A Funny Thing happened on the Way to Democracy

Back in 2012, my wife Chryselle and I almost without our realising it got fairly involved in Fr. Bismarque Dias’s election campaign in the Cumbarjua constituency. I am not even from the constituency, although I have ancestral roots to the area, being a Zuenkar on my father’s side.

But that’s not the reason we volunteered. I’ve written about the reasons his message appealed to me, so I won’t go into that again. But I’d like to focus on the reaction of many people on hearing that he had thrown his hat into the ring. To be sure, Fr. Bismarque had a strong core group in the constituency who believed in him and supported him, but critics and sceptics carped from the sidelines as well.

“Arré, tell him he’s wasting his time.” “He’ll never win.” “He’ll only end up splitting the vote, and we really can’t have that.”

Feelers were sent to his supporters to dissuade him from carrying on his campaign, with the same logic: the incumbent had to be unseated, so why not join forces with the opposition, rather than ‘splitting the vote’?

I had a conversation with quite a few; many of them actually liked Fr. Bismarque and knew of his long track record of activism and honesty and sincerity. “So why won’t you vote for him? Even when you know he’s a good man, a clean man, which is more than can be said for his rivals?”

“Because he’ll lose, and we don’t want to split the vote.” It was enough to make one want to scream: “But he won’t lose if you all vote for him! And then there won’t be a split vote, but a victory for him! Just give him a chance. Do you want to be stuck in this eternal tired ping-pong between the same old options, all of which have let you down in the past?”

I have no idea which way they eventually voted, but their prophecy was a self-fulfilling one, so they probably didn’t give Fr. Bismarque that chance.


But this twisted logic seems to play out against every new entrant. By new entrant, I mean a really new fresh face or group of faces, not a bunch of old hands floating a ‘new party’ with a catchy name and slogan, but essentially selling old wine (or should one say pickle?) in new bottles.

My journey to the Aam Aadmi Party took a while. After the brutal murder of Fr. Bismarque, something in me died as well. I missed the hope he radiated, and I felt desolate and bereft of a positive voice to listen to and rally behind.

The insidious rumour mill (“beware of them, they’re like this and they’re like that”, “they’re the B team of (fill in the blank)”, “beware of their Delhi connection”) was a temporary stumbling block in my path to AAP. The instinctive wariness of politicians rose to the surface, like a survival instinct.

But despite this, among all the parties in the fray, AAP seemed the best and most sensible option to me. I have long admired the forthrightness and honesty of Arvind Kejriwal, and his Panjim rally in May 2016 was a major turning point for me.

From then on, I got inexorably drawn into the AAP ambit, although I didn’t do nearly as much as most of the other volunteers. But I could talk about the option that AAP was offering the electorate to those I met in my social circle, and I did.

And again I encountered the same logic: “You guys mean well, but you’re going to split the vote, and we can’t let that happen.”

The logic is so bizarre: One wants to oust known devchar X. But the electorate resorts to voting for known but (supposedly) lesser devchar Y, even though Y has let them down several times before when he was in power, and even when they are given the option of choosing an unknown angel Z. An opportunity for real change is therefore missed, and we have the surreal political situation we are in today.

There is certainly much more to the performance of AAP in this election, but the fear of ‘splitting the vote’ cannot be ignored.

Muscle and money power worked heavily against Fr. Bismarque’s campaign. Goondas sent by rivals would prevent his supporters from boarding the ferry to campaign on the islands of Divar and Jua. Members of the public would also attest to being offered money bribes in exchange for votes.

Another weird notion is the cynical concept of the ‘wasted’ vote, which affected Fr. Bismarque’s campaign as well. It functions along the lines of: “Yes, you are a good, honest candidate, but… your rivals are just too powerful, so it’d be pointless ‘wasting’ my vote on you. Sorry.”

Sorry indeed. Voting somehow brings out the gambler in many of us, in wanting to vote for a ‘winner’, not a loser; for a ‘sure thing’, not a ‘maybe’. But what happened to voting with a conscience? What happened to voting for someone we really believe in, and giving him/her a chance? Why has voting become such a tactical move, like a chess gambit, rather than putting our vote where our heart is and where our moral compass points? Or where it ought to point?

Democracy works only when all of us treat it with respect. It degenerates into a game of chance and a farce when all of us, whether voters or candidates, throw our scruples to the winds.

(An edited version of this article was published on 26 March 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

My Summer of ‘89

I am sure every doctor remembers the cathartic sense of release after having passed the final MBBS exam. Textbooks could be shelved at last, and a whole year of internship stretched ahead of us invitingly. Real life would catch up with us soon enough, but for now the sense of freedom and abandon were exhilarating.

My own internship year of 1989 was sweetened considerably by the arrival of Dr. George Trautwein, violinist and conductor and visiting Fulbright scholar from Wakeforest University, North Carolina USA and his wife Barbara (also a musician, a clarinet player and band instructor in their home town of Winston-Salem). It was as if the stars had conspired to bring them to Goa at exactly the right time in my life.


Ever since the death of my violin teacher Carlos D’Costa at Santa Cecilia Music School in 1983, I had no steady guidance and felt the loss acutely. I would ambush visiting musicians backstage after concerts or in their hotel rooms just to get a few pointers on technique and other matters musical. So the arrival of Trautwein was a veritable godsend.

My internship year fell into a routine, where most evenings after work if not on-call, I’d go over to the Trautweins, for a violin lesson, or just to hang out with them. My friend Winston Collaco from Margao (who would also come up to study with Trautwein) and I were exactly the same ages as the Trautweins’ two sons Paul and Matthew, so they looked upon us as their own ‘children’ here in Goa.

Trautwein taught me so much in terms of violin playing. He encouraged me to climb into the higher reaches of the register, plumb the sonorities of all the strings using higher positions, and to try left-hand pizzicato, whole passages in natural and artificial harmonics, double- and triple-stopping, and schooled me in the different basic bow strokes like détaché, martelé, up- and down-bow staccato, spiccato, sautillé, and so much more.

We worked on such a lot: the Bach solo sonatas and partitas, both the Beethoven Romances for violin and orchestra (he encouraged me to perform the Romance in F which won me an all-Goa prize that year), quite a few Mozart violin sonatas and concertos, and even a few showpieces: I remember in particular the Sarasate Malagueña. And this is just the solo repertoire. I had never learnt so much in such a short time.

But I am grateful for much more than technique and repertoire. Just spending time conversing with the Trautweins opened a window to a whole new wide world of music, in terms of history, performance, standards and so many other aspects of the art and profession.

I dearly cherish the evenings we spent making chamber music, with George taking up viola and Barbara clarinet. On some subconscious level George became the inspiration to take to the viola myself, many years later. I remember playing the Mozart clarinet quintet, and string quartets by Mozart, Haydn, Johann Joachim Quantz and Frank Bridge.

Trautwein’s music lectures at the Kala Academy were far beyond anything we had encountered until then. Despite very basic facilities at the time (cyclostyled hand-outs and a cassette player, with Trautwein using his violin to emphasise a melodic figure or a rhythm), he took us to places we had never been before. His presentation on Mendelssohn’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ stays in my memory. No-one had ever explained a piece of music, its background, its structure, its clever use of motifs to represent characters in the narrative, before. It made music come literally alive to me.

He introduced me to the Bombay Chamber Orchestra (BCO), and I played two concerts under his baton there. The reason I am strolling down memory lane after almost thirty years, is that Providence brought two soloists from those concerts into my life again at the beginning of this year, in the span of less than a month. The first concert Trautwein conducted featured Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture, Bruch Violin Concerto (Madeleine Mitchell, soloist) and Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 466 in D minor.

The other concert featured Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso no. 1, two operatic arias (‘Pace mio Dio’ from Verdi’s La forza del Destino; and ‘Un bel di vedremo’ from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly) sung by Bombay-Goan soprano Celia Lobo, and the Bizet l’Arlesiene suite.

I followed violinist Madeleine Mitchell’s career during my UK years and was pleased to learn that she had risen to Professor of Violin at the Royal College of Music London. A Facebook correspondence with her last year got her on a tour of Dubai, India and Sri Lanka, and many of you attended her concert on 17 January 2017 at Menezes Braganza hall with Evelyn Dias as her pianist.

And a chance meeting at a heritage conference around the same time put me in touch with the daughter of Celia Lobo, who I had not met again since her concert in 1989. During those rehearsals, I would commute from Chembur, where Lobo also lived, to the rehearsal venue at the Max Mueller Bhavan at Kala Ghoda, and she very kindly would offer me a lift when we were rehearsing her arias.

Her daughter now filled me in on her mother’s recent recovery from a stroke, and as I happened to be going to Mumbai to NCPA’s staging of Puccini’s La Bohème, I offered to go with her to that concert.

2017-02-08 18.31.49

And so fate reunited me with two soloists from the Trautwein BCO concerts in quick succession, after almost three decades. I continued to play with the BCO whenever my work schedule permitted, until I left for the UK in 1998.

The Trautweins also bestowed on me a huge legacy when the time came for them to leave: he left behind for me two whole suitcases crammed with audiotapes of music by composers I had hitherto never heard before: William Walton, Frank Bridge, Erich Korngold, Kurt Weill, Aram Khachaturian… the list is quite exhaustive. It set the tone for my listening and education about music for years to come.

I was fortunate to be reunited with the Trautweins in London and we brought in the new Millenium at Big Ben as it chimed twelve. Trautwein came to the UK again in 2008, and he drove several hours to meet with me in the US in 2012. All our meetings were marked by visits to museums and art galleries and stimulating conversation. We are still in touch, mostly by email, and despite health crises and scares, the Trautweins continue to enrich my life with their humour and news about their lives in music and the arts in general.

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

Along came a Spider

I envy this generation of students for having the internet at their fingertips. It would have made our own student years so much easier. It must be so wonderful for students today to find answers in an instant.

In our second MBBS year, after having been cosseted away from the real world of clinical medicine with para-clinical subjects in Bambolim, we were let loose on patients in the wards in Panjim and Ribandar. Armed with Hutchison’s Clinical Methods we began to learn first-hand how to take a clinical history and conduct a thorough examination. We encountered a bewildering array of exotic and (to us at that time) obscure terms and conditions in our study.

The ones I’d like to focus on in this article are: Sydenham’s chorea, choreoathetosis and Saint Vitus dance. The reference to ‘dance’ and ‘Saint Vitus’ intrigued me. And who was Sydenham? Some medical pioneer of sort, perhaps. As Catholics, and having studied in a Catholic school, I knew my fair share of saints, but this was a new one. And what did he have to do with a neurological disorder, I wondered. Curiouser and curiouser.

But medical school doesn’t really reward you for such speculation. As I said before, I had other –ologies to deal with, so etymology took a remote, back seat. I don’t think I ever saw a clinical case of Sydenham’s chorea, so as long as I just memorised it as another cause of involuntary movements, I was fine.

Ironically, around that time, I was being exposed to tarantella music (I had a scratchy recording of Yehudi Menuhin playing Wieniawski’s Scherzo Tarantelle; and although I didn’t know it by name, I had watched the wedding guests dance a Tarantella Napolitana in the cult 1972 American mafia film, Francis Ford Coppolla’s The Godfather) but, very much like the Hindi masala films popular at that time where everyone is related but blissfully unaware until the very end, I didn’t realise everything was connected.

The pieces of the puzzle fitted together gradually over time. I learnt that chorea itself is derived from the ancient Greek ‘choreia’ (from which we also get the word choreography) meaning ‘dance’.

Then in my UK years, a TV documentary on the ‘dancing mania’ that swept through Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries caught my attention. It seemed really bizarre; apparently outbreaks of collective dancing, sometimes running into thousands of men, women and children, just dancing nonstop until they collapsed from fatigue. (Today’s flash mobs and full-moon parties would be hard-pressed to match such numbers). I learnt of the notorious ‘dancing plague’ in 1518 in Strasbourg, affecting hundreds of people, many of whom died from the exertion. And in this documentary, Saint Vitus was mentioned, which made me pay closer attention. At last this mystery would be solved.

Vitus was an early Christian martyr saint from Sicily, and regarded as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers in Roman Catholicism as their intercession was effective against different diseases, a tradition that began in response to the bubonic plague or Black Death (1346-1353) in Europe. Saint Vitus was specifically invoked against epilepsy. His feast day 15 June was observed in Germanic and Latvian cultures by dancing before his statue, which is how his name got lent to neurological disorders involving involuntary, ‘dance-like’ movements.


What caused these dancing en masse outbreaks, though? Theories abound, from sorcery and demons to ergot poisoning, a religious cult (revival of ancient Greek and Roman pagan rituals), to a mass psychogenic illness or epidemic hysteria, collective stress-busting and escapism as a means of momentarily forgetting their poverty and troubles.

In Italy, as it was believed to have been caused by the bite of a tarantula spider or scorpion, it was known as tarantism. Other sources state that dancing was thought to be the only antidote to a tarantula bite, the strenuous activity allowing the venom to separate from the blood. And the typical music the victims (‘tarantolati’) would dance to was called the tarantella.

As might be expected, they are energetic dances, in triplet time, usually 6/8 although sometimes even more complex. The dancer and the tambourine or drum player each up the ante trying to outperform the other, until one concedes defeat from exhaustion.

Examples in classical music abound. Wieniawski arguably derived inspiration for his Scherzo-Tarantelle from Chopin’s Tarantelle in A flat Opus 43 for piano, in turn inspired by Rossini’s song ‘La Danza’, also a tarantella.

The last movement of Mendelssohn’s fourth symphony (the “Italian”) is in the form of a tarantella.

Liszt inserts one (“Tarantella, Venezia e Napoli) in his Années de Pélérinage or Years of Pilgrimage (2nd year: Italy).

The finale of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet is a tarantella, a dance of death or a danse macabre, a fitting ending to a death-absorbed work.

(Here is the Kelemen string quartet playing it during their tour of India, which also included Goa).

Tchaikovsky also appropriately uses a tarantella to close his Capriccio Italien, and one of his Pas de Deux in his Nutracker ballet is also a tarantella, complete with jangling tambourines.

The spider itself (wolf spider) got its name tarantula (lycosa tarantula) from the south Italian town on Taranto where it was commonly found. The term got loosely applied to other large ground-dwelling spiders. Despite the hype around them, their bites although venomous are not fatal to humans, and they themselves are prey to larger predators. 12 March is apparently World Spider Day, so a closer look at arachnids might be appropriate.

And I did eventually find out who Sydenham was. British physician Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) was nicknamed ‘The English Hippocrates’ for having authored ‘Observationes Medicae’ which became a standard medicine textbook for two centuries. He ‘discovered’ the disorder which today bears his name. Also known as rheumatic chorea, it is characterised by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements affecting primarily the face, hands and feet and occurs following childhood infection with Group A beta-haemolytic Streptococcus.

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

The Story of Schumann’s Ghost

Some of you may recall the articles and presentation I prepared in 2010 for the birth bicentenary of German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856).

While researching his life, I stumbled upon a story so bizarre that you couldn’t have made it up if you tried.

Schumann wrote his only violin concerto (D minor, WoO 23) in 1853, three years before his death, for his friend the young violinist Joseph Joachim.

Joachim never publicly performed this work, and retained the manuscript for the rest of his life. Joachim evidently felt the work was tinged with the mental illness that plagued Schumann in his final years and caused his suicide. In a letter, Joachim, while acknowledging that ‘certain individual passages bear witness to the deep feelings of the creative artist’, also writes of it possessing ‘a certain exhaustion, which attempts to wring out the last resources of spiritual energy.’

Schumann’s widow Clara and close family friend, composer Johannes Brahms obviously concurred, as they collectively excluded the concerto from the Complete Edition of Schumann’s works, consigning it to oblivion. Joachim entrusted the concerto manuscript with the Prussian State Library, Berlin, with the understanding that it neither be played nor published until a century after Schumann’s death i.e. 1956.

This is where it gets even more interesting. In 1933 in London, Joachim’s great niece, the violinist Jelly (pronounced Yéli) d’Aranyi apparently got a ‘message’ from Schumann’s spirit through a Ouija board requesting her to find the manuscript and perform the concerto!

She tracked it down to the library, enraging Schumann’s daughter Eugenie who forbade its performance.

To thicken the plot further, in 1937, American violinist Yehudi Menuhin was sent a copy of the score for his opinion, and he fell in love with it, terming it the “historically missing link” in the violin literature.

He also wanted to premiere the work. But the world copyright was held by Germany, now under Nazi control, and they were interested too. After the ban on all Jewish works as “degenerate”, and therefore the popular Mendelssohn violin concerto out of the repertoire, a replacement for it was urgently sought. Goebbels’ Department of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda thought the Schumann violin concerto would be the perfect substitute.

Thus began a three-sided race (d’Aranyi, Menuhin, and German violinist Georg Kulenkampff) to premiere the concerto. Kulenkampff gave the premiere in Berlin that same year, followed by Menuhin in the US and d’Aranyi in London.

Here is a recording Kulenkampff playing the concerto in 1937:

and Menuhin:

An interesting video compares the two performances:

Unfortunately I am unable to find a recording of d’Aranyi’s performance of the concerto.

An extraordinary story, which I shed light on in my Schumann presentation in 2010. Jessica Duchen, a versatile London-based author with a musical bias, used it as a springboard for a fast-paced detective thriller titled “Ghost Variations”, released recently.


The title is fitting not only because of the reference to the spirit of Schumann allegedly communicating with d’Aranyi, but also because the violin concerto shares a theme with a work ‘Geistervariationen’ (Ghost Variations) WoO 24, that Schumann wrote for piano, the melody of which he believed had been dictated to him by the spirits of composers from beyond the grave, but obviously was a theme from his own imagination that he had forgotten he had already used in the concerto. Brahms would later use this same theme in his piano work for four hands, ‘Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann.’ Talk of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

Duchen chose a ‘novel’ way of getting her novel published. Unbound (www.unbound.com) is an innovative way of bringing authors and readers together. How does it work? Writers pitch their ideas to Unbound, and if the team like it, they launch it on their website. The project is pitched to potential readers by the writer as well, and if the crowdfunding target is reached, the book gets published. Furthermore, the author receives a 50/50 profit split from each book sale, as opposed to 5-10% of the cover price from conventional mass publishers.

Watch her and other experts shed more light on the concerto’s history:

I am Duchen’s Facebook friend, and when she pitched the idea for her book on her Facebook page, I readily made a small contribution towards her crowdfunding target. Duchen made the target in just 12 days, drawing endorsements from far beyond just her circle of friends and wellwishers. And the reward for my support was that I was among the first to receive a digital (Kindle) version of the published book the day it was released.

The book is a gripping read, and you have to marvel at the detail in the research needed in writing it, and how Duchen manages to get under the skin of the characters in the plot, particularly d’Aranyi. I wholeheartedly recommend it to lovers of music and of good writing. In portraying 1930s Europe in free-fall towards a catastrophic world war, one can’t help see resonances with our own times.

In a recent article ‘Finding the Pearl: Why I wrote Ghost Variations’ for a writing website, Duchen describes her creative journey from the first draft of the novel in 2011 to its completion last year. She draws parallels between the 1929 Great Depression and the financial crash of 2008, and the witch-hunts, fear psychosis and insecurity, and the picking of vulnerable scapegoats upon which to pin the blame, however irrationally.

In her research for the book, Duchen had to scan newspaper archives from the 1930s, and what leapt out at her was the same “press-stirred hysteria” about “floods of refugees (then from Germany) that we are seeing today from Syria and from other conflict zones in the Middle East.

Back then, just as now with Trump and with the rise of the right-wing across the world, Hitler was at first derided as a joke by many who believed that “an unstable deluded fantasist could never take power”.

In her own words: “When I first began Ghost Variations I had no idea it would be as relevant as it has turned out… But perhaps 2016 was its moment after all, because this year brought us our own tipping point. We’re no longer on the cliff edge: we’ve tipped and we’re falling.”

Duchen summarises some lessons she herself learnt while writing Ghost Variations: “If you want to write about the inconvenient truths of today, sometimes it’s better not to hold up a direct mirror. Instead, refract the light you want to shed. Shine it through a prism of a past parallel, or a sci-fi or fantasy world. Good historical fiction doesn’t only concern the past.”

Yet she offers a positive message in conclusion: “I hope it shows there were, and there will be, people who see through lies, moral corruption and mortal danger and stand by higher principles. We’ve come through times of turmoil before; and despite huge, tragic sacrifices and horrors beyond comprehension, still people keep trying to do the right thing. There will be heroes and heroines, there will be life and there will be love. And maybe there is even a chance that in some unsuspected dimension love can last forever. Maybe that’s why I wrote this book.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 5 March 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Family correspondence — II

Family photos

One thing leads to another. I was searching for something yesterday, and came upon this old family correspondence, and got completely distracted for the rest of the evening.
Scanned as many letters, photos and documents as I could, as they’re all yellowing and crumbling.
A letter from post-war Germany to my grandfather Dr. Victor Manuel Dias. This is just one of a whole sheaf of them. He had been steadily sending food packets to his medical contemporaries, and the letters are full of gratitude for the much-needed assistance.
He also helped Jewish families to flee Germany; one correspondence still exists with Prof. Dr. Nussbaum, who made it to the US.

Family correspondence — I

Letter VMD MFD malaria concerns

Letter from a concerned father (my grandfather Dr. Vitor Manuel Dias) to his eldest son (my father Manuel Francisco Dias) studying in Bombay.

It is not dated, (actually it would have had to be post-1947, because he talks of elections in India), and my dad was probably a boarder at the Jesuit school St. Mary’s. His father is really worried about malaria; malaria was probably high on his mind as at that time Dr. Vitor Dias was steeped in the work of Saneamento da Velha Goa, which was completed in 1948, just a year before he died of a stroke. It was said in the family that the stress of it all probably shortened his life considerably.

The sudden death of Dr. Vitor Dias significantly changed the course of the fortunes of the family.

Joe’s Violin, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Solveig’s Song

When we began our music charity for disadvantaged children Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), we made an appeal to the community to donate unused musical instruments to us. Seven years on, this is not as big a crunch as the need for more teachers to allow us to widen our reach. But even so, we occasionally get instruments that have travelled long distances, and from very different backgrounds. One cannot help speculate who their owners were, what they were like, what melodies they played on them, and (if student instruments) whether the former owners have continued playing, and to what level.

It was with great interest therefore, that I heard about the Oscar 2017 nomination of ‘Joe’s Violin’ under the Documentary Short Subject category. The short (24-minute) documentary film narrates how an instrument collection drive for disadvantaged schoolchildren in New York City brought a 91-year old Holocaust survivor Joseph ‘Joe’ Feingold and the recipient of the violin he donated, 12-year old Latina seventh-grader schoolgirl Brianna Perez in the Bronx (“the nation’s poorest congressional district”), together.

In the documentary, we learn that Feingold had stopped playing his violin about eight to ten years ago as his age advanced. “How long can you live with memories?” he asked himself when he heard of the instrument collection drive, run by popular radio station WQXR serving the New York City metropolitan area.

“It’s very simple!” we hear the RJ say in a cheery voice “You have an old instrument sitting around? Drop it off! The instruments will be distributed to schools in New York City and it seems like every instrument has a story behind it.” The collection exceeded WQXR’s expectations; they estimated they’d receive a thousand donations, but they got thrice as many, five hundred on the first day alone.

We hear an overlap of donors’ voices mentioning their name, instrument, and a little about its history. Then we hear Feingold’s voice over a picture of the WQXR Instrument Drive form he filled out. He reveals that he bought the violin while in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Germany in 1947, after the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust had ended. He explains in the form that it was a camp for Holocaust survivors. He bought in a flea market there in exchange for just a carton of cigarettes!

Why buy a violin when he probably had much more mundane necessities at that time in his life, his daughter wonders. And then Feingold’s life unfolds. Born in Warsaw in 1923, he grew up playing the violin. “I delighted learning about the strings, the tonality.” His mother loved music, and it meant a lot to all the family. He would play as she sang.

The war in 1939 shattered their idyll. The family separated, with his father and he escaping to the Russian-occupied part of Poland, only to end up in a Siberian labour camp. His mother, brothers (and his violin) stayed on in their home. Despite hard labour, he wrote his mother every month. In one letter, she replied in the words on Solveig’s Song from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt: “The winter may pass and the spring disappear; but I know for certain you will come back again and even as I promised, you will find me waiting then.” Appropriate words for a mother missing her son. Its poignant melody obviously holds a special place in Feingold’s heart.

But they never met again; his mother and one brother perished in Treblinka.

WQXR partnered with the Mr Holland’s Opus foundation (MHOF). Many of you will recall the 1995 film Mr. Holland’s Opus, with the title role beautifully played by Richard Dreyfuss; it is a heart-warming story of a brilliant musician who takes on a teaching position in a school system that doesn’t value music education very highly, and how he wins colleagues over while touching the lives and hearts of a whole generation of students that pass through him. MHOF was created a year later by Michael Kamen, the composer of the soundtrack for the film. Its catchphrase is “Keeping Music Alive in our schools”, which it does by “donating musical instruments to under-funded music programs nationwide, giving economically-disadvantaged youth access to the many benefits of music education, helping them to be successful students, and inspiring creativity and expression through playing music.”

When MHOF heard of Feingold’s violin donation, they felt a sense of responsibility for this instrument in particular, “to find a home for it, where it can continue having its voice.” And that home was found in the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls (BGLIG). Students are accepted on a lottery basis, largely from new immigrant families. Every child from kindergarten upward learns violin; “the violin project is treated like any other subject area”. We’d so love to do this at Child’s Play, if only we could get more teachers to join us.

What struck a chord in MHOF when zeroing in on BGLIG was the fact that its principal called her girls “survivors”, the same word Feingold had used to describe himself.


Raised by a single mother, Brianna Perez identifies with her childhood obsession, Tinkerbell, “independent, hardworking fairy”, and believes that like her, she too “was chosen for something special.” Her mother attests to how she gets transformed when she plays, going “inside the music.” She calls it her “light”. The melody she plays in the film is Bach’s Minuet 1 from Suzuki Violin Book 1, so it resonates a lot with me as our kids have played it and many have gone way past it. And many of our children’s stories mirror Brianna’s as well.

Joe’s violin is handed to Brianna by her violin teacher in a very emotional ceremony, watched by her schoolmates. She calls it “history in my hands”, “more than just a violin”, “an adventure” and marvels at all its secrets.

Why did Joe buy the violin in 1947? Because it transported him back to a happy place and happier times, before the war. That’s the healing power of music. His wife knew this, and her first gift to him was a music-stand.

The climax of the film is the even more emotion-charged meeting between Feingold and Perez, after she wrote him a letter to invite him. She plays for him –you guessed it – Solveig’s Song.

Feingold seems perplexed by the fuss surrounding his donation: “To me it’s a very simple thing; I don’t use [the violin], let someone else enjoy it. Did I really deserve [the fuss]? What did I do?”

“You never gave up”, answers Perez. “That’s what you did. You had hope.” And Perez has hope too: to be a music teacher someday.

Here’s the whole documentary:

(An edited version of this article was published on 26 February 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India and in the Serenade online magazine)

The Baggage of Culture – II

When I attend a concert by a reputed orchestra either when they are on tour or when I happen to be overseas, I find myself scanning their ranks for people of ‘my’ (by which I mean South Asian) background. Unsurprisingly, the numbers are small, in stark contrast to those of South-East Asian (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) origin.

I was in the US in 2012, and a major orchestra was on stage, tuning up. There was one solitary Indian-origin musician in the violin section. But I realised with an even greater shock that there wasn’t a single African-American musician in the entire ranks of this quintessentially American orchestra. And when I thought about the other orchestras I had seen and heard during my visit, this seemed to hold true for them as well. If this is the situation in a country where people of non-white origin have lived for centuries, one can imagine how much more acute it is in the UK and Europe.

It is against this background that we must look at the formation in 2015 of the Chineke! Foundation, whose mission statement is “Championing Change and Celebrating Diversity in Classical Music”. It was created “to provide career opportunities to young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe.” The brainchild of double-bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku (born in London to a Nigerian father and Irish mother), it is in effect Europe’s first professional orchestra made up entirely of BME musicians.

Baggage of culture II

Predictably this created a lot of controversy in the music world, with sanctimonious accusations of “reverse discrimination”. A renowned American concert violinist (herself half-Japanese, half-white) entered right into the eye of the storm when she posted on Facebook:”I wonder if you have to be black to solo with this orchestra? #reversediscrimination”. She apologised at once, taking the post down 20 minutes later, but not before it had been screen-saved and shared and discussed, with opinions polarised on either side. In a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, some accused her of race-baiting, while still others felt she ought not to have taken the post down.

Even older, in the US, is the Sphinx Organization, founded in 1996 by American violinist Aaron Dworkin, dedicated to the development of young Black and Latino classical musicians. Dworkin was acutely aware of the lack of diversity both on stage and in the audience in concert halls and founded Sphinx to redress this under-representation. It has four main principles: Education and Access, Artist Development, Performing Artists and Arts Leadership. This ensures that a youth is supported at every stage of the process from a learning child to a career as performer and teacher.

Again, predictably, the bogey of ‘reverse discrimination’ or ‘reverse racism’ has been raised. But like the argument against reservations in India, it is a spurious one. It is spurious because in both cases, a false assumption is being made that an equal playing field exists for everyone, where race (or caste in India) is not a bias. The ground reality is that it more often than not is, even if at a subconscious if not always at an institutional level.

Another problem with under-representation of ‘other’ people in classical music, viewed by many as a ‘white’ art form, is that it perpetuates that very myth, and if efforts are not made to overcome this, as Chineke! and Sphinx are striving to do, it can become a self-fulfilling one.

Many orchestras pride themselves on holding auditions that are blind, offer equal-opportunity and devoid of any prejudice. But are they really? A 2008 article in The Guardian UK ‘Why are our orchestras so white?’ addresses this. “Why has multiculturalism not reached the orchestra pit?” For answers, the writer speaks to two Jamaican-born but UK-educated extremely capable young musicians, both of whom acknowledged race issues weighing against them when it came to employment.

A Black Labour MP and former Minister of Culture observed that the issue is even deeper, stemming from class and social deprivation: “The problem is that the model of taking your instrument home and practising every day for an hour doesn’t apply to inner city environments; it doesn’t apply to a lot of communities, it’s not just black communities. For my constituents, the idea they can take an instrument home to their council estate, to a house they share with many brothers and sisters, and practise on their own without the support of their parents, is just implausible.”

The issue of diversity, or the lack of it, in the classical music world is still raging on. Last year, the Baltimore Sun covered the three-day national conference of the League of American Orchestras, “representing a mostly white industry” in Baltimore, “a majority African-American city at a time of increased racial tensions and heightened awareness of economic and educational disadvantages.” It was the first time that diversity was the “overarching theme, the focal point” of their conference.

What about India? There is only one professional salaried orchestra, the NCPA Mumbai-based Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) in the whole Indian subcontinent. In contrast China, just across our border, has at least 22, Beijing alone accounting for nine and Shanghai four. Considering our centuries-long western colonial history and that we didn’t have anything like China’s Cultural Revolution (during which western musical instruments were destroyed and just listening to ‘western music’ could be construed a political crime) in our own post-colonial history, India has much catching up to do. The fact that China had a conservatory and a relatively robust orchestral tradition even before 1949 has certainly been its advantage.

A comparison of the ranks of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, which visited Mumbai last year with the SOI is also interesting: the CPO is fully Chinese, whereas Indian musicians form just a tenth of the SOI. This can only improve if India really, truly invests in both, a comprehensive robust grassroots and higher education in music in India.

There is scope for professional salaried high-calibre, world-class ensembles in other cities and towns in India. It currently sounds like a pipe-dream, but the conditions for it have never been riper. India is attracting the attention of musicians and teachers from far and wide. There is currently at least corporate money (through CSR) if not yet consistent state/central governmental support to finance it. India is a largely untapped audience and market for western classical music, with emphasis so far on just a few hubs (Mumbai, Goa, Pune, Bangalore, Kolkata, Delhi), so the potential is huge. It will be a game-changer not just for live music concerts, but film soundtracks as well. The Sairat experiment should open our minds to wonderful possibilities.

And the ranks of these Indian orchestras will be filled by our disadvantaged sector, and empower it, if we start imparting music education to its children in a big way now.

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

Love and The Pilgrimage to Petrarch

It’s funny how themes keep recurring in my life, and one has to connect the dots to get a much larger picture that I didn’t know was there. It’s really wonderful when this happens.

Let me explain. In my England years, from the moment I got there, I became a devotee of the annual BBC Proms music festival. And I think in 2000, they added the Poetry Proms to the festival at the Serpentine Gallery, with readings by leading poets (I remember in particular Ruth Padel) prior to the evening concerts. This really whetted my appetite for poetry. I went to as many Poetry Proms as I could after that.

So when Stephen Fry (who I admire greatly anyway) released his book The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within in 2007, I went out and got a copy. It was the first time I had read such a lucid, easy, witty description of technical aspects of poetry such as metre, rhyme and form. It is still a book that I return to often.

In its back pages, under an ‘Incomplete Glossary of Poetic Terms’, I came across this description of a Petrarchan sonnet: “A sonnet form addressed from Petrarch’s original cycle of poems to his Laura: the octave rhymes abba abba and the sestet in English can be anything from the original cdecde to cdcdcd, cdcdee and other variations.”

Hmm. Sounds complicated? Well, the alphabets abcde refer to the lines in the stanza of a poem. Elsewhere in the glossary I found explanations to what an octave and a sestet meant in poetic terms, with an octave being as one might guess the first eight lines of (usually) a Petrarchan sonnet, and a sestet a stanza of six lines or the final lines of (usually) a Petrarchan sonnet. Don’t you hate it when the explanation of a word leads you to other words that lead back to the original word? Who the blazes was Petrarch? And ‘his’ Laura? Curiouser and curiouser.

Life took over, and I didn’t dwell on it further. Then, back in Goa, more recently I attended a poetry session by Jeet Thayil at the Goa University, and he referred to the Petrarchan sonnet as well. I felt it was time to look him up.

I learnt that Italian Renaissance scholar, poet and humanist Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) (anglicised as Petrarch) popularised the sonnet form that comes to bear his name today. It has 14 lines, the first part an octave, the second a sestet. The octave presents a ‘problem’, while the sestet offers its ‘solution’, containing a dramatic shift (‘volta’) in the argument, often at its beginning.

I came across the Petrarchan sonnet again while reading up on Shakespeare in his quatercentenary year, when the structure of his sonnets was compared to it.

More recently, Landeg White in his lecture Camões: Made in Goa at the Fundação Oriente spoke of the influence of the Petrarchan sonnet upon the poetry of Camões.

In the introduction to his book ‘The Collected Lyric Poems of Luís de Camões’, translated by him into English, White says: “The greatest of these debts [owed by Camões] is transparently to Petrarch.”

He gives examples of sonnets by Camões derived from Petrarchan originals, and comments “As in Petrarch, language itself is a central theme, for while both poets insist on the absolute primacy of personal experience, both poets recognize their dependence on verse idioms to understand love, and to reproduce the same feelings in their readers.”

Ah, love. This leads us to Petrarch’s Laura. His Il Canzionere (Song Book, also known as Rime sparse or “Scattered Lyrics or Rhymes”) contains madrigals, songs and sonnets in praise of his idealised love Laura, whom he first saw in 1327 (even the date of the sighting in known: 6 April, of all days Good Friday) in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon (thankfully after he had already given up his vocation as a priest!), awakening in him a lasting passion. Laura was a married woman and refused to become his mistress.


Little surprise then that Camões’ own song ‘Aquela cativa’ (“The Captive” or “Stanzas to the slave Barbara”) is a poem in the Petrarchan manner. But it is disturbing because she is his captive, and in White’s words “dark-skinned, with black hair and non-European features…. a female prisoner whom the soldier-poet has made his apparently reluctant concubine….a situation of gross sexual exploitation, reflecting the cruel realities of early colonial conquest.”

In 2011, the birth bicentenary year of Franz Liszt, in preparation for my presentation and articles about the composer, I had listened again to and read up about Années de Pélérinage (Years of Pilgrimage), his set of three suites for solo piano. In the second suite Deuxième année: Italie (Second year: Italy), the fourth to sixth movements are settings of three of Petrarch’s sonnets (47, 104 and 123) that he added earlier written for voice and then transcribed for solo piano. Their inclusion in Lara Saldanha’s matinee piano recital just before the close of 2016 brought them into focus and recollection. The sonnets are given good company by Liszt, preceded as they are by Sposalizio (inspired by Raphael’s painting The Marriage of the Virgin) and Il Pensoroso (inspired by Michelangelo’s statue The Thinker).

And they are followed by his famous Dante sonata, inspired by a reading of Dante Alighieri’s famous epic poem Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy).

Dante was a friend of Petrarch’s father. Liszt seems to be travelling backwards in time, from Raphael (1483-1520) to Michelangelo (1475-1564) to Petrarch to Dante (1265-1321).

The three Petrarchan sonnets 47, 104 and 123 all speak of love for a woman, thought to be Laura although not mentioned by name. But in Liszt’s version of sonnet 104, he added her name to the song text. The transcriptions of the sonnets for solo piano are believed to be among Liszt’s earliest attempts “to introduce poetry into the music of the piano with some degree of style.”

I’ll leave you with the English translation of Sonnet 47, although the Petrarchan format is intact in translation. The original Italian is so much more lyrical and eloquent, of course. To say that Laura had an impact upon Petrarch would be a not-so-poetic understatement.

Sonnet 47

Blest be the day, and blest the month, the year,
The spring, the hour, the very moment blest,
The lovely scene, the spot, where first oppress’d
I sunk, of two bright eyes the prisoner:
And blest the first soft pang, to me most dear,
Which thrill’d my heart, when Love became its guest;
And blest the bow, the shafts which pierced my breast,
And even the wounds, which bosom’d thence I bear.
Blest too the strains which, pour’d through glade and grove,
Have made the woodlands echo with her name;
The sighs, the tears, the languishment, the love:
And blest those sonnets, sources of my fame;
And blest that thought—Oh! never to remove!
Which turns to her alone, from her alone which came.

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