Fauré’s Pavane

I first heard the Fauré Pavane on an album called “Romances for Saxophone” (1986), featuring American jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis (brother of the equally brilliant musician, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis).

This was around the time I became an intern and joined the salaried work-force. All at once I was earning a princely Rs. 1000/- a month, which I could spend as I wished. I would set aside Rs. 100/- every month to splurge on music cassettes from VP Sinari’s shop near the old Secretariat, the only go-to destination then. I began to really broaden my musical tastes around this time, and not just in classical music.

romances-for-saxophone

The title and the artist seemed to suggest it would be an album of smooth jazz, but all its thirteen tracks were short pieces by composers of classical music: apart from Fauré, it also had works by Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Satie, Mussorgsky, Villa-Lobos and Colombier.

The Pavane had Marsalis and the English Chamber Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Andrew Litton. The lyrics were in French and sounded really exotic to my ears. I couldn’t understand what they meant, but the music seduced me.

This was the pre-Google era, so it took a while for me to glean more information about pavanes in general, and the work by Fauré in particular.

The pavane is a slow processional dance (weddings and at royal and noble courts) of Italian origin that was immensely popular in the courts of Europe (especially the powerful Spanish court) at the peak of the Renaissance period, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The word ‘pavane’ is believed to have come from the Italian ‘danza Padovana” (‘dance typical of Padua’), or from the Spanish “pavón” meaning peacock. It is stately in tempo and spirit, and in duple meter.

John_Singer_Sargent_-_Gabriel_Fauré

Gabriel Urbain Fauré (1845-1924) wrote this Pavane for a series of light summer concerts in 1887. He took great pleasure in writing it, which is remarkable as he had a somewhat lukewarm interest in the tonal colours of the orchestra. In the words of his biographer Jean-Michel Nectoux: “He had a horror of vivid colours and effects, and showed little interest in combinations of tone-colours, which he thought were too commonly a form of self-indulgence and a disguise for the absence of ideas….Fauré’s lack of interest in the orchestra is sometimes criticized as a weakness…” Fauré struggled unsuccessfully to write a symphony, and abandoned or destroyed many orchestral scores. He wrote a mere clutch of works for large ensembles although some of them are for immense forces: his Prométhée is scored for three wind bands, 100 strings, 12 harps, and choir.

The Pavane began as a piano piece and was then adapted for orchestra. The original score requires strings and a pair each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns, although Fauré added an off-stage chorus shortly before the first performance in 1888. The lyrics, which bewail the romantic helplessness of man, were supplied by the poet Robert de Montesquiou, cousin of his patron Vicomtesse Elisabeth Greffulhe, to whom he dedicated the Pavane. The text makes references that would only be comprehensible to those familiar with the characters mentioned in it: Lindor, Tircis, Myrtille, Lydé, Eglé, Chloé. Despite this, the music conveys the sentiment of the poem beautifully. In the final bars, the altos sing plaintively “Goodbye then, and good day to the tyrants of our hearts” climbing a sorrowful interval of a diminished fourth and descending almost chromatically, in the form of a lament or sigh. The bass line then descends the ‘scale’ (a metaphorical descent into Hell, using ‘Jacob’s ladder’ in the opposite direction?) of the key (F sharp minor) of the composition, while the choir sings “And good day” (a pun on the greeting, but a wry one, for what is in store for the tormented hearts is anything but ‘good’) in unison, five notes above. The middle note in between the two is deliberately left out, leaving us to guess at whether we have ended, literally, on a ‘happy’ (major) or ‘sad’ (minor) note.

Fauré’s Pavane can be regarded as a deliberate exercise in orchestral colour, similar in this respect to Ravel’s Bolero. Fauré also wrote to his patron that he found de Montesquiou’s lyrics “delightful: the artfulness and coquetries of the female dancers and the great sighs of the male dancers will singularly enliven the music.” Thus one learns that the work was eventually choreographed as well. He goes on to say “If all this wonderful combination of attractive dance with handsome costumes, an orchestra and an invisible choir comes off, what a treat it should be!” Was Fauré being honest, or was he merely attempting to please his patron?

Both versions, with and without chorus, have proved immensely popular, and the Pavane has been transcribed for all sorts of forces, from solo guitar to brass band to string quartet, and as we have seen at the beginning of this article, solo saxophone, orchestra and chorus. Camerata Child’s Play India will perform an arrangement for strings (violins, violas, cello) and two flutes by my composer friend Liz Sharma, at our Monsoon concert on Sunday 5 July at 6 pm at Caritas St. Inez.

Fauré’s Pavane inspired his pupils to compose pavanes of their own: Debussy wrote a Passepied in his Suite Begamasque, and Ravel scored two, Pavane pour une infant défunte (Pavane for a dead Princess, which incidentally Camerata Child’s Play India also performed last year transcribed for the same forces as the Fauré arrangement ie. strings and flutes) and Pavane de la belle au bois dormant (Pavane for Sleeping Beauty) in Ma mere l’Oye (‘Mother Goose’).

With or without chorus, Fauré’s Pavane is an instrumental ‘chanson’ or ‘mélodie’ if you will, at once wistful, reflective, melancholic and uplifting. It was seen as sufficiently quintessentially French to be chosen by the BBC for their television coverage of the 1998 World Cup in France, just as Puccini’s Nessun Dorma had done the honours for the 1990 Cup in Rome. The Wimbledon Choral Society was commissioned to sing the chorus, and this recording became a Top 20 hit on the UK singles chart.

faure

It even made it to Sex and the City. During the episode where Miranda tells Steve that she loves him, a muted jazz violin begins to play the melody softly, backed by piano, double-bass and drums (played upon by brushes rather than sticks). Good day to the tyrant of your heart, Miranda!

(An edited version of this article was published on 5 July 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

“Let’s give it another month”

 

It is always sad when one hears that a child, who had begun playing an instrument, gives it up. Quite often, it is the parents who make this decision, and they tend to rationalize this to themselves and others, with many quasi-convincing arguments: “She never took to it, really”. “It’s such a waste of time, and he’s not even enjoying it.” Or “he’s now into (some other pursuit)”, or “she just doesn’t get the time to practice”. Or “she has to really concentrate on her studies; this is a very important year for her.”Or even “he had a really crappy teacher, and was not making any progress.” Sometimes the parents or the child her/himself, somehow decides they do not have the “talent”; such a loaded word, and one that is very controversial among pedagogues, and one that I personally avoid.

At the other end of the spectrum, one meets adults all the time who rue the fact that they had not persisted with an instrument picked up in childhood, but discarded at some point later. I meet people of my generation who were also learning violin, or piano or whatever, and were really quite good at it, but for one reason or another, stopped.

If you yourself have recently given up playing, or have a child who you feel “isn’t making progress”, and if you therefore feel that persisting despite this is a “waste of time”, here is a real-life account of the childhood of the great Italian conductor Riccardo Muti, described by him in his autobiography “First the Music, then the Words”:

“In Molfetta we celebrated Saint Nick’s day, or Santa Nicola as we called him in dialect, on December 6, the day most children received presents —the equivalent of Christmas or Epiphany for children elsewhere in Italy and abroad. All I got, on that long-ago morning in 1948 [Muti was seven years and five months old], was a small case with a three-quarter violin. I was so disappointed that it wasn’t a toy. Yet there it was, before my eyes, a sign that something terrible awaited me, that something awful was about to begin. Indeed, soon thereafter they introduced me to my solfeggio teacher, who walked me through the scale. I can picture her to this day: she was a young blonde. Nevertheless, my hatred of solfeggio remained strong enough that I made no progress in the first three months. My brain balked at the very idea and refused to learn a thing. She would point to a line on the staff, and I’d just make whatever sound came first, as I didn’t recognize a single note. In the end, she asked my father to just let it go.”

“She convinced him, and albeit reluctantly, he was ready to give up; the family would have one nonmusical child, so be it. My mother, on the other hand – to my great surprise, because she didn’t have any particular interest in music – made a strange remark: “Let’s give it another month”. Most family-related decisions —the ones we called “irrevocable” – were up to her. I don’t know why she said that, nor exactly what switch it flipped within me, but everything became clear to me that night. The following morning, in front of my teacher, I recognized all the notes quickly and with a degree of boldness, even. So I was finally able to move on from solfeggio to really begin playing the violin.”

Muti goes on to describe how hard it continued to be nevertheless, despite the shot in the arm he received from his mother’s vote of confidence in him. It gave him the motivation to practice even though from his window he could see his friends playing soccer outside. And he must have really practiced, because in just two years he was performing Vivaldi’s Concerto in A major in public, “before an audience of 300 pontifical seminarians.”

The interest in music, nurtured at this crucial fragile, vulnerable point, led on to greater things which made Muti the phenomenally successful and respected conductor he is today. All this might not have come to pass had his parents capitulated at the first obstacle in their child’s path.

Visions of the Beyond Festival: Muti-Moser Program

Not every child will necessarily become another Riccardo Muti, but this is not the point at issue. The point is that persistence can yield significant results.

Nicola Benedetti , award-winning Scottish violinist and champion of music education and the charity Sistema Scotland, made headlines in the UK when she stated that children should be exposed to classical music “whether they like it or not.” The statement is not at all as radical as it might first sound. Do we stop our children from studying mathematics or Hindi or geography because “they’re just not enjoying it”, or a perceived lack of progress? Of course not; quite the contrary. We ensure they work even harder at them. Why a different approach or yardstick when it comes to music?

Benedetti waxes almost poetic in her earnestness on the subject: “You’re not just developing concentration and focus in order to try to understand the music,” she said. “You are also getting something that has life lessons, has beauty, has uplift and joy and sorrow and tragedy – all the things that you will have to deal with in your life at some point.”

Muti’s story is a familiar one. The initial years are painful, for child and parents, but then it becomes so enjoyable, so rewarding. So much depends upon a child’s motivation to persevere despite everything, and here parental support is crucial.

The Portuguese pianist Pedro Emanuel Pereira who performed in Goa recently told me an interesting anecdote about the legendary violinist-pedagogue David Oistrakh that bears repeating here in this context: “Once, someone asked Oistrakh how he decided which children would be his pupils. He gave an interesting and funny answer: “I don’t care too much about talent or if the child wants to practice, when they first meet me. The first thing I do is meet their mother. If the child has a “crazy”, driven mother who will motivate him/her to practice, I will take on that child.””

So, if you or your child are at a crossroad, and are uncertain whether to continue with learning and playing a musical instrument, “Let’s give it another month.” And another. And yet another.

(An edited version of this article was published on 28 June 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Love triangles in Bollywood and Opera: ‘Tristan and Isolde’ and ‘Pardes’

 

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the premiere of ‘Tristan und Isolde’, the three-act opera or ‘music drama’ by the German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). It is a landmark in the development of Western music, the beginning of a move away from hitherto ‘common practice’ harmony and laid the groundwork for the direction of classical music in the 20th century, with Wagner’s extensive use of chromaticism, orchestral colour, shifting tonalities and harmonic suspension.

The plot, or synopsis as it is known in opera, is essentially the tragic love story of Tristan and Iseult, a tale popularised through French medieval poetry in the 12th century, and inspired by Celtic legend, and possibly the 11th century Persian story of Vis and Ramin, and which in turn is believed to have influenced the Arthurian romance of Lancelot and Guinevere.

Tristan, a Breton nobleman goes to Ireland to fetch the fair maiden Iseult to be married to his uncle King Mark. Each version of the tale has a different twist, but the common theme is that they ingest a potion that causes them to fall madly in love with each other. Although Iseult is wedded to King Mark, the influence of the potion compels the adulterous relationship between her and Tristan to continue, and completing a classic love triangle: Tristan loves and respects his uncle Mark as his mentor and foster father, but is besotted with Iseult; Mark loves Tristan as his son but Iseult as his wife; and Iseult is grateful for Mark’s kindness but loves Tristan. As in most Wagner operas, there are enough supporting and peripheral characters to fit into a crowded Panjim city bus at rush hour, but this is essentially the gist of the plot.

There are as many endings to the story as there are versions, but most commonly it ends tragically as does in Wagner’s opera. In a Danish version, Iseult is a princess from exotic India! Other versions have the two lovers going on to have children named after themselves, while one version (rather ickily) has the two protagonists as brother and sister. I have actually met a brother-sister pair named Tristan and Isolde, and thought it really bizarre until I learnt about these versions.

In Wagner’s opera, Tristan is mortally wounded by his best friend Melot, who, as if two admirers were not distraction enough, also vies for Isolde’s attention. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Mark arrives on the scene when he realises that the adulterous, tempestuous love between Tristan and Isolde was due to a magic potion (yeah Mark, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything!), and Isolde then collapses by her beloved and dies as well, but not before she has sung her swan song, the famous ‘Liebestod’ (Love Death. Yes, cheerful stuff) where she envisions Tristan risen again. Mark is left bereft, the only remaining ‘angle’ in the love ‘triangle.’

Wagner was drawing inspiration from real life; in 1852, he was in a relationship (how platonic or otherwise is uncertain) with Mathilde, wife of his then patron, the wealthy silk merchant Otto Wesendock. He took the unprecedented step of setting five of Mathilde’s poems to music (he usually wrote his own texts), known today as the Wesendocker Lieder. A motif from one of them (‘Träume’ or Dreams) became the love duet in Act 2 of the opera, and a theme in another (‘Im Treibhaus’ or ‘In the Greenhouse’) became the Prelude to Act 3.

The opera is also known for the famous ‘Tristan chord’, the leitmotif for Tristan, heard at the very beginning. It is a wonderful musical evocation of yearning for the unattainable. It is of interest to musicologists for its context, in what comes before and after, and for its significance in moving away from traditional tonal harmony towards atonality. Wagner was writing from the heart, even if an unfaithful one.

By 1858, the love triangle (or quadrangle if you include Wagner’s unfortunate wife Minna) had become untenable, and Wagner had to extricate himself into self-exile in Venice. Minna wrote to Mathilde: “I must tell you with a bleeding heart that you have succeeded in separating my husband from me after nearly twenty-two years of marriage. May this noble deed contribute to your peace of mind, to your happiness.”

The irony was the Wagner was so obsessed with Tristan the he had set aside the ‘Ring’ (he was writing ‘Siegfried’ from the four-opera Ring cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen) jeopardising his wedding ‘ring’ in the process. His marriage never quite recovered, despite attempts from both to reconcile.

By 1865, when the opera premiered in Munich, Wagner had moved on romantically into another love triangle, cuckolding another close friend, the conductor Hans von Bülow by entering into a relationship with his wife Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt.

If there is enough material here for a Bollywood film, you are right. Subhash Ghai’s 1997 musical ‘Pardes’ may have nothing to do with Wagner, but it does draw inspiration from the legend of Tristan and Iseult.

Pardes Tristan

Amrish Puri plays Kishorilal, a successful NRI businessman in the US, keen on finding a match for his son Rajiv (Apoorva Agnihotri). The father-son combine represent the ‘King Mark’ side of the triangle. Shah Rukh Khan (Arjun, Kishorilal’s foster son ) and Mahima Chaudhary (Ganga) complete the love triangle. The plotline is not a direct lift from Tristan-Iseult, but there are other similarities apart from the love triangle: the foster son-father relationship, and the moral-ethical conundrum Arjun faces, between duty, loyalty and honour on the one hand, and love and raw passion on the other. There is no love potion involved, but isn’t the ‘nashaa’ of ‘ishq’ potent enough?

Conventional love triangles are not new to Hindi (or indeed other Indian language) cinema. Even I, not a regular film-goer or watcher, can name a few: Ek Phool Do Maali; Kabhi Kabhie; Faraar; and of course Silsila. But this almost incestuous twist, where the two men in the triangle have a father-son sort of relationship, is unusual, in Bollywood or in our ‘prem kahaani’ folklore in general, unless I am mistaken.

(An edited version of this article was published on 21 June 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Adeus Miguel!

I signed up for the CRCH 2011 (Sensitisation workshop towards Conservation and Restoration in Cultural Heritage: Sculptures, Carvings, Paintings and Sculptures) at the Fundação Oriente on an impulse. I was a somewhat recent member of the Goa Heritage Action Group, and getting interested in issues around heritage almost as a natural progression, having relocated to our Panjim heritage house, the Casa da Moeda festival in its third year, and the heritage walks.

We were a motley crew, we delegates: priests, nuns, architects, heritage conservationists, activists, museum curators, college students, and a whole lot of enthusiasts just like me. The workshop was led by Mónica Esteves Reis, but there was considerable input also from Miguel Mateus, a thin, lanky figure who was introduced to us as an experienced conservation-restorer from Portugal and who was engaged in intensive conservation work at the Santa Monica convent in Old Goa.

Mónica and Miguel quickly became friends with many of us at the workshop. As Miguel spent longer lengths of time working in Goa, we became really close. He graciously accepted our invitation to be a speaker at the Casa da Moeda festival 2011, where his presentation, ‘Heritage Interpretation’ shed much light on the work he had done in Europe, and the work he had done and was doing in Old Goa and other cities and towns in India. He had been actively involved in the restoration of the Capela de Nossa Senhora do Monte, Velha Goa (Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount, Old Goa), and the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Esperança (Church of Our Lady of Hope), Vaipim-Cochin. I remember in particular from his presentation the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of the restoration work done on some of the paintings of the Viceroys at the ASI Museum, which were such a revelation to all of us.

P1260613 miguel mateus 

Miguel was a perfectionist, almost to a fault. He had a very clear idea of what needed to be done, and would get quite frustrated with bureaucracy if he was not given the time or the wherewithal with which to get the work done. So much of conservation work needs to be executed in stages, and lapses or delays can actually undo or even reverse the good work done before it.

He took a personal interest in the repair work of our verandah, and wanted the wooden planks to be water-proofed and made resistant to termites in a certain exact way that unfortunately could not be done to his precise specifications for logistic reasons.

He became a regular visitor to our home, and would swing by whenever he was in the vicinity, either on his own, or with whoever happened to be riding pillion with him on his scooter. I found myself inventing excuses to ‘be in the neighbourhood’ of Old Goa so that I could visit him and watch him at work. He was a workaholic, literally rolling up his sleeves and working meticulously for hours on end, with virtually no break, and talking all the while to explain what he was doing.

He was quite a raconteur, and I would be spellbound, despite my poor knowledge of Portuguese and his incomplete command of English. I remember how he, in his calm yet excited way, related being present at the restoration of the Sistine chapel frescoes, one of the most significant art restorations of the 20th century. This was a man who had seen a lot, and done a lot. His body of expertise and experience was truly impressive, and Goa is fortunate to have had his input. And he in turn gave much value and importance to his work in Goa, in the trajectory of his own career.

But it is Miguel the friend I miss very much. We last met in January 2014, with the understanding that we would see him again this year. I met his charming wife Eveline for the first time then, and remember fondly those meetings.

I first heard that Miguel was seriously ill via a message from Natasha da Costa Fernandes at the Museum of Christian Art. I immediately dashed off an email to Miguel, and got a reply from his wife that the end could be near. And within a matter of days, I heard again from her of his death on 12 June. It has been a shock to us all. He was just 58, and there was so much more he wanted to do, in Goa and beyond. It is a huge loss to heritage conservation. Rest in eternal peace, Miguel.

The Violin in Poetry and Literature: Thomas Hardy

This month marks the 175th birth anniversary of the great English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). The violin played an important part in his family and therefore his own life.

Thomas Hardy

A description of his daily schedule when Hardy was in his 20s (in his ‘biography’, purportedly written by his widow Florence after his death, but now thought to have been the work of Hardy himself!) reads thus: “He would be reading the Iliad, the Aeneid, or the Greek Testament from six to eight in the morning, would work at Gothic architecture all day, and then in the evening rush off with his fiddle under his arm, sometimes in the company of his father as first violin and uncle as cellist, to play country dances, reels, and hornpipes at an agriculturist’s wedding, christening or party in a remote dwelling in the fallow fields, not returning sometimes till nearly dawn, the Hardys being still traditionally string-bandsmen available on such occasions, and having the added recommendation of charging nothing for their services, which was a firm principle with them, the entertainers being mostly acquaintances; though the tireless zeal of young couples in the dance often rendered the Hardys’ act of friendship anything but an enjoyment to themselves. But young Hardy’s vigour was now much greater than it had been when he was a child, and it enabled him, like a conjuror at a fair, to keep in the air the three balls of architecture, scholarship and dance-fiddling, without ill-effects, the fiddling being of course not daily, like the other two.”

He was able ‘to tune a violin when of quite tender years’, apparently aged four; and ‘extraordinarily sensitive to music’.

With no pretence at false modesty, Hardy (or his widow) writes: “It was natural that with the imitativeness of a boy he should at an early age have attempted to perform upon the violin, and under his father’s instruction he was soon able to tweedle from notation some hundreds of jigs and country-dances that he found in his father’s and grandfather’s old books. From tuning fiddles as a boy he went on as a youth in his teens to keep his mother’s old table-piano in tune whenever he had the time, and was worried by ‘The Wolf’ in a musical octave, which he thought a defect in his own ear.”

Perhaps because of his country origins, and bring acutely aware of class divisions in society, Hardy never felt quite at home in London. But he does seem to have made the most of the opportunities that living in London offered him when it came to music.

The ‘biography’ chronicles the notes made by Hardy in May ?1901 at a concert by the great violinist Eugène Ysaye (1858-1931) at Queen’s Hall, London of Johann Sebastian Bach’s violin concerto in E major: “The solo enters at the twelfth bar…Later in the movement a new theme is heard – a brief episode, the thematic material of the opening sufficing the composer’s needs. In the Adagio, the basses announce and develop a figure. Over this the soloist and first violins enter. I see them: black-headed, lark-spurred fellows, marching in on five wires.”

A few days later, he writes about ‘a feat of execution’ by another legendary violinist of the age, Jan Kubelik (1880-1940) at St. James’ Hall: “that of playing ‘pizzicato’ on his violin the air of ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ with Ernst’s variations, and fingering and bowing a rapid accompaniment at the same time.”

Music crept into Hardy’s writing as well, notably in his short story “The Fiddler of the Reels” where the children in the parish who could ‘burst into tears’ on hearing the fiddler Mop Ollamoor’s country jigs, reels and ‘favourite quick steps of the last century’ are a projection from Hardy’s own childhood; he admits how some tunes his father played could move him to tears in his memoirs. Mop Ollamoor seems a conflation of Hardy as well as his own father, Thomas senior.

But the most poignant tribute to his father I could find is the poem Hardy wrote in 1916, almost a quarter of a century after his father’s demise,titled “To my Father’s violin”:

Does he want you down there
In the Nether Glooms where
The hours may be a dragging load upon him,
As he hears the axle grind
Round and round
Of the great world, in the blind
Still profound
Of the night-time? He might liven at the sound
Of your string, revealing you had not forgone him.

In the gallery west the nave,
But a few yards from his grave,
Did you, tucked beneath his chin, to his bowing
Guide the homely harmony
Of the quire
Who for long years strenuously-
Son and sire-
Caught the trains that at his fingering low or higher
From your four thin threads and eff-holes came outflowing.

And, too, what merry tunes
He would bow at nights or noons
That chanced to find him bent to lute a measure,
When he made you speak his heart
As in dream,
Without book or music-chart,
On some theme
Elusive as a jack-o’-lantern’s gleam,
And the psalm of duty shelved for trill of pleasure.

Well, you can not, alas,
The barrier overpass
That screens him in those Mournful Meads hereunder,
Where no fiddling can be heard
In the glades
Of silentness, no bird
Thrills the shades;
Where no viol is touched for songs or serenades,
No bowing wakes a congregations’s wonder.

He must do without you now,
Stir you no more anyhow
To yearning concords taught you in your glory;
While, your strings a tangled wreck,
Once smart drawn,
Ten worm-wounds in your neck,
Purflings wan
With dust-hoar, here alone I sadly con
Your present dumbness, shape your olden story.

Hardy’s father’s violin, now unused (”your strings a tangled wreck”) becomes a medium of tribute to its owner who loved it so much, and we acutely feel the poet’s pain. Hardy is now seventy-six, but the “merry tunes” “at nights or noons” still speak to his heart, and ours.

(An edited version of this article was published on 14 June 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

And now: the Barenboim piano!

2015 might well be remembered as the year of innovation in pianistic design, concept and sonority.

In January, Hungarian pianist Gergely Bogányi (who performed here in 2011) unveiled his “revolutionary”, “space-age”, “wonder” piano in Budapest.

And now, a much more high-profile musician Daniel Barenboim, Argentine pianist, conductor and humanitarian, has revealed his new, “radically different” piano, with his name also emblazoned across it.

Barenboim piano

The innovation in the Barenboim piano is in the installation of the strings. In a standard concert grand, they are placed diagonally, or “cross-strung”, with the bass strings crossing over the middle register and treble strings to create an “x”, so that the sound gets concentrated on the centre of the soundboard. The Barenboim piano has all the strings aligned straight and parallel, which is the secret of its superior sound. It also has a double bridge and horizontal soundboard veins.

The new instrument was launched and displayed to the media at London’s Royal Festival Hall on 26 May 2015. Barenboim then played the Schubert piano sonata cycle (spread out over four concert evenings) there on this instrument, of which there are currently only two in the world.

What prompted Barenboim to design such a piano? In an interview to the BBC, he says that it was after he had played on one of Franz Liszt’s pianos that had been restored in honour of the Liszt birth bicentenary in 2011.

“I was struck by the transparency and the independence of the notes.”

“When Liszt taught, he said to one of his students in Weimar, ‘If you play a chord of four notes, each one must have a different sound.’ And that you can do on this piano.”

“The clearly distinguishable voices and colour across its registers of Liszt’s piano inspired me to explore the possibility of combining these qualities with the power, looks, evenness of touch, stability of tuning and other technical advantages of the modern piano”, said Barenboim.

The new piano was developed along with Belgian instrument maker Chris Maene, and is supported by Steinway & Sons. Maene described the whole enterprise as “a dream come true.”

It is remarkable how both Bogányi and Barenboim have Franz Liszt in the narrative of the stimulus for their creation. Liszt took a great interest in developments in the piano and worked closely with leading manufacturers of the time.

The restored Liszt piano in Siena referred to by Barenboim was probably designed by Sebastien Érard (1752-1831), who built his first piano in 1777 and founded the piano manufacturing firm that bore his surname. In 1823, Érard developed a revolutionary “double escapement action” which allowed the same note to be sounded by repeatedly striking the relevant key without its having to return to its original position. This fascinated a teenage Liszt when he visited Paris, and the Érard family in turn doted upon Liszt, providing instruments, and the famous Salle Érard, for his concerts. The Érard piano was straight-strung as well, giving distinct differences in tone colour across the registral range, “almost like listening to a choir where you have the bass, tenor, alto and soprano voices”, with “huge opportunities in experimenting with colour”, as there is “no blending or homogenizing of the sound”, in the words of pianist Gwendolyn Mok, who plays an 1875 Érard.

The Barenboim-Maene piano press release states that the instrument “combines the touch, stability, and power of a modern piano with the transparent sound quality and distinguishable colour registers of more historic instruments”.

At the media launch, Barenboim played a short excerpt from a Beethoven sonata (the first few bars of the second movement of the Appassionata) first on his personal Steinway, and then on the Barenboim-Maene, to demonstrate the difference in sound quality and tonal colour.

Barenboim made it quite clear that he was not dissatisfied with his personal Steinway, however. In fact, he deftly side-stepped a few leading questions. For example, when he made the point about each of the four notes of a chord sounding differently on the new piano, he was asked if he couldn’t do this on his Steinway, and he answered, “I don’t like to think about the things I can’t do.” When asked which piano Mozart or Beethoven would have preferred of the two (the new Barenboim or the ‘old’ Steinway), he quipped “Just bring them here so I have a chance to talk to them!”

He compared the feeling he had for his creation to falling in love: “In the end it is a question of taste. I have grown to love this [new] piano. Now I want to play everything on it – it’s like when you fall in love again you want to go everywhere with that person. I’m like that with this piano. This piano has a different profile, a different sound. Like with string instruments, some people prefer a Guadagnini, some people prefer a Stradivarius.”

“I suppose you could call it arrogance, but I feel I have a personal relationship with any piano I play – you have to. Arthur Rubinstein told me, ‘You have to be inspired by the instrument. If you are not inspired by the instrument, you will not be able to realise the inspiration you get from the music.’ So I always always look for pianos that inspired me to play.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 7 June 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Minding my ‘Buzina’s!

Etymology fascinates me. I love that “Aha!” moment when the penny drops and yet another seemingly inconsequential tidbit of trivia manifests itself to me. Sometimes I actively look up the origin of a word either because it intrigues me for some reason; many other times, it sort of dawns on me over a very long time. And I love the way it brings together several topics of interest to me. Allow me to present a word, or series of linked words, that connect music, medicine and history, all of which I hold dear for different reasons.

In 1985, I remember reading a large advertisement in the Times of India announcing the jazz concert of American jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie in Bombay. It featured a publicity photograph of him “tooting his horn”, with the most remarkably puffed-out cheeks I had ever seen. My musical tastes were largely shaped by the records we had brought back with us from Germany in 1970; while my dad’s records were almost entirely western classical music, my mum’s smaller collection was much more eclectic, and included the jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. So while I had seen pictures of Armstrong in action on the record sleeves, nothing prepared me for the cheeks of Gillespie.

dizzy gillespie

I was a medical student then, and must have been either at the end of 1st MBBS or just beginning the next year. I think it highly unlikely that I paused at the time to correlate which facial muscles Gillespie was employing to achieve his chipmunk impression; if I did, I have no recollection of it.

I have to digress to mention that although I grew up in Goa, my knowledge of Portuguese in my formative years was limited to a few pleasantries and to being able to carry out the most superficial or perfunctory of conversations. My dad was born and raised in Portuguese Goa, but my mother in British Africa, and they met in college in Poona, and so since they conversed to each other in English, so did my brother & I.

Back to the story: in 2001 or 2002, I was on one of my biannual visits to Goa from England, and a couple of my relatives and I decided to take a longish road trip to Coorg. I was at the wheel, and it was slow going, as there was traffic in front of me, and I was not being assertive enough in forging ahead. My cousin Premila was in the passenger seat, and must have realised we were going to cover very little ground at this pace. “Buzina!” she said to me encouragingly, and perhaps a trifle impatiently, although she hid it well. I had never heard this word before, and couldn’t guess at what it meant. “Honk!” she translated helpfully on seeing my blank expression. I remember thinking at the time, “What a strange word, so different from the English”, and didn’t give it a further thought.

After relocating back to Goa in 2008, I soon saw the need to get my Portuguese up to speed, to help my study of historical documents. So I enrolled at the Instituto Camões; but although we conjugated several verbs in the course of our study, “buzinar” (“to sound the horn”) somehow didn’t make the cut.

Fast forward to two things that came to my attention at around the same time recently. The first was “Musical Instruments of the Bible” by Jeremy Montagu. On page 19 it discusses in detail the Ram’s Horn trumpet, or shōfār. As God prepared to give the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, there came thunders and lightnings, and “the voice of the trumpet exceedingly loud.” In the Vulgate, the late fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible, the passage in quotes reads as “clangor que buccinae vehementius perstrebat.” The shōfār is believed to have been first fashioned from the right horn (which is larger than the left) of the ram that Abraham sacrificed instead of his son Isaac. No part of the ram was allowed to go to waste; in addition to the use of the right horn, its sinews became the strings of David’s lyre, and its skin girded Elijah’s loins. It would come to be used as a war trumpet and a signal instrument for giving commands.

Interesting also how some terms (‘salpinx’, plural’ salpinges’; ‘tuba’) for musical instruments have also crept into terminology for anatomy, particularly of the female reproductive system ie the Fallopian tubes.

Several translations of the Bible use the generic term “trumpet” interchangeably for the shōfār and another Biblical blown instrument, the chatsōtǝrōt. Martin Luther however makes a distinction in his German translation, using Trompete (trumpet) for chatsōtǝrōt and Posaun (trombone) for shōfār. It is for this reason that Mozart uses solos for trombone in the “Tuba Mirum” of his Requiem. Posaun derives from Latin ‘bucina’, a Roman military trumpet (the sort we could expect to see in ‘The Ten Commandments’, ‘Ben Hur’ or ‘Spartacus’) which was made from animal horn, normally bovine. Etymologists argue to this day about the spelling ‘bucina’ as opposed to ‘buccina’. Should it be ‘bucina’, reflecting the bovine and therefore pastoral (think of ‘bucolic’ of similar stock) origin? ‘Bukane’ is Greek means a ‘crooked horn’. Or should it be ‘buccina’, reflecting the blowing out of the cheeks (‘bucca’) to play the instrument? The majority seem to favour the first, ‘bucina’.

This brings me back to my 1st MBBS days in anatomy. I cannot remember if our Chaurasia textbook told us this, but apparently the original spelling for the ‘buccinator’ muscle, the quadrilateral muscle on the side of the face between the maxilla and mandible, was ‘bucinator’, the term in Latin for a trumpeter, or more accurately, someone who plays a bucina, the verb being ‘bucinere’, from which the Portuguese ‘buzinar’ was obviously derived.

But although we can reconstruct the instruments, we have no idea what music was played on them. Miklós Rosza had to use his imagination to write his famous ‘Parade of the Charioteers’ for William Wyler’s 1959 film ‘Ben Hur’. One Sunday just before Christmas in 1958, Rosza stood at Rome’s Palatine Hill, where the Caesars’ palace had stood, and got his inspiration.

From a Ram’s horn to a car ‘horn’! What a journey through time, history, medicine, music and the Bible, all precipitated by my driving too slowly in traffic. The benefits of cautious driving are truly immense!

(An edited version of this article was published on 31 May 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Ebony and Ivory

 

One of the major regrets of my life is not having learnt to play the piano at a young age. I miss not being able to just go up to a keyboard and accompany someone or myself singing a popular song. I can work out harmonies and chord progressions but would love to be able to do so with more fluency.

When I was growing up, through a combination of circumstance and design, I guess I gravitated towards the violin. My father had learnt violin when he was young from names we utter in hushed tones today: Micael Martins and Dominic Pereira. So perhaps this played some part in the choice. Piano was not really an option. Neither of my parents played it. It was not being taught in my immediate neighbourhood. Furthermore, we didn’t own a piano, and there weren’t stores where one could peer through a shop window at a piano and say “I’d like to try that!” Wherever there were pianos in houses we visited, they seemed to be heirlooms from another generation, and often didn’t get played very much. And I assumed that an instrument that formidable and weighty would probably cost a fortune. They probably did, for us, in the 1970s, if one took into account the cost of shipping and handling.

It was also the time of the keyboard synthesizer boom and the sound world that came along with it, that gradually, inexorably replaced the acoustic unplugged sound of music-making. I remember how it replaced the pedal organ in the choir loft of our chapel. But thankfully I also had recourse to my dad’s collection of classical music records and spool tapes, and there were the excellent concerts organised by Cultura at Instituto Menezes Braganza. The names are a blur, but I still remember Anton Kuerti, Marina Horak, Edith Fischer, Klaus Zoll, and, Theresa Halloween, Tehmie Gazdar and Fali Pavri. So while I listened to Klaus Wunderlich, and the sound of the Hammond, Moog, Korg and Roland synthesizers, it was the possibilities of the acoustic piano that really “floated my boat”. Concerts I began to attend in Mumbai only further whetted my appetite, and the decade I spent in London really rocked my world for classical music in every sense, including piano.

Yet somehow piano ownership eluded me. In the early 2000s, while in the UK, I seriously considered taking a side-step from mainstream medicine into music therapy. However, all the centres in the UK offering it insisted on a significant level of accomplishment at the keyboard. By now, I was earning enough to afford a piano, but my job rotations every six to twelve months from one shoe-box to another made it impractical to have to keep carting it along with me. So I reluctantly settled for a lighter, more practical keyboard, a Yamaha Portable Grand DGX 500, and began taking lessons. It was difficult to find the time for lessons and practice with my hectic work schedules, first in hospital medicine, and then in General Practice, and with my violin lessons and orchestra rehearsals and chamber music sessions. Yet I persevered.

But it just wasn’t the same. The touch was different, the pedals felt wrong in more ways than one, and the sound was just too tinny to deign to compare itself with the real thing. But when we moved back to Goa, the keyboard came along too. And when my son began to explore the keyboard and began lessons, I realised it was time.

I talked to Christopher Gomes of Furtados Music about it, and last Christmas he let me know about a seriously good offer on a Steiner upright. This was it then! I began to have some last-minute doubts, as I do over any large purchase: what if my then five-year old’s interest in playing was just a passing phase? Would I really get that much use out of the instrument as I would like? In an old house, one is constantly battling the elements: heat, dust, light, moisture and more. Would a piano become another white (and black) elephant?

That same day, magically, an article from cyberspace surfaced on my screen which clinched it for me. It was in the Classical Music section of London’s Guardian newspaper. The article quoted world-renowned teacher and chairperson and artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition Dame Fanny Waterman as saying how she feared for the future of piano-playing in the UK, and one major contributor was the popularity of keyboards over acoustic pianos, and children starting to learn at a later age than in many other parts of the world.

She didn’t mince her words, stating that learning on an electric piano was “a waste of time, because you don’t get the speed of the key descent, you don’t get the different sounds.” Electric keyboards are “big business”, she said, likening them to playing the violin but studying the guitar – “different sound altogether”. Strong words, and the article kicked up quite a storm in the comments section and in the music world beyond it.  But it strengthened my resolve to get myself a ‘real’ piano at last. If I want to give my son a real chance at learning to play the piano, he has at the very least to have the right instrument. What happens thereafter, whether he takes to it or not, is not entirely within my control. But this is. Thankfully he really seems to enjoy it. And I’ve taken it up again as well.

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And so, I have entered a whole new world. I’ve never owned an acoustic instrument that was as large as furniture before. Or that was not portable, something I could carry with me on public transport. Or that required the use of my feet as well as my hands. Tuning it is not a do-it-yourself task like my violin or viola. I’m having to come to grips with the idea of piano tuners and dehumidifiers. But I’m grateful. Strike one off the bucket list.

(An edited version of this article was published on 24 May 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

“The Mendelssohn Violin and Piano Concerto is a genius piece!”

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Álvaro Pereira (violin) and Pedro Emanuel Pereira (piano) are two young Portuguese musicians (28 and 24 years respectively) visiting Goa under the patronage of the Consul General of Portugal Rui Baceira. They spoke about their concert at the Kala Academy Dinanath Mangueskar auditorium (Saturday 23 May 2015, 7 pm, open to the public) in an exclusive interview to the Navhind Times

Welcome to Goa! Tell us a little about yourself, Álvaro. What made you take up the violin?

AP: My parents are not musicians. As a child, I wanted to learn guitar or piano, but as there were no places available at school for these instruments but violin, I took up violin instead. I began learning violin at eight. I continued my studies at the Specialised School of Music (Artave) in Esmae, Oporto and finally at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, St. Petersburg under Alexandre Stang, where I graduated with the highest score.

And you, Pedro?

PP: My parents are not musicians either, but my mother sings in a choir. She would take me along to her rehearsals. She decided to take me to piano and organ lessons from the age of four. Somehow, from a young age, I knew that I wanted to be a pianist; I just loved it so much. I could imagine myself giving a performance. When asked what we wanted to become, my school friends would say “Figo” or “Pelé”, but I wanted to be a musician!

After completing my music diploma, I went at the age of seventeen to the Tchaikovsky State Conservatory, Moscow where I studied with Professor Vera Gornostaeva.

And how and where did the two of you meet?

AP: It is strange, that although we are compatriots and are both from Guimarães, we met in Moscow! I was the only Portuguese student in St. Petersburg, and Pedro the only one in Moscow. We were introduced in order to play a concert together, which we did at Moscow’s Great Hall.

And since then you have played together many times?

AP: Yes. We relate well as musicians, which is the most important thing.

Let us discuss your concert programme in Goa. Tell us what influenced your decision to play the Mendelssohn Violin and Piano Concerto in D minor. It is not such a well-known repertoire work.

PP: Yes, I agree. I read your article about it last Sunday in the Navhind Times. The Portuguese Consul Rui Baceira gave us an idea of the local ensemble that could make music with us for some of the concert. We realised that it was essentially a string ensemble. We also wanted a work that would allow both Álvaro and me to play, and the Mendelssohn work is perhaps unique in this regard, and it is a work of genius.

And what will the rest of your programme feature?

AP: As you are aware, the Mendelssohn is a large work, lasting around forty minutes. We will play this in the second part of our programme. The first part will be a violin and piano recital. We will play works by several Portuguese composers: António Fragoso (1897-1918); Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988); and Oscar da Silva (1870-1958). And as were both studied in Russia, the programme will also have some Shostakovich: his Four Preludes Opus 34 for violin and piano.

Any advice for parents regarding providing a stimulus to our children?

PP: The most important thing is to be happy and derive pleasure from making music. Regarding advice to parents, let me recount an anecdote about the great violinist David Oistrakh. Once, someone asked him how he chose which children would be his pupils. He gave an interesting and funny answer: “I don’t care too much about talent or if the child wants to practice, when they first meet me. The first thing I do is meet their mother. If the child has a “crazy”, driven mother who will motivate him/her to practice, I will take on that child.” The role of the parent is so important. Motivation to practice and support can make all the difference.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 23 May 2015)

The Mendelssohn Project

On 23 May at the Kala Academy, music-lovers will get a singular opportunity hear a work by the great German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) that has only relatively recently (1999) entered the public domain. Why such a long wait?

Felix_Mendessohn_Bartholdy

During his tragically short life, Mendelssohn towered over the cultural life of Europe, as composer, conductor, pianist and organist. His artistic directorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra turned it into the cultural institution it still is to this day. His name was being uttered alongside those of Mozart and Beethoven, so widely was he respected. His renown as a prodigy in fact rivaled that of Mozart in Mendelssohn’s lifetime. All that seemed to change rapidly after his death, with rising nationalism and the intolerance that often goes along with such sentiment. Growing anti-Semitism seems to have been a major consideration influencing his father to renounce Judaism. Felix was deliberately not circumcised, and the children were baptized into the Reformed Church in 1816, with Felix taking on the full name Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.

Although Mendelssohn wrote more than 770 works (hundreds of musical manuscripts unpublished at the time of his sudden demise), nearly half of these have never even been performed. His prodigious talent instead of being celebrated, was held up as proof of his ‘facility’ which was cruelly equated with ‘mediocrity’. German poet, essayist and critic Heinrich Heine, himself a converted Jew, reviewed Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul, writing that it was “characterized by a great, strict, very serious seriousness, a determined, almost importunate tendency to follow classical models, the finest, cleverest calculation, sharp intelligence and, finally, complete lack of naïveté. But is there in art any originality of genius without naïveté?”

The more infamous posthumous broadside against Mendelssohn and indeed other artists of Jewish origin came from his envious contemporary, Richard Wagner in his anti-Jewish pamphlet Das Judenthum in der Musik: “[Mendelssohn] has shown us that a Jew may have the amplest store of specific talents, may own the finest and most varied culture, the highest and tenderest sense of honour – yet without all these pre-eminences helping him, were it but one single time, to call forth in us that deep, that heart-searching effect which we await from art…..The washiness and the whimsicality of our present musical style has been…pushed to its utmost pitch by Mendelssohn’s endeavour to speak out a vague, an almost nugatory Content as interestingly and spiritedly as possible.”

Wagner went on to declare Mendelssohn’s music “an icon of degenerate decadence”, and in its wake publishers declined to publish his manuscripts and letters.

Nazi Germany took matters further, adding Mendelssohn’s name to the lengthy list of “forbidden artists”. Mendelssohn’s manuscripts (published and unpublished) which were housed in the basement of the Berlin State Library had to be smuggled out and as a result were temporarily lost to the Western world, as they fell behind the Iron Curtain after WWII.

The work we will hear on 23 May at the Kala Academy is Mendelssohn’s concerto for violin, piano and strings in D minor. It was written in 1822 when Mendelssohn was just thirteen, for a private concert with his close friend and violin teacher Eduard Rietz. Mendelssohn revised it on 3 July 1822, adding timpani and winds.

It along with hundreds of other manuscripts was “lost” for reasons just mentioned. It was only revisited in 1960, with a miniature score published by Astoria Verlag Berlin. Six years later, the work was published in a reduction for violin and two pianos. In 1999, the 1960 miniature score was reissued in a scholarly edition with the wind and timpani parts added. We will hear the arrangement for string orchestra, as was Mendelssohn’s original intent.

The Mendelssohn Project has compiled the world’s most complete list of Felix Mendelssohn’s works, led by music director Stephen Somary and drawing upon “decades of thorough research by prominent Mendelssohn experts”. It equally focuses on the oeuvre of Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister Fanny, who was a composer in her own right, and whose death caused such grief to her brother that he died from a series of strokes a mere six months later. The Mendelssohn Project has the additional objective of recording their complete published and unpublished works.

The concerto for violin, piano and strings is a grandiose work for a thirteen-year old. It has three movements in typical fast-slow-fast fashion (Allegro-Adagio- Allegro molto) and its performance time is close to forty minutes.

Comparisons are inevitably made with Mendelssohn’s “other” violin concerto. We all know his famous violin concerto in E minor, but Mendelssohn also wrote a violin concerto, in D minor, the same key as the “double” concerto for violin and piano, just a year earlier. This work had also lain ‘dormant’ until violinist Yehudi Menuhin championed its revival and publication. The D minor violin concerto is also similarly constructed, with two allegros surrounding a central andante of great beauty.

In the “double concerto”, we hear a precocious understanding of the need to balance two completely different solo instruments; and the orchestra is allotted moments of beauty and brilliance befitting a tripartite conversation between equals. The central Adagio has the poetry and nobility of spirit of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, with soulful cadenzas for both instruments. It is ‘reminiscent’ in some ways of the opening of his string quartet (no. 2, opus 13 in A minor) that he would write just five years later.

This work does not yet have the maturity of the ‘highlights’ of Mendelssohn’s compositional achievements as a teenager: his famous ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream overture and his Octet for Strings. The first movement at eighteen minutes seems overly stretched. But there are all the hallmarks of Mendelssohn’s music in this work, to borrow the words of musicologist Jonathan Rhodes Lee: “Mozartean clarity stands comfortably alongside Beethovenian grandeur, the formal creativity of C.P.E. Bach beside the lyrical beauty of Schubert.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 17 May 2015 in the Navhind Times Goa India)

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