Gypsies and Gardens, Distant Seas and a Top C!

By a quirk of fate, I happened to be giving a presentation to first-year students at the Goa College of Architecture Altinho on “Architecture and Music” just a day before the Patricia Rozario and Fidelio Trio concert at the Menezes Braganza Hall. While elaborating on how structure and form are such an important aspect of music, I could not resist also commenting on the symmetry, unity and connections within the concert programme the following day.

A concert featuring voice with piano trio is an unusual combination, and the repertoire for these forces is limited. The programme began and ended with a piano trio (Franz Josef Haydn’s ‘Gypsy Rondo’ Piano Trio no. 39 in G major, Hob XV:25; and Camille Saint-Säens’ Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor, Opus 92), and the central part of the concert featured Rozario at first with the piano trio (Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on poems by Alexander Blok, Opus 127) before the interval, and then with the string duo (Jonathan Dove’s ‘Minterne’ inspired by Vikram Seth’s eponymous set of poems) after it.

The two works for soprano had some similarities as well. Both had texts of poems set to music. In both cases, the composer had close friends in mind when inspired to write for that specific combination of instruments. In an earlier article, I had mentioned that Shostakovich had begun setting a poem by Blok for his friends, Mstislav Rostropovich (cello) and his wife Galina Vishnevskaya (soprano), and in a brandy-fuelled creative burst, extended this to include six other poems by Blok and drew in two other friends, David Oistrakh (violin) and Sviatoslav Richter (piano).

In the case of the Dove composition, we have an added facet, as Jonathan Dove is not only a self-confessed fan of Vikram Seth’s writing, but knows him personally. Dove was introduced to Seth’s poetry through his verse novel ‘Golden Gate’ some twenty years ago, and was “musically very attracted by the deceptively simple eloquence and rhythmic clarity of his verse.” Dove set thirteen of Seth’s poems from his collection ‘All You Who Sleep Tonight’ as a song-cycle.

‘Minterne’ is a set of poems commissioned from Seth by patroness of the arts Veronica Stewart for her close friend The Lady Dione Digby to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Summer Music Society of Dorset. The poems celebrate the history of Minterne House (home of the Digby family for over 350 years) and the beauty of its gardens.

To quote from Dove’s own programme notes on the composition, “Veronica and Vikram suggested bringing together Patricia Rozario, Philippe Honoré [violinist and Seth’s own close friend] and Steven Isserlis [cellist].” Dove and Rozario had independently been discussing the idea of his writing something for her, and he was also keen to write for Honoré and Isserlis, “so it felt as if this friendly collaboration between commissioner, writer, composer, singer and instrumentalists had a kind of inevitability.”

This made the presence of Patricia Rozario, singing a work that had been written expressly for her, even more significant, giving us in effect its Goan premiere.

Organising a concert can be hard work, with so many details to be tended to all at once. But one fringe benefit is being up close with professional musicians before ‘the curtain goes up’, as it were. Rozario and the Fidelio Trio (Darragh Morgan violin; Adi Tal cello; Mary Dullea piano) were at the end of a whirlwind concert tour of India when they touched down in Goa a few hours before the concert. It was instructive to watch how they put the needs of the concert (position of the grand piano and the other performers on the stage, the illumination) before their own. After grabbing a quick bite nearby, they went through little fragments of each movement of each work that needed attention. Hearing them discuss with each other the finer points of what they wished to accomplish in these sections was like attending an impromptu masterclass. We in the audience hear the finished product, but watching them work at tiny details a few bars at a time gives one an idea of the immense amount of energy, forethought and preparation it takes for us to be able to listen to a high-calibre concert.

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The entire concert programme was a delight, with an ‘old friend’ (the Haydn ‘Gypsy’ Trio, which gets performed more often, but like an old friend still never fails to please), two ‘new’ ones (the Shostakovich and the Dove, both of which Goa was hearing for the first time), and the mighty Saint- Säens Trio, which must have been performed at some point in Goa, but certainly not in recent memory.

We had a good turn-out at the concert, and I was especially thrilled that so many of my Child’s Play children were able to come as well (and a few of their parents as well), despite the rains and it being a school night. It is so important for children to hear great music performed live. It sets a high benchmark, and creates positive role models for them to aspire to.

I quizzed my viola kids the next day at our routine class about the concert, and it was evident that they had been actively listening through the concert. Despite not having had the benefit of a programme brochure (we could only print so many to keep costs down), they still had an admirable sense of the structure of the pieces, and even of the English lyrics in the Dove.

They particularly loved the setting of the ‘Rocking Horse’ poem, with its ‘rocking’ melody to match the text, and the ‘something something’ in the lyrics in the opening and closing verses. And they spotted the ‘top C’ that Rozario requested Dove to write into the composition.

All our children were bowled over by the virtuosic brilliance of the playing of the Fidelio Trio as well, in the piano trios, and in the rest of the programme. The top C might have been the literal ‘high point’ in the Dove, but the whole concert was a ‘high point’ for all of us at Child’s Play, and dare I say, for Goa’s concert calendar for some time to come.

(An edited version of this article was published on 2 August 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Elephant in the (Emergency) Room

During my years working as a doctor in England’s NHS (National Health Service), one routine ritual we had to go through every year or so was an updating of our cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) skills. These were the emergency procedures that every member of the clinical staff, doctors, nurses and paramedics would have to perform upon someone who had collapsed, to manually preserve intact brain function until further measures could be initiated to restore spontaneous circulation and breathing. One needed to have a recent CPR certificate in order to stay in practice in the medical profession. It usually meant a day off from work, a study day during which a CPR team from the hospital Trust one was working in would revise with us the principles underlying CPR, and we would then have ‘hands-on’ sessions with life-size mannequins on the actual procedures involved.

It was on one of those sessions that I was first introduced to ‘Nellie the elephant’. According to the International Liaison Committee on Resuscitation guidelines, CPR “involves chest compressions at least 5 cm (2 inches) deep and at a rate of at least 100 a minute” in an effort to create artificial circulation by manually pumping blood through the heart and thus the body. Our trainer actually sang us a full stanza from the “Nellie the elephant” song. Many of my British colleagues already knew it, from their kindergarten and early childhood. Apparently, delivering the chest compressions in time to the song matched the ideal rate of 100/minute needed for CPR. And the first verse (15 compressions) was just right to give one pause to ventilate the patient. The ideal compression to ventilation ratio is 30:2.

Nellie the Elephant

I reproduce the lyrics here, with the fifteen beats capitalized, to emphasise where the chest compressions would be delivered: “NEL-lie the EL-ephant PACKed her TRUNK, and SAID good-BYE to the CIR-CUS; OFF she WENT with a TRUMPety-TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP.” Pause to ventilate the patient, and start all over again until further help arrives or the patient responds.

This was new to me. I had been taught CPR before, in India and in my early years in England, but this was the first time someone was actually asking me to insert a tune into my head, and ‘play’ it there, and all in the line of duty!

I began to view CPR and my anaesthesiology, internal medicine and A&E (Accidents and Emergencies) colleagues (as they most often were in the frontline for emergencies that required CPR) on the hospital staff, in a new light. From then on, whenever I saw CPR being administered, I could in my mind’s eye visualise a thought bubble hovering above the person delivering the chest compressions, and ‘Nellie the elephant’ prancing around within, with a ‘trumpety- trump, trump trump’. It seemed too incongruous for words: a nursery song being marshalled to pull people back from the brink of death, the ‘other end’ of their lives.

Another almost poetic irony came to my mind: many patients who experience a massive heart attack report feeling tightness or a massive weight on their chest, akin to “an elephant sitting on my chest.” And if they went into cardiac arrest, here was medicine resuscitating such victims and others, using the imagery of another elephant, to thump-thump-thump their heart back into action! How many elephants could one possibly fit into an emergency room? It seemed like the start of a jokey riddle, but Nellie had packed her trunk, so it looked like she had come to stay.

A little more about Nellie the elephant: she was ‘born’ in 1956, through the eponymous song written by Ralph Butler and Peter Hart (Heart! Will the ironies please stop?). It rapidly rose to become a children’s favourite.

And just in case you were wondering: Nellie’s an Asian elephant, from India, no less. The prelude of the song tells us: “To Bom-bay, a travelling circus came; They brought an intelligent elephant and Nellie was her name; One dark night, she slipped her eye and chain; And off she ran to Hindoostan and was never seen again.”

So does it end well for Nellie in the song? Despite being “never seen again”, the lyrics tell us at the end that she meets with a friendly wild herd “one night in the silver light, on the road to Mandalay.” The song-writer certainly believed that animals should be living free, even if not always born free.

So how and why did a song about a travelling circus elephant become such a life-saver? In addition to the two reasons already discussed (an optimum ‘tempo’ of 100 beats/minute and just the right number of beats for a compression-ventilation ratio of 30:2), to my mind the tripletty rhythm (Nel-lie-the el-eph-ant) in the verse allows enough recovery time; so one delivers the compression on the downbeat ‘1’, and the breastbone and rib cage are allowed to spring back at the ‘2-3’, ready for the next compression to be administered.

In the last few years, Nellie the elephant has come under a cloud, though. A ‘large’ (although at just 130 participants, one could question this claim) prospective randomised crossover trial published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) in 2009 concluded that while “listening to Nellie the elephant significantly increased the proportion of lay people delivering compression rates at close to 100 per minute, unfortunately it also increased the proportion of compressions delivered at an inadequate depth. As current resuscitation guidelines give equal emphasis to correct rate and depth, listening to Nellie the Elephant as a learning aid during CPR training should be discontinued.” Many have questioned the conclusion, and old Nellie fans are likely to continue ‘thumping’ with her in an emergency.

But what are the alternatives to Nellie the elephant, then? One could go with 30 chest compressions to the tempo of “That’s the Way (I like it)” by KC and the Sunshine Band. The others seem like tongue-in-cheek practical jokes, but they’re for real: “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen. For the patient’s sake, we certainly hope not (bite the dust, that is).

I’ve saved the best (literally, in terms of popularity and effectiveness, after Nellie, as well as for witty titles) for last. Wait for it: “Don’t Break my Heart (My Achy Breaky Heart)” by Billy Ray Cyrus. Even better: “Staying’ Alive”, the BeeGees disco anthem. Now that’s more like it (and the way I like it).

(An edited version of this article was published on 26 July 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

How a few swigs of brandy led to Seven Romances!

What do you do when you’re in hospital due to a heart attack? Well, if you are a composer, it perhaps gives you even more pause for creative thought.

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) had his first heart attack in May 1966. According to his friend and fellow composer Venyamin Basner, Shostakovich got the idea of setting the poems of the great Russian symbolist poet Alexander Blok (1880-1921) to music while admitted in hospital. He had been forbidden from composing by his doctors, so he read Blok’s poems instead. But he feared that his heart condition had stifled his creativity along with his health.

The next creative impulse came in the form of a favour asked of him by his friends in 1967.

The great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya wished him to write a few ‘vocalises’ that they could perform together. Shostakovich was a notorious drinker, and his wife had to confiscate or conceal all the alcohol in the house after his heart attack. Then, this is what happened, in Shostakovich’s own words: “”Three days ago, Irina Antonova (Shostakovich’s wife) left the house. I was alone. I opened a cupboard, and, lo and behold, there on the bottom shelf was a half a bottle of brandy. She had hidden all the drink in the house but by chance I discovered this bottle. And, you know, I had this sudden urge to drink, which I couldn’t resist, so I had a glass. And, you know, it was so good that I sat down and everything came to me at once, and I finished the work in three days.”

The first Blok text Shostakovich set to music was a love poem, ‘Song of Ophelia’. He expanded the accompaniment for the remaining six poems to a piano trio, to include in addition to Rostropovich (cello), his two other close friends David Oistrakh (violin) and Sviatoslav Richter (piano).

The second poem ‘Gamayun, the Bird of Prophecy’ was inspired by a painting by Victor Vasnetsov of a bird with a woman’s face, and is set by Shostakovich for soprano and piano. The bass line in the piano is a remorseless, inexorable forward march (reminiscent of an invading army?) to accompany the lyrics that forecast “the yoke of the Tartars, bloody executions, earthquakes, hunger and conflagration.” Could Shostakovich be using artistic license to recall ‘conflagrations’ from his own time: the horrors of World War II and the worst excesses of the Stalinist regime? Stalin had died thirteen years earlier, but he still cast a long shadow.

‘We were together (that troubled night)’ is scored for voice and violin, a love duet (“A kiss was aiming to the lips and the sounds of a violin were aiming at the heart”) in tender, interweaving contrapuntal melodic lines. ‘The City Sleeps (Deep in Sleep)’combines voice with cello and piano and celebrates St. Petersburg by night.

‘The Storm’ for soprano, violin and piano pulsates with frenetic energy, evoking the wind and rain, while a calmer central section reflects on the plight of the homeless in the midst of this fury. In ‘Secret Signs’, Shostakovich uses a twelve-tone row for the first time. The vocal line is accompanied by the strings, with ominous references to ‘war and conflagration’ again. Only in the final poem ‘Music’ (the name for this poem chosen by Shostakovich, as Blok had left it untitled) do we hear the full piano trio. The last three songs are performed without pause, bringing to a close a truly unusual work by Shostakovich, born under unusual circumstances and celebrating some of the greatest friendships in his life, in music.

The impetus may have come from his friends, but the choice of the poems was his own. It is said that Shostakovich asked his wife for her favourite Blok poems that he might set them to music, but none of them made it to the final seven. Isaak Glikman, Shostakovich’s friend, found the choice of poems so intimate that he termed them the composer’s “confession”, going on to write that “the Blok cycle reveals the anguish of Shostakovich’s soul with unique clarity and poignancy”. The soprano Vishnevskaya for whom the song cycle was written extolled their “agonising beauty” and that the composer, having been given a fresh lease of life after his recovery from his heart attack “seems to survey the journey as if from the vault of the heavens.”

The work was premiered in October that same year (the official pretext being the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution), in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, with pianist- composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, another close friend, filling in for the ailing Shostakovich himself (who was compelled to listen from his home to the performance broadcast live on radio), on piano.

Music lovers will get a rare opportunity to hear Shostakovich’s ‘Seven Romances on poems by Alexander Blok ‘performed by our very own Patricia Rozario with the Fidelio Trio from Ireland on 21 July 2015 6.30 pm at Institute Menezes Braganza Hall. So come, survey this journey from the vault of the heavens!

(An edited version of this article was published on 19 July 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

“Being a musician is a wonderful special gift”

Patricia Rozario   Fidelio Trio

Patricia Rozario (soprano) and the Fidelio Piano Trio (Darragh Morgan violin; Adi Tal cello; Mary Dullea piano) will give a charity performance in aid of Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org) at Menezes Braganza Hall on 21 July 2015 6.30 pm. Donation passes available at Furtados Music in Panjim and Margao.

 

Could you tell us how the Fidelio Trio was born?

Darragh Morgan (DM): The Fidelio Trio came into existence in the 1990’s with myself and fellow students at The Royal College of Music and Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London. Although we have had a couple of membership changes over the past 18 years the core ideal of the group has remained constant – development of new repertoire for piano trio (we have premiered in excess of 150 new pieces) to be performed alongside masterpieces from our core classical repertoire. Our name takes itself from Beethoven’s sole opera – Fidelio.  

 

This seems to be your first appearance in India. How has it been so far? How different or similar are our audiences to other parts of the world?

Mary Dullea (MD): We are thrilled to be in India, the first visit for all of us and the reception has been extremely warm and generous.  We are thoroughly enjoying the country and the people.  Our first concert was in Poona and the audience was so attentive to all of the music; you could really feel that in the hall.  And that is key, to be good listeners!  In talking to audience members after the performance, many expressed how absorbing they found the pieces we are performing and there is a lot of variety with the dark Russian sentiments in the Shostakovich Songs contrasting with French fireworks in the Saint-Saens.  We have been made to feel at home.   We are grateful to Culture Ireland for supporting our travel to make this tour possible.

 

How did you choose your concert programme for India? Have you performed with Patricia Rozario before?

DM: We wanted to combine a programme that featured Patricia performing with a variety of instrumental combinations from within the trio – Shostakovich is for the whole ensemble, though many movements are for voice and a solo instrument. The recent work by Jonathan Dove is for voice, violin & cello with text by the famous Indian author Vikram Seth, so this ticked a number of boxes! Haydn’s Gypsy Rondo trio is always a known popular favourite with audiences and is completely contrasting with Saint-Saens epic hyper-romantic Piano Trio No 2.

We have performed with Patricia Rozario on numerous occasions in the past. I first met Patricia in 2004 when we were both soloists for the world premiere of John Tavener’s beautiful Hymn of Dawn with The Ulster Orchestra. The Fidelio Trio invited Patricia to perform with us as part of our Wigmore Hall debut and we have since then performed together in Ireland, London, Wales, on CD and for BBC.

 

Over to you, Patricia. You’ll be singing Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on poems by Alexander Blok. What are your thoughts on this work?

Patricia Rozario(PR): I’ve performed this work quite a few times, with another piano trio in Vienna, and with the Fidelio trio in Ireland and at the Wigmore Hall London. It is a very powerful work. Shostakovich combines the vocal line with each instrument so beautifully! It is a truly unusual composition, brought on by the request of his friend, the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya.

 

Any other thoughts in particular about the Shostakovich? Am I right in believing it is not performed so often?

MD: The Shostakovich is a very special piece which we have performed a number of times with Patricia.  We always enjoy the opportunity to expand the Piano Trio to include other instruments such as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with clarinet, Beethoven Folk Songs or sometimes Piano Quartets.    This work by Shostakovich is not performed that often and is quite a late work, from 1967.  It encompasses many emotions of love and intimacy as well as darker undertones in the theme of night time and is a true tribute to musical friendships.  The cellist Rostropovich asked Shostakovich in 1967 to write a vocalise for him and his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya.  The result was the first song, Ophelia.  This was quickly followed by the second for voice and piano and the third for violin and voice, the invited friend being David Oistrakh.  The cycle continued to grow with the various combinations and all four performers come together finally in the seventh and final song, Music.

 

And the Jonathan Dove composition ‘Minterne’ was written expressly for you, wasn’t it, Patricia? Dove has admitted on his website to being an admirer of your “ravishing voice” from the first time he heard you, many years ago.

PR: Yes, when the work was conceived, setting the poems of Vikram Seth to music, it was written for my voice, and with Steven Isserlis (cello) and Philippe Honoré (violin). It is such a joy to perform it to the Goan public, who I am sure, will love it.

 

Any other comments about the programme?

Adi Tal (AT): It is really wonderful for us to collaborate with another artist such as Patricia Rozario, who brings a different flavour to our performance, as we are used to touring on our own mostly as a group. 

The first half of the programme, consisting of the witty Haydn ‘Gypsy Trio’ and the 7 Shostakovich Romances based on poems by Alexander Blok, works well together as Shostakovich’s writing is rather classical and texturally transparent.

The second half has a great romantic flare to it, pairing two  unusual works that aren’t often performed, consisting of Jonathan Dove ‘Minterne’ for Soprano, Violin and Cello based on four poems by Vikram Seth, originally written for Patricia Rozario, and Saint Säens Trio No. 2, a rather eclectic 5 movement work.

Both pieces have an unusual movement structure, which makes it the more challenging but at the same time interesting for us to work on.

 

Tell us a little about your introduction to music. Were there musicians in your family?

DM: My parents had an old 3/4 size violin that used to sit beneath the piano stool in our house in Belfast, N Ireland and my mother decided to put it to good use! Although my parents aren’t musicians, there were always a lot of visual artists, actors, writers and composers in our house, often at parties as my father is an Irish poet. My grandfather who encouraged me a lot (including numerous regular private performances for him) had been a boy soprano soloist. 

Being a musician is a wonderful special gift, though carrying this through to a successful professional career can be challenging. I am married to Mary, our pianist and we have two young children who are both now learning instruments – and that’s where the real challenge begins, encouraging an 8 year old to practise when you have just come from “work”!

MD: I started piano lessons at the age of 8 as did all my siblings but I am the only one of 7 to have continued to become a professional musician.  There was a piano in the house although I am from a farming background and my mother was a teacher.  I was fortunate from the age of 14 to have lessons in Cork School of Music which was my nearest city and that’s when I really began to play and explore serious repertoire.  I moved to London to study at the Royal College of Music which was a wonderful time for me as I had an inspirational teacher in Yonty Solomon whose words and imagery stay with me to this day.

AT: I grew up in a family of musicians. My father is principle flutist of Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and my mother is a pianist and a piano teacher.

I used to go with my father to his concerts and meet the soloists that came to play with the orchestra back stage. I was quite taken by their artistic spirit and started learning the piano with my mother at the age of 5. She then picked the cello for me at 7, as it was her favourite instrument she never got to play. I fell in love with it instantly!

As a child I practiced between 3 and 4 hours daily. Those are the most important years of forming a good establishment with the instrument. As I get older I realise I do have to practice just as much in order to cover the amount of repertoire I perform, but the constant travels, concerts and rehearsal schedule unfortunately does not always allow that, so I am thankful for having those years where I could focus solely on that.

In the trio, we rehearse about 5 hours together every time we meet. We have a wide range of repertoire we are constantly working on, and are always trying to be ahead of our next concert/tour as our programmes are always varied.

The feeling is always satisfying at the end, so it’s all worth the hours of practice we put in when we finally get on stage and can be free to be spontaneous, as a result of building a strong musical bond between the three of us.

Over the course of my career I met with so many wonderful teachers and people who’ve inspired me to continue and explore every piece of music I perform. Amongst them were renowned cellist Steven Isserlis, with whom I have taken many classes and collaborated with, my former teacher Ralph Kirshbaum, who taught me all about the concept of timing in music (and in life!) and how to remain calm on stage, and Pianist Andras Schiff who has been a great role model as a musician and someone who is a hundred percent genuinely devoted to their art.

(An edited version of this article was published on 16 July 2015 in the Buzz section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

“A Sufficient Gift”

‘An Equal Music’ is the first of Vikram Seth’s novels that I read. It was 1999, my second year living and working as a doctor in the UK. The book was on the bestseller list, and in bookshops everywhere. I was going through a turbulent period in my own personal life, and I remember buying the book at Heathrow on one of my biannual visits to or from India, to take my mind off my issues.

I am afraid that the plight of the protagonist, violinist Michael Holme and his near-insane obsession with his student colleague and the great love of his life Julia McNicholl, was not exactly ‘what the doctor ordered’ given my circumstances. But I was floored by the mastery of Seth’s writing.

It ‘struck a chord’ in me on many other levels besides the matters of the heart. Like Michael, I too was living in London at the time, and could relate to its iconic landmarks: Hyde Park, the Orangery and the Serpentine; the Wallace Collection; Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street. Like Michael and Seth, I am also conversant in German, as I was born in Berlin. I too have visited Vienna and Venice. I also, like Michael, play violin and viola; unlike him, I do not play it professionally, but I am an avid amateur player in chamber ensembles and orchestras, in England and in India. I am a music journalist as well, with a weekly column in the Goan press, and have been published in the national press and in reputed music journals and magazines around the world. I am deeply impressed by Seth’s scholarly knowledge about matters musical, and his loving, poetic descriptions of music compositions, the rehearsal routine of the Maggiore string quartet (in which Michael plays second violin); and the joyful process of music-making.

Indeed, Italian music critic Paolo Isotta says of the Italian translation of the book that “no European writer had ever shown such a knowledge of European classical music, nor had any European novel before managed to convey the psychology, the technical abilities, even the human potentialities of those who practise music for a living.”

Each of Seth’s novels has its own distinctive style. His first novel, The Golden Gate (1986) is entirely written in verse, composed of 590 Onegin stanzas, inspired by Charles Johnston’s translation of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. His second, A Suitable Boy, in a complete departure in style, is an epic, compared in its length and complexity to Tolstoy’s War and Peace and is “one of the longest novels ever published in a single volume in the English language”, charting the story of four families over eighteen months in post-Independence, post-Partition India.

An Equal Music is nothing like either of these, in terms of its location, setting, period, or writing style. It is written in the first person, and in the present tense, a stream-of consciousness account of the thoughts, actions and reminiscences of Michael Holme over a period of little over a year, from one winter to the next as he finds (and loses again: spoiler alert!) his lost love Julia.

Just as a great composer could use a tiny fragment of a musical idea to build a whole symphony, ‘An Equal Music’ was apparently born from a casual stroll Seth and his violinist friend and then-partner Philippe Honoré took in Hyde Park on a wintry day. Seth imagined a man staring into the water of the Serpentine Lake in the park. A momentary flight of the imagination led to this masterpiece; as Seth puts it, “a very visual inspiration for a very aural novel.”

The epigraph of the book is dedicated to Honoré in an acrostic Onegin stanza or Pushkin sonnet (a nod to Seth’s first novel, surely, and exploiting the fact that Honoré’s full name has fourteen letters, the same number as the lines needed for such a stanza) in his name, acknowledging this inspirational spark.

It is my impression that Seth approaches the novel much like a work of music itself. The eight chapters or “parts” could be regarded as ‘movements’ in a work of chamber music. Each movement has a ‘climax’ or a ‘theme’. Several little ideas or motifs (the rain; the Serpentine; Michael’s teacher’s exhortation to “sustain”; the idea of a fugue and its original derivation from “to flee”) keep recurring and in some cases elaborated (‘developed’ if you will, like the development phase of a musical idea) in the most unexpected and ingenious ways.

Just as repeated ‘listenings’ of a great music composition reward you not only by pleasuring you one more time but also by revealing nuances you may not have picked up earlier, I am so happy to have re-read ‘An Equal Music’ as it disclosed so much that I had missed the first time.

For instance, Michael lives at Archangel Court. Archangel Michael, the leader of heavenly legions against Satan, or “shaitan”, “he who leads humanity astray”, and the prince of Hell. Coincidence? With Seth, not likely. A second reading reinforced the living ‘hell’ in the mind of agnostic Michael in his punishing obsession for the devout Catholic Julia. It calls to mind John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ in which Archangel Michael does battle for God in the Angelic War and wounds Satan. The idea of something being “lost’ and “found” (and sometimes “lost” again) is another thread in this rich tapestry: Julia “lost”, “found” and inevitably “lost to Michael; Julia’s own inexorable loss of hearing; the precious record, found after much searching, of Beethoven’s string quintet arrangement (Opus 104) of his early C minor Piano Trio, Opus 1, number3; Michael’s other ‘love’, the 270- year old Carlo Annibale Tononi violin presented to him by a patron but disputed by her family after her demise; Michael’s “loss” of his voice as second violin in the Maggiore quartet). Biblical allusions constantly slink in, serpent-like, tangentially or directly. Paradise was “lost” through the work of Satan (in “serpentine” form).

Another wonderful Biblical reference surfaces at the end of a heart-rending search by Michael for Julia after a fleeting (and this is another motif, the concept of “flight” and “to flee”, the derivative connotations of the musical word “fugue”) glimpse of her on a bus on a busy Oxford Street. In the frenetic pursuit of her, he loses his newly-found and purchased record as well. Seth ends this episode with the line “Under the arrow of Eros I sit down and weep.” This is a clear, direct reference to the beginning of Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down and wept, [When we remembered Zion].” The psalm is also referring to a loss, of the Jews of Judah of their freedom, and taken captive to Babylon. As if to confirm this, Seth mentions Bach’s choral prelude “An Wasserflüssen Babylon” in the very next chapter.

Seth may also be referring to Paulo Coelho’s book title “By the river Piedra I sat down and wept” published five years before Seth’s novel, and which also is inspired by the same psalm, and in which the protagonist reconnects with her childhood sweetheart after a separation gap of similar duration (eleven years in Coelho’s book, and ten in Seth’s).

There are clues in the further, unquoted verses of Psalm 137 to what turn Seth’s book will take. Verse 2: “There we hung up our harps on the willow trees”; and verse 4: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but could this be hinting at Michael’s grief-stricken, worsening panic attacks, ‘seizing him up’ and effectively silencing his violin in the quartet milieu where he had found his niche, the grief and panic brought about first when he realises Julia will no longer play with another musician let alone himself on account of her alarming decline in hearing; and furthermore when she decides to play Bach’s Art of Fugue in a solo piano recital at Wigmore Hall, a work she had expressly said she wouldn’t “ever play for anyone but you”?

The reference to love in the “arrow of Eros” at Piccadilly Circus is of course, self-explanatory.

Another enigmatic Biblical string of quotes in a single sentence: “For better or for worse, unto us a child, ashes to ashes.” It seems to sum up the life of Michael’s deceased mother.

Much is made also of light: the light in Michael’s apartment, the light in Venice; Julia’s six-year-old son Luke helpfully tells Michael that “My name is Lucius, actually”, and so is his grandfather. The Latin meaning of Lucius is Light. And when Julia slips a letter through his door, confirming what Luke had inadvertently blurted out to Michael about her condition, “the morning light” falls on it. Piers Tavistock, Michael’s first violinist colleague in the Maggiore, talks about “the morning light” reflecting into his basement flat, and then refers to the light in Venice. The Latin translation of “the light of the morning” in Job 11:17 gives us “Lucifer”, and although it has no reference to the fallen angel in this context, the oblique allusion to forces of Light and Darkness is never too far away.

The unique implications of light and darkness in the world of the deaf are brought out when Julia barges into Michael’s apartment one morning: “It’s too dark. Roll up the blinds [double entendre here clearly intended, a reference to the sense of sight and its absence]. I can’t see anything. And I can’t hear anything.” Julia would need adequate light to be able to lip-read, without which she cannot in effect “hear” what is being said.

Seth is a master at wordplay as well; Piers finishes his remark about the light in Venice and genesis of the Maggiore quartet there by looking down at his lighter. And early on in the book, at a quartet rehearsal in violist Helen Tavistock’s house, (into which “the afternoon sunlight slants in”; this is a much happier time for Michael), Billy is introduced to us as “a wonderful cellist, light and profound”.

In further wordplay, Billy is rightly described as “the rock on which we rest”, as he is “the base of our harmony.” But it is the first violinist Piers whose name means “rock or stone” in Greek.

The word “serpentine” with a small S becomes a descriptive adjective for Julia’s afflicted cochlea (inner ear apparatus) and the F-shaped sound-holes of Michael’s beloved Tononi violin.

In Michael’s fervent mental thank-you letter to his now-deceased benefactress Mrs. Formby, who ensures that the violin remains his in her will, he says “Both your friend and your fiddle thank you – from soul and soundpost respectively. In his Tononi’s ‘native’ Italian tongue, ‘soundpost is ‘anima’ which means ‘soul’ as it is such a vital component of the instrument.

Michael’s early Saturday morning routine of becoming a Water Serpent (ie swimming in the freezing waters of the Serpentine in wintertime) is something Seth knows first-hand from his own London years.

As would be expected, literary quotes abound; not only in references to Schubert’s Lieder (which Michael in the book, and Seth in real life, love), with the text of poets like Heinrich Heine set to music, but English poets such as Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson and, centrally, George Meredith. Meredith’s The Lark Ascending was the inspiration for Vaughan Williams’ eponymous composition, a ‘romance’ for violin and orchestra, and Michael’s introduction into the world of violin-playing and music-making courtesy a record Mrs. Formby plays for him as a boy. The composer is believed to have attributed an Eucharistic metaphor for the risen Christ in the soaring of the bird. Spiritual, literary, musical and metaphysical meanings get interwoven in Seth’s writing.

Only a poet of Seth’s calibre can get away with humorously calling Wordsworth a “stodgy git”, and Shelley a “gushy twit”, even if he uses Michael’s thoughts as a vehicle for this expression of opinion.

Other birds with all their symbolism when applicable become motifs as well: nightingale, robin, magpie, pigeon, crow, gull, parrot, peacock, phoenix. So do flowers and plants: tulips, wallflowers, pansies, camellias, wisteria, chestnut and plane trees. Luke’s playmate is a dog, Buzby. After one reference to Buzby, when Michael is invited to Julia’s house and garden, a few sentences later we hear mention of a sound-alike aural term “bee-buzz”. Is this a reference to the conclusion of Tennyson’s play The Foresters, where Maid Marian sings to Robin Hood “The bee buzz’ up in the heat, ‘I am faint for your honey, my sweet?’” Or to another hellish sound-alike, ‘Beelzebub’?

Interestingly, Michael thinks of Schubert Lieder lyrics in English in London, and they revert to the original German, Schubert’s ‘native’ tongue, in Vienna, the city where the composer spent all his life.

Inevitably, in a book about deafness afflicting a musician, there has to be a mention of Beethoven and Heiligenstadt. Indeed, Julia similarly copes with her circumstance with admirable acceptance and positivity.

Motifs give the book a sense of unity. The rain for example, figures prominently in various places including the very beginning and the end of the book. It begins and ends at the Serpentine. At the end, “The rain has washed my earlier tears away”.

Indeed, if there is one criticism of Seth’s masterpiece, it is that one senses, even if one cannot know for sure, that it will end in tears. Julia’s progressive deafness will necessarily curtail her career as a musician when it comes to chamber music. Her staunch Catholicism precludes her from abandoning her husband and more importantly her son. Michael is inevitably doomed, no surprise ending likely.

I counted thirty-three references to music compositions. Some of them were non-specific: Bach’s English suites, his gamba sonatas, Vivaldi’s Manchester sonatas, but many of them were extremely clear. In addition to the earlier-mentioned Beethoven piano trio, and the string quintet arrangement from it, we have detailed descriptions of many specific works (Bach’s Partita number 3 in E major, for solo violin, Schubert’s Trout quintet), and many string quartets: Brahms’ quartet number 1 in C minor; Haydn opus 20 number 6; Schubert’s Quartettsatz; and of course the arrangement for string quartet of Bach’s ‘Art of Fugue’ which provides so much of the impetus for the whole book.

A more loving and detailed description of Wigmore Hall London and the Brahms Saal in theMusikverein Vienna has probably never ever before been written in the English language. But it is in writing about music that we see true joy in Michael’s life, and sense Seth’s own genuine passion come through as well.

There are too many passages to choose from, so let me cherry-pick a few.

Schubert’s disembodied voice ‘speaking’ to the audience about his String Quintet in C major: “…you will hear what I myself would have been pleased to hear through gut and hair and wood, not merely through the music of my mind. But it was the year I walked to Haydn’s grave; it was the year I died; and the earth took my syphilis-riddled flesh, my typhoid-ravaged guts, my vainly loving heart many times around the sun before my quintet for strings was heard by human ears.”

An excerpt about the Haydn quartet opus 20 number 6: “..the part I like best is where I do not play at all. The trio really is a trio. Piers, Helen and Billy slide and stop away on their lowest strings, while I rest –intensely, intently. My Tononi is stilled. My bow lies across my lap. My eyes close. I am here and not here. A waking nap? A flight to the end of the galaxy and perhaps a couple of billion light-years beyond? A vacation, however short, from the presence of my too-present colleagues? Soberly, deeply, the melody grinds away, and now the minuet begins again. But I should be playing this, I think anxiously. It is the minuet. I should have rejoined the others, I should be playing again. And, oddly enough, I can hear myself playing. And yes, the fiddle is under my chin, and the bow is in my hand, and I am.”

Of the quasi-sacred, talismanic ritual of the Maggiore: “Every rehearsal of the Maggiore quartet begins with a very plain, very slow, three-octave scale on all four instruments in unison: sometimes major, as in our name, sometimes minor, depending on the key of the first piece we are to play. No matter how fraught our lives have been over the last couple of days, no matter how abrasive our disputes about people or politics, or how visceral our differences about what we are to play and how we are to play it, it reminds us that we are, when it comes to it, one. We try not to look at each other when we play this scale; no-one appears to lead. Even the upbeat is merely breathed by Piers, not indicated by any movement of his head. When I play this I release myself into the spirit of the quartet. I become the music of the scale. I mute my will. I free myself.”

It becomes almost adulterous to share this ritual with someone else. After Michael bows out (pardon the atrocious pun) of the quartet, Piers meets him at a Christmas party about their search for his replacement: “They’re all sort of OK, more than OK, but we couldn’t play the scale with any of them.”

I feel the pricking of tears behind my eyes…. I look away for a moment.”

On re-reading the book, I was surprised at the vehemence of my irritation at Michael’s character, his selfish self-absorption, his literal narcissism in looking at the water of the Serpentine. Why can’t he just move on? I echo Julia’s father’s sentiment: “For God’s sake Michael, haven’t you hurt her enough?” But further on, one feels sorry for his pitiful (“or is it pitiable?”) existence. Despite Julia’s crippling handicap which has robbed her of her most precious sense, it is Michael that needs our concern and commiseration.

 

(An edited version of this article was published in The Equator Line, New Delhi India)

Forthcoming concert: Patricia Rozario (soprano) and the Fidelio Trio, 21 July 2015 6.30 pm Menezes Braganza Hall

patricia rozario fidelio trio poster jpeg

Child’s Play (India) Foundation, in collaboration with Culture Ireland,Fundação Oriente and Furtados Music is pleased to present Patricia Rozario Soprano and the Fidelio Trio in a programme of chamber music featuring works by Haydn, Saint-Saens, Shostakovich and Jonathan Dove.
Donation passes are selling out briskly at Furtado Music stores in Panjim and Margao.

Proceeds from the concert help the work of Child’s Play India Foundation, so please do support our cause and get a superlative evening of music as well! :)

Música Erudita Portuguesa: Tesouro escondido

Living in Goa has its advantages. We are much more likely to hear visiting Portuguese musicians than the rest of India, and therefore much more likely to hear Portuguese music.

‘Portuguese music’ makes us instantly think of fado. When one thinks of western classical music, Portugal is unlikely to be the first country that comes to mind. Textbooks of classical music tend to overlook the country or reduce its output to a few lines, if that.

Since returning to Goa in 2008, and getting involved with organising concerts here, I’ve been fortunate not only to hear musicians perform works by Portuguese composers, but also talk to the performers about them.

In 2010, Nancy Lee Harper (piano) played for us a Nocturne in D flat major (1912) by the Portuguese composer- prodigy António de Lima Fragoso (1897-1918).

Fragoso

He might well have become Portugal’s greatest 20th –century composer had it not been for his tragic death due to pneumonic flu at 21. More recently, Pedro Emanuel Pereira played the composer’s Prelude (from the “petite suite”). In both, one hears the influence of the French ‘Impressionist’ composers, particularly Debussy. Both have a dreamy, nostalgic quality. The Nocturne might be reminiscent of Chopin in its form, but has an almost Lisztian central stormy section.

In 2012, Pedro Rodrigues (guitar) played transcriptions of piano music by contemporary pianist-composer António Pinho Vargas (b. 1951). He is equally at home in jazz and classical music, and his oeuvre reflects this. Rodrigues’s eight guitar transcriptions gave us a taste of Vargas’ eclecticism, with influences ranging from canções to fado to poetry and, memorably, the American singer-songwriter Tom Waits.

In 2013, we had Filipa Meneses (viola da gamba) and Hug o Vasco Reis (Portuguese guitar) perform four Canções by virtuoso Portuguese guitarist-composer Carlos Paredes (1925-2004). His compositions are suffused with the melancholy one expects to find in Fado, and the last work ‘In memory of a murdered peasant’ painted a particularly bleak landscape, but still somehow tinged with hope. Paredes spent many years imprisoned by the Salazar regime for being a member of the Communist party, yet shrugged off any heroic status for his suffering, saying “Many suffered worse than I.”

Nancy Lee Harper in her book on Portuguese piano music, mentions ‘O Dio dos Mortos’, 1 November 1755, “one of the greatest tragedies in Portuguese history”, the devastating earthquake that destroyed much of Lisbon, with a huge loss of life, and also of thousands of invaluable music manuscripts. These included at least 500 works of the great Portuguese composer for harpsichord José António Carlos de Seixas (1704-1742). This loss has contributed to his undeserved relative obscurity compared to his contemporaries J.S. Bach, Scarlatti and Handel. So accomplished was Seixas that when Scarlatti was in Portugal and the royal court arranged for Seixas to take lessons from him, Scarlatti replied that it was Seixas who should give him lessons instead! Fortunately, 105 of more than 700 of Seixas’ sonatas for harpsichord still survive, and we heard three of them transcribed by Reis for Portuguese guitar playing the right-hand part and viola da gamba the left.

We also heard an original composition, Suite no. 1 in four movements (Prelude, Romance, Invention and Fantasy) by Hugo Vasco Reis himself.

In the same year, we also heard our Andrea Fernandes (who did her higher studies in piano in Lisbon before taking on the post of repetiteur at the Budapest Opera House) play ‘Roda o vento nas searas’ by Luís Costa (1879-1960), a student of the famed Ferrucio Busoni, and with a great interest in the Impressionistic composers, particularly Debussy and Ravel. He taught at the Conservatório of Oporto.

This brings us back to the concert on 23 May at the Kala Academy, at which Álvaro Pereira (violin) and Pedro Emanuel Pereira (piano) played two other works by Portuguese composers: Nocturne for violin and piano by Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988); and Suite no. 1 for violin and piano by Óscar da Silva (1870-1958).

Braga Santos’ Nocturne is an ethereal work, written when he was eighteen, when he was student of violin and composition at the National Conservatoire of Lisbon, where he became a disciple of another great Portuguese composer, Luís de Freitas Branco (1890-1955), the “Father of Modernism” in Portugal. (Incidentally, the earlier-mentioned António Fragoso was also Freitas Branco’s pupil). The Nocturne begins with a descending four-note melody in fourths, rising back up again and quickly developing into an idée fixe, which moves restlessly across the chromatic register until attaining a measure (literally!) of calm at the very end.

Óscar Courrège da Silva Araújo was a student of the great pianist-composer Clara Schumann and is widely considered “the last of the great Portuguese Romantics, and simultaneously, the initiator of modern music in Portugal.” Clara Schumann discerned da Silva’s “unequalled capacity” to interpret the works of her celebrated husband Robert Schumann.

I was surprised to find that Braga Santos’ Piano Concerto Opus 52 would be receiving its ‘UK premiere’ in June this year! It is astonishing how little this great Portuguese symphonist of the 20th century, and perhaps of all time, is known or played outside his national borders.

Why are Portuguese composers not better-known? Portuguese music reflects its country’s own fortunes, bouncing, in Lee Harper’s words, “between dominion and loss, between identity and anonymity.” The great ‘Restaurador’, D. João IV (r. 1640-1656) who founded the House of Braganza that ruled Portugal until 1910 was a musician and theorist, creating the largest music library in Europe. D. João V (r. 1705-1750) imported Italy’s greatest musicians, notably Domenico Scarlatti to start the Patriarchal Seminary, which pre-figured the National Conservatory in 1835.

The setback due to the 1755 earthquake has already been mentioned.

The Estado Nov dictatorship stifled true expression of creativity in favour of empty propaganda, and those composers who opposed the regime (notably Fernando Lopes Graça 1906-1955) were excluded from institutional circuits. Much music remained locked in vaults and unpublished until the 1974 Carnation Revolution.

If there is a lesson for us amidst this brief exposure to Portuguese music, it is this: it was the setting up of conservatórios (tertiary centres of higher learning in music) in Lisbon, Oporto etc that facilitated such a crop of creativity from the mid-1800s onward. We discern lineages: Luis Freitas Branco (who had studied under Engelbert Humperdinck in Berlin) teaching Fragoso, Braga Santos and Lopes Graça; Luis Costa going on to teach and become director of the Oporto conservatory after receiving instruction from Busoni. A top-notch music conservatory in India is long overdue.

(An edited version of this article was published on 12 July 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Fauré’s Pavane

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

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

romances-for-saxophone

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

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

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

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

John_Singer_Sargent_-_Gabriel_Fauré

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

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

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

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

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

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

faure

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

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

“Let’s give it another month”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visions of the Beyond Festival: Muti-Moser Program

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pardes Tristan

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

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

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

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