cord repair. He graduated with a pre-med biology degree at 17 at Marist College. Gupta then accepted a research position at Harvard University, where he studied Parkinson’s disease and the effects of pollution on the brain.

Around this time, Gupta met with Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, one of the pre-eminent neuroscientists studying music and the brain at Harvard.

Schlaug is one of the proponents of what is called the ‘melodic intonation therapy’, which has become very popular in music therapy today. Schlaug found that his stroke victims who were aphasic, and couldn’t form three- or four-word sentences could still sing the lyrics to a song.

After intensive hours of singing lessons, the music was able to “literally re-wire” the brains of his patients and create a homologous speech centre in the right hemisphere to compensate for the damage inflicted by the stroke on the left hemisphere of the brain.

In a 2012 TED talk, Gupta describes what he learned regarding some leading research on music and the brain when he visited Schlaug’s lab: how musicians had fundamentally different brain structure than non-musicians; how just listening to music could just “light up” the brain, “from our pre-frontal cortex all the way back to our cerebellum”; how music was becoming a neuropsychiatric modality, to help children with autism, to help people struggling with stress, anxiety and depression; how advanced Parkinsonian patients would find that their tremor and their gait would steady when they listened to music; and how late-stage Alzheimer’s patients whose dementia was so far progressed that they could no longer recognize their family, could still pick out a tune by Chopin at the piano that they had learned when they were children.

But Gupta had come to meet Schlaug for a much more personal reason: “I was at a crossroads in my life”, he said at the TED talk, “trying to choose between music and medicine.” He had “fallen in love with neuroscience; he wanted to be a surgeon; to be a doctor who would go far afield doing humanitarian life-saving medical work, a “Red Cross doctor, doctor without borders.”

But on the other hand he had been playing the violin his entire life. “Music for me was more than a passion. It was obsession.”

Gottfried Schlaug was perfectly placed to empathise with Gupta and offer advice based upon his own life. Schlaug had studied as an organist at the Vienna Conservatory, but had given up his love for music to pursue a career in medicine.

That afternoon of their meeting, Guptaasked Schlaug, “How was it for you, making that decision?’

Schlaug responded that there were still times when he wished he could go back and play the organ the way he used to. He told Gupta that for him, “medical school could wait, but the violin simply would not.”

Gupta must have decided to take Schlaug’s advice seriously. In the TED talk, he elaborated, “After two more years of studying music, I decided to shoot for the impossible before taking the MCAT and applying to medical school like a good Indian son to become the next Dr Gupta,” to much laughter in the audience.

He auditioned for a position as violinist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. His parents were, perhaps justifiably, skeptical of his chances of securing a place in this, one of the world’s top orchestra. It was his first-ever orchestral audition.

But, “after three days of playing behind a screen in a trial week”, he was offered the position, edging out the competition, some of who had decades of experience more than him. He still remains th youngest-ever to enter the hallowed ranks of the LA Phil, and if I am not mistaken, must be the only South Asian-origin person ever to do so.

A year later, Gupta met another musician, one who had also studied at Juilliard; Nathaniel Ayers (whose life-story inspired the book and the movie “The Soloist” featuring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.) was a double-bassist at Juilliard, but had suffered a series of psychotic episodes in his early twenties, and eventually ended up homeless thirty years later on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.

Gupta became his friend and violin teacher. “Playing for Nathaniel, the music took on a deeper meaning, because now it was about communication, of a message that went deeper than words, that registered at a fundamentally primal level in Nathaniel’s psyche, yet came as a true musical offering from me.”

Gupta’s experience with Nathaniel opened his eyes to how many tens of thousands more like him were homeless or neglected due to mental issues. “In the end, it was Nathaniel who showed me that if I was truly passionate about change, if I wanted to make a difference, I already had the perfect instrument to do it”, said Gupta in his TED talk, gesturing to his violin. “Music was the bridge that connected my world and his.”

Gupta quotes the German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (who himself suffered from schizophrenia and died tragically in an asylum): “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts, such is the duty of an artist.”

Nathaniel Ayers inspired Gupta to launch Street Symphony (www.streetsymphony.org), “bringing the light of music into the very darkest places,” performing for the homeless and mentally ill; for combat veterans with PTSD, anf for the incarcerated and those labeled “criminally insane.”

Gupta has found that, “away from the stage, footlights, out of the tuxedo tails”, musicians “become the conduit for delivering the tremendous therapeutic benefits of music on the brain to an audience that would never have access” to it.

He ended his TED talk with a quote by the Romantic English poet John Keats (who had also given up a career in medicine to pursue poetry): “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty. That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.”

At Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), we too can attest to the healing power of music in our children’s lives, many of whom have undergone traumatic upheavals no child should ever have to suffer.

I am most grateful to Gavin and Joanne Pearce Martin, who not only hosted my visit to Los Angeles in 2012 and let me sit in on rehearsals of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but when I expressed an interest in meeting with Robert Gupta, invited him over so we could discuss ideas at length.

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(An edited version of this article was published on 23 September 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

 

 

Dance in Music: the Bourrée

Like many of my generation, I was introduced to the bourrée through my study of violin. I came across it as an exam piece, a simplified version for violin and piano of the Bourrée from George Frideric Handel’s Water Music Suite no. 1 in F major HWV 348.

 

In the early 1970s, the only access to recorded music was through the record-player (45s and LPs), and cumbersome spool tapes; the audio-cassette changed all that a few years later. But it was still difficult to get hold of classical music, especially to specific works. But fortunately for me, in my dad’s record collection that he brought back from Germany, there was an LP, containing Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Water Music Suites, Lorin Maazel conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, recorded on the Philips label, 1966.

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So I recognised the Bourée melody, and it gave additional impetus to my wanting to learn to play it.

The bourrée appears in music for students today as well; one common example that comes to mind is the Bourrée, also by Handel, in the Suzuki Violin Book 2. It is a simplified arrangement of the bourrée from his Flute Sonata no. 5, opus 1 in G major, HWV 363b.

(The Bourrée commences at 6:21 in the above video)

 

And in Suzuki Violin Book 3, one encounters   Bourrée I & II, arranged for the violin from the fifth movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s third Cello Suite in C major, BWV 1009.

And of course, there’s the famous Bourrée from Bach’s Partita no. 3 in E major, BWV 1006 for solo violin,

and also in his first Partita in B minor, BWV 1002. The bourrée appears also in his fourth cello suite (E flat major, BWV 1010).

The Bourrée is a lively dance of French origin, dating to at least the mid-sixteenth century.

Bourree

It is in quadruple time, with a characteristic upbeat. In this sense, it is similar to the gavotte in that both are French in origin, and both have an upbeat. But the bourrée is quicker, and has a quarter-bar anacrusis (upbeat or ‘pick-up’), whereas the gavotte has a half-bar anacrusis.

Let us look more closely at Bourrées I & II from Bach’s third cello suite. A suite is a loosely structured collection of dance movements. Bach begins all his six cello suites with a dramatic, virtuosic prelude, followed in sequence by (as the name suggests, German in origin) allemande, and then two French dances the courante and the sarabande. The fifth movement varies from suite to suite, but they are either of the following three French dances: minuet, gavotte or bourrée. These are sometimes also called galanterie movements of a Baroque dance suite. They are considered “not vital” to the composition of the suite, but optional, and included to add variety. And all Bach’s cello suites end with a gigue. We shall examine all these dance movements in turn in future columns, but let us return to this galanterie movement, the bourrées in this suite.

The Bourrées I & II have asymmetry, in the sense that both have two unequal sections. The first section in both cases is an eight-bar phrase. The second section is twenty bars long in Bourrée I and sixteen in Bourrée II. Typically each section is played twice, except when returning at the end to Bourrée I, when each section is played just once. So the sequence is Ia (x2) Ib (x2) IIa (x2) IIb (x2) Ia Ib.

The contrast between the two Bourrées is well-established; Bourrée I is in a major key (C major in the original cello suite, G major in the transposition for violin), while   Bourrée II is in the minor key (C minor in the cello suite, G minor in the violin transposition).

Bourrée I opens with an energetic 2-quaver upbeat figure, ascending up the scale to a crotchet G (D in the violin transposition) on the downbeat of the first bar and setting the rhythmic pattern that unifies the movement: the alternation between double quaver on the ‘weaker’ beats (second and fourth) and single crotchet on Bourrée the ‘stronger’beats (first and third), interspersed with flowing bars of ‘dancing’ quavers between these rhythmic figures. Bourrée I has brightness and verve, all the hallmarks of a dance tune.

Bourrée II, although it begins with the same rhythmic figure, has a completely different character, introspective and sombre. And the longer quaver passages are much more eloquent phrases. Together,   Bourrées I & II complement each other perfectly.

The bourrée has entered popular culture as well. The British rock band Jethro Tull released its second studio album, ‘Stand Up’ (1969), containing a track titled ‘Bourée’, (with a single r) which is in fact a jazzy reworking of the  Bourrée from J. S. Bach’s Suite no. 2 in E minor for Lute, BWV 996.

That same year, the English heavy blues-rock trio Bakerloo released their single, ‘Drivin’ Bachwards’,

an arrangement of the very same Bourrée. Coincidence? But for some reason, this particular melody is a particular favourite for jazz improvisations. And although you wouldn’t guess the origin from the finished version of the Beatles classic ‘Blackbird’, there is video footage of Paul McCartney demonstrating on his guitar how the first few bars of this Bach Bourrée morphed into the opening riff of the song as we know it today.

 

(An edited version of this article was published on 16 September 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)

What does one do when the King of the high Cs of Opera is suddenly indisposed, almost literally at the last minute before a major performance? Getting the Queen of Soul to step in might not seem the most likely resort, but it worked, and how!

In 1998, Luciano Pavarotti abruptly had to cancel a performance at that year’s Grammy awards at the Radio City Music Hall. Aretha Franklin, a personal friend of Pavarotti, agreed to sing in his place. However, rather than performing one of her own hit songs, Franklin opted instead to sing Pavarotti’s own signature aria ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Puccini’s Turandot that he was scheduled to sing, and about which I had written just a few columns ago.

With just twenty minutes to spare, there was certainly no time to rehearse with the live orchestra. However, she used the time to listen twice to a recording of the orchestral accompaniment, and then, quietly, confidently, said “I can do it.”

Her “cross-over” performance was watched by more than a billion viewers on television in addition to the Grammy audience, which included several other artists such as Celine Dion. At the aria’s climax, she hit the top note, a high B gracefully and effortlessly.

As her biographer David Ritz put it, “It was as though Puccini had been brought up in the black Baptist church.”

She would sing ‘Nessun Dorma’ again in 2015 at an event for Pope Francis in Philadelphia.

Since her passing on 16 August at the age of seventy-six, through to her elaborate funeral on 31 August, lasting over seven hours, much has been written and said about her extraordinary career spanning several decades.  The Queen of Soul – who sold over 75 million records worldwide – became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

As music historian Paul Gambaccini said in an interview “Four Top 10 albums, and nine Top 10 singles, in just a year and a half! What a thrill it was, to be young and listening to music in that eighteen month period!”

But it is her track record of civil rights activism, her lending a voice to the oppressed, which impresses me even more than her enormous singing voice.

Franklin was quite literally born into activism, the daughter of prominent African American preacher Clarence LaVaughn “C.L” Franklin (who organized the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom ahead of his close friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington) and his wife Barbara Siggers.

It was her father (a very good singer himself, who Aretha would later say could have been a professional singer himself had he wanted) who encouraged her to sing, as he recognized her potential. She began singing at the New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father was pastor.

When her biographer David Ritz asked her to describe what was going through her mind when she stood in for Pavarotti, she replied ““I thought of church. When I was a little girl and asked to sing in front of a big congregation, I was never afraid. I felt everyone pulling for me. I felt the support of my father. I felt the support of God almighty.”

C.L. Franklin was nicknamed “the man with the Million-Dollar Voice” for his emotionally charged sermons, the most famous ones being “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest” (the recording of which was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011) and “Dry Bones in the Valley.”

In her youth, Aretha was mentored by “Queen of Gospel” Mahalia Jackson, also a noted civil rights activist and also good friends with Dr. King.

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T”, a great single by Otis Redding, was transformed by Franklin into an anthem for women’s rights and African-American civil rights.

Released by her in 1967, it became her signature song. In her memoir “Aretha: From these Roots”, she wrote: “It [reflected] the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect…..It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.”

“You Make Me Feel (Like A Natural Woman)” similarly became another emblem for justice.

Her championing of the civil rights movement dictated her professional and personal life, touring several cities in the US with Dr. King and Harry Belafonte, performing without charging a fee.

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In 1968, Detroit mayor James Cavanagh declared 16 February Aretha Franklin Day. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. flew in to attend the ceremony. While Dr. King was leader of the civil rights movement in America, Aretha Franklin had become the inspiring symbol of Black Equality.

That evening in Detroit, when King and Franklin were together on the same stage, was a moment of inspiring history. It would also be the last time she saw Dr. King. Two months later, she sang for him one last time, at his funeral. She sang a gospel hymn made famous by Mahalia, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

When revolutionary activist and scholar Angela Davis was arrested in 1970, Franklin offered to post bail for her.  “Angela Davis must go free,” she said at the time. “Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people. I have the money; I got it from Black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”

Franklin also strongly supported Native American rights, First Nation cultural rights and indigenous People’s struggles worldwide.

Would that more of us, all over the world, took a leaf out of her book, and had the courage to risk everything to speak up for what we believe to be right and just and true, in the face of the might of the establishment. God knows we need people with her grit and guts, certainly here in India today.

(An edited version of this article was published on 09 September 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

Grave Matters

A relative from Mumbai had once recounted this to me: her father had passed away suddenly and tragically, in the prime of his own life, while the children were extremely young. They grew up with a close bond to their parish church, members of the church youth group, and the parish priest knew the whole family extremely well.

Some years later, they were horrified to find a portion of the cemetery completely dug up, crosses askew, and bones being unceremoniously packed into garish blue plastic bags. She asked the parish priest what had happened to her own father’s mortal remains, and why the family hadn’t even received a courtesy telephone call (there were no mobile phones then) giving them at least some advance notice. No satisfactory explanation was forthcoming.

The personal effects they were handed didn’t match those they had buried their father in, and judging from the messy way the excavation work had been done, there had almost certainly been no sensitivity in ensuring that each grave had been exhumed systematically.

A breakdown of the crucial bond of trust between the church and the parish was unfortunately forever broken as a result.

1990s Bombay is very different from 2018 Panjim, but I couldn’t help remembering this when a meeting of the faithful was organised at the St. Inez parish hall on a Sunday morning, 19 August 2018 regarding the ‘redevelopment and beautification’ of the cemetery.

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It was packed to capacity. This in itself was an indication of the importance the community places on the resting place of their ancestors, and on any plan to ‘redevelop and beautify’ the historic St. Inez cemetery. The Freudian slip on the part of the architect in his presentation, when he inadvertently used the word ‘demolition’, and then quickly corrected himself, did little to allay genuine concerns.

The bombshell for me was the ‘window’ (nay, a tiny chink within any window) of less than two weeks for the public to offer their feedback, suggestions and concerns regarding the proposed plans. Crowded as the meeting was, it still represented a mere fraction of the populace that has loved ones buried in the cemetery, in graves and niches. Surely something as sensitive as this requires much more time, to first reach as many people as is possible, both in Goa and beyond, and to allow time for it to sink in, and then offer suggestions (or even objections)? I would have thought that a rational time-scale would have to be at least a year. Why the hurry? Could an impending election next year be just a coincidence, or have anything to do with it?

Yes, the ravages of time have certainly taken their toll, on the retaining wall, and placed a premium on space in an increasingly crowded cemetery. But that still doesn’t explain the tearing haste in the timeline: tender issued on 15 August, public meeting convened on 19 August, and the deadline for responses 31 August!  Quite understandably, this was vehemently rejected. An extension was sought, but what the new deadline will be is anyone’s guess. There was a clipboard where some of the public wrote down their contact details; I did too, but so far there has been no update.

Several thoughts come to mind:

  1. Comparisons were made by some people to cemeteries abroad, to how uniform, neat and tidy they are in contrast to the uneven widths and breadths of our graves, and the heights of some mausoleums here. Well, that’s only partly true; I’ve been to cemeteries in some English villages and European cities, and their unevenness is just as gloriously chaotic as ours.
  2. Going by the heated differences of opinion in that parish hall alone, could there ever be a consensus that will satisfy everyone in the wider community? And if no consensus is arrived at, how does one then make a decision? Based on what a majority want? Or what some bureaucrat eventually deems to be the best course of action? What if the majority opts for a course that over time turns out to be disastrous? Whatever the decision is, it cannot be reversed. This is why we should all think it through very carefully indeed. Speaking for myself, the track record of the Corporation of the City of Panjim is far from confidence-inspiring, and the hasty timeline only heightens my sense of dread.
  3. What will be the fate of the exhumed remains of those in graves and niches that are unclaimed, for whatever reason, either that word didn’t reach their next of kin here or perhaps in some remote corner of the globe? Can we depend on the authorities to painstakingly label these remains, and shelve them somewhere, but with dignity? It is a fond hope.
  4. The decision to demarcate one section of the cemetery as ‘Portuguese-era’, and therefore ‘heritage’ and to be left untouched, makes only partial sense. Graves and mausoleums on the other side fit that description too.
  5. One reads of the funerals of expat Goans, in the UK, the US, Canada, wherever. In the majority of cases, to my recollection, they are laid to rest, not six feet under, but in an electric crematorium. Isn’t it time we had this option? I say this knowing the vagaries of our electricity supply, but surely there must be ways nevertheless? This will take a lot of pressure off the need for burial plots and shrinking space. My own father often expressed his wish to be cremated (and the ashes then strewn in the Ganga, Himalayas, and I can’t remember where else) in his many “When I die” monologues, several years before his passing. But then he’d also contradict that by wanting his body to be offered up for dissection in anatomy class. On more than one occasion, I exasperatedly said to him “Daddy, if you don’t make up your mind and write it down, I promise you I’ll give you such a Christian burial that you’ll wish you had never died.” And that’s precisely what he got, may his soul rest in peace. But in light of this development (or ‘re-development’ as it’s now being called), I can’t help wishing we had cremated him. We wouldn’t have needed to disturb his eternal rest.

His brother lies in a cemetery in Valencia (Spain) since 1968, and it was my father’s wish that he be brought back to be laid to rest in Goa with the rest of the deceased family. He tried unsuccessfully to bring him home in the 1970s, and after my dad’s passing in 2000, bringing my uncle’s remains home has been on my mind as well, because I knew it meant so much to my dad. But perhaps it was all for the best that he didn’t return home. But who knows? Maybe the Valencian civic authorities have beautified that cemetery and moved him somewhere, unbeknownst to his next of kin? I’ll wait for the dust to settle on our own cemetery first before I try to bring him back.

(An edited version of this article was published on 02 September 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Confessional, the Consulting Room and the Casino

Scenario 1: You are a GP (general practitioner or ‘family doctor’). A patient you’ve known for several years walks into your consulting-room and reveals s/he has suicidal thoughts, and matters have come to such a head that s/he has made elaborate plans to act upon those thoughts later that day.  S/he listens to all your advice, but is unmoved in his/her decision, and swears you to secrecy, entreating that you do not contact the mental health support network. What do you do?

This was a common scenario presented to those of us appearing for our MRCGP (Membership of the Royal College of General Practitioners) qualifying exam, either as a written essay, or an OSCE (Objective Structured Clinical Examination), with an actor role-playing the part of the patient. It was meant to test whether the candidate could recognise the conflict between the doctor’s legal and ethical duty of confidentiality to the patient, but also a duty of care to that patient if his/her life is at risk, even if a self-inflicted one. The challenge is to negotiate a path bearing these in mind, without loss of life or trust from one’s patient.

Scenario 2: You are a Catholic priest, and the same person, your long-standing parishioner, comes to you for Confession, and tells you the same thing. What do you do?

I’m not a priest, of course (although I did think seriously about it in my boyhood years, but that’s another matter altogether), so I can pass on that one.

I happened to watch an episode of the six-part television drama series ‘Broken’ where  scenario 2 unfolds. The actor Sean Bean plays Fr. Michael Kerrigan, Roman Catholic parish priest in an unspecified northern English city who struggles with his own inner turmoil while still trying to counsel his flock. The series skillfully brings together themes of religion, social unrest and mental health, making for powerful, thought-provoking TV drama.

In this episode, Roz, a parishioner, is driven to the brink after being caught out embezzling money running into hundreds of thousands of pounds from her workplace to fuel a gambling addiction.

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It turned out to be gripping, nail-biting drama, with the tension ratcheted to almost breaking point. I won’t spoil it for you (in case you manage to catch a repeat broadcast) by revealing more, but suffice it to say that when it first aired in 2017, it left viewers deeply moved and brought to the fore issues around both mental health and gambling addiction, something we can relate to very much in the sordid Casino City that Goa has degenerated into.

You could dismiss it as “just television:, but the screenplay pulls no punches in unmasking the evils of gambling. “If you’d have told me 10 years ago that I’d end up here, I’d have laughed in your face,” Roz tells Father Michael. “I suppose everybody has their thing, where they want to feel nothing, to disappear…… Those machines were my thing, and if my boss hadn’t found out, they’d still be my thing.”

Do we even know what toll the gambling industry has had on our own social fabric, what it has done to individuals and families that have fallen prey to it? How many unbiased, comprehensive wide-ranging epidemiological studies have even explored this? There are statutory health warnings on tobacco products, and it is impossible to watch even a fleeting shot of a character smoking, on film or television, without this warning appearing as well, and quite rightly so.

There is exhaustive clinical evidence demonstrating the hugely addictive potential of gambling and its deleterious effects on individual, family and community health and well-being.

The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth edition) has reclassified ludomania (also termed compulsive or problem gambling, or gambling addition) as an addictive disorder, with sufferers exhibiting many similarities to those who have substance addictions. Studies have compared pathological gamblers to substance addicts (comparable to such highly addictive substances such as cocaine) concluding that addicted gamblers display more physical symptoms during withdrawal. A common feature shared by people who suffer from gambling addiction is impulsivity. Problem gambling is an addictive behavior with a high comorbidity with alcohol problems and other addictive drugs. Problem gambling is often associated with increased suicidal ideation and attempts compared to the general population. Early onset of problem gambling increases the lifetime risk of suicide.

And just in case one thinks “Oh, that’s just those with a gambling problem; it doesn’t apply to me”, the slope from casual to problem gambling is a very slippery one indeed. This is why Roz’s character in ‘Broken’ rang so true.

Why isn’t it mandatory for such health warnings to be issued in the public interest on every hoarding and advertisement for a casino, at the very minimum?

Back in the early 1990s, I made a trip to Kathmandu, which then (as now?) was notorious for its gambling industry. My travel companions wanted to have the casino experience, and I went along with them. They lost all their money, and had to borrow from me for the rest of our trip. A wise man learns from the experience of others. I haven’t been inside a casino in Goa, and plan to keep it that way.

The ‘Broken’ episode also took me back to my GP years in England. For the most part, the practice would see a seemingly-endless procession of coughs, colds, and other minor illness and requests for repeat prescriptions. But there would also be a sizeable number of patients who “just wanted to have a chat”; the receptionists would tell us this with some eye-rolling, as if to say “another time-waster.”

However, on “just having a chat”, one would often unearth issues that strayed into the realm of the moral and ethical, which strictly speaking are outside the remit of a medical consultation.

Infidelity in marriage or other relationships; probity in professional and public life: can a physician really weigh in on a patient’s decision-making, apart from lending a sympathetic ear and offering symptom-directed support? But you’d be surprised how often a GP is put in such a position, or the number of times a home visit is requested, on some contrived ailment, because the often-elderly or incapacitated patient is just lonely and wants someone to talk to and who will just listen to them.

It struck me then, that the traumatic experience and disillusionment of two World Wars seemed to have taken Britain and a lot of Europe away from God and religion, and quite often the GP (and the psychologist and psychiatrist) in the consulting room was taking the place of the priest in the confessional. I don’t wish to apply any equivalence to these situations, but am merely making the observation. I don’t remember who it was that coined the phrase “Pills, Prayers and Promises” to describe the medical profession, but the parallels between priest and physician are many: both relationships are built on faith and have a duty of confidentiality enshrined in them.

(An edited version of this article was published on 26 August 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Jacques be nimble, Jacques be quick!

One of my violin students has just begun to work on the famous Mazas studies for the instrument, and is quite excited about it.

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Many students and teachers of the violin will be familiar with these studies. A closer look at the author of these études would be worthwhile.

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Jacques Féréol Mazas (1782-1849) was a French composer, conductor, violinist and pedagogue. He is remembered in history for his technique-building studies, etudes and duets for young string players of all abilities that constitute methods for both violin and viola.

Further information about him is rather sketchy, but one gets a fair idea of his ‘musical tree’, by which one is able to trace his pedagogical lineage all the way to Corelli and before; his music is therefore the distillation of the French school of violin playing and teaching.

To elaborate this lineage: Mazas was the pupil at the Paris Conservatoire of French violinist-composer Pierre Marie François de Sales Baillot (1771-1842),

contemporary of two other great French violinist-composers Jacques Pierre Joseph Rode (1774-1830)

and Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831),

also professors at the Conservatoire de Paris; the études of Kreutzer are just as familiar and revered to advanced violinists and deserve examination in their own right in another column. All of these three were in turn taught by Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824),

O compositor y vriolinista italián Giovanni Battista Viotti, en una litografía d'Antoine Maurin.

influential Italian violin virtuoso, teacher and composer whose twenty-nine violin concertos were an influence on Beethoven. Beethoven was in personal contact with all three of Viotti’s famous pupils Baillot, Rode and Kreutzer which acquainted him with the high standard of violin virtuosity of the French school, and with the style of the so-called French Violin Concerto.

Baillot was one of a handful of violinists who played Beethoven’s violin concerto publicly before its revival by Joseph Joachim.

Beethoven dedicated one of his violin sonatas (no. 9, opus 47) to Kreutzer, who haughtily expressed a dislike of the work and refused to perform it. Yet ironically, if posterity remembers Kreutzer at all (apart from the violin fraternity for the afore-mentioned studies), it is because of the nickname “Kreutzer” that has still stuck to this Beethoven violin sonata, a formidable work. Some of you will remember it played here some years ago by the excellent violinist Hadar Rimon.

But to continue with the pedagogical lineage: Viotti was the pupil of Italian violinist-composer Giulio Gaetano Gerolamo Pugnani (1731-1798)

and toured Europe with him. Viotti was one of the first great violinists to begin usage of the newly-designed Tourte bow, which obviously had an impact on the type of sound he produced from his instrument and the compositional style that resulted from it. The Tourte family was in the bow-making profession, among whom François Xavier Tourte le jeune (1747-1835)

has often been referred to as the ‘Stradivari’ of the bow for his significant contribution to the development of the modern bow, not just for the violin but for all bowed stringed instruments of the orchestra. In particular the concave stick now allowed more expressive bowing by making it easier to control dynamics and execute a wider variety of bow strokes, especially “off the string” bowings. We find all manner of these bowings in the Mazas études.

Pugnani in turn was taught by Italian Baroque violinist-composer Giovanni Battista Somis (1686-1763),

himself the founder of the Piedmontese school of violin playing. Somis also taught other famous violinist-pedagogues, among them Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder (1697-1764),

Portrait of Jean-Marie Leclair the Elder by Alexis Loir

considered by many the founder of the French violin school. Somis is thus seen as the connecting link between the classical schools of Italy and France.

And Somis was the pupil of Italian Baroque violinist-composer Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713),

Arcangelo Corelli

a key figure In the development of the sonata and concerto as we know them today and in the development of violin technique, even though his works never ranged beyond the third position.

It is possible to trace the lineage back even further, to Corelli’s teacher the Italian composer, organist and violinist Giovanni Battista Bassani (c. 1650-1716).

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His two sets of violin sonatas, though rarely played, are admired for their dignity of style and “excellent musical basis.”

Bassani was the pupil of Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690),

one of the most influential composers of his time in Venice. Here the pedagogical trail gets a little blurry, although it is thought that Bassani was taught at home by his father, a professional violinist.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate how much history is embedded in even a book of violin études and instill a sense of awe in everyday practice.

Such a huge debt is owed to this “French School” of violin playing.  The Franco-Belgian School of Belgian violinist-composers Charles-Auguste de Beriot (1802-1870)

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and later Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881)

is an offshoot of the French School—indeed even the Russian School is related to the French School, as both Rode and Baillot spent years in Russia, Rode from 1804 to 1808 and Baillot from 1805 to 1808.

Sadly, although the violinist-composers of the French School wrote so much music, especially concertos, posterity has not been kind to them: scores of their music are relatively hard to acquire, and their concertos seldom receive public performances or recordings, with the possible exception of Viotti’s Concerto no. 22 in A minor,

even though so many of his other concertos have equal, if not more, merit.

Playing études or studies are vital to the development and maintenance of technique. Too few violin students or even those more advanced devote much attention to them, sadly.

Mazas opus 36 consists of 75 progressive studies divided into three parts. The first part (Special Studies) includes 30 studies suitable for the intermediate students.

The second (Brilliant Studies) and third (Artists’ Studies) parts get progressively harder and resemble the concert etudes for advanced violinists.

As the preface to the first part, written by German violinist and conductor Walther Davisson explains, “The fundamentals and technical requirements of violin technique have been handled with distinct musical charm and sense of melodic shape….The study of these pieces will be found to be of immense benefit in matters of tone and technique; power and impetus of bowing should develop side-by-side with ease and grace of performance.”

My trusty personal copy of Mazas is well-worn from decades of use, and I still dip into it “to stay in shape.” Just as at the gym, one should undertake weight training with a clear idea of which muscle group(s) you wish to develop, these studies can help tone up areas of violin playing and technique, and “ease and grace of performance” to fit one’s current requirement. May the study of the studies never ever stop!

(An edited version of this article was published on 19 August 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Carmen for children, and Wind-Up Penguin!

It’s been two weeks since our annual Child’s Play ‘Take a Stand’ Monsoon concert on 28 July, and the heartwarming messages of appreciation continue to pour in.

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As many of you will be aware, we restarted our children’s choral project earlier this year with choral director Claire Hughes (UK); in a few weeks we will be joined by a choral director from Portugal, and we all look forward eagerly to welcoming and working with her.

Currently we have Abigail Kitching, also from the UK, who has got our children, in the Child’s Play project and in the wider community, all excited about opera.

The opera she has chosen is Carmen by the French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875). To call it a groundbreaking work would be an understatement. Carmen must have shocked its audience at its first performance at the Opéra-Comique Paris in 1875. What would they have made of its fiercely independent, extremely ‘un-lady-like’ eponymous leading lady, tossing social conventions contemptuously into the air and scandalizing purists in the process?

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Perhaps understandably for its time, the four-act opera was not well-received initially; the chorus and orchestra of the Opéra-Comique after a few rehearsals threatened to go on strike, deeming it “unsingable and unplayable.” The reception in general threw Bizet into a deep depression, and he would die just three months after the premiere performance, on the day of its 23rd performance, of a massive heart attack, aged just thirty-six. Carmen would only achieve international fame in the decade that followed Bizet’s death, and today ranks among the most often-performed and popular operas of all time.

Its libretto, in French, was written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, and is based on a novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée. Set in southern Spain, it is the story of the moth-to-flame attraction of naïve soldier Don José to femme fatale Carmen. José jilts his childhood sweetheart and deserts from his post to follow her, but in vain; she is drawn instead and unapologetically to the charismatic matador (toreador) Escamillo, filling José with such jealous rage that he stabs Carmen. Love, jealousy, death… all potent operatic ingredients.

Bizet, who had never been to Spain, admirably imbues the opera with Spanish flavor and a host of memorable tunes, which along with the sizzling sexual tension between the two leading roles, have ensured its immortality.

That tension obviously has to be sensitively handled in a production for children. And the lyrics have been translated into English. Kitching chose three scenes and arias from the opera: the Habanera (L’amour est un oiseau rebelle; Love is a rebellious bird) from Act I;

and the Toreador song

and the Flower song (La fleur que tu m’avais jetée; The flower that you threw at me), José’s plaintive love song from the second Act.

The children are thoroughly enjoying the over-the-top drama of it all as they sing and enact the scenes. Opera when being described to an Indian audience has often been likened to Bollywood, as there’s the same exaggeration of emotional highs and lows, and the breaking into song and dance at the drop of a hat (or a flower, as in Carmen). When the children were introduced to the character of Carmen, someone who can light up a room and make heads turn and jaws drop at her mere presence, were asked to name a contemporary icon who would have such an effect today, almost all chose some Bollywood star or the other, with just a few citing a pop sensation as well.

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It is the children’s first introduction to opera, and will hopefully dispel the fuddy-duddiness that usually accompanies the genre. They will ‘stage’ their three scenes as part of the opening act to our next concert featuring the Wind-Up Penguin Theatre Company (UK) on Saturday 18 Augut 2018 at 6 pm, Menezes Braganza conference hall. Passes are available at Furtados Music stores and will be available at the door just before the event.

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Several of you will have attended our past presentations of the Wind-Up Penguins. Child’s Play has partnered with them every year since 2015. Wind-Up Penguin Theatre Company is a children’s musical theatre company, made up of a group of creative people, musicians, singers, actors and technicians from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), London.

“We come together to create pieces of children’s musical theatre and then take our shows to developing countries, where we perform to children in schools, hospitals, orphanages and slums, or anywhere we can find them! We then work with the children, showing them the instruments and giving them the chance to experience live music, an opportunity many have never had before”, wrote Abi Heath, one of its members to me during our initial correspondence.

It was founded in 2012 by Elisabeth Swedlund and her classmate at the Guildhall School from Romania, Ioana Macovei-Vlascceanu. She had been running a summer camp for children in a very poor, very isolated village in Romania for five years, and had always profoundly wished to be able to bring something more artistic to children who lived in places where they have practically no access to culture, art, and multiculturalism – often in less affluent parts of the world. Ioana’s parents run a school which is in contact with many charities, and they organised their first project – performing in hospitals, orphanages, and rural schools around Bucharest. The experience was life-changing for the nine students involved – they went back to Romania (with eight extra Guildhall students, so seventeen of them), the next winter. Once they realised it was relatively easy, in this day and age of internet communication, to arrange performances around the world, they started to extrapolate to countries they really wanted to work and perform in. Several years later, they have conducted more than 13 projects, and performed to over 10000 children in more than 150 different places all over the world. The Wind-Up Penguin theatre company has so far visited Romania, Bulgaria, Germany, Belgium, Greece, Lebanon, India, Brazil, Colombia and Peru. They create professional-standard musical theatre performances which they have then taken into refugee camps in Europe resulting from the current crises in the Middle East, and to hospitals, schools, orphanages and special needs centres in the countries they have visited.

If their past performances are anything to go by, we are assured of a high-class interactive entertainment act for children (of all ages!),  incorporating a cappella singing, musicians, comedy theatre, balloons and puppets.

So let the show begin. Just don’t let Carmen flutter her eyelashes at you. You’ve been warned, José!

(An edited version of this article was published on 12 August 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)