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)

 

 

 

 

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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)

 

 

 

 

 

Albert and ‘Lina’

 

The violin is not at the top of any list of ‘babe magnet’ options, but it does work for some.

Nobel Prize Laureate theoretical physicist Albert Einstein’s wife Elsa (née Löwenthal) fell in love with him “because he played Mozart so beautifully on the violin.”

If there’s one thing that leapt out at me from the extremely informative ‘Nobel Prize series India 2018 Science Exhibition’ at the Kala Academy in February, it was the remarkable affinity for music possessed by so many Nobel Prize Laureates across all disciplines (physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, literature and peace) from an early age. I came across this time and again during the exhibition as I read the life histories of these great men and women. This association between exposure to music at a very young age, and brilliance in one’s pursuits in later life, cannot be coincidental.

This exposure to music came early to Albert Einstein (1879-1955). His mother Pauline Koch Einstein, herself a reasonably accomplished pianist, started him on the piano and violin at the age of five, not only to instill in him a love of music, but “to help him assimilate into German culture.”

Although Einstein didn’t enjoy violin lessons at first, he “fell in love” with the music of Mozart later, at the age of thirteen, after discovering his violin sonatas. His interest in music and his instrument grew much more serious after this. This is a lesson for parents, teachers and students: an initial diffidence towards music and practice in one’s younger years shouldn’t deter us, as it could evolve into a deeper engagement over time if we give it this chance. Regrettably, all too often, the decision is taken to discontinue lessons because initial progress is slow.

Einstein would write that Mozart’s music “was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.”

A schoolmate Hans Byland described Einstein’s playing of Mozart: “When his violin began to sing, the walls of the room seemed to recede — for the first time, Mozart in all his purity appeared before me, bathed in Hellenic beauty with its pure lines, roguishly playful, mightily sublime.”

Einstein was also drawn to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In an interview, Einstein once remarked, “I have this to say about Bach’s works: listen, play, love, revere—and keep your trap shut.”

When at seventeen, Einstein played Beethoven’s violin sonatas to a school examiner, the latter observed that the teenager’s playing “was remarkable and revealing of great insight.” He added that Einstein “displayed a deep love of the music, a quality that was and remains in short supply. Music possessed an unusual meaning for this student.”

This “deep love of the music” crept into every aspect of Einstein’s life. He would write later: “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music… I get most joy in life out of music.”

Another famous Einstein quote: “A table, a chair a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?”

Albert-Einstein-Violin

Although taking up music professionally was never his ambition, he played to a very high level, making chamber music with professional musicians (that included violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky,  and the Zoellner and Juilliard string quartets) and peers (notably Max Planck and son).

Unfortunately, we have no recordings of Einstein’s violin playing, but most listener accounts (some of them quoted above) shower praise. The Juilliard quartet members heard him in his later years and were “impressed by Einstein’s level of coordination and intonation”.

One amusing anecdote survives from one of his string quartet sessions; when Einstein missed one entrance too many, Fritz Kreisler exasperatedly reprimanded the father of the Theory of Relativity: “What’s the matter, professor? Can’t you count?” Other accounts have Piatigorsky make this remark, so the whole story might be apocryphal.

Einstein’s violin was his companion even on his travels, wherever he went. His wife Elsa reminisced, “Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories… He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.”

Although Einstein possessed several violins in his lifetime, his affectionate nickname ‘Lina’ (apparently, short for ‘violin’) was given to each one of them. He would love to surprise Halloween trick-or-treaters with serenades on his ‘Lina’ of the time, and would join caroling groups at Christmas.

One of Einstein’s violins was in the news last week, having fetched ₤ 373,000 (over 3 crore Indian rupees) at auction by Bonhams Fine Art division, New York. It is believed to be the only one of Einstein’s violins to have come on the market. It seems surprising that the instrument didn’t fetch an even higher price.

The violin was handcrafted specially for Einstein in 1933, the year he fled Nazi Germany to the US. Already considered “one of the most prominent intellectuals of his time”, his arrival created a sensation. It inspired Oscar H. Steger, a cabinet-maker and a member of the Harrisberg Symphony Orchestra, Pennsylvania, to make a violin for him.

An inscription inside the violin reads: ‘Made for the Worlds [sic] Greatest Scientist Profesior [sic] Albert Einstein By Oscar H. Steger, Feb 1933 / Harrisburg, PA.’

Image result for einstein violin auction

Image result for einstein violin auction

In an act of touching generosity, Einstein later gifted it to William Hibbs, son of a janitor, Sylas Hibbs, at Princeton University where Einstein was a resident scholar, when he was told that William was learning to play the violin. The Hibbs family had the violin in their possession until the time of auction.

It is humbling to think that the instrument would have been a source of nourishment, inspiration and refuge. His older son Hans Albert would recall, “Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music. That would usually resolve all his difficulties.”

Perhaps this should not surprise us so much. Several Einstein biographers have pointed out the qualities of “beauty, clarity, simplicity and architectural perfection”, the “inner unity” in the music of Bach and Mozart that Einstein sought in his own theories in physics.

When asked about his Theory of Relativity, Einstein responded, “It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception.”

Scientists are struck by the “beauty” of the Theory of Relativity. Einstein himself would say “Hardly anyone who has truly understood it will be able to escape the charm of this theory.” He recognized and reveled in that same charm and beauty in music, particularly of Bach and Mozart.

(An edited version of this article was published on 18 March 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Our irreplaceable, priceless Ances-Tree

 

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Trees and forests have been on my mind a lot lately. The most recent trigger was the unexpected (thanks to our son’s school holiday), impulsive long-overdue midweek visit to Nature’s Nest, the splendid nature resort run by my friend, expert birder and nature-lover Pankaj Lad in Surla in the Western Ghats.

In that brief yet much-needed commune with nature at Surla and the nearby Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, we spotted a plethora of bird species, that included the State bird, the flame-throated bulbul, the Malabar grey hornbill, Asian fairy bluebird, Malabar blue-winged parakeet, racket-tailed drongo, and many more.

At dusk, just as we were preparing to exit the national park, we were blessed (and this is something I had long awaited for decades) to sight (or ‘spot’) not one, but two leopards within just a few minutes of each other.

Trees and forests have a spiritual peace and aura about them. It is no coincidence that our ancient scriptures and the tales within them are situated within sacred groves and forests. When seers, thinkers and saints seek enlightenment, they go deep into forests. They possess a profound cosmic wisdom that all the libraries of the most advanced civilization cannot hope to rival.

The other reason that they are on the brain is the government plan, already underway, to axe (chainsaw or bulldoze is perhaps the more accurate term) around 22,000 trees in the mindless, ruthless push for the ill-conceived, ill-sited, unnecessary Mopa airport. Environmentalists estimate that even more, perhaps 100,000 trees could be felled for this project.

We possess the flawed ‘intelligence’ to be able, with chainsaws and bulldozers, to mow down in hours or days, whole tracts of life-giving rainforests that Nature took centuries or millennia to painstakingly generate.

This folly is not unique to Goa; we see it in Mumbai with the proposed destruction of the Aarey colony, in Bengaluru and in so many other locations in India where myopic politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists measure ‘development’ solely in terms of concrete and tarmac, in pursuit of the mirage of ‘progress’, thus brutalizing timeless natural legacies that had been safeguarded by our ancestors.

Have we even researched the medicinal potential of the flora and fauna native to the nearly 1500 acres of the proposed Mopa airport project before its tens of thousands of trees are leveled and end up in a timber yard?

Dipcadi concanense (Dalzell) Baker is a perennial “tuberous herb with large white flowers” endemic to the Western Ghats region and is already listed as ‘Critically Endangered.’ The airport project will accelerate the extinction of this plant and untold numbers of other as-yet-undocumented species, and any untapped medicinal potential will be lost to science and future generations forever.

Enough forest cover has been lost already to mining, and despite the stipulation that the mined land be “restored to its original state” afterward, this has not happened. Instead we revel in photo-ops of tree-planting ceremonies of short-lived scrawny saplings at each Vanamahotsav. We are a nation of hypocrites.

The irony peculiar also not just to Goa is the simultaneous denudation of forests, known repositories of precious ground water, throwing away our own vital resource within our borders whilhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=to-EuaHaHKAe entering into protracted disputes with our neighbours over water rights.

In the 2017 BBC documentary ‘My Passion for Trees’, Oscar-winning actress Dame Judi Dench explores the amazing lives and histories of trees, their remarkable communication systems and demonstrates that trees are truly social living beings, “a real community that help each other, humans and the planet.”

Each tropical tree sequesters a minimum of 50 lbs (22.6 kg) of carbon each year in its trunk, branches and root system, producing life-nourishing oxygen in exchange. More than 50% of a tropical tree’s woody biomass is sequestered carbon, which is why tropical trees are so important in the fight against global warming and climate change.

There is mounting scientific evidence that trees are sentient beings, that they look out for each other. A tree having its leaves eaten by an herbivore is capable of emitting ethylene gas, warning other trees of imminent danger. They register pain when even a tiny caterpillar nibbles on a leaf.

Trees “scream” at ultrasonic frequencies when under extreme water deprivation. In the BBC documentary, a sophisticated machine enables one to “hear” water ascending up a tree trunk xylem under the bark.

To give an idea of ecosystems we stand to lose each time forest cover is erased: There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet. A forest is teeming with life, more than we know.

I remember Fr. Bismarque Dias forcefully making the point at a heritage conservation conference in 2011 that forests, woodlands and wetlands, hills and water bodies are heritage too and should be zealously safeguarded.

In his election campaign Kindness Manifesto, Fr. Bismarque presciently anticipated the core philosophy of our current Pope Francis’ path-breaking, hard-hitting ‘Laudato Si (Praise Be to You): On Care of Our Common Home’, his 2015 encyclical on the environment and climate change. I have written about this in specific relation to Goa before.

Pope Francis pulls no punches in criticizing our capitalist obsession with production and profit: “The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution.”

He is scathing in his observation on the loss of forest cover in particular: “The earth’s resources are being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production. The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses. Different species contain genes which could be key resources in years ahead for meeting human needs and regulating environmental problems.

It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

Indeed we don’t.

(An edited version of this article was published on 11 March 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Adieu, Didier Lockwood (1956-2018)!

 

I was deeply saddened to hear of the untimely death on 18 February, 2018 of one of the greatest jazz violin legends, Didier Lockwood, aged just sixty-two, following a heart attack. He had played a concert at Bal Blomet in Paris just a day before.

Didier

Music lovers will remember his electrifying performance, hosted by Alliance Française at the Kala Academy open air auditorium some decades ago (late 1980s or early 1990s). Those were heady times, with concerts at that venue that will stay with me for life. The Didier Lockwood concert is certainly up there with the best of them. I know one has a tendency to romanticize the past (and I am particularly guilty of this sin) but I remember it as truly magical, with a starry night sky as a canopy and a bright moon adding even more atmosphere in the amphitheater to Lockwood’s virtuosity.

It was my first exposure to live electric jazz violin, and I was fortunate to hear it played so superbly. For the better part of my growing-up years, I had listened to many of the violin greats of the western classical world, but the audio cassette, the explosion in accessibility to music via labels like Magnasound and Times Music, and of course concerts like these, opened new vistas.

Around this time, (as I had described in an earlier column) I had also discovered “Conversations”, the mind-blowing collaborative album between L. Subramaniam and Stéphane Grappelli, which also was an entry point not only to Indian classical violin, but also to other jazz violin greats, particularly Jean-Luc Ponty, who I now learn was the inspiration for Lockwood.

Didier Lockwood was born in Calais in 1956 into a family steeped in music and the arts; his father (of British descent) was a violin teacher, his mother an amateur painter and his elder brother Francis was a jazz pianist.

His father was not only his first violin teacher, but seems to have been a charismatic champion of music in the local community. “Thanks to music, he saved lots of kids who might have ended up in jail,” Didier Lockwood would later recall. Perhaps it was this debt and recognition of the life-changing significance of music education that would inspire the formation of ‘Le Centre des Musiques Didier Lockwood’ in 2001.

Didier Lockwood entered the Calais Conservatoire aged just six. Lockwood’s phenomenal technique and prowess on his instrument can be traced back to his rigorous schooling in the Carl Flesch method while studying here, which he put to good use in his jazz career.

He joined the Orchestre Lyrique de Théâtre Municipal de Calais when he was thirteen. At sixteen, he won First Prize for violin at the Conservatoire National de Calais, as well as First National Prize for composition of contemporary music for “prepared violin” (“violon préparé”) at La Sacem (Société des Auteurs, Compositeurs et Editeurs de Musique).

He was poised to move on to the Paris conservatoire for further study, when he discovered the liberating, exhilarating joy of improvisation from his brother. Jean-Luc Ponty was a strong influence here. It was on listening to Ponty’s playing on album ‘King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa’ that Lockwood first took up electric violin. He joined the French progressive rock group Magma at the age of seventeen.

Then the gravitational pull of jazz grew even stronger.  Several of Lockwood’s obituaries describe him as the “spiritual son” of Stéphane Grappelli (1908-1997), a nickname given by Grappelli himself. Lockwood was playing at a jazz festival in 1976 when Grappelli first heard him. Obviously impressed, he invited the young Lockwood to accompany him on a tour of Europe.

In a 2008 interview to Radio France, Lockwood acknowledged, “That was the start of my career, the launchpad that got me into the world of popular jazz.” Grappelli would become Lockwood’s teacher and mentor. In 2000, Lockwood would dedicate a much-acclaimed tribute album to Grappelli. It is well worth a listen. While the doffing of the cap to Grappelli is unmistakable, Lockwood’s distinctive sound is nevertheless still clearly evident.

There is a touching story of an instrument being emblematic of the goodwill and bonhomie between so many jazz violin legends and becoming a thread that connects them.  The great but tragically short-lived French classical and jazz violinist Michel Maurice Armand Warlop (1911-1947) was also orchestra leader of some of Grappelli’s first recordings. In 1937, he gifted one of his violins (known today as ‘the Warlop violin’) to Grappelli, who in turn gave it to Jean-Luc Ponty, who would then present it in 1979 to Lockwood.

Lockwood’s international career spanned around 4500 concerts and over 35 record albums. He also wrote two operas, a concerto for piano and orchestra, two concertos for violin, lyrical works and music for films and cartoons.

He drew inspiration from sources beyond his instrument, such as jazz saxophone (John Coltrane) and guitar (John McLaughlin).

Lockwood was never too far away from classical music. He married twice, both times to sopranos, first to Caroline Casadesus and then Patricia Petitbon.

Tributes have poured In from French President Emmanuel Macron, and from the music fraternity all over the world. President Macron described him in a tweet as “friend and partner of the greatest, as much keen to bind cultures as to transmit to the greatest number. His radiance, open-mindedness and immense musical talent will be missed.”

French classical violinist Renaud Capuçon said “France has lost an exceptional musician, a man of rare qualities” in the passing of “incomparable” Didier Lockwood.

Lockwood’s enduring legacy that will live on after him is his creation, ‘Le Centre des Musiques Didier Lockwood’ (CMDL). His website explains how he felt the particular need to do this after his childhood experience of pedagogy at the conservatoire, which while technically sound, was “too theoretical and rigid.”  Such an education only taught him “to reproduce a virtuoso technique to the detriment of all personal creativity.” While “not denying the need to acquire the solid technique of classical teaching”, he asserted that the modern musician “must know how to approach all musical style.”

Lockwood would say to his students, “Jazz is the body, it is an internal dance.” He danced it to the very end.

(An edited version of this article was published on 4 March 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Bridge of Voices

 

In October 2014, I was one among 150 delegates from 28 countries (and the only one from India) chosen to participate in the first of its kind, a four-day International Sistema Teachers’ Conference organised by Sistema Scotland in Stirling. It offered me a unique opportunity to meet like-minded individuals also committed to music education and social empowerment, from a wide range of locations around the world: Australia, Austria, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Scotland, Serbia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, USA, Venezuela, Vietnam and Wales.

Among that vast community of nations, the Swedish contingent stood out pretty prominently. They kept breaking spontaneously into song at every opportunity, and their infectious enthusiasm got the rest of us singing as well.

One particular song, sung as a canon, became almost the anthem of the conference: “Baboomba”, sung as a Mexican wave, punctuating by rhythmic claps rippling across the hall, or wherever we happened to be.

This is where I first met Cecilia Öhrwall from El Sistema Södertälje, close to Stockholm, Sweden. She already had a connection with India, and had been visiting and working with a music school in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. She was planning a return trip to India the following year and suggested visiting us at Child’s Play India Foundation in Goa.

Cecilia Öhrwall has composed music for film documentaries and arranged music for choir and orchestra. For over twelve years, she has been playing flute and singing in and writing songs and arrangements for the trio ‘Lite men rätt’ with Esbjörn Öhrwall (guitar) and Ylva Nilsson (cello).

She has been pedagogue at El Sistema Södertälje since its inception in 2012.

Her first visit was with a double-bass playing colleague Katarina Lindgren and her son in 2015. We had just begun a choir project in Santa Cruz at the time, and Cecilia worked with the choir, while Katarina played Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s Concerto in E major (Krebs 172) for double-bass, with piano accompaniment, to a small audience in the village.

Obviously impressed with our work, Cecilia returned in 2016 with her 14-member strong choir, the Sångföreningen Qöhr. The choir works to create a platform for children and youth, building bridges over cultural differences, social inequality and national boundaries. It works closely with “Dörren” (The Door), a youth programme that offers young people creative opportunities through singing, theatre, dance, photography, etc. Cecilia is choral director of the Dörren choir as well, and together with Maria Peters of the Gränslösa roster –Voices without Borders, a choir where refugees integrate with the local population quite literally and figuratively, in harmony.

Many of you will remember the delightful benefit concert for Child’s Play of the Sångföreningen Qöhr in 2016 at Menezes Braganza, in which the choir sang a diverse range of repertoire: the spiritual Roll Jordan Roll, Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus, Hey Jude, Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue, Cat Stevens’ Peace Train, Sunny by Boney M, David Bowie’s Life on Mars, a host of Swedish pop songs and more. The concert also featured our Child’s Play children’s and community choirs, and a joint performance of the Sångföreningen Qöhr and our children singing three songs together.

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Their benefit concert (today 25 February in aid of Child’s Play, also at Menezes Braganza 6 pm) promises to be just as exciting, running the gamut from classical music to Latin American favourites, and from Stevie Wonder to Swedish pop, and much more.

The concept of making music through ensembles, both orchestra and choir, is central to the ethos of Child’s Play India Foundation. Exactly a month ago, we were happy to welcome our new choral director Claire Hughes from England, with vast experience conducting choirs in England and the United States.

Claire grew up in the South of England, where her interest in music was first expressed through Musical Theatre. Her further studies in music began at the University of Birmingham. Here she found a passion for choral music and learnt more about rehearsing and conducting choirs. As a choral singer, she performed with the Proms Youth Choir, Birmingham University Singers and CBSO Chorus, appearing in the First night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and Choir of the World competition at the International Eisteddfod, among other exciting performances. Her conducting experience started with the University SSA Chamber Choir, leading concerts with them at the Elgar Concert Hall and St George’s Church, Edgbaston. She also held the position of Musical Director with the University of Birmingham Gilbert & Sullivan society in her final year of study.

After the completion of her first degree, she travelled to the USA to pursue a master’s degree in Choral Conducting at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. She sang with three prolific college choirs and was the Graduate Assistant Conductor to Westminster Schola Cantorum. During her time in this position, Schola Cantorum toured the states of Maryland and North Carolina, as well as collaborating with Julliard school at the Lincoln Center in New York. Claire had previously been involved with the Mostly Mozart Festival, again at the Lincoln Center; this involvement was as one of twenty-five conductors in the World Premiere of a thousand-voice piece by David Lang. Her experience with young voices includes her position on the teaching staff for the Westminster Vocal Institute, a summer camp for young aspiring choral singers. She was fortunate to perform in a wide variety of projects as a choral singer in the USA, singing at Carnegie Hall and David Geffen Hall in New York, and the Verizon Center in Philadelphia, under the batons of Sir Simon Rattle, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Jane Glover CBE, to name a few. With the Westminster Choir, she toured the Southern states, worked as a Choral Artist at the Spoleto Festival USA, and performed at the World Symposium on Choral Music, on tour of Spain and Catalonia. Her choral experience extended to early music as a member of Westminster Kantorei, an early music ensemble who featured in the Boston Early Music Festival last year. Their debut album, Lumina, was released in September and is available online.

Claire is thrilled to use her skills and experiences to help enrich the lives of children in Goa and to introduce them to the sense of community that comes with singing together. She was been working at the Child’s Play projects in St. Inez and Caranzalem, and some of them will join the  Sångföreningen Qöhr onstage for ‘Flowers and Love’, a heartwarming song written based on a poem by an eight-year-old Swedish child Adam Andersen, that has become the unofficial anthem of El Sistema in Sweden.

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

Vale a Pena!

How times change! Today everyone flocks to handicrafts emporiums, leaving traffic bottlenecks up-and downstream from their location. But those of my age will remember how in our childhood, itinerant vendors would walk past our houses with baskets on their heads overflowing with the most ingenious, intricate hand-made toys and display items.

I remember in particular miniature models of ships, complete with decks, masts and sails, made from wood and bamboo. It was a cherished favourite of mine for years. But I also remember the single-stringed violins (I now know them to be called ‘kingri’, in many ways a bowed variant of the ektara) upon which the vendors would play so lustily the prevalent Hindi film (the term Bollywood hadn’t yet gained currency) top hit tunes.

Kingri is Indian instrument

Image result for kingri

We were already learning the violin by then, so the allure of these vendors, playing these melodies so effortlessly, and on a single string as opposed to our ‘western’ violin’s four, and with an arched bow that had much more in common with an archery bow than the one that accompanied my instrument, and all this while balancing a basket on their heads, was quite irresistible.

And to add to the challenge of the kingri, the single metal string was being stopped, and from a much greater height than a conventional violin, not by a fleshy finger-tip, but (precisely because of this greater height) by the proximal nail fold, the portion where the fingernail disappears into the finger after the lunule. It’s an acquired skill, and a mighty painful one for a beginner. I can vouch for this. And the concave shape of the bow makes the bow-hold quite awkward to those of us schooled in conventional violin-playing.

The instrument is propped not under the chin like a regular violin, but held against the chest, even closer to the heart. Unlike the violin which has pegs around which its four strings are tethered and tuned, the kingri is a ‘spike fiddle’, with a spike serving the function of a peg, bored into a thin stick that serves both as fingerboard and part of the body, ending proximally in a semi-globular resonator cavity (‘sound-box’, often a halved coconut shell) that has a membrane of dried animal hide stretched over its mouth upon which the tiniest ‘bridge’ lifts the string off its surface.

I was reminded of this on the second day of the splendid Monte Music festival earlier this month. This has been for me the most uplifting edition of the Monte festival in recent memory.

The first act on the second day featured the Laihui ensemble from Manipur, which had three of its five members playing the pena, belonging to the same ‘family’ of instruments as the kingri. It was my first encounter with the pena.

Pena

The pena is believed to be the most ancient among the musical instruments of the Meitei, the majority ethnic group of Manipur. Its name is believed by some to have its etymologic derivation from the Sanskrit ‘vina’, and its corruption to the Bengali ‘bina’, and thence to ‘pena’. Other accounts trace its ancestry to the Chinese spiked-fiddle family Huqin, to which the erhu, zhonghu and gaohu belong.

Image result for erhu Erhu

Image result for zhonghu Zhonghu

Image result for gaohu Gaohu

I came across another ‘relative’ of this fiddle ‘family’ at the last day of the equally wonderful Sur Jahan World Peace festival, among the instruments of the Ethiopian-Italian ensemble Atse Tewodros. It is called ‘Masenqo’ and is very similar to the kingri.

Image result for masenqo

In Yehudi Menuhin’s beautifully written book ‘The Violin: An illustrated history’, he charts the history of the violin from its origins in the bow and arrow, through to the Stradivarius. It is easy to imagine how the instruments of the single-stringed fiddle family, with the very arched bow, fit into this lineage, and one can only speculate how the instrument evolved and was disseminated across continents and oceans along ancient trade and migration routes.

What I found most interesting about the pena was the unusual shape of the bow. While made of wood, it has a curved flourish made of metal where the conventional violin bow would have had a ‘tip’. Image result for pena manipur instrumentAnd while the bow hair is made of horse-hair like a western bow, the strands are loose, not drawn taut. The right hand grips the bow in a fist, so that the bow is quite literally ‘pulled’ and ‘pushed’ across the string, which is traditionally also made of horse-hair.

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With this dependence on and inspiration from the horse being so vital to the composition of the instrument, it is perhaps not surprising that there are equestrian references in the folklore of the Meitei people as well.

For instance, from among the five Manipuri folk songs that Mangka Mayanglamban sang at the Monte, ‘Loi Okpa’ stood out for its particular feistiness. It recounts in ballad-form the story of princess Thoibi returning from exile as punishment for refusing to marry a suitor named Nongban who had been picked out for her in a matrimonial alliance, but then fleeing on horseback to the home of her true love Khamba.

And the last folk song ‘Khonjom Lan’ was a history lesson for me, an energetic retelling of the 1891 Anglo-Manipur war. There is so much of our subcontinent’s history that we do not learn in school. There was nervous laughter and some squirming in seats when Mangka enquired if there were any ‘British’ in the audience. She then sweetly reassured them, “But British won, so no need to worry.”

That became a matter of some homework for me. The Anglo-Manipur war (known in Manipur as the War of Independence) began as a petty rivalry between princes over succession to the throne, and things escalated quickly when one faction sought British intervention.

Image result for khongjom war memorial

Image result for khongjom war memorial

Khongjom hillock is 44 km from Imphal, and has a war memorial commemorating the site where 400 Kangeilpak soldiers of King Kulachandra fought the British (350 infantrymen, 44 cavalry and 2 cannon) on 23 April 1891, in a valiant yet unsuccessful defence of Manipur. The Manipuri army battled to the end, resorting to hand-to-hand fighting when ammunition ran out, with a loss of 128 lives on the Manipuri side. The day is celebrated in Manipur every year as Khongjom Day.

Image result for khongjom battle

Image result for khongjom battle

We were extremely privileged to hear in the Laihui ensemble Mangka’s unassuming father Mayanglamban Mangansana Meitei (seated, centre, in the picture below), a much-respected performer, exponent and champion of the pena.

Image result for Mayanglamban Mangansana Meitei

(An edited version of this article was published on 18 February 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Michiel Sweerts in Goa

 

Last December I was reminded that I’ve completed four years writing this column, with over 200 articles, and (touch wood!) not missing a single Sunday.

It’s always good to get feedback from readers. I get this from my circle of friends, family and acquaintances, but it’s gratifying when you hear from a reader far beyond this circle. Sometimes it is someone who has read it online in another part of the world, and the topic was of particular interest.

Sometimes, it is a visitor who happens to read the Sunday paper. Some months ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find a reader from Bangalore, Sunil Murthy, at my doorstep.  He had read my article on the Italian composer Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674), and subsequently visited my website and read other contributions, particularly on art.

I am grateful to him for bringing to my attention the interesting life story of Flemish painter and print-maker of the Baroque period, Michiel (sometimes also spelled Michael) Sweerts (1618-1664), who lived his final years in Goa, and is probably buried somewhere in the Cidade de Goa, Old Goa to us today. This year happens to be his birth quatercentenary.

Michael_Sweerts_-_self_portrait_with_a_skull_c.1660

I often take visitors to Old Goa, and when one walks around several shrines, notably the Sé Cathedral, but so many others, like the church of São Caetano, one can’t help wondering who painted those beautiful paintings, on canvas or wood panels. This is why it was so exciting to attend a talk given a year ago at the Santa Monica church and at the Fundação Oriente by the scholars and conservationists Dr. Vanessa Antunes and José Pestana.

They discussed many prominent artists working in Goa in the 16th and 17th centuries, of which I had previously heard of just one: the master engineer Júlio Simão, sometimes spelled Simonis (1565-1641). But all the other names, the sculptors Babuxa and Santopa, the painters Aleixo Godinho, João Peres, António da Costa, Manuel Simões, Garcia Fernandes, the ‘canarim ‘Janes’ and Salvador de Bonifácio (the last active in Baçaim, modern-day Vasai), the goldsmith Jerónimo da Costa, the masons Manuel Coelho and João Teixeira, the gilder António da Costa, and so many others, were a real revelation.

It was so wonderful to regard the magnificently-restored ‘Burial and Assumption of the Virgin Mary’, ascribed to Aleixo Godinho (c. 1630), still gloriously on display at the Santa Monica church. It was the first time (for me, at any rate) that a painting in Old Goa had a definite artist’s name attached to it. How marvelous it would be if we could learn the names of the painters of every last painting, wood panel and mural in the old city!

One also couldn’t help speculating about so many aspects of the nitty-gritty of their work here. For instance, did they bring their own pigments and colours with them, or did they experiment with local materials available? How much did the contemporaneous painters mingle and interact with each other, share ideas and compare notes, as it were? If so, Sweerts would almost certainly have been in this circle.

The more recent lecture series by the scholars and Professors Walter Rossa and Luisa Trindade also opened my eyes to an important fact: when we read about “the Portuguese” in the old documents, they didn’t necessarily originate from the narrow confines of Portugal’s borders as they might have been then, but would also have embraced the elites in far-flung colonies including Goa, and also those from other parts of Europe but making common cause with the Portuguese in their dominions. So even Saint Francis Xavier (who was Spanish, coming from Navarre) in his letters, seems to sometimes describe himself as “Portuguese”.  If Sweerts made any artistic contribution to the city, he too would be regarded as “Portuguese” despite his Flemish origin.

But too little is known of Sweerts life history, let alone its final chapter in Goa. We know of his birth in Brussels in 1618, to David Sweerts, linen merchant, and Martina Ballu. Although nothing is recorded about his early years, he would have become acquainted with the work of the Great Masters such as Peter Paul Rubens and others in Brussels. During his years in Rome (1646-1656), he became linked to the group of Dutch and Flemish painters of low-life scenes known as the Bamboccianti. He created such a high reputation for himself that he was called into the service of Prince Camillo Pamphilj, nephew of the then-reigning Pope Innocent X. The Pope bestowed upon Sweerts the title of Cavaliere di Cristo (Knight of Christ).

For unknown reasons, at the height of his career in Rome, he returned to Brussels, where he opened an academy for artists and tapestry designers, and played a critical role in the formation of a Netherlandish academic tradition. He then seems to have undergone a deep spiritual transformation, joining the Missions Étrangères, a Catholic missionary organization, who were followers of Vincent de Paul and committed to proselytizing in the East. In 1661, He helped supervise the building of a ship in Amsterdam that would take him and others from the Missions Étrangères on their eastward journey.

Details get progressively sketchier after that. In December 1661 he was in Marseilles, in January 1662 in Palestine (yes, the Holy Land was known as Palestine even then, contrary to what some segments of the world media would have us believe), from where he sailed for Alexandretta (today Iskenderun in Turkey) along with bishop François Pallu (founder member of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris) and other priests. Sweerts produced some paintings in Syria, but on the onward overland journey, he is said to have become ‘mentally unstable’ and was dismissed by his companions somewhere between Isfahan and Tabriz in Persia. From here, he somehow travelled to Goa and was given refuge (perhaps in the Professed House, or in the New College of Saint Paul?) by the Jesuits there.

Just how unwell was Sweerts? Was it merely delirium from an illness he had contracted during his travels, and did he recover well enough to resume work in Goa? If so, are his paintings out there in plain sight, and we just don’t know it? Sweerts has been ‘rediscovered’ by the art world only in the last century, as one of the most intriguing and enigmatic artists of his time. It would be no exaggeration to state that he was the finest Western painter of his age to visit India.

We live in exciting times, as more and more information is revealed about this fascinating period in our history, rather like the dust and grime being delicately taken off a precious old masterpiece. I have a feeling we will hear (and see) more of Sweerts pretty soon.

(An edited version of this article was published on 11 February 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)