In defence of the much-sullied Salieri

Let us try to imagine how we are remembered, faraway into the distant future. Centuries from now, if, despite all that we have achieved in this life, future generations simply do not recall, still less celebrate, any of it. Even worse, what if posterity rubs more salt into the wound, and maligns our legacy, attributing to us a horrible crime that we never committed.

When, as a tribute to the recently-deceased Czech-American film director Miloš Forman, a screening of his award-winning film 1984 ‘Amadeus’ (a “fictionalised biography” of the great composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) based on the 1979 stage play of the same name by Peter Shaffer) was scheduled by the Cinephile Club, I went, of course. It would be great to watch (and hear) it again on the big screen.

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But I have a few issues with the film. The strong American accent of Tom Hulce’s Mozart, but that’s just me. I accept it’s unavoidable as it’s an American production after all. There’s also his irritating laugh, meant to show Mozart’s impish sense of humour and supposed irreverence for authority figures, but it just seems exaggerated and forced.

There’s also the impression created that Mozart wrote “with no corrections of any kind”, “music already finished in his head”, “as if taking dictation” from a Divine source.

The truth is that Mozart did write sketches, from small snippets to extensive drafts, for his compositions. His phenomenal musical prowess was exaggerated to the point of mythology in the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century seems to have been the “century of mythologisation” in so many spheres, all over the world, even in our own Goa, but that’s another story.

My biggest grouse with the film, however, is its slanderous depiction of Italian composer, conductor and teacher Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) as Mozart’s jealous rival, so possessed by envy that he might even resort to coldblooded, calculated murder.

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Shaffer’s play and Forman’s film adaptation did Salieri the double-edged favour of catapulting him out of obscurity back into public consciousness (I was eighteen when ‘Amadeus’ was released, and had certainly not heard of him before)I, but for all the wrong reasons.

To be fair to Shaffer, the tarnishing of Salieri had begun much earlier, decades after Mozart’s untimely death in 1791 at just thirty-five, with rumours circulating that Salieri had poisoned Mozart. The background to this was the rivalry between the German and Italian schools of music, which spilled into Viennese circles as well. In the letters exchanged between Mozart and his father Leopold, references are made to “cabals” of Italians led by Salieri allegedly obstructing the progress of Mozart’s career.

One particular example (mentioned in the film as well) was when Mozart applied in 1781 for the post of music teacher of Princess Elisabeth of Württemberg, and Salieri was selected instead, on account of his reputation as a singing teacher. Mozart applied the following year to be her piano teacher. Leopold wrote to Mozart’s sister Nannerl: “Salieri and his tribe will move heaven and earth to put it down.”

The two composers had their differences again when Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte was in Prague preparing for the production of Don Giovanni when da Ponte was recalled to Vienna for a royal wedding at which Salieri’s opera Axur, rex d’Ormus was to be staged. Mozart was obviously displeased, but Salieri may not have had a hand in the decision.

This persecution mentality could have been a mere figment of the imagination of the part of the Mozarts, but it lent credence to the conspiracy theory after Mozart’s premature death.

In 1832, the German composer Albert Lortzing (1801-1851) composed a Singspiel ‘Szenen aus Mozarts Leben’ (Scenes from Mozart’s Life) LoVW28 describing a jealous Salieri obstructing Mozart’s career.

The fact that the same year, Russian poet, playwright and novelist Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) published his poetic drama ‘Mozart and Salieri’ shows how far the rumour had spread. Pushkin’s work in turn was the inspiration for an opera of the same name in 1897 by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) and a silent film in 1914 by Victor Tourjansky. The same Pushkin drama also inspired Peter Shaffer’s play ‘Amadeus’.

But let’s examine the evidence, if any, to support the rumour. Salieri was a hugely respected composer in his day. His known oeuvre contains 652 works, with forty operas (no mean feat), several ballets, secular choruses and cantatas, five oratorios, several masses (including two Requiem Masses; he had no need to ‘ghost-commission’ one from another composer!), six concertos, several symphonies, and so much more.

He began his career as protégé of Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), and so ironically his music was much more in the German tradition of Gluck and less in the Italian ‘camp’, as it were. Although Italian by birth, he had lived almost six decades in imperial Vienna and was regarded by his peers as a ‘German’ composer. Salieri was also teacher to Beethoven, Liszt and Schubert among many others.

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Did professional rivalry sizzle between Mozart and Salieri? But of course; it would have been inevitable. But if anything, the written evidence of resentment weighs heavily on the side of Mozart, not Salieri. Had the roles been reversed and Salieri had died under uncertain circumstances before Mozart, would Mozart’s carping about Salieri in his correspondence have been used as evidence against him?

Despite their rivalry, they actually saw each other as friends and colleagues, and even supported each other’s work. In 1788 when Salieri was appointed Kapellmeister, he revived Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro instead writing a new opera of his own. (In the film, much is made of Salieri planting a maid in the Mozarts’ residence to unearth the Figaro opera and complain to the Emperor. It didn’t happen). In 1790, when Salieri went to the coronation festivities of Leopold II, he took three Mozart masses with him.

Mozart and Salieri even co-wrote a cantata for voice and piano, ‘Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia’, considered lost but rediscovered in 2016. Salieri also suggested the premieres of several of Mozart’s works, including his Piano Concerto KV482, Clarinet quintet and the famous Symphony no. 40, even conducting the latter himself in 1791.

Mozart’s last surviving letter of October 1791 describes collecting Salieri in his carriage to his opera The Magic Flute: “He heard and saw with all his attention, and from the overture to the last choir there was not a piece that didn’t elicit a ‘Bravo!’ or ‘Bello!’ out of him.”

Salieri also was teacher to Mozart’s younger son Franz Xaver, born the year Mozart died.

Although Mozart’s premature death understandably led to much speculation, the consensus today seems to indicate kidney disease (acute post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis), compounded by medical mismanagement. But posterity should exonerate Salieri’s reputation once and for all. He deserves far better. It is already happening, with a revival of his music to much acclaim.

(An edited version of this article was published on 20 May 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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A Star is Born!

 

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I first met Anthea Luna-Marie Dias in the months running up to our 2016 Child’s Play Christmas concert. We were being visited by Juilliard-trained  cellist-conductor Avery Waite, and our Camerata Child’s Play rehearsals were underway.

Anthea was just ten years old, but already playing to a level that she could handle the demands (the Christmas medley needed a few shifts beyond the third position, so beyond the ‘comfort zone’ of many, and some artificial harmonics) of the first violin part.

Despite the distance from Margão to twice-weekly Panjim rehearsals, she was prompt and prepared every time. I made a special mention of her at the Christmas concert, and have had my eye on Anthea’s progress ever since.

In November 2016, I forwarded a video of Anthea playing the first movement of the Mozart violin concerto no. 3 (K. 316) in G major to a violin pedagogue in the Symphony Orchestra of India because her playing was already fairly impressive.

My friendship with her teacher Winston Collaco spans several decades. We probably first met in the 1980s, playing together under the baton of Maestro Rev. Fr. Lourdino Barreto. In my medical student years, I would take my violin to college on Saturdays so that I could go directly from Bambolim to Margao to take lessons from Winston. So yes, he’s been a violin teacher at least since then! In 1986, he prepared me for Grade 8 of the Trinity College exam and helped me secure an Honours grade.

We became even closer in 1989, the year that American violin pedagogue and conductor Prof. George Trautwein and his wife Barbara were in Goa. Winston and I were the exact same ages as their own two sons, and we became like their surrogate children here. I still fondly remember that year (which happily coincided with the liberating year of my internship, relatively free from medical studies) as a golden year in widening my musical horizons.

Then I got caught up in my obstetrics and gynaecology residency, and if I remember right Winston got into the banking profession. Nevertheless, after relocating back to Goa after a decade in the UK to set up Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), the first teacher I turned to when we began our partnership with Hamara School was Winston.

Irfan Shimpigar, who was in that first batch of students and is still with us at Child’s Play, is a beneficiary of the crucial initial grounding given by Winston. Sadly, after about a year and a half, Winston wasn’t able to sustain the schedule of weekly lessons with Child’s Play.

But we continued to stay in touch. I was aware that Winston was hugely sought-after as a violin teacher. But I only heard Anthea play again at the SPIC-MACAY end-of-workshop concert at the Kala Academy conducted by visiting Norwegian musicians some months ago. She played the first two movements of the Beethoven ’Spring’ violin sonata (Opus 24, no. 5) in F major with remarkable poise, facility and confidence.

The time was more than ripe for her to give a public recital to a larger audience than the sparse turn-out at the SPIC-MACAY concert, and I am glad that ProMusica provided this platform to her, along with many teenage performers and a few older ones.

I attended the Porvorim concert on 21 April 2018. Anthea (understandably due to time constraints, as she was sharing the stage with eight other soloists) played just the first movement of the Spring Sonata.

When I read on the programme that she would also be playing Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), opus 20, at first I was incredulous.

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The work is a mini-concerto, (scored for violin and piano, and recorded by the composer himself and later arranged for violin and orchestra), with a dramatic ‘first movement’ with much quasi-improvisatory cadenza-like virtuoso writing, a muted, melancholy central movement, and a fiery (you almost expect to see sparks fly from the contact of bow with string) devil-may-care vivace finale in the style of the irrepressible Hungarian folk dance, the csárdás. (Incidentally, Sarasate apparently ‘lifted’ the haunting central lyrical melody almost note-for-note from a Hungarian composer Elémer Szentirmay, and feigned innocence when challenged, claiming he had ‘heard it from gypsies’, and therefore presumed it to be a Roma folk tune!)

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Sarasate, Zigeunerweisen

Zigeunerweisen has virtually all the technique and pyrotechnics in a violinist’s bag-of-tricks: harmonics, glissandi, double-stopped passages, left- and right-hand pizzicato, flying spiccati and ricochet bowings. And it demands a “stream of beautiful sound” (a description by the famed Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick of Sarasate’s own playing), particularly in, but not confined to, the un poco più lento ‘central movement’.

I must confess (despite knowing of her commendable recent ATCL triumph) I was not aware that little Anthea had such prowess under her belt, and I was on the edge of my seat, hands clenched together almost in prayer as she began to play. But she tossed off the fireworks with such nonchalance and played with a sweet tone and maturity beyond her years. She seemed to be relishing every moment of the drama. That she was fully ‘in the zone’ was evident from the way she calmly took off her mute and looked over her shoulder to cue her accompanist Maria Gisela Pereira to launch into the runaway dash to the finish line.

Although we share a surname, Anthea Dias is not a relative, and there is no conflict of interest in my showering well-deserved praise upon her.  I have never heard any Goan 12-year-old, or older or younger, ever play on any instrument as prodigiously or precociously as Anthea did that evening. And I am not alone in this opinion. Let me share what my friend Nigel Britto, Times of India music critic, who trekked all the way down to Margão for the 28 April concert just to hear her had to say on social media shortly after: “There are very, very few people as gifted as Anthea Dias, all of 12 years old, from Margão. Recently watched her perform Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, and was stunned. Blazing proficiency, supreme confidence, and an unusually profound feel for the music. For those nine-odd minutes at Harmonia, time stood still. Nobody’s concentration wavered. Couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Saying that jaws dropped all around would be an understatement.”

And I am even more excited to learn after a conversation I had later with Winston, that getting other young children to Anthea’s level and even beyond, is a very realistic goal, with the proper coaching. If anyone can bring about a true ‘Renaissance’ in classical music in Goa, it is not organisers of flashy pseudo-intellectual mumbo-jumbo concerts in exotic locations, or old-wine-in-new-bottle ensembles, choral and instrumental, with the same tired old ‘usual suspects’, but it is music educators like my friend Winston Collaco, who lovingly nurture tender young minds, hands, hearts and souls to their fullest potential.

(An edited version of this article was published on 13 May 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Farewell, Madam Wagle (1929-2018)

 

Although I must have befriended Smt. Mangala Wagle sometime in 2009, about a year after we relocated back to Goa from the UK, it feels like I’ve known her even before that. There was such a sense of timelessness and agelessness about her.

Mangala Wagle

As some of you will be aware, my wife Chryselle and I returned to Goa in 2008, and uppermost among the reasons for this move was the setting up of our music charity for disadvantaged children, Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org). In fact, even before we made the move, we had begun looking at schools and children’s shelters and charities that would be willing to partner with us. We explored several possibilities, but none seemed to ‘click’, as it were.

The months after our return went by in a blur, what with the transfer of residence and the arrival of all the books, music and other personal effects I had accumulated in the decade of my life in the UK, the birth of our son and the registration process of Child’s Play. After several false starts, we still hadn’t found a partner to work with. And then someone recommended we go to Mangala Wagle at Hamara School in St. Inez.

At the very first meeting, she totally ‘got’ what we were setting out to do. This was such a change from other heads of charities we had met before this. This is why, no matter how big Child’s Play eventually becomes, I will always have a special soft spot for Madam Wagle and for Hamara School. She was the first to welcome us readily, with open arms. To borrow a line from the classic film Casablanca, it was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”, between her and me, and between Hamara School and Child’s Play.

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We must have met on innumerable occasions, either in passing, or more often to iron out some problem in scheduling of classes, or storage of instruments, or working out a steady daily practice schedule for the children, etc. What I appreciated about her is that she would try as much as possible to accommodate our needs and schedule.

The world over, music educators constantly have to bargain with parents and with mainstream academic curriculum teachers and tutors to defend the sometimes ever-shrinking daily time allotment for music learning and practice in a child’s waking hours. It is particularly bad in India on account of the obsession with frequent exams and tests, rote learning, the competition for entrance into higher tiers of learning or employment, and the low value attached to anything deemed ‘extra-curricular’.

Therefore, music educators everywhere value more than gold any rigorous research-based evidence in support of the argument that time devoted to music is actually beneficial, rather than detrimental, to a child’s academic performance.

So, whenever I mined further research information on this topic, I’d go armed with this to my next meeting with Ms Wagle. She would patiently hear me out, with an amused smile on her face, and then gently remind me that I was preaching to the choir! She already knew of the power and importance of music in general and music education in particular in enriching our lives. And she would then cite examples of children from Hamara School in our Child’s Play music project whose school grade had improved remarkably after they had been introduced to music lessons with us. It was always heartening to hear this.

The fact that she valued our partnership would become evident whenever she introduced me to visitors either at her apartment or at Hamara School. She would tell them that we were among the rare partners of Hamara School who had stuck it out despite all sorts of odds and obstacles, in contrast to so many others who had begun initiatives only to quit shortly after, or were only involved on a sporadic or periodic basis.

I grew to cherish and look forward to our meetings and telephone conversations; they became much more than mere trouble-shooting sessions, and evolved into a close friendship bond. We would talk about issues which at first glance might have seemed far beyond the scope of our music project; but on another level, they were also all interconnected. For instance, we would sometimes discuss career education and employment prospects of some of the children, but social empowerment is also one of our aims, right up there with pursuit of musical excellence.

Barely a day after Ms. Wagle passed away, the results of the HSSCE board examinations were declared. Among them was Irfan Shimphighar, from Hamara School, and who was in the very first batch of students when we began our collaboration there, almost a decade ago. He scored an impressive 89.5%. The result would have gladdened the heart of Madam Wagle so much!

Irfan might well have got a similar score even if he hadn’t been learning music and playing an instrument all these years. It is impossible to turn back the clock and assess his academic performance without the intervention of the music education he received, and continues to receive.  But there are huge extra-musical benefits accruing from an education in music which are extremely useful in academic performance: important life lessons such as discipline, perseverance (practice makes perfect in music and elsewhere as well), the rewards of incremental progress at any given task, etc. When you play an instrument, you are only as good as the sound you are able to produce. No amount of money power or influence can ever change that, or help you to produce a sweeter tone, better intonation or phrasing. This can come only from hard work (with proper guidance, of course) and nothing else. These lessons can be extrapolated not just to school and college, but for life.  Madam Wagle understood this.

It turned out that her brother, the freedom fighter Dr. Pundalik Gaitonde was a friend of my own father during Goa’s Liberation struggle. Madam Wagle was not one to flaunt her family or her own life history, but it would sometimes come up in conversation, and the vignettes from the trajectory of her life mirrored the story of an India emerging from British rule and later of Goa from the Portuguese. The stories of life in Canacona in the 1940s, and her later years first in Mumbai and then in Goa were fascinating, and I regret not having written them down. I hope others have.

An emotional farewell to you, Madam Wagle. We’ll all miss you terribly, but will continue to work by your principles and example.

(An edited version of this article was published on 6 May 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

In the Press: Child’s Play’s summer camp!

“There’s the soft scent of a tango wafting through the corridors of Don Bosco oratory. In a small hall on the first floor, a bespectacled conductor, violin in hand, instructs 30-odd children seated neatly in rows.” Read the full article here. (Times of India, Sunday 6 May 2018)

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The Eta Cohen Legacy

Chances are that many of you will already have heard of Eta Cohen. Perhaps you, like me, studied from student violin books in your childhood. Or perhaps your children are studying from them even today.

My introduction to the entity ‘Eta Cohen’ began one afternoon when I was seven or eight. My violin teacher Prof. Carlos Costa asked us to buy the book from the only music shop in Panjim then, Pedro Fernandes.

I had no idea who Eta Cohen was, or even if it was a man or woman, although the name sounded feminine. It’s not the sort of thing one discussed at violin class at the time. One just opened the book to where one was meant to play, and got on with it.  It was a name unlike any I had encountered before.

The first time I met another Cohen was much later, in 1990, if memory serves correctly. The great violinist Raymond Cohen (1919-2011) played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, and I was in the violin section for that concert.

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He also gave a duo recital with his wife, the pianist Anthyea Rael, at which the work that today sticks most in my memory is his encore piece, Jascha Heifetz’s virtuoso arrangement of ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’, the popular song from Gershwin’s opera ‘Porgy and Bess’. It was the first time I heard the tune, or indeed about the opera, so it was my entry point to so much more in music.

A few years later, I was in London, and met Cohens galore, socially, among work colleagues and patients, and musician friends in orchestra and chamber ensembles I played in around the UK. One of my hospital postings (Northwick Park) very early on took me to the vicinity of Golders Green in London, which has a prominent Jewish community. At some point around then, the penny dropped that Cohen was a Jewish surname.

Cohen (or Kohen) is Hebrew for ‘priest’, and bearing the surname is thought to often indicate that one’s patrilineal ancestors were priests in the Temple of Jerusalem. Variants of the surname include Coen, Cohn, Kahn, Kohn, Kagan, Kogan, among others.

Another famous Cohen, also associated with music, that I came across in my London years, and who passed away recently, was Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen (1934-2016).

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He was told in his childhood that he was a descendant of the Biblical prophet and High Priest Aaron.

I recently finished reading the most gripping book by yet another Cohen. ‘The Girl from Human Street: A Jewish Family Odyssey’ by author, journalist and columnist for the New York Times Roger Cohen is a painfully graphic account of his own history, “a Jewish story of the twentieth century,” bearing upon “migration and displacement and suicide and persecution and assimilation.”

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It pulls no punches, both in describing the horrors of the pogroms, the mass executions in Lithuanian village squares and woods by Nazi Einsatzgruppen and their local collaborators, the Holocaust that followed; and his criticism of the discriminatory policies of the state of Israel against the Palestinians, which he strongly feels are self-defeating in the long run. As he puts it: “No people has more ethical reason to resist the inebriation of domination than the Jews, most of whose history has involved exclusion imposed by the powerful.”

Another fact became clear to me: all the last three Cohens I’ve mentioned (Eta, Leonard and Roger) have their ancestral roots traced back to Lithuania, and all their family migrations are a tale of flight from anti-Semitic pogroms in the Pale of Settlement around the turn of the twentieth century.

Eta Cohen (1916-2012) was born in Sunderland to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. She studied the violin locally, and began teaching the instrument at sixteen, after leaving school. A year later, she was to teach at the local education authority. Unable to find satisfactory teaching material, she began to write out lessons for her students, which became the foundation for her own Eta Cohen Violin Method. This evolved into a series of bestselling student books, the first of which (‘Miss Cohen’s tutorial for beginners’) was published in 1940.

In 1945, she married cloth merchant Ephraim Smith, whose parents were also Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. During the war years, she taught at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and other schools, and took violin lessons from two great violin pedagogues, Carl Flesch and Max Rostal.

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In her teaching career spanning seven decades and lecture tours of the UK, US Australia and Europe, she published a total of six volumes (the last published by Novello in the year of her death at 96, in 2012) as well as repertoire books, duets and rounds, and contributed articles on string teaching and playing in leading journals. She had also been presented the European String Teachers Association (ESTA) Lifetime Achievement Award months before her death.

James Murphy, director of the Southbank Sinfonia, described the Eta Cohen Violin Method as “the Delia Smith of violin methods … the much-imitated, indispensable original”.

Her daughter Hazel Smith wrote a moving tribute in The Guardian: “Her great insight was that teaching the violin would be most successful if taught incrementally: the opposite of her own first lesson in which, as she often related, her teacher’s only instructions were, ‘Here’s the violin, here’s the bow. Now play!’ As a rebuttal to this ‘deep-end’ approach to learning, she taught one new idea at a time. Her ability to break down difficult technical tasks and reconstruct them in easy to manage stages is a hallmark of the books.”

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Eta Cohen’s Foreword in her Student’s Book 1 has several pieces of advice to teachers which are still worth remembering:

“Remember quality is more important than speed.” There is an obsession among the teaching fraternity with zipping through teaching material, with scant attention to getting the basic fundamentals right. The result is the illusion of ‘progress’, but with poor tone, insecure intonation, and very little if any phrasing, or feeling for the piece being played. This is sadly quite pervasive.

“Encourage pupils to sing the music.” This also happens less and less in contemporary teaching. My generation was brought up with having to first learn and sing solfeggio, so singing our music was de rigeur for us.

“Only when the pupil is accustomed to using every inch of the hair should they go on to play with various lengths and speeds of bow.” Too many more modern ‘methods’ disregard this, with the result that the eloquence of the bow, the ‘lung’ of the instrument, is underused.

As new, flashy, gimmicky methods vie for attention like latest fashions, it is well worth thinking of the “much-imitated, indispensible, original” Eta Cohen Violin Method.

(An edited version of this article was published on 29 April 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Trout in Film

What is it about film villains and classical music? Serial killer Hannibal Lecter (played chillingly by Anthony Hopkins) is not only “intellectually brilliant”, but “cultured and sophisticated, with refined tastes in art, cuisine and music.” He is depicted as having been a sitting member on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s board of directors. Irritated by the flutist messing his part in Mendelssohn’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ overture, Lecter (Red Dragon 2002) makes him ‘disappear’ and it is implied that the hapless musician’s organs are served up in the banquet Lecter throws for the orchestra board.

Bond villains in particular love classical music as well. In ‘Quantum of Solace’ (2008), the ‘bad guys’ love it so much that they hold a conference  meeting through microphones and earpieces during a performance of Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ while seated scattered about the Bregenz opera house.

There are many more such examples. But today let us examine the fascination with one work in particular: the Lied, or song, ‘Die Forelle’ (The Trout), composed in 1817 for solo voice and piano with music by the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828), when he was just twenty. Many of us heard it quite recently, at the splendid recital by Patricia Rozario in Old Goa, with Mark Troop at the piano.

For some reason, film villains take sadistic pleasure from it. In the Bond film ‘Never Say Never Again’, the evil Largo (note the musical term, although it is hardly goosebump-inducing; would Tremolo have worked better?) whistles the opening bars as he punishes the leading lady Domino for her betrayal.

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In the 2011 film Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows, Professor Moriarty toys with Holmes, in a malicious prelude to torturing him. “You are familiar with Schubert’s work?” he asks, adding “the Trout is perhaps my favourite.”

Trout in film

He even explains the song (or his understanding of it): “A fisherman grows weary of trying to catch an elusive fish. So he muddies the water, confuses the fish. It doesn’t realise until too late that it has swum into a trap.”   The parallel is obvious; Moriarty is the fisherman, and Holmes has swum into his trap.

To add to the allegory, Holmes is hoisted up off the ground, dangling helplessly like a line-caught fish. Moriarty then plays the phonograph recording of ‘Die Forelle’ and sings along with it as the torture commences. The background music adds a sinister edge to the final bars of the piano accompaniment until the phonograph stops playing. This clip has left its Pavlovian imprint upon the Trout for me; it’s hard not to think of it when listening to the Schubert Lied now.

So, what do the lyrics of ‘Die Forelle’ really mean, and who wrote them?  Schubert set the text of a poem by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart (yes, uncanny similarity in surnames) to music in 1817. It tells the story of a “capricious trout” (“launische Forelle”) in a “bright little brook” (“einem Bachlein Helle”). The rest of the story pans out pretty much as Professor Moriarty tells it in the film. An observer watches the trout at first darting about in the “clearness of the water” and then, after the fisherman muddies the water, ending up “squirming”, while the observer’s  blood rages at the fate of the “betrayed fish.”

But is that all there is to the poem and the song, a description of a fishing trip? Or is there more to it? For some reason (some accounts state that he found it “too didactic”), Schubert didn’t include the last stanza in his setting of Schubart’s poem to music, and one could argue that the whole point of the poem lies in that excised stanza. It delivers a moral, if rather preachy, message to young women, to be wary of the wiles of young men:

“At the golden fountain/ of youth, you linger so confidently; / But think of the trout, / and if you see danger, flee! / Most of the time you only fail due to a lack /of cleverness. Maiden/beware of the seducer with the fishing-rod! / Or else, too late, you may bleed!”

So, given that Schubert left out the stanza, how does the singer approach the Lied? In chapter Ten (“Performing Lieder: The Mysterious Mix) of the book “German Lieder in the nineteenth century”,   Professor Emeritus of the University of Colorado Robert Spillman discusses it at length and offers his viewpoint: “Perhaps knowing the poet’s more serious concern [he used the story as an allegory of the deceptive enticement of a young woman] gives the singer reason to allow righteous indignation, anger and sad regret in some measure to enter into his or her voice.” He elaborates on the expressiveness of the piano part to depict bubbling water, darting fish, and “perhaps even the flapping motion of a helpless fish out of water”, and how the singer’s knowledge of the nuances of the German language, the construction of the lines, and the exploitation of the onomatopoeic power of words (for instance, “zappelt”, which can variously mean “flapped”, “floundered” or “wriggled”) and phrases can be extremely pictorial and evocative.

The Lied prove so popular that Schubert was commissioned (by music patron and amateur cellist Sylvester Paumgartner) to write a work of chamber music based upon it. This is how and why, two years later, he wrote his Piano Quintet (nicknamed ‘the Trout’ or ‘Die Forelle’) in A major, D. 667, in which the fourth movement has a set of variations based on ‘Die Forelle’ melody. All the other movements but one (the Scherzo) also have motifs and figures from the Lied.

But rather than the usual piano quintet configuration (piano plus string quartet ie two violins, viola and cello), Schubert wrote this work for piano, violin, viola, cello and double-bass. This is because he wrote it for a group of musicians who were coming together a work by another composer, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, for this combination.

The inclusion of double-bass to add to the cello in the lower register frees the piano part to explore the higher register of the instrument, giving the work a unique sonority.

For those interested, there is available to watch on YouTube, a film from 1969, a year short of fifty years ago, by film-maker Christopher Nupen, titled ‘The Trout”  of a historic performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall London of the quintet by Daniel Barenboim (piano), Itzhak Perlman (violin), Pinchas Zukerman (viola), Jacqueline du Pré (cello), and our own Zubin Mehta (double-bass), all of them full of irrepressible youthful vigour and mischief, and all around the age Schubert himself was when he wrote the work.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 April 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

Give ‘em hell, Pachelbel!

I recently took on a young violin pupil, with an additional challenge: to get her to perform the first violin part of the famous Canon in D by German Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) for a family wedding later this year. The countdown has well and truly begun!

The work is easily recognisable, and is commonly played at weddings, particularly for the grand solemn entrance of the bride.

The work is actually titled ‘Canon and Gigue for Three Violins and Basso Continuo in D major, P. 37, but it is the Canon that seems to have survived the test of time. One could be forgiven for thinking of Pachelbel as a ‘one-hit wonder’, as today the Canon in D is all he is remembered for, at least in popular imagination. But he was considered one of the most important composers, organists and teachers in his day, and composed a large body of secular and sacred music.

Image result for pachelbel

Image result for pachelbel

He was teacher to Johann Christoph Bach, elder brother to and teacher of the great Johann Sebastian Bach. (Yes, Johann was certainly a popular name back then!) It is even thought that that Canon and Gigue was written for Johann Christoph Bach’s wedding, although this is speculation.

The term canon means “according to rule”; when applied to music, it refers to a work where a sung or played part is echoed by one or more voices after a specified duration. The initial ‘voice’ is called the leader, or ‘dux’, or ‘vox antecedens’; the imitative but identical voice or voices are called the answer, or ‘comes’, or ‘vox consequens.’

In the Pachelbel canon, the leader (first violin) is followed by the ‘answer’ (second violin) two bars later, and then echoed yet again by the third violin a further two bars later.  But from the very outset, the basso continuo (in the Baroque period usually an instrument capable of playing chords, like harpsichord, theorbo, guitar, lute etc; and other instruments in the bass register such as the cello, double-bass, bass viol, bassoon) provides the harmonic structure, and plays the same two-bar line to the end. The eight notes progress from the ‘tonic’ or D, down an interval of a perfect fourth to A; then up a tone to B, and down a perfect fourth again to F#; up a half-step to G and down another perfect fourth to D (the lower octave to the starting note); up again the same fourth to G and a whole step to A; and finally up another perfect fourth to the original D, only to go through the cycle again. The eight chords that accompany these eight notes follow a sequential pattern known as the Romanesca, common in music from that era.

 

The piece is 56 bars long, which means they play the same two bars 28 times, while the violins play their variations over this ground bass.

what-the-hell-pachelbel-bags

Pachelbel’s Canon skilfully incorporates the polyphonic form (canon) with variations over the ground bass and harmonic progression, known as chaconne.

That’s all very well, but it can be the final circle of Dante’s Inferno for the poor basso continuo team. They have been known to pray (even more fervently than the groom!) that the bride arrives to the church on time and doesn’t make them start over!

The piece was ‘rediscovered’ only in the twentieth century, and it really entered public consciousness after the Jean-François Paillard chamber orchestra recorded it in 1968. Since then, there has been no looking back for Pachelbel’s Canon, either in its original form, or the countless popular songs it has spawned, from its Romanesca chord progression.

There is a very funny video clip on YouTube where stand-up comedian Rob Paravonian has a rant about Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and how its ghost refuses to leave him ever since he played the cello line as a child. He calls the repeated eight-note two-bar ground bass line “the worst cello part in the history of cello parts” and wonders whether Pachelbel once dated a cellist who broke his heart, and this was his “revenge” on all bass instruments.

 

To illustrate how Pachelbel continues to haunt him, he plays the beginning or refrain of so many hits that are all based on the same progression: “Graduation (Friends Forever)” by Vitamin C;   “Cryin’” (Aerosmith); “One Tin Soldier” (Coven); “Hook” (Blues Traveller); “Basket Case” (Green Day); “Push” (Matchbox 20); “Good” (Better Than Ezra); “Machinehead” (Bush); “With or Without You” (U2); “Torn” (Natalie Imbruglia); “Sk8r Boi” (Avril Lavigne); “We’re not gonna take it” (Twisted Sister); “On Your Mark, Get Set and Go Now” (theme song from popular 1970s sitcom “Laverne and Shirley”); “No Woman, No Cry” (Bob Marley 1974); “Let it Be” (Beatles 1970). This list spans a gamut from pop, rock, folk, to heavy metal.

There must be many, many more ‘spawned’ works like these. British conductor, actor, writer and comedian Rainer Hersch led orchestra and chorus through even more Pachelbel spin-offs in popular music: “Streets of London” (Ralph McTell 1969); “Puff the Magic Dragon” (Lipton and Yarrow 1962); “Down Under” (Men at Work” 1981); “Go West” (Village People 1978); I Should Be So Lucky” (Stock Aitken Waterman 1987); “Don’t Look Back In Anger” (Oasis 1996). He then superimposes several of these tunes over the Pachelbel Canon to create a ‘new’ polyphony, new variations on the theme Pachelbel first wrote sometime between 1680 and 1706.

 

 

Pachelbel’ Canon in D has been a very good entry point into classical music as it relates so easily to so much music all around us today. Go on, have a listen today. Just don’t blame me if you can’t get it out of your head later. Welcome to Pachelbel hell. Or heaven. Same difference.

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 April 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

 

 

 

Victoria and Giacomo

Much has been written about the 2017 British biographical comedy-drama ‘Victoria and Abdul’ and the multiple contrasts between the two protagonists: Queen and subject; geriatric frailty and youth; Christianity (and the head of the church of England, no less) and Islam; the violation of Victorian taboos of race and class and protocol, a tale of love and loathing at the heart of the British court that would put the Empress of India on a collision course with her royal household, all over her relationship with an Indian ‘servant’.

Image result for victoria and abdul

The film opens with a sort of disclaimer: “Based on facts…mostly.” The one-word caveat “mostly” says a lot. Based on Shrabani Basu’s eponymous book, it is directed by Stephen Frears, with screenplay by Lee Hall. Hall later published the screenplay of the film in another book, also called ‘Victoria and Abdul.’ In the introduction, he recounts how Frears’ “beady eye for the preposterousness of any situation and his generally wicked sense of irony” was perfectly matched with Hall’s own “’subaltern’ take on the pretensions of empire”.

A fair degree of artistic license is taken. The one I wish to remark upon is the encounter with the Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini when the royal household goes to Florence on vacation. This encounter isn’t mentioned in Basu’s book.

 

“PONSONBY: Signor Puccini has arrived, your Majesty.

(We are in the middle of the recital. The Royal Household are listening to a fat man singing ‘Donna non vidi mai’ at the piano. Abdul is listening intently next to the Queen, Bertie next to Lady Churchill. Ponsonby says something to Dr. Reid. The Munshi turns)

ABDUL: Shhhh!

(The fat man at the piano finishes his song. Abdul applauds enthusiastically).

QUEEN VICTORIA: And where did you say it was from, Mr. Puccini?

PUCCINI: It’s from my new opera ‘Manon Lescaut’. It’s about two lovers separated by the class divide who run away together.

QUEEN VICTORIA: It sounds marvelous.

PUCCINI: But she is imprisoned for her love, Your Majesty.

QUEEN VICTORIA: Oh.

PUCCINI: But they escape.

QUEEN VICTORIA: Bravo

PUCCINI: But finally she dies leaving him utterly bereft.

QUEEN VICTORIA: I’m not sure we like the sound of it. We prefer comic opera. Do you know any Gilbert and Sullivan?

ABDUL: Perhaps Your Majesty will sing a song?

QUEEN VICTORIA: Oh no. I couldn’t possibly.

(The Household on cue) :

LADY CHURCHILL: But please, Your Majesty.

BERTIE (aside): God save us!

QUEEN VICTORIA: Well, just one. From ‘Pinafore’, Bertie.

BERTIE: Do I have to?

(Bertie, reluctantly, goes to the piano)

QUEEN VICTORIA: ‘Little Buttercup.’ In C.

(Bertie sits at the piano with immense reluctance. Queen Victoria sings ‘Little Buttercup’ poorly. She dries, but Ponsonby prompts the applause.)”

So, is this encounter fact or fiction? Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini (1858-1924) were certainly contemporaries. Puccini’s opera ‘Manon Lescaut’ premiered in 1893, which fits neatly with the timeframe 1887-1897 between Queen Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees when her attachment to Abdul Karim blossomed.

Basu’s book describes the annual trip to Europe of the royal household: Portsmouth to Cherbourg on board the ‘Victoria and Albert’ (escorted by torpedo boats!); then the Royal train from there to Florence, where the Queen would stay at the Villa Palmieri or the Villa Fabricotti, meeting other royalty, visiting the Uffizi gallery, and other pastimes. Thence the entourage would travel to Berlin or other destinations.

Thus, although it is possible that the Queen of England and the King of Opera could have met, such a momentous encounter would certainly have been chronicled. Interestingly, in the film, after the quoted extract above, Queen Victoria exclaims “I was taught by Mendelssohn, you know!” although this isn’t in Lee Hall’s published version of the script.

Both Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were accomplished pianists and singers (so the screenplay reference to her singing ‘poorly’ is perhaps undeserved, or reflects her advanced age). Their shared love of music was one of the many things that fuelled their mutual attraction. When Mendelssohn was invited to Buckingham Palace, according to one account, the royal couple was nervous with anticipation: “For all their exalted station, they were quite fluttery!”

A meticulous diarist, the Queen wrote later: “After dinner came Mendelssohn, whose acquaintance I was so anxious to make… He is short, dark, & Jewish-looking, delicate, with a fine intellectual forehead. I should say he must be about 35 or 6. He is very pleasing & modest… He played first of all some of his ‘Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words)’, after which…he asked us to give him a theme upon which he could improvise. We gave him 2, ‘Rule Britannia’, & the Austrian National Anthem. He began immediately & really I have never heard anything so beautiful, the way in which he blended them both together & changed over from one to the other, was quite wonderful as well as the exquisite harmony & feeling he puts into the variations, & the powerful rich chords, & modulations, which reminded me of all his beautiful compositions. At one moment he played the Austrian National Anthem with the right hand, he played ‘Rule Britannia’ as the bass, with his left! He made some further improvisations on well-known tunes & songs. We were all filled with the greatest admiration. Poor Mendelssohn was quite exhausted when he had done playing.”

She would certainly have jotted down a similar account of her meeting with Puccini had it taken place. So we have to assume that some artistic liberty was taken in inserting Puccini (dismissively described, tongue-in-cheek, as ‘a fat man’ and played with great relish and in fine voice by Simon Callow) into the screenplay.

One good reason would be to compare the class divide between the lovers Manon Lescaut and Chevalier Renato des Grieux in Puccini’s opera and between Victoria and Abdul, a cinematic form of allegorical play-within-a-play. It is also an omen of the fate awaiting Victoria and Abdul: “But finally she dies, leaving him utterly bereft.” The story of Victoria and Abdul is in itself a tragicomic opera of sorts.

And the title of the aria ‘Donna non vidi mai’, sung by des Grieux totally besotted by Manon soon after their first encounter, can be loosely translated as ‘Never before have I beheld a woman such as this.’

This could well be the sentiment of Abdul, (who shushes Dr. Reid and Ponsonby, his archenemies in the Royal Household, when their chatter disturbs the performance of the aria and “applauds enthusiastically” at the end of it), in his adoring regard for the Queen.

(An edited version of this article was published on 8 April 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

“From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he’s no longer poor”: Maestro José António Abreu (1939-2018)   

 

Many years ago, soon after we had set up Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), a music charity inspired hugely by the phenomenal success of Venezuela’s El Sistema movement, a wealthy Bombay socialite engaged me in conversation about its founder, Venezuelan conductor, pianist, economist, educator, activist and politician José António Abreu. “He’s a Catholic priest, of course. Didn’t you know? I’m surprised!” she exclaimed patronizingly. It was pointless arguing further. The rich don’t let petty irritants like facts stop them from spouting.

But she could be forgiven for her assumption, as Abreu did cut a priestly figure, in the way his children and colleagues revered him, his quiet wisdom, and his unflinching “faith in a divine force that impels the human spirit to aspire to higher things.”

Until 2007, I was blissfully unaware of the existence of this great man, when my own “road to Damascus” moment took me on the path to music education as an agency for social change. I was in England, well on the way to living out my years there as General Practitioner on the National Health Service, when a casual whimsical conversation with my wife put paid to that. I’m still not sure how it began, but it must have been many things: the formation of a professional, salaried, high-calibre symphony orchestra in Mumbai, but with only a fraction of its composition Indian; and perhaps also an item in the news about street-kids being given disposable cameras, and the breathtaking pictures that resulted from their own perspective of their surroundings.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” I thought aloud, “if India’s disadvantaged children in our slums and elsewhere could be given orchestral instruments, and the best possible instruction in how to play them? Would we have world-class orchestras in every village, town and city?”

Some months later, at the BBC Proms music festival at London’s Royal Albert Hall, it seemed as if the Universe had conspired, to bring centre-stage for the first time, not just one, but two orchestras from two different corners of the globe made up of disadvantaged youth playing to a world-class level: the Soweto Buskaid String Ensemble, Johannesburg, South Africa; and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, Venezuela. Those concerts changed my life.

Less than a year after those jaw-dropping concerts, we had relocated back to Goa to set up Child’s Play. Inevitably, on this almost spiritual journey, I encountered again and again, the writings, speeches and philosophy of José António Abreu. Over time, I would meet many others who also were at the Venezuelan Proms concert, and underwent a similar transformation, going back to their roots to establish music education projects tied to social empowerment.

Jose Antonio Abreu

How did a summa cum laude economics graduate trigger such a worldwide music revolution whose benevolent aftershocks are still touching millions of lives everywhere?

A profound love of music, beyond doubt: after initial music instruction in Barquisimeto, he studied piano, organ, harpsichord and composition at the Caracas Musical Declamation Academy.

In his 2009 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk, Abreu explained: “Since my early childhood, I always wanted to be a musician.” He thanked God for having the necessary community support to become one. But that was not enough for him: it became his lifelong dream that every Venezuelan child should have that same opportunity.

In 1975, he arrived at the first rehearsal in an underground parking garage with great optimism: he had received a donation of 50 music stands, and so could accommodate 100 children. But only eleven children turned up.

So he asked himself: “Do I close the programme, or multiply these kids?” At that instant, he made his decision. He told those eleven children that he would turn them into “one of the leading orchestras in the world.”

And so it came to pass. At the TED talk, Abreu quoted the London Times music critic who in 2009, said that if there ever were on Orchestra World Cup, Venezuela’s Youth Orchestra would be among the top five.

Shattering the illusion that art was the monopoly of the elite was a strong driving force. Abreu believed that art was “a social right, a right for all people.”

“In its essence, the orchestra and choir are much more than artistic structures. They are examples and schools of social life, because to sing and play together means to intimately coexist toward perfection and excellence, following a strict discipline of organization and co-ordination in order to seek the harmonic interdependence of voices and instruments. That’s how they build a spirit of solidarity and fraternity among them, develop their self-esteem, and foster the ethical and aesthetical values related to the music in all its senses.”

“This is why music is important in the awakening of sensibility, in the forging of values and in the training of youngsters to teach other kids.”

Two shining products of El Sistema (short for FESNOJIV, or Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela) are Edicson Ruíz, today double-bassist in the Berlin Philharmonic, and even more iconic, Gustavo Dudamel, today musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but still overall leader of Venezuela’s junior orchestras.

Abreu called El Sistema “a programme of social rescue and deep cultural transformation.. with no distinctions whatsoever, but emphasizing the vulnerable and endangered social groups.” Its impact was felt in “three fundamental circles: personal/social; family; and community.”

“From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he’s no longer poor. He becomes a child in progress heading for a professional level, who’ll become a full citizen.”  To Abreu, music was the “numero uno” prevention against all social ills.

It was my own dream to someday make a pilgrimage to Venezuela’s El Sistema and meet the great man himself. That was not to be; he passed away on 24 March at 78, and was accorded a ceremonial funeral the next day. But I have seen how his legacy lives on, in Scotland, England and the US, in projects he inspired. And when we at Child’s Play encounter our own setbacks, we too ask ourselves:   “Do I close the programme, or multiply these kids?”  And we draw inspiration from Abreu when we vow to do the latter. We’re organizing Goa’s first ever children’s orchestra and choir summer camp (open to all) at Don Bosco Oratory Panjim, starting tomorrow. One day, our Child’s Play’s children will also be among the leading orchestras and choirs in the world.

Rest in peace, Maestro!

(An edited version of this article was published on 1 April 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

‘Beyond the Night Sky’: Music for Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)

The death of English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, University of Cambridge, Professor Stephen Hawking on 14 March (incidentally also Pi Day, and the birthday of Albert Einstein(shook the world.

Last year, to celebrate his 75th birthday, his Cambridge college – Gonville & Caius – commissioned composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad to write a new piece of music in his honour.

Frances-Hoad is herself a graduate from Gonville and Caius college, although some four decades junior to Hawking. Dr. Geoffrey Webber, conductor of the Choir of Gonville and Caius college, approached her with the idea of such a piece, which excited her immediately.

In an interview shortly after completing the work, she said, “I think I’ve been more inspired writing this piece than I have for quite a while, really. Because when you’ve got the universe as your source of inspiration, it’s just kind of overwhelming.”

She “panicked” in the initial stages, as she didn’t even possess a GSCE qualification in science. However, she did speak to a theoretical cosmologist who told her all about his research, and deepened her understanding about the field, which was “an amazing privilege”.

Frances-Hoad also read a lot of texts, “but none of it was very poetic.” Her ultimate creative spark came from a children’s poem by Steven Schnur, children’s writer, essayist and editor.

The poem is titled “Universe” from his anthology “Autumn: An Alphabet Acrostic”.

Up beyond the

Night sky, an

 Indigo darkness like

 Velvet

 Embraces the farthest

 Reaches of the mind,

 Sun, moon, stars,

 Everything”

 

What resonated most to Frances-Hoad from the lines of the poem were “the farthest reaches of the mind”, and the very last word, “Everything.”

At a point in the composition, the choir repeatedly sings “Sun, moon, stars” while three soloists sing out some of the questions pondered by Hawking in his groundbreaking book “A Brief History of Time”: “We find ourselves in a bewildering world. What is the nature of the universe? What is our place in it and where did it and we come from? Why is it the way it is?”

Frances-Hoad wishes to convey that same sense of overwhelming awe about the universe reflected by those questions, in her own composition. The work ends in hushed silence.

After hearing the work performed, Hawking responded “I am honoured to have this piece dedicated to me on my birthday celebrations this year…..Listening to her [Frances-Hoad’s] music takes us all on a mental journey around the universe.” He was quick to spot the hidden “Happy Birthday” reference within the music. In conclusion, he said “The piece put into lyrical form one of my quotes ‘Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist.’ Perhaps I can be forgiven for saying that tonight I am wondering no longer.”

That Hawking’s milestone birthday should have a musical commemoration is not surprising. Last Sunday I commented upon the remarkable affinity for music among so many Nobel Prize winners. Although Hawking never won a Nobel Prize (due to the precondition that theoretical scientific discoveries have to be confirmed by observational data before the prize can be awarded, and it would take years and cost millions to verify Hawking’s theories), his exposure to classical music began in his teens, at University College Oxford, along with a keen interest in science fiction.

When asked for his choice of music for his Desert Island discs if he were ever cast away on one, Igor Stravinsky’s three-movement choral symphony, ‘Symphony of Psalms’ topped his list.

It was the first piece of music he ever purchased. He gave the background to his choice:

“I first became aware of classical music when I was 15. LPs had recently appeared in Britain. I ripped out the mechanism of our old wind-up gramophone and put in a turntable and a three-valve amplifier. I made a speaker cabinet from an old book case, with a sheet of chip-board on the front. The whole system looked pretty crude, but it didn’t sound too bad.

“At the time LPs were very expensive so I couldn’t afford any of them on a schoolboy budget. But I bought Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms because it was on sale as a 10” LP, which were being phased out. The record was rather scratched, but I fell in love with the third movement, which makes up more than half the symphony.”

His next choice was Henryk Wieiawski’s Violin Concerto no. 1, F# minor. Hawking first heard his Second Violin Concerto on Radio 3 in the 1990s, and upon buying more of the composer’s music, preferred the First, in particular for its “haunting phrase in the first movement”. For what it’s worth, I prefer Wieniawski’s First Violin Concerto to the much-more-popular Second as well.

Hawking’s third choice: Francis Poulenc’s setting of the Gloria for soprano, orchestra and chorus, a work he first heard at a music festival in Aspen Colorado. He called it “one of a small number of works I consider great music.”

Other choices included Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major; Beethoven’s string quartet no. 15 in A minor, Op. 132; Wagner’s second opera from his Ring cycle, Die Walküre; Mozart’s Requiem in D minor; the aria ‘O Principe, che a lunghe carovane’ from Puccini’s Turandot; Please Please Me (Beatles); and ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ (Edith Piaf).

A big Monty Python fan, he readily agreed to lend his copyrighted voice-over to their sketch, the Galaxy song, and consented to the music video showing him running down English physicist Brian Cox with his wheelchair. When the first take was being played to him and Cox explained what he was saying (nitpicking over the scientific inaccuracies in the lyrics) in the clip before being run over, Hawking adlibbed, “I think you are being pedantic.” The remark went into the final version of the Python sketch. It is well worth a watch, and with his voice-over reciting the lyrics in perfect cadence to the accompaniment, with him sailing through the galaxy in his trademark wheelchair, it is perhaps the perfect way to remember and salute Stephen Hawking, the genius with a sense of humour to match.

Hawking galaxy song

(An edited version of this article was published on 25 March 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)