Did this “Dutch Cap” originate in Goa?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York has recently made available “five decades of Met publications on art history, available to read, download, and/or search for free.” Literally hundreds of art books and catalogues. And this treasure trove will continue to expand over time.

One of the many publications that caught my eye was “India: Art and Culture, 1300-1900”, edited by Stuart Cary Welch. It is a catalogue of the exhibition titled “India!” held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1985-86.

About halfway through the catalogue, I came across an intriguing exhibit in the section “The Muslim Courts: The Mughals”. It was a “gilded cabasset”, cabesset apparently a word to describe a “helmet worn by common soldiers in the 16th century”. The term could possibly have its etymology from the Spanish or Catalan ‘cabeza’ or Portuguese ‘cabeça’ for head. It is described in a book on armour as having “an almond-shaped skull with a stalk-like projection”.

The accompanying note the catalogue reads: This gilded copper cabasset, alive with ornamental animals and scenery, is typically Portuguese in shape, though the repoussé [metalworking technique wherein a malleable metal is shaped or ornamented by hammering from the reverse side to create a low relief] decoration bears the stamp of its Goanese [sic] origin. A hero’s chariot harks back to village bullock carts, and the flowers, trees and beasts, and a huntsman aiming his matchlock at a flying bird all glow with Indian character. This is believed to be the sole surviving example of five such “golden helmets” made in the viceregal armoury of Goa for the Portuguese viceroys of Goa between about 1550 and 1580. It was probably commissioned in about 1560 for Dom Diogo de Menezes, who later led the Portuguese armies during the reign of King Antony. Following the capture of the fortress of Cascais in 1580, Dom Diogo was beheaded by the Duke of Alba. The helmet is thought to have been taken by King Antony to the Azores, where it remained until recently. A similar helmet, presumably captured by the Dutch, was owned by Rembrandt, who painted it in his ‘Man wearing a Golden Helmet’”.

The exhibit, and the above information about it in the catalogue, was furnished by a private collector, one Rainer Daehnhardt from Portugal.

Goa Dutch cap

Since then, it has been more or less conclusively established by art historians that the painting mentioned above ascribed to Rembrandt and which currently hangs on display in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie (formerly the Staatliche Museen West Berlin) was definitely not painted by the Dutch Master. Specialists at the Berlin Hahn-Meitner Institute for Atomic Research subjected the painting to “70 hours of radioactive bombardment to activate the pigment neutrons and compare their behaviours to those of genuine Rembrandts”. Then it was cleaned to rid it of previous restoration work and examined stylistically in order to arrive at a conclusion. The 20-by-26 ½ inch oil painting is thought to be from the Rembrandt period, but painted by a pupil, certainly someone from the Rembrandt school, between 1650 and 1655. So was it painted under the Master’s guidance or even supervision? Is this how the cabasset became part of the picture? Did it get painted in Rembrandt’s studio, and was the cabasset among the items on offer to be used as a prop?

Rembrandt was an avid collector; from 1628 onwards he started to build a collection of natural objects (shells, corals), and man-made objects (medals, plaster casts from busts of Greek philosophers and Roman emperors, musical instruments as well as weapons, armour from many cultures and even Mughal miniatures from India).

The cabasset owned by him must have been a war trophy from the long-drawn Dutch-Portuguese War (1602-1663) with the Dutch companies attacking Portuguese colonies in the Americas, Africa, India and the Far East. Goa was a significant theatre in this war, reflecting its importance among the Portuguese possessions overseas not least for its strategic location on the spice trade route. The Dutch-Portuguese war saw several other Portuguese colonies in Asia fall like ninepins into Dutch hands: Malacca (1641), Colombo (1656), Ceylon (1658), and Nagapattinam, Cranganore and Cochin (1662).

The viceregal armoury where the five “golden helmets” originated would probably have been in the Arsenal, along the Ribeira Grande in present-day Old Goa. They were destined either to be luxury ceremonial possessions of the Vice-Roy Dom Diogo de Menezes, or as extravagant gift offerings to gain diplomatic mileage. Excesses such as these were eventually forbidden by royal decree.

The artisans who fashioned these works of art were almost certainly native to Goa. Metallurgy was already advanced to an impressive level, if one goes by the letters of Afonso de Albuquerque, in which he writes to his king Dom Manuel I that guns manufactured by the blacksmiths of Goa were better than those made in Germany.

Two of the five owners of these “golden helmets” seem to have met with a bloody end, as we have seen. What happened to the other three? Will we ever know?

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

Throwing Caution to the (Wood)winds!

Woodwind recitals in Goa are like buses. You wait and wait for one to come along, and then three of them arrive at the same time!

Goa was fortunate to be a pit stop on the whirlwind South Asian tour of the Arirang Trio d’Anches (‘reed’ or woodwind trio) featuring Jörg Schneider (oboe); Steffen Dillner (clarinet); Philipp Zeller bassoon. 

P1470765

There were two themes underlying their concert: transcriptions and variations of arias and melodies from popular operas; and specific compositions for woodwind trio by French composers who wrote expertly for this genre.

The concert began with Five Pieces for Wind Trio by Jacques François Antoine Ibert (1890-1962). His mastery in wind writing shines through all five of these quintessentially French cameo pieces, short dazzling movements alternating with slightly longer languid ones. The last movement ‘Allegro quasi marziale’ is tongue-in-cheek, as it is not remotely martial in character.

Beethoven’s teacher Neefe had made arrangements for his young gifted pupil to travel to Vienna to learn from the great Mozart. Sadly Beethoven must have had just a few weeks at the maximum in Vienna in 1787 before his mother’s illness (tuberculosis) compelled him back to Bonn. The brief encounter and the death of Mozart a few years later in 1791 left a lasting impact, and Beethoven wrote many variations on themes from Mozart’s operas. The variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’ (“There we will give each other our hands”, the duet between the adulterous Don Giovanni and Zerlina from Mozart’s 1787 opera Don Giovanni) were written by Beethoven in C major, originally for two oboes and cor anglais. The theme is played by the oboe, and 8 extremely inventive variations and a coda follow.

The next work, trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon by Ange Flégier (1846-1927) was a revelation to me. A relatively obscure composer to the rest of the world, he is highly regarded in his home country and by the wind community. The four-movement trio has a turbulent, agitated beginning in a minor key, and the next movement is an oasis of calm in an otherwise extremely ever dynamic, onward-pushing work.

The second half of the programme was devoted entirely to the opera. The first piece on offer was the contemporary bassoonist-composer Alexandre Ouzonoff’s arrangements of highlights from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore. This arrangement required the use of the A clarinet as well as B flat clarinet. In three movements, the work opened with the famous ‘Anvil chorus’ which took some inventive writing when reduced to just three instruments.

Lastly, there was another nod to Mozart, with arrangements of a hit parade of solo arias, duets, terzettos and even a quintet from his landmark opera ‘Die Zauberflöte’ (The Magic Flute). I was informed that this charming arrangement was by a contemporary of Mozart, one Alexander Novotny, about whom there seems to be very little information. Nevertheless, the part writing is brilliant, and captures the spirit of the music and of the story really well. There were several melodies that particularly stood out: Papageno’s aria ‘Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja’, the show-stopping aria of the Queen of the Night ‘Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen’, and the grand Finale ‘Es lebe Sarastro, Sarastro soll leben!’ The Queen of the Night aria is a devil to sing, and made huge demands on the trio, in terms of digital dexterity, technique and breath control. The finale and indeed the other Sarastro aria ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen’ exploited beautifully the rich, expressive nether regions of the bassoon register.

One runs out of superlatives in attempting to describe the playing of this gifted young trio. The range of colours, tone, dynamics, and expression, the quasi-athletic technical hurdles tackled with aplomb, and the aural illusion that one was actually listening to more than three players, all made for one literally breath-taking performance.

The hope expressed at the concert, that it would inspire our youth to take up a woodwind instrument is a noble one. But this is our conundrum: even if a young heart were set afire by a desire to do this, even if one procured the instrument, who would teach it? This is not a rhetorical question, but one that has to be seriously pondered if we really wish to make headway in this direction. These instruments require one-on-one instruction, and in the short term at least, one will have to import such teachers in order to create a solid pedagogical tradition in our country.

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 April 2015 in the Navhind Times Goa India)

Seven Last Words of Christ

 

I was first introduced to Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ in string quartet form, during my years in England. We would meet at each others’ homes, and sight-read through chamber music scores. I learnt a lot of repertoire in this way.

The title Seven Last Words intrigued me, but I soon realised it actually referred to the seven last utterances of Jesus Christ during the crucifixion, taken from the four Canonical Gospels. Three of the sayings appear exclusively in the Gospel of Luke, three exclusively in the Gospel of John, and the other both in the Gospels of Mark and of Matthew.

7_last_words  

The order of the sayings is:

1. Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do. (Theme: Forgiveness)

2. Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Theme: Salvation)

3. John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Son Behold your mother. (Theme: Relationship)

4. Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, have you forsaken me? (Theme: Abandonment)

5. John 19:28: I thirst. (Theme: Distress)

6. John 19:29-30: It is finished. (Theme: Triumph)

7. Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. (Theme: Reunion).

They are of huge theological significance, and used as the basis of sermons for Good Friday.

Haydn’s string quartet is a condensed version of his original orchestral work which I heard performed several times during Holy Week in England, and which many of us were privileged to hear and be a part of (although adapted just for strings) during the Indo-German confluence concerts at the Bom Jesus Basilica Old Goa and the church of Our Lady of Health, Cuncolim last year. For me it was the highlight of all the repertoire we played for many reasons: although I had some familiarity with the music through the string quartet, the orchestral version is much more elaborate; moreover my earlier acquaintance with the music was through the violin parts, and now revisiting the score through the viola was a further revelation of Haydn’s genius.

This work was commissioned from Haydn in 1783 for the Good Friday service at Oratorio de la Santa Cueva (Holy Cave Oratory) in Cádiz, Spain, and received the rather unusual payment of a cake filled with gold coins for his trouble!

In his preface to the published edition by Breitkopf and Härtel (1801), Haydn writes: “Some fifteen years ago I was requested by a canon of Cádiz to compose instrumental music on the Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross. It was customary at the Cathedral of Cádiz to produce an oratorio every year during Lent, the effect of the performance being not a little enhanced by the following circumstances. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the centre of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse. My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners; indeed, I found it quite impossible to confine myself to the appointed limits.”

When one listens to the work, one understands Haydn’s dilemma, and appreciates his resourcefulness even more. Each of the seven utterances has a separate sonata devoted to it, and they are book-ended by an Introduction and a Finale (Il terromoto or The Earthquake, a reference to Matthew 27:51 “Then behold, the veil of the temple was torn to two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked and the rocks were split”).

The Introduction is in the key of D minor, the same key that Mozart would use for his Requiem in 1791 and that Haydn himself used for his ‘Lamentation’ Symphony (1768-9), also written for the Holy Week. And the Earthquake is in C minor, not only a significantly ‘tragic’ tonality, but a whole step below D minor. The musical ground has shifted as well. This is perhaps the only composition by Haydn where he ends in a different key to its beginning “home key”. The drama of the Earthquake has to be heard to be believed. It begins suddenly, with no break from the last sonata (a Largo in E flat major), with an abrupt shift in rhythmic energy, tempo (Presto), volume (not just fortissimo, but Haydn writes “with all possible force”, the first fff or fortississimo in music history, in contrast to the muted pianissimo before it), melodic style, gesture, dynamics and affect. It is short but relentless, and the irregular rhythms, accents (sforzandi) and phrasing make the listener reel to find an aural ‘footing’.

The central seven sonatas for the Seven Last Words are broad and expansive (variously Maestoso, Adagio, Largo, Grave, Lento) and each in a different key (B flat major; C minor ending in C major; E major; F minor; A major; G minor ending in G major; and E flat major). Except for the fourth sonata which stays in F minor (“Why have You forsaken Me?”), the key of ‘funereal lament’, the others that begin in a minor key resolve to their major eventually. The key signature of the last sonata (“Father, Into Your Hands I commend My Spirit”), E flat major, is significant, regarded as it is as one of love, and of “intimate conversation with God”. Each of these sonatas is more beautiful than the next.

Haydn also wrote a choral version and a piano version of this sublime, deeply spiritual, contemplative great work.

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

Music and Illness: A ‘romantic disease’, and ‘Abide with Me’

With World Tuberculosis Day just gone by on 24 March, one has to marvel at the strides taken in its prevention, screening, investigation and treatment, even since my medical student days: new vaccines could be on the horizon, as are newer drugs to combat the problem of tuberculosis resistant to earlier multiple drug treatments; and public health efforts in India and beyond continue against this disease that has been the scourge of humanity for thousands of years.

Prior to the scientific advances of the nineteenth century, the disease did not even have a clear name, variously called ‘the White Plague’, ‘consumption’ (due to the wasting away of the sufferer), mal de vivir or mal du siècle in Europe. It was viewed as a ‘romantic disease’, conferring upon the sufferer a ‘heightened sensitivity’, and representing ‘spiritual purity and temporal wealth’. It was almost fashionable to look like one afflicted by the illness, with young upper-class women intentionally powdering their skin to achieve the pallid ‘consumptive’ complexion. British poet Lord Byron wrote that he “would like to die from consumption”, giving it a further stamp of approval as the disease of the creative artist.

The great pianist composer Frédéric Chopin would eventually die of tuberculosis. His lover George Sand doted upon him for most of his illness, calling him her “poor melancholy angel”, and writing to an acquaintance “Chopin coughs with infinite grace.”

In France alone, several novels were written, idealising the suffering brought on by tuberculosis. Two of them, Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias and Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème inspired operatic depictions of consumption, in Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata and Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème respectively. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and La Traviata were at least in part the stimulus for the 2001 film Moulin Rouge.

In absence of a cure, the disease was relentless, but its slow progress allowed for a “good death”, as sufferers could make preparations for their death.

An example of such a patient is the Scottish Anglican pastor Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847). He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1844, and his health progressively deteriorated over the next three years, when he sensed the end was near. He gave his final Sunday sermon to the parish in a little fishing town in Devonshire that he had served for many years. He took a walk along the beach, and retired to his room, emerging about an hour later with the complete text of the hymn we know and love, “Abide with Me”.

Abide with me

It is a prayer that asks God to be present with the supplicant through life with all its trials, until death. The opening line “Abide with me, Fast falls the eventide” is a reference to chapter 24, verse 29 from the Gospel of St. Luke: ‘They urged Him strongly: “Abide with us; for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent”.’ Christ is risen, and appears to two disciples on the road to the village of Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem. Failing to recognise Him at first, they are drawn into conversation, and urge Him to stay with them for the night.

Lyte passed away barely three weeks after writing the hymn. It was set to music by William Henry Monk (1823-1889), and was first sung at Lyte’s funeral. Monk’s wife writes: This tune was written at a time of great sorrow — when together we watched the glories of the setting sun. As the last ray faded, he took some paper and pencilled that tune which has gone all over the earth.”

She was right about that. It is popular at religious as well as military services. It was the favourite hymn of Mahatma Gandhi, as well as of King George V. It is played by the combined forces of the Indian Armed Forces during the annual Beating Retreat ceremony on 29 January at New Delhi’s Vijay Chowk, to officially mark the end of the Republic Day celebrations.

The text of the hymn struck a deep chord in the Mahatma. In this current climate of mounting intolerance and bigotry, the final lines of the first verse of the hymn have never rung truer: “When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me”.

Thelonious Monk recorded an instrumental version, and singers from Doris Day to Hayley Westenra have recorded it.

‘Abide with me’ was sung at the weddings of King George VI and of Queen Elizabeth II. It is sung just before kick-off at every FA Cup final and Rugby League, and at annual Anzac Day services in Australia and New Zealand, and in Remembrance Day services in the United Kingdom and Canada.

(An edited version of this article was published on 29 March 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Not on your Nellie, Downton Abbey!

Downton Abbey fever had gripped the rest of the world for some years, and now it is here as well. The British period drama television series depicts life in a fictional Yorkshire country estate with the aristocratic Grantham family and their household staff in the post-Edwardian era. It is one of the most widely watched television drama shows in the world, and a large part of its appeal lies in scriptwriter Julian Fellowes trying to be as authentic as possible to the unfolding timeline, the changing fashions and novel appliances and automobiles.

However the Downton team seem to have dropped the ball in Series Four, Episode Three. A chance meeting between Fellowes and the great New Zealand soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa at Glyndebourne Opera prompted him to write her into this episode, casting her in a cameo appearance as another great Dame from the 1920s, the Australian operatic lyric soprano Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931). In this episode, Dame Melba is invited to entertain house guests at Downton Abbey. So far, so good. All very plausible.

But then we are asked to believe that head butler Carson snootily arranges for Dame Melba to be confined to her room with a cup of tea and a dinner tray, as she was deemed too ‘low’ to hobnob with the high-falootin’ family and their guests. Surely even in remote Yorkshire in 1922, one would still have expected an aristocratic family to have had sufficient access to news from the outside world to have known what a star Nellie Melba was. She was by then one of the world’s most famous singers. She had conquered the stage of every major opera house in the world, and their royalty and aristocracy were at her feet. She even had a dessert pudding named “Peach Melba” after her (there’s one for your cookbook, Mrs. Patmore!), invented by the French chef Auguste Escoffier at London’s Savoy Hotel in her honour. He went on to create Melba sauce, Melba toast, and Melba Garniture as well.

On the contrary, Dame Melba would perhaps never have agreed to such a private concert unless her hosts were really close to her, and the Granthams quite obviously weren’t.

In Downton, Te Kanawa’s Melba not only swallows the snub of not being invited to dinner before her concert with equanimity, but when Lady Grantham insists on Dame Melba joining the dinner party, the diva tries to impress her host Lord Grantham with her knowledge of claret, and her affinity to Haut Brion, and (shudder!) actually partakes of it, just before her concert. Any professional singer knew then and knows now that alcohol dries up the throat, and is best avoided several hours before a performance. Why did on-screen Melba/Te Kanawa not know this? It is rumoured that Dame Melba could drink quite heavily when “off-duty”, but she would never have done so just before a performance.

That said, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa apparently has a great interest in the career and oeuvre of Dame Melba and did a fair amount of research before taking on the part. In an interview to the British press, she said “I was trying to stay true to the character because as Julian Fellowes said ‘she’s the only true character’ that actually lived’.” She procured a log sheet of all the performances Dame Melba did, how many roles she played and how much she earned. In today’s money, her annual income would have been about £3 million. Which is why it stretches credulity to assume the diva would have allowed herself to be treated so shabbily by a provincial lord.

The research also influenced the choice of music depicted in the episode. Dvořák’s ‘Songs my mother taught me” was one of Dame Melba’s favourites, and it, along with ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, is on the programme. The latter aria prompts the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) to quip approvingly “You can always rely on Puccini.”

Kiri Te Kanawa as Dame Melba in Downton Abbey

Although Dame Melba’s early gramophone recordings for their technological shortcomings did not quite capture the vital overtones to her voice, depriving it for the body and warmth in real life, they are even today exemplars for an almost seamlessly pure lyric soprano voice with effortless coloratura, a smooth legato and phenomenally accurate intonation, “as reliable as a keyed instrument”. She is said to have had perfect pitch.

Dame Nellie Melba

Not all her music contemporaries were enamoured, though. Gustav Mahler remarked that he’d prefer “a good clarinettist” to her after hearing her sing in La Traviata. Sir Thomas Beecham was even more unkind, famously describing her as “uninterestingly perfect, and perfectly uninteresting.”

Te Kanawa found herself in an uncharacteristic state of “nervous excitement” at the prospect of playing Dame Melba on screen, being unable to sleep the night prior to the shoot. She nevertheless reduced the television crew to tears (for all the right reasons) with her performance in front of the cameras.

Te Kanawa, in true diva style, insisted on having her Pomeranians come with her to Highclere Castle, where the Downton Abbey series is being filmed, overriding its owner Lady Carnarvon’s objections. One of the Pomeranians was pregnant at the time, and the new pup has been named Abbey after the series. A better choice than Pooch-ini, for sure.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 March 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Gender, Charity and Music

In the book “Violin and Viola” by violinist Yehudi Menuhin and violist William Primrose, Menuhin waxes eloquent on the violin: “Its shape is in fact inspired by and symbolic of the most beautiful human object, the woman’s body….The varnish of a Stradivarius or Guarnerius evokes the sun caught in the silken texture of human skin. And like the female human voice, the violin combines the entire soprano and contralto range. I have often wondered whether psychologically there is a basic difference between the woman’s relationship to the violin and the man’s… Does the woman violinist consider the violin more as her own voice than the voice of one she loves? Is there an element of narcissism in the woman’s relation to the violin..?”

And yet, through most of history until the last century or so, female violinists have been conspicuous by their sparse presence and acknowledgement. Today of course, women outnumber men in many major orchestras, notably the New York Philharmonic, where some years ago a male violinist actually filed a suit against the orchestra on grounds of gender discrimination when he was ousted.

One of the many thoughts that crossed my mind at the Hadar Rimon recital was the fact that here was a woman at the height of her violinistic powers, playing the works of composers who were all male!

If one looks at a list of outstanding female violinists through time, an interesting trend emerges when one narrows down the period from the late 1600s to the mid-1800s. A significant number of them seem to have come from and studied at the Ospedale della Pietà, Venice. As the name suggests, it was a charitable institution for orphans, particularly abandoned girls. Its orchestra and choir gained international renown for the sterling quality of their performances. The famous violinist-composer Antonio Vivaldi taught here from 1703 to 1740. Here abandoned infants who might otherwise have had to scrounge for a living or suffer worse fates, were given the best possible music education from a very young age, and the results were spectacular.

I was reminded of this again by Hadar Rimon, when she presented me a CD of her playing. The first work on the disc is Mozart’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in B flat major, K. 454, the “Strinasacchi” sonata. I had often wondered at the provenance of the nickname. Epithets such as these often suggest the work might have been dedicated to a wealthy patron (think of Beethoven’s Razumovsky string quartets for example), or a testimony to the place to which they have a connection (Haydn’s “London” and “Oxford” symphonies; Mozart’s “Prague” and “Linz” symphonies). But every so often, the nickname immortalises the person it was written for.

Regina Strinasacchi was an Italian violin virtuoso in an age when women rarely if ever performed in public. Her name might have sunk without a trace had she not impressed Mozart with her playing, to the extent that he wrote this work expressly for her.

Regina Strinasacchi

We know she was born in Ostiglia, near Mantua in Italy but her date and year of birth are shrouded in mystery, with various historical accounts vacillating between 1761 to 1764, strongly hinting she was born out of wedlock. At some point, perhaps early on in her childhood, she was brought to the Ospedale, where in addition to acquiring phenomenal violin skills, she also learned to play guitar and to compose. Her story when told is often paired with that of Maddalena Lombardini who has similar life circumstances and was also trained at the Ospedale, but let us look more closely at Strinasacchi.

She began touring Europe around 1780, a very young age to be sure, whichever birth year you estimate her age by. It is an indicator of her prodigious prowess at her instrument. She toured what is today Italy, France and Germany, between 1780 and 1783, arriving in Vienna in 1784, where she had the famous encounter with Mozart. We know this because Mozart wrote a letter to his father Leopold at the end of April 1784: “At the moment we have here the famous Strinasacchi from Mantua, a very good violinist; she has a great deal of taste and feeling in her playing…. I am just now composing a Sonata, which we will perform together on Thursday at her concert at the Theatre.”

Strinasacchi and Mozart debuted the Sonata at the Kärtnerthor Theatre Vienna on 29 April 1784 at which the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was present. In a typical example of Mozart’s genius and haste, it was apparently completed just a day before the concert, and Mozart’s widow Constanze writes that he played his part from an empty music sheet or at best an incomplete score. The music was safely in his head; he needed no visual cue for the message to be sent from his brain to his fingers for his own freshly-conceived composition! But it is equally to Strinasacchi’s credit that she mastered the work in 24 hours to play it before such a distinguished audience.

In 1785, Strinasacchi married Johann Schlick, cellist and concertmaster of the court orchestra in Gotha. She played in the orchestra as well, making her arguably the first female orchestral player in history that we know of. She performed as a guitar virtuoso as well, and there are indications that she may have conducted the orchestra too! Sadly her own compositions have not survived. The couple had two children: Caroline, who became a pianist and an actress; and Johann who became a cellist and luthier. Upon her husband’s death in 1818, she moved with her son to Dresden, where she remained until her own demise in 1839.

Some accounts place her last public performance in 1809, in Rome. But in a letter dated 1824, Strinasacchi writes to her friend that she was still “making music”. Whether this was for the public or for more intimate circles is not clear.

The 1718 Stradivarius that she played upon, was subsequently owned by the great violinist-composer Lousi Spohr, and is currently in the safe hands of another female violinist, Miriam Fried.

It is very tempting to speculate whether it was a “good” thing or not for an ‘unwanted’ female child to be left at the doorstep of the Ospedale? What would have become of Regina Strinasacchi had this not happened? But because it did happen, it set off a chain of occurrences that led to her being remembered today, and posterity is the richer for a joyous Sonata which would not have seen light of day had Mozart not met the virtuoso Strinasacchi.

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 March 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Time for Mozart: The Titan Ad

When a seventeen-year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart completed his ‘Sturm und Drang’ (Storm and Stress) Symphony no. 25 in G minor (K. 183/173dB) in Salzburg on 5 October 1773, he couldn’t possibly have foreseen that the bright interlude in its otherwise turbulent first movement would be commandeered to sell wristwatches two centuries later on another continent.

mozart time

The Titan advertising campaign began in the 1980s, and even today, three decades or so later, it is difficult to think of the Titan brand without the tune playing in your head in one of the various avatars it has taken on since then. It has become part of Titan’s very identity.

It was a smart choice. With a name like Titan, one could possibly have thought of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony, the ‘Titan’, or something really over the top. But the Mozart excerpt is succinct, has a bubbling joie de vivre, and the clockwork precision that makes it perfect for an advertisement for a timepiece.

Of Mozart’s 41 ‘numbered’ symphonies and his several unnumbered ones, only three are in a minor key. And G minor in particular he used quite sparingly, in just two of his ‘numbered’ symphonies, no. 25 and 40 (also known as the ‘little’ and ‘great’ G minor symphonies respectively). G minor is the key through which Mozart best expressed disquiet, unease, sadness and tragedy. During the Classical period of music history, the use minor keys as the tonic (‘home’) key was unusual, which makes Mozart’s choice here even more significant. Such choices were not made arbitrarily or lightly.

The Titan team cleverly chose the ‘oasis’ of momentary calm and classical poise in B flat major, after the agitated G minor exposition, with its urgent syncopation and wide-leap melodic lines.

Mozart was undoubtedly hugely influenced here by another ‘Sturm und Drang’ work, Josef Haydn’s Symphony no. 39, also in G minor, written in 1767-68, the earliest of Haydn’s minor key symphonies, and opening with the same ‘nervous excitement’. Like Haydn, Mozart also scored his symphony no. 25 for four horns instead of the customary two. He would use this bold orchestration in his opera Idomeneo as well.

1773 was not a particularly happy time for young Mozart. He was still in his native Salzburg, champing at the bit to break free of the influence of his father Leopold, and working for an unappreciative employer, Archbishop Colloredo.

I am not sure what prompted the Titan advertising team to make this particular choice. After all, the Mozart’s oeuvre alone is full of so many elegant alternative options. The Academy award-winning Miloš Forman film ‘Amadeus’ (1984), which opens dramatically with this movement from Symphony no. 25, brought it to the forefront of popular imagination, and it may have caught the attention of team Titan too .

But this was not the first time a melody from a Mozart symphony had entered the Indian consciousness on such a large scale. The 1961 Hindi film ‘Chhaya’ used the opening melody of the other G minor symphony, the famous symphony no. 40, in the song ‘Itna Na Mujhse Tu Pyaar Badha’, sung by playback singers Talat Mehmood and Lata Mangueshkar.

The Titan ad campaign has featured Aishwarya Rai, Sheetal Mallar, Rani Mukherji, Aamir Khan, Tara Sharma, John Abraham, Minisha Lamba, Maria Gorreti, Praveen Dabas, Rahul Bose, Saira Mohan and other models, actors and actresses, many of them before they attained the stardom they enjoy today.

The advertisements initially celebrated the idea of the watch-as-gift; from father to daughter at her wedding; husband to wife on their anniversary, or at Diwali; and so on.

With the passage of time, the duration of the ads has shrunk, but Mozart’s music has remained in some shape or form. The early examples had the tune played either in its original form, or at the piano, but gradually it has been ‘jazzed up’ as well as Indianised. It is still recognizable to the listener.

In one creative example, Wagner’s famous Bridal March from Lohengrin segues quite cleverly into the Mozart tune as the bridal couple walk down the aisle, exchange vows, and wedding bells complete the tune as the watch is presented to the bride.

In another, a Carnatic violin plays a variation of the Mozart tune as a suitor cements his proposal by transferring his Titan watch from his wrist to hers.

An article in the Economic Times about the Titan branding strategy made interesting reading. Despite the issues faced by the brand from global rivals cornering the market, and the drop in popularity in the wristwatch as a gifting item due to competition from other luxury and utility products, it is heartening to note that Mozart is still considered timeless by these merchants of Time.

(An edited version of this article was published on 8 March 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Creativity Game

If one were to arbitrarily name a few living composers of classical music, several might come to mind: Pierre Boulez, Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Sofia Gubaidulina, Peter Maxwell Davies, Thomas Adès, Marc-André Hamelin, Roxanna Panufnik, Jennifer Higdon.

But here’s the irony: while these composers do have a following, and their works are heard in the world’s concert halls, we are exposed much more often and more widely to the works of other composers whose names barely register in our minds. This is the lot of the film composer, whose music is sometimes taken for granted as ‘incidental’ to the movie, but which adds as much character and substance as any film actor could. And yet one often has to wait patiently after the film as the credits go up, to even learn their names. Julie Andrews put it succinctly at this year’s Academy Awards: “Great music not only enhances a film but cements our memories of it.” She added that the Godfather films would not be the same without Nino Rota’s music, or Breakfast at Tiffany’s without Henry Mancini, or Star Wars without John Williams.

Film music as a genre is often not given as much regard by classical music purists; it is perhaps perceived in some quarters as less “intellectual”, and for three reasons: firstly, that it is “subordinate” to the film as if this were a limitation; second, that it is music “on demand”, often written under pressure to a tight deadline; and lastly that by virtue of its very nature, a different “type” of composer is drawn to it, one who is perhaps more attracted to commercial success than being true to their art (whatever that might be).

All three of these stand on very shaky ground. Let us examine them one by one.

Much of the wealth of classical music rests in ballet and opera, and in both cases one could argue that the purpose of the music is to enhance what is happening on stage, but not necessarily to usurp the limelight. We might remember the music, but it still has a context for which it was written. We do not think any less of the operatic and ballet composers for venturing onto the stage. On the contrary, we regard Tchaikovsky even more highly for his ballets and Mozart for his operas.

Mozart’s genius was at its feverish best when he had a tight deadline; Rossini was the same. Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana is a one-act jewel which might not have seen light of day, had he not been spurred on by the deadline and the lure of a prize.

It is also pertinent to remember that even ‘serious’ composers that were fortunate to live in the era of the birth of the moving picture were excited by its potential and immediately took to this new art form. Camille Saint-Saëns wrote one of the first film scores ever, providing the music for the film L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908).

William Walton was reluctant at first, saying “Film music is not good film music if it can be used for any other purpose”. Today concert suites of music from his films are performed as a matter of routine. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman and Dmitri Shostakovich are just a few others who wrote film music just as comfortably as they did symphonic works and other music for the concert hall.

But the film composer has become a subspecialty in its own right for some time now, and the burgeoning demand has allowed composers to devote much of their creativity to it. This year’s Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat (for his original score to the film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’) is a good case in point.

alexandre_desplat_oscars

He was introduced early to music, starting piano at five, and later trumpet and flute. He studied composition with Iannis Xenakis and Claude Ballif in France and Jack Hayes in the US. He drew inspiration equally from the French symphonists Debussy and Ravel as he did from jazz and more exotic world music from South America and Africa. The attraction to cinema also came early in his formative years. In an interview, he mentions the songs of 101 Dalmatians and the Jungle Book as an influence, and later Alex North’s music to Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. By his early teens, he was collecting soundtrack albums. He acknowledges a debt of gratitude to the music of Max Steiner and Franz Waxman and more recently to Maurice Jarre and Georges Delerue. “I learnt so much from them.”

Although Desplat wrote music for French cinema, Hollywood sat up and took notice after his success with Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003). Since then, his notable films include Casanova, Syriana (2005), The Queen (2006), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), The King’s Speech (2010), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2, Renoir (2012), The Monuments Men and The Imitation Game (2014).

“The first thing is, you can’t write movie music if you don’t know how to write quickly”, he asserts in a BBC interview. He wrote the music for The Queen and The Imitation Game in three weeks. He can be occupied with as many as ten films in one year.

Desplat gets his cues from the film, being careful not to “restate the obvious”. For example, in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he resisted the temptation to write in a swing or big band sound. “It had to be subtle—maybe just an echo of Duke Ellington.” He creates “whirling excitement” in The Imitation Game to reflect the machinery and Turing’s churning mind.

He regards the orchestra that will perform his score as his “main audience”. “If I stand in front of the London Symphony Orchestra, I don’t want them to laugh at me – or even worse, be bored.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 1 March 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Campanula

When studying botany in college, I found the humble bean being described as ‘kidney-shaped’. And as a student of anatomy in medical college, it was amusing to find the kidney described as ‘bean-shaped’.

How about a sound-producing instrument used to describe a flower which in turn inspires and lends its name to another musical instrument? This is the curious story of the campanula.

Campanula is Latin for little bell and is used to describe the bell-shaped flowers of a certain plant genus therefore named Campanulaceae. Sometime in the 1980s, the renowned luthier Helmut Bleffert (whose award-winning cellos have found pride of place in the ranks of the Berlin Philharmonic and in the hands of equally distinguished musicians around the world) was awarded a contract to design an instrument modelled on a plant. This is not such a bizarre idea: after all, stringed instruments are made from wood, so why not go further and get their shape from the plant kingdom as well? In Indian music, the resonating chamber of the sitar is fashioned from a gourd.

Bleffert took the bellflower as his model. The campanula has some similarities with the viola d’amore of the Baroque period and with the Hardanger fiddle from Norway. Bleffert’s creation has four playing strings tuned in fifths as on a modern cello; and 16 additional ‘sympathetic’ or resonating strings fixed to the front of the instrument and tuned with pegs applied at the foot of the neck.

Campanula_Pic1

Georg Faust, former principal cellist in the Berlin Philharmonic, describes his experience with the instrument going back to 1986, when Bleffert presented the idea to him, in a blog post in this month’s issue of The Strad magazine. Faust had no free time to experiment with the campanula in 1986, being busy with the orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, and also as leader of the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic, and as chamber musician and soloist. It was only when he left the Berlin Philharmonic three years ago that he had more time “to investigate the musical and human message of the Campanula”.

If you listen to the video clip of the campanula being played, it really does sound like “playing in a cathedral”, as Faust puts it. The echoes of the resonating strings add depth and colour to the timbre of the instrument in a most intriguing manner.

The qualities of the instrument make it the ideal instrument for “fantasizing and improvising”, and make one’s own playing slower and more attentive, according to Faust.

The first Campanula festival was held in Schifferstadt, Germany in August last year, and Faust played the instrument at the Musical Instrument Museum in November. The luthier Bleffert has also fashioned Campanula violins and violas, which were also performed at the November concert.

So what would chamber music featuring these instruments sound like? A string trio or quartet? “Just magic”, if you ask Faust, who has first-hand experience.

Stefanie John, who is featured playing the instrument in a video clip on The Strad post and on Bleffert’s site, is similarly bewitched by the Campanula’s possibilities. The reverberating resonances arising when playing upon it inspire her to seek alternative phrasing for the work she is playing. She pauses more often to listen to the sound-world being created, which makes the playing much more introspective.

Ms John’s passion for the instrument extended to actually building one herself, under Bleffert’s supervision. She now plays exclusively on the instrument she has built herself, which gives her much satisfaction.

So is the Campanula “old wine in a new bottle”, a throw-back to similar instruments from the Baroque and Renaissance eras, or does it have a viable future. Faust certainly believes it does. “I am very convinced that the Campanula is ready to step on stage and enrich our musical lives. As any classical string player can just take a Campanula and play without having to learn new techniques, it offers a wonderful option for new musical experiences.”

This is a huge advantage. As the principal strings of a Campanula cello, viola or violin (perhaps even double-bass sometime in the future?) are tuned just as their modern counterparts and played no differently, it becomes easy to take up, and enter a whole new experience in string-playing.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 February 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Hats, Masks and Music at Carnival

If you’ve studied an instrument to even a basic level, chances are you are familiar with the “Carnival of Venice” tune. It is a lively tune in triple meter, and can be repeated unchanged, or more often is treated as a springboard for a string of variations upon the theme. It has seduced composers ranging from Paganini to Chopin to Tárrega and Briccialdi.

Its exact origin is unknown, but it is believed to be an old folk tune, the Neapolitan canzonetta ‘O cara Mamma mia”. The label “Carnival of Venice” became associated with it after it was quoted by the German composer Reinhard Kasser in his opera of the same name (Der Carneval von Venedig, 1707).

Over time, it has had English lyrics fitted to it: “My hat, it has three corners” (or in German, “Mein Hut, der hat drei Ecken”). The hat reference could again have to do with the fact that the tune was associated with the Venetian Carnival.

The most iconic item of the Venetian Carnival costume is of course the mask, and some scholars argue that ‘mask’ing the face was a ‘uniquely Venetian response’ to its rigid class hierarchy, one of the most orthodox in European history. But the hat completed the costume and helped to further obscure the identity. And the tricorn (three-cornered hat) was a popular addition in the 17th century, and has remained so.

Carnival of Venice

Many masks were directly borrowed from Commedia dell’arte, the theatre form featuring masked “types” that began in 16th century Italy: Columbina, Arlecchino (Harlequin), Zanni, Pantalone, etc. But there were others too: the distinctive Bauta covering the entire face, and with a beak-like chin to allow the wearer to talk, eat and drink but still preserve anonymity; and the Medico della peste (the Plague Doctor) with a long beak actually used during the plague in the (false) belief that it would somehow prevent the wearer from contracting the disease. The latter is commonly worn in the full costume of a doctor of the plague, as a Memento Mori, a reminder of the vanity and transience of life on earth and a reminder of our mortality, in the midst of all the revelry.

Back to the ‘Carnival of Venice’ tune. The full lyrics of this song are: “My hat it has three corners/Three corners has my hat/And had it not three corners, It would not be my hat”. The song is sung over and over, and commonly when sung by or for children, each time a word is omitted (‘hat’, ‘corners’, ‘three’), replaced by a gesture e.g. pointing to the head for ‘hat’, to the elbow for ‘corners’, etc.

In the hands of Niccolò Paganini, of course, this simple tune is transformed into a virtuosic showpiece, with a breathtaking twenty variations utilising every violinistic gimmick in the book, and lasting over twelve minutes in length. You can hear Salvatore Accardo toss it off effortlessly on YouTube.

And Frédéric Chopin uses the same tune to pay tribute to Paganini. His “Souvenir de Paganini”is a short, gentle lyrical salute in his unique style, in stark contrast to the narcissistic pyrotechnics in the Paganini. The left hand in the Chopin almost entirely keeps up the rocking accompaniment, while the right hand is left free to flourish and trill to its heart’s content. Again, if you visit YouTube, you can listen to Vladimir Ashkenazy and Idil Biret play this, back to back, each imprinting their own interpretation upon it.

If guitar is your thing, then listen to French guitarist Emmanuel Rossfelder play Francisco Tárrega’s Variations on ‘Carnival of Venice’. The preamble lasts a good two minutes before the theme makes an appearance and the variations commence. Quite remarkable is the way, about six variations in, the sound of a snare drum accompaniment is mimicked by pinching down the lowest two strings of the instrument. And the ‘scooping’ sound a few variations before it.

The parade continues. It seems like every conceivable instrument has had its iconic composer harness the potential of this simple tune. Paul Jeanjean has his version for clarinet and piano; you can hear Christopher Pell, accompanied by Noreen Polera at the piano. There is a really haunting, pianissimo variation in the minor key that is at its very centre, and the work finishes off with some impressive runs, perhaps involving circular breathing for it to be so seamless.

Then there’s Jean-Baptiste Arban with his tribute, for trumpet and orchestra. You have to hear Sergei Nakariakov, the ‘Heifetz’ of the trumpet, accompanied by the Israel Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Yusupov. There are some spectacular displays of double and triple tonguing.

An even more recent take by Allen Vizzetti (b. 1952), ‘The Carnival of Venus’, is deemed one of the most difficult trumpet works ever written, in view of its interval range and its technical demands. There is even a version for euphonium by Herbert L. Clarke.

There is also a version for double bass by Giovanni Bottesini, for harp by Wilhelm Posse, for flute and orchestra by Giulio Briccialdi and flute and piano by Mike Mower.

The popular novelty song “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” (1952), sung memorably by Patti Page, is also derived from the ‘Carnival of Venice’ tune. Incidentally Page later became an advocate of animal rights and in 2009 recorded “Do you See That Doggie in the Shelter?” to underscore the suffering resulting from puppy mills in order to provide adorable pups in pet shops, and she championed the adoption of homeless animals in shelters instead.

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 February 2015 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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