Portugalissimo

When Child’s Play India Foundation was offered an opportunity to co-host with Fundação Oriente a chamber music performance by a string quartet from the Orquestra Sinfónica Juvenil de Lisboa, we eagerly said yes.

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It was a win-win situation. The musicians would work with our children and teachers. In addition, Goa would get a string quartet performance (something we don’t get every day here) of an extremely high standard. I am optimistic also of building from this connection a Luso-Indian bridge that could help not just Child’s Play, but music pedagogy for everyone in Goa on a long-term basis.

Another fringe benefit that excites me greatly is the opportunity to embark upon a voyage of discovery into yet another facet of the Portuguese contribution to classical music, something that is sorely neglected even in the most learned music circles around the world. We in Goa are fortunate to attract Portuguese performers so often, and we therefore have a higher probability of hearing music written by Portuguese composers.

So although the musicians (Rui Pedro Mendes Cristão and Luís Filipe Calhau Guimarães, violins; David Brito, viola; and Pedro Serra e Silva, cello) will also perform mainstream repertoire (Mozart Divertimenti or ‘Salzburg symphonies’ nos. 1 in D major K. 136/125a and 3 in F major K. 138/125b; and Antonin Dvořák’s string quartet no. 12 in F major opus 96, the ‘American’), it is their Portuguese music that I am looking forward to even more.

In an earlier column, I had described my first encounter with the music of Portuguese composer and conductor José Manuel Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988) at the concert of Álvaro Pereira (violin) and Pedro Emanuel Pereira (piano) in May 2015 when they played his ethereal Nocturne for violin and piano. And now, we will hear the third movement of his second string quartet in A minor, opus 27 (1957). A leading Portuguese symphonist of the twentieth century, Braga Santos deserves to be far better known than he is at present. His Piano concerto opus 52, composed in 1973, only received its UK premiere last year!

The second Portuguese composer featured on their programme is José Vianna da Motta (1868-1948), eminent pianist-composer and pedagogue. Unless I am mistaken, this is the first time at least in the recent past that Vianna da Motta’s music will be performed in Goa, so it might be worthwhile studying his life history.

Born on the West African island of São Tomé where his father had a pharmacy, Vianna da Motta’s musical ability became obvious soon after the family relocated to Colares near Sintra. He gave his debut public performance at the piano aged thirteen, already playing some of his own compositions.

After completing his tertiary studies aged just fourteen, he then studied piano and composition in Berlin with the famous Scharwenka brothers (Franz Xaver and Ludwig Philipp, both composers and teachers) and in Frankfurt with Hans von Bülow. He expressed his support for the music of Richard Wagner in several publications and conferences.

He wrote about his years in Germany: “I was able to observe at close hand the incomparable world of music in Germany during the transition from the 19th century to the 20th, one of the richest periods ever in the history of music in all respects: creation, interpretation, aesthetic and philosophical research, and historic and academic discoveries.”

Vianna da Motta was student at Franz Liszt’s final classes in Weimar, which had a profound influence upon him. He describes the momentous meeting in vivid detail: “It was in July 1885, at around three o’clock in the afternoon. When I entered the room where Liszt received people, it was packed. The Master was a majestic figure dressed in a long Abbé coat. He had a serene, severe expression, which was not intimidating but rather paternal. He was standing, surrounded by a sea of heads of all descriptions, of which the female variety stood out for the familiarity with which they addressed him…. After I was introduced, he invited me at once to sit down at the piano where I played his study Ronde des Lutins. He did not stop me but after I had finished he said, ‘A little more cautiously; don’t rush into the start. You can come back.’ This last sentence was my dream come true: I had been admitted to Liszt’s circle”.

This was the beginning of a relationship that lasted beyond Berlin, to Rome and other cities, and continued until Liszt’s death in 1886. But Vianna da Motta remained one of his chief exponents through his life.

Vianna da Motta’s Berlin years also brought him close to the great Italian pianist-composer, conductor and teacher Ferruccio Busoni, who dedicated his transcription of Bach choral preludes to him “for having understood so well” the music. da Motta would write “We were linked by a true communion of ideas, although we could never agree on two points: one was (in my opinion) his excessive admiration for Berlioz, and the other was my admiration for Wagner which he never shared”. But despite their artistic differences, the friendship only grew stronger. Busoni said as much when he wrote a note to da Motta while sending him some of his music “To his now doubting, now believing, near, distant, approving, rejecting, constantly faithful and highly esteemed friend”.

Busoni composed two cadenzas to Mozart’s piano concerto in E flat minor specially for da Motta, which the latter performed under the latter’s baton in Berlin.

He shared the stage with some of the greatest contemporaries of his time, including the virtuoso violinist-composers Eugène Ysaÿe and Pablo de Sarasate.

He finally returned to Portugal in 1917, becoming director of the Conservatório Nacional two years later. In 1957, the José Vianna da Motta Music Competition was founded in his honour.

A direct connection between the two composers on the programme is the 1948 orchestral work by Joly Braga Santos titled ‘Elegy to Vianna da Motta’.

I was able to listen to the string quartet by Joly Braga Santos (performed with much feeling by the Quarteto de Cordas de Lisboa, 1989) on YouTube, and it would have been really wonderful to have heard this true masterpiece performed in its entirety in concert. It really deserves to join the standard chamber music repertoire, and be heard much more often. The string quartet by Vianna da Motta has not yet found a niche in cyberspace, so it is with great eagerness that I await listening to this very significant concert.

(An edited version of this article was published on 21 August 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Showers of music forecast

Two exciting concerts are scheduled in the next few days, 20 and 24 August, in the capital city at Menezes Braganza hall.

Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org) presents its annual monsoon concert on 20 August 2016 at 6.30 pm. The concert programme features the children from the charity playing violin, viola, cello, recorder, flute and clarinet. They will play an eclectic selection of pieces, including Suzuki melodies, J. S. Bach’s G major Minuet, and a Rigaudon by Henry Purcell in four-part harmony, and the instrumental version of the evergreen Goan ode ‘Sobit amchem Goem’ set to the lyrics of great Goan poet Manoharrai Sardessai.

In addition, the concert also features music by visiting musicians Matthew Higham (flute) and Jenny Clarke (piano) from the Purcell School of Music England, and by Ankna Arockiam (mezzo-soprano) and Edward Cohen (piano) from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

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Matthew Higham and Jenny Clarke will perform the famous Sicilienne by Marie Theresia von Paradis, Ian Clarke’s Orange Dawn, Eldin Burton’s Sonatina for flute and piano, Benjamin Godard’s Suite de Trois Morceaux, a movement from Robert Muczynski’s sonata for flute and piano, and the movement titled ‘Krishna’ from Albert Roussel’s Jouers de Flûte. Jenny Clarke will also accompany Child’s Play violin teacher Syanna Fernandes in Wieniawski’s Légènde.

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Ankna Arockiam and Edward Arockiam will perform works that include Handel’s famous aria ‘Ombra mai fu’ from his opera Xerxes, Schubert’s ‘Du bist die Ruh’, Ravel’s Chanson ecossaise, and Federico García Lorca’s ‘Canciones Españolas Antiguas’.

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On 24 August 2016, also at 6.30 pm, Child’s Play India Foundation in association with Fundação Oriente present four musicians (Rui Pedro Mendes Cristão and Luís Filipe Calhau Guimarães, violins; David Brito, viola; and Pedro Serra e Silva, cello) from the Orquestra Sinfónica Juvenil de Lisboa in a string quartet recital that has in its concert programme W. A. Mozart’s Divertimenti or ‘Salzburg symphonies’ nos. 1 in D major K. 136/125a and 3 in F major K. 138/125b; and Antonin Dvořák’s string quartet no. 12 in F major opus 96 (the ‘American’) and two works by Portuguese composers: the third movement of the String Quartet no. 2 by Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988) and ‘Scenes in the Mountains’ from the second String Quartet by José Vianna da Motta (1868-1948).

Donation passes to both concerts are already on sale at Furtados Music stores and will also be available at the door on the evenings of the concert.

Child’s Play India Foundation is also very pleased to be invited back to the prestigious INK talks (http://inktalks.com/people/luis-dias) in September 2016, and the presentation this time will feature a live performance on stage by a selected ensemble of the charity’s children and teachers.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times goa India on 19 August 2016)

The Buck stops at Opera

What’s with animation movies and classical music? The love affair seems as old as animation itself, a notable high point being the 1940 Walt Disney film ‘Fantasia’ with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski, a deliberate marriage between the two genres.

And animators have much comic material to draw from opera in particular, with its over-the-top emotions, the often ridiculous plotlines, the airs and graces of prima donnas, and the tendency of both the classical music profession and their rarefied audience to often take themselves much too seriously.

A while ago, I had written a column on the use of the aria ‘E lucevan le stele’ from Giacomo Puccini’s opera ‘Tosca’ in ‘Happy Feet 2’. I had stumbled upon this only because my son was watching the film, and I happened to be with him at the time.

And the same circumstances applied for ‘Ice Age: Collision Course’. He was keen on seeing it, and it fell to my lot to chaperone him to Inox. The film is the fifth in the Ice Age franchise, and quite frankly the franchise ought to have been ‘put on ice’ after the very first episode. But box office considerations seem to trump even the basic need for a genuine spark of creativity. Far easier to keep creating sequels and milking an old idea rather than think of a new idea.

Buck the weasel

Buck the weasel (given voice by Simon Pegg, who is Benji in Mission Impossible III) is an addition to the menagerie of Paleolithic (and the franchise has received a lot of criticism for not even attempting to be scientifically accurate about chronology and timelines) in the third instalment of the series Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009).

He gets written out of part four (Continental Drift 2012) but makes a swashbuckling return in Collision Course. And how does he make an entrance? With the Figaro aria.

The aria itself is actually titled “Largo al factotum” from Gioachino Rossini’s opera “Il barbiere di Siviglia” (The Barber of Seville) based on the comedy play Le Barbier de Séville by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799). It, in turn, is part of a trilogy of ‘Figaro’ plays, of which Le Barbier de Séville is the first, followed by Le Mariage de Figaro (better known today as a basis for Mozart’s famous opera of the same name, but in Italian) and La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother).

All the plays are centred on the character of Figaro. It is thought that Beaumarchais thought up the name Figaro as a phonetic transcription of the words ‘fils Caron’, therefore a creation or ‘son’ of his own.

Beaumarchais himself had much in common with his character Figaro in terms of intelligence, quick-wittedness and versatility: Beaumarchais was at various points in his life horologist (inventing a timepiece that was accurate to the second and tiny enough to fit into a ring), inventor, playwright, satirist, musician, publisher, horticulturist, diplomat, spy, arms dealer, revolutionary (playing a role in both, the American and French Revolutions) and financier.

At preliminary examination, the content of the plays seems innocuous enough, following a pretty traditional Italian Commedia dell-arte structure, with Figaro modelled upon the character of Brighella or Arlecchino. Both belong to the zanni (from where we get the English word ‘zany’) or comic servant characters in Commedia dell’arte. Figaro too is a former ‘comic servant’-turned barber who is capable of doing everything. Brighella is essentially Arlecchino’s smarter and older if somewhat more vindictive brother in the Commedia dell’arte cast of characters. Both Brighella and Arlecchino have a striking resemblance to Buck the weasel in Ice Age, in that all are mask-wearing, club- or sword-wielding characters. I am not sure whether these were deliberate additions to Buck’s appearance to prepare him for Figaro, or mere coincidence.

What made the plays so revolutionary was the subterfuge of the social order, with the servant clearly shown to be smarter and more resourceful than the master, and even prompting the master’s decisions. Louis XVI was prophetic when he said of Le Mariage de Figaro: “For this play not to be a danger, the Bastille would have to be torn down first.” Napoleon Bonaparte called it “the Revolution in action.’

In the Rossini opera, like Buck in Ice Age Collision Course, Figaro bursts upon stage with the Largo al factotum aria. The title literally means “Make way for the factotum”, factotum being a sort of jack-of-all-trades, deriving from the Latin for “do everything”.

The aria is a virtuosic showpiece for any baritone, one of the most difficult in the repertoire to perform, on account of its allegro vivace, almost nonstop singing of tongue-twisting lyrics set into the rhythm of triplets in 6/8 metre, and having to make it look effortless while gesticulating and acting out the lines. It is Rossini arias just like Largo al factotum that so inspired the Victorian-era theatrical partners, librettist-composer Gilbert and Sullivan to write their ‘topsy-turvy’ comic operas that so cleverly interwove lyrics and music.

This is where Buck’s aria in Ice Age falls far short. The English lyrics are lame, just not as witty or funny as they could have been. The English National Opera routinely performs the operatic repertoire in English, and their translations are done with much imagination and thought. The text to Buck’s aria however seems to have been put together in a slapdash manner, perhaps in a hurry to meet a deadline. It attempts to be a pastiche or parody of the original, but ends up being neither.

Contrast this with the much older Tom-and-Jerry “take” on Largo al factotum, where there is such humour in the delivery and the exploitation of the music score to dictate what happens on screen. Timing is everything in comedy. This is truly brilliant animation. For all its 3-D effects, the weasel is not a “patch” on that cat and mouse.

That said, Buck’s aria will familiarise young audiences with classical music, even if this is just a few minutes of it. Bollywood actor Arjun Kapoor does the voice-over in the Hindi version of Collision Course, thus widening its reach even further.

(An edited version of this article was published on 14 August 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

To Sir with Love: Carlos D’Costa (1911-1983)

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Carlos D’Costa (or ‘Sir’ Costa as we respectfully addressed him) was technically not my first violin teacher, but he was certainly the first to leave such a profound, long-lasting impression upon me. He looms larger than life in my childhood memory. It will be his 105th birth anniversary this 11 August, and would like to dedicate this column to his memory.

I don’t recollect at what point after our return from Germany my father decided that my brother and I should have violin lessons. Perhaps I was five or six when Mr. Machado, a kindly old gentleman from Daman, would come home to give us lessons. It was all too brief, as in about a year he returned to Daman. We corresponded with him by post-card for many years. He had the most intriguing address: “Mr Machado, Near mango tree, Moti Daman, Daman.” Incredibly, our letters would reach him on this cryptic address, and he would exhort us to keep up our practice. When eventually our letters began to receive no reply, we had to assume the worst. Should I ever visit Daman, I shall certainly look up his family.

We then had an even briefer spell with Gregorio Rodrigues from Mandur. Then, when our parish priest Rev. Fr. Martin Fernandes began the Santa Cecilia School of Music, we became its first students. In typical parish music school fashion, we had to first study solfeggio, which I still think a very good thing. So many students of an instrument are unable to sing the music they are trying to play, which is so fundamental to music-making.

Solfeggio class (at the house on Rua de Ourem at the corner of the turn-off into São Tomé vaddo) was loads of fun under the easy-going, humour-loving Fr. Borges. There would be eruptions of laughter in our class, and we would struggle to keep a straight face when Fr. Martin made his surprise visits.

One fine afternoon, I was summoned to the other branch of the school (the house opposite Welfit tailors) where I met Sir Costa for possibly the first time. He and Fr. Martin got me to try out a simple piece (‘Russian Dance’) on the violin, and they decided that I was ready for violin lessons. From then on, I would have thrice-weekly lessons with Sir Costa, come rain or shine, school or vacation, for nearly a decade until the end of Sir Costa’s teaching days.

This might seem a long time, but when I look back at that time-span, it seems all too short. Those years with Sir Costa inculcated in me the discipline of regular practice. Thrice-weekly lessons meant we necessarily had to practice in the intervening days. Add to that Fr. Martin’s encouragement of as many children as possible playing at 8 am Sunday children’s mass, and we therefore had daily contact with the instrument without us even realising it.

Perhaps we had fewer distractions then. I remember only cycling, playing in the street, and story-books and comics competing for our attention. But even they didn’t really eat into our dedicated practice time. And the instrumental competitions at Don Bosco, the Trinity College exams, St. Cecilia concerts, the masses and novenas meant we were constantly having to prepare for something or the other all the time. Children today have fewer and fewer opportunities to perform in public, especially as ensembles.

Sir Costa was such a gentle soul, and something about his aura, his wise, reassuring smile, was so compelling that we tried our best to please him, to give him the results he wanted. I do not recollect practice at home being a chore, because we really wanted to be ready for our next lesson with him. He would be seated at the centre of the room, and the class on benches and chairs all around him, with our music on purpose-built silver-painted wooden stands in front of us.

It might seem a cliché to say this, but in my imagination I can see and hear him play as if he were still here. Everything about the way he played was elegant: clean crisp bow strokes producing such a distinctive, signature sweet tone. His sound had a rare nobility of spirit and guileless beauty that one doesn’t easily find today.

So many teaching aids and accessories were unheard of then. We played without shoulder-rests, and got along fine without them. We had no coloured strips to the fingerboard or electronic tuners as intonation aids, the only intonation aids being our ears, the ultimate arbiter for intonation.

And Sir Costa was particularly fussy about intonation, and I am ever grateful to him for this. Today, we talk about tonalisation and ‘ringing notes’ through the Suzuki method. But Sir Costa was instinctively doing this even before such concepts had gained currency here.

He was unassuming and self-deprecating to a fault. He would often tell us how he “didn’t know much”, but that he would teach us whatever he knew. But over time, it was obvious he had played a lot on the Bombay orchestral circuit, perhaps in the 1950s after Independence. He had certainly played under the baton of my relative Vere da Silva (violinist and conductor, another major influence in my musical upbringing), and when I learnt of this, I engineered what turned out to be a very emotional reunion between the two of them after decades at my house.

It was Sir Costa who first extolled to me the joys of orchestral playing (“where a whole section should sound like just one violin playing”), as a result of which I began to listen to my records even more avidly. I think he was happiest when he was allowed by Fr. Martin to conduct us. Eyes half-closed, with a smile on his face, he would coax the music from the various voices, and we would play our hearts out for him.

He would spring sight-reading challenges upon us all the time, which really is such an important part of music learning. Perhaps it is an indication of the times India was going through that he compared it to “shoot-at-sight” after curfew. We had to “shoot” the notes at first sight!

Sir Costa was so busy with teaching and playing at the chapel that he rarely got leave to go to his home in Colva. But he took us on one memorable occasion, where we met his family, including his son Rocklin, who is today a priest.

I remember his final years with cancer for the stoicism (“God is great”, he would say) and the dignity with which he faced the illness head-on. When he passed away, it left me bereft of the most important, inspirational teacher-figure in my life until then, and not just in music. I am ever grateful that he touched my life so profoundly.

(An edited version of this article was published on 7 August 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Ugly Ducklings and Swans

I could not have asked for a better setting for my 50th if I had tried. It had the Wimbledon final in the evening, and the UEFA Euro Championship final in the early hours of the following morning.

I guess cheering for either of the finalists could be misconstrued as an ‘anti-national’ act, given the colonial histories of both Portugal and France on our subcontinent. I’ll make no secret of the fact that I (like most of Goa, I suspect) was rooting for Portugal. Apart from the historic affinity one felt for the team, there was also much more riding on that match for Portugal. The last time they got to the final, they were on home soil, but had to be content with the runner-up spot.

And what a nail-biting match it was! It looked like curtains for Portugal after Cristiano Ronaldo’s premature exit due to injury pretty early on in the game. If Portugal were to score now, who would it be? I had thought it might be Nani or Renato Sanches. Éder (Éderzito António Macedo Lopes) was not even a consideration until he was brought in as a substitute for Sanches at the 78th minute. I don’t know much about footballers’ vital stats, so when the TV commentator made remarks like “not a very good goal-scoring record” and “struggled in Swansea City” as Éder ran onto the field, it was not very confidence-inspiring.

But manager and coach of the Portuguese team Fernando Santos obviously knew what he was doing when he sent Éder in. I marvel at how coaches decide on the strategic moment that a specific player comes off and another comes on.

And just when it seemed like the 0-0 stalemate would spill from extra time into a penalty shoot-out, sweet deliverance for Portugal with a stunning goal from Éder in the 109th minute! The London Guardian the following day called him “the most unexpected of heroes.”

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Unexpected indeed. The South Wales Echo saw fit to carry its headline the same day “Swansea flop Eder the hero” and in its text even while celebrating his ‘sensational’ goal also described him as “one of the most disappointing transfer flops in recent Swansea City history”.

Coach Santos had earlier termed his team “ugly ducklings”; Éder had in almost in a heartbeat now metamorphosed into “a beautiful swan” in Santos’ eyes.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s remark to the press qualified their victory quite insightfully: “It is a trophy for all the Portuguese, for all immigrants, all the people who believed in us.”

Their team-mate Pepe echoed a similar sentiment:  “We represented Portugal, a beautiful country of immigrants and we represent every one of them. This goes out to them.”

The Guardian London acknowledged Éder’s immigrant origin as well as early background with a rather clumsy headline: “Éder’s piece of outsider art caps journey from care home to Euro 2016 glory”.

The composition of European national teams is interesting, because the ethnic origin of many team members often betrays the country’s colonial history or past waves of economic migration. Éder was born in 1987 in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, a West African country formerly under the Portuguese until it unilaterally declared its independence in 1973. Not much about his early childhood is in the public domain. His family moved to Lisbon for better economic prospects when Éder was two years old but lacked the means to care for him. He was therefore admitted to Lar O Girassol (“The Sunflower Home”), a state-administered care home in the vicinity of Coimbra. He spent his formative years here. The Lar was apparently run by Catholic priests, and characteristically had a rigid daily schedule, from which football provided a welcome release.

The TV commentator at the live match coverage said something shortly after Éder’s goal, to the effect that his childhood was so deprived that he rarely spoke about it. But in the Guardian article, his quotes from the previous year about those times seemed candid enough: “It helped me to grow into the man that I have become and aided my football career…. Of course, at times it was a little bit tough, which is normal, but I enjoyed it a lot. I met so many of my friends there, and it was good to have that life experience.”

Immigrants and “outsiders” are raging topics worldwide right now, from the Syrian refugee crisis, to Brexit, to the US election and Donald Trump’s proposed wall to keep Mexicans out, to the ever-increasing xenophobia in the “civilised” world and even to Goa, with issues of Portuguese citizenship, and our attitude to migrants from other parts of India.

I recently exited one of the umpteen Facebook groups that discuss Goan issues, as a reaction to a meme championing the cause of “Ghanti-exit”, with pictures of supposed migrants to Goa, carrying all their belongings upon their heads, and with their impoverished state quite clearly obvious. Does love for Goa necessarily have to translate into hatred and scorn of the “other”? Who is harming Goa more, the poor migrant in search of work, or the rich elite from India’s metropolises who buy second and third homes at exorbitant prices, therefore spiralling real estate prices ever upward, making it impossible for Goan first-time buyers to enter the property market? Or the casino barons who (mis)use our rivers with impunity and give very little back in exchange, to say nothing of cheapening the brand value of Goa as a tourist destination? Or ‘Goan’ politicians who actually get re-elected on artificial vote banks?

How differently would history have played out if Éder’s family had been denied entry into Portugal? Would Portugal have lifted the Euro 2016 trophy in his absence?

One could speculate even further beyond football and further back in time: would Beethoven have been Germany’s pride and joy, its greatest gift to the world, had his grandfather not been permitted to move at the age of 22 from the Brabant region in present-day Belgium to Bonn?

One certainly needs checks and balances when it comes to immigration, to avoid swamping of finite resources. But there’s really no telling who, and how many generations later, will make a nation rejoice (as Portugal did on 10 July) at having let someone, or a family, or a community into their borders, into their lives and into their hearts.

(An edited version of this article was published on 31 July 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Kreisler on my mind

When my cousin Dr. Bossuet Afonso requested me to play my violin at the centenary celebration of his father, the great doctor, scientist, artist and musician and distinguished son of the soil Dr. Emidio Afonso, I knew at once that one piece would have to occupy pride of place, even though I would have to play it unaccompanied: Fritz Kreisler’s Schön Rosmarin (Fair Rosemary).

I remember one annual day function of the St. Cecilia Music School at the hall of Mary Immaculate School (where the founder of the St. Cecilia Music School, Fr. Martinho Fernandes also taught) sometime perhaps in the mid- to late 1970s, when Dr. Emidio played this very piece, with his daughter Nelita at the piano and son Sergito, cello playing the bass line. The way I remember it, we the children were already on stage when the Afonso family came up to perform. I felt so proud as I whispered to my colleagues “They’re my relatives!”

Schön Rosmarin was a particular favourite of Dr. Emidio; I have vivid memories of him humming or whistling it as he worked in his laboratory, or walked from one house to another in his Campal compound, a place that is so full of good memories from my childhood.

Schön Rosmarin is one of three pieces (the other two being Liebesfreud or Love’s Joy; and Liebesleid or Love’s Sorrow) for violin and piano published under the title Alt-Wiener Tanzweisen (Old Viennese Melodies) in 1905, written by Fritz Kreisler but that he ‘playfully’ credited to nineteenth-century Austrian dance composer Josef Lanner (1801-1843). This ‘playfulness’ might be difficult for us to understand today, but Kreisler did it with many of his own compositions, passing them off as works by composers before his time, and only owning up to them later in life. He brushed off protests by critics at what they considered fraud, saying they had already considered them of value: “The name changes, the value remains”, he said.

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For those interested, there is a rare interview with Kreisler on WQXR radio on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1955, available online on YouTube, where he explains why he ascribed his compositions to others: “[I can explain it] very easily: When I was a young man, I tried to make a position for myself as a violinist, and not as a composer. At that time, the violinists’ repertoire was very scanty, very thin. So consequently, I had to furnish, I had to increase the repertoire. And I couldn’t do it other than doing it myself….And the difficulty arose in putting my own name on my programme, because, being young and unknown and trying to make a position for myself as a violinist , that would have looked too bad. Nobody would have engaged me to hear my own works”. Quite a disingenuous argument. Furthermore, Kreisler admitted he feared critics would judge not only his playing but his compositional skills, and bias in one could affect the other.

I took the run-up to the Emidio Afonso celebration as an opportunity to delve deeper into the intricacies of Schön Rosmarin. A cascade of searches and related links took me to a very insightful video masterclass by violin pedagogue Roy Sonne from his “School of Violin Artistry” series. It is very instructive, and I now use many ideas and tips from it.

Who was Schön Rosmarin, or fair Rosemary? An old flame? An unrequited love? I’ve scoured through books and pored over websites, but there is no clear answer. Perhaps she was just the epitome of Alt Wien (Old Vienna), an era and way of life that would be blown away forever by the First World War, the centenary of which is also being commemorated in these years (2014-2018).

There are so many fantastic recordings of Schön Rosmarin out there, but none in my opinion match that of the violinist-composer himself, for sheer old-world charm and joie de vivre. Listen to his 1936 recording with pianist Franz Rupp. Fair Rosmarin comes to life in the three musical paragraphs (A-B-A, or bread-jam-bread in Suzuki parlance) of the work: a coquettish, flirtatious young woman, whose flutter of her eyelashes (the spiccato quavers) can conquer hearts in less than a heartbeat. Kreisler is a master of rubato, stretching and contracting time at will like an invisible rubber band.

Fritz Kreisler is also on my mind due to the fact that he served in the Austrian army during WWI. I learnt this through the writing of my friend Ariane Todes, musician, journalist and former editor of the prestigious stringed instrument magazine, The Strad. Kreisler’s book “Four Weeks in the Trenches: The War Story of a Violinist” was written while he was on tour, in hotels and railway stations, after being somewhat reluctantly persuaded to do so. It is an insightful first-hand account of WWI in particular (and a rare description of the fighting from the ‘other’ side) and of the futility and pointlessness of warfare in general.

(You can read the whole book online here).

Kreisler’s “musical ear” was actually of value in just one instance: He noted that “every shell describes in its course a parabolic line, with the first half of the curve ascending and the second one descending. Apparently in the first half of its curve, that is, its course while ascending, the shell produced a dull whine accompanied by a falling cadence, which changes to a rising shrill as soon as the acme has been reached and the curve points downward again. The acme for both kinds of shells naturally was exactly the half distance between the Russian and Austrian artillery……When I told [an artillery officer] that I could actually determine by the sound the exact place where a shell coming from the opposing batteries was reaching its acme, he thought that this would be of great value in a case where the position of the opposing battery was hidden and thus could be located.” And the enemy battery’s location was exactly as he had surmised.

What I found more telling was his observation of the humanness of the soldiers on both sides of the fighting: “It was there and then that I made a curious observation.  After the second day we had almost grown to know each other.  The Russians would laughingly call over to us, and the Austrians would answer.  The salient feature of these three days’ fighting was the extraordinary lack of hatred.  In fact, it is astonishing how little actual hatred exists between fighting men.  One fights fiercely and passionately, mass against mass, but as soon as the mass crystallises itself into human individuals whose features one actually can recognise, hatred almost ceases.  Of course, fighting continues, but somehow it loses its fierceness and takes more the form of a sport, each side being eager to get the best of the other.  One still shoots at his opponent, but almost regrets when he sees him drop.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 24 July 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

A farewell salute to Aruna Sunderlal (1939-2016)

Aruna Sunderlal

The music fraternity in Goa, certainly music teachers and young amateur musicians who have played at various times in orchestral projects in Bangalore will be very familiar with the name of Aruna Sunderlal, Founder and Managing Trustee of Bangalore School of Music, and they will be aware too of the huge respect she commanded not only within her city, but from her peers and colleagues from the rest of the country and around the world. The news of her death on 23 June came as a bolt from the blue to me, and is a big blow to the cause of music education in India.

When I visited the Bangalore School of Music sometime in 2010, it was already housed in its current location, a formidable 12,000 sq. feet building in R.T. Nagar, equipped with classrooms, recording studio and auditorium. At the time, the music charity that I had founded in Goa, Child’s Play India Foundation was barely a year old, and although Ms. Sunderlal had not focussed exclusively on our demographic (the underprivileged sector), what she had been able to accomplish was truly impressive and awe-inspiring. She was a living example of how much could be achieved by one person with a singular vision, and the steely resolve to follow that vision through.

Although I did meet Ms. Sunderlal at that visit, I was in the rank and file of the violas of the orchestral project (India National Youth Orchestra), so a convenient opportunity did not present itself for me to talk to her at greater length about Child’s Play. I really connected with her some years later, in 2013, when we were invited as delegates to the first-ever summit conference in India of the AAPRO (the Alliance of Asia-Pacific Region Orchestras) at the National Centre for the Performing Arts NCPA Mumbai. During the four days of the conference, as various facets of the current status and health of music in the region were discussed, I realised that although varying in degree, many issues were common to all our efforts. Everyone across the spectrum, from Child’s Play to the Bangalore School of Music to the NCPA was struggling and working hard to gain funding for their project. Without this, it is impossible to maintain running costs, and just as importantly, to grow and dream bigger for the future. All music education initiatives had to contend with long school hours, tuitions, exams etc eating into the number of waking hours in a child’s day, or the days in a week left over for music instruction or practice. All of us endeavoured to create new audiences for music among the public, and get more media attention to the arts.

In my conversations with Ms. Sunderlal between conference sessions, I learnt how she had begun her school at her home some thirty-odd years ago, and how it continued to function from there, an old colonial bungalow, for 22 years, until the current premises were constructed. She was naturally an old hand at soliciting funding from corporate houses and philanthropists, and only smiled when I told her of my frustration at this. “Be patient, but relentless”, she said to me. “Never give up! Never lose sight of what you wish to achieve. It will come if you persist”. These words of advice were a shot in the arm for me.

In a 2007 interview to The Hindu (the article about the school was aptly titled “Aruna Sunderlal’s Labour of Love”), she had laconically stated “We have done much with very little.” This was a huge understatement, of course. She has achieved more than others have done with far greater financial support.

A comparative study between the Bangalore School of Music and our Kala Academy over the same time span would be quite revealing. The Bangalore School of Music certainly offers instruction in a far wider spectrum of orchestral instruments. It has teachers for all the bowed stringed instruments (violin, viola, cello, double-bass), all the woodwinds (flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon), and most of the brass (trumpet, trombone, tuba, euphonium). This in itself is a huge accomplishment. The Kala Academy, despite being an older institution, with assured annual governmental financial support, and situated in Goa, the ‘Rome of the East’, with the advantage of a longer (by several centuries!) exposure to western music due to its colonial history, still cannot boast of this.

The Kala Academy has an inherent design flaw that has plagued it from its very inception. It is a creative, artistic institution, but administered by bureaucrats and politicians. As if this were not disadvantage enough, political considerations determine who wields the post of Chairman, and conversely, if a political party falls from power, so does the Chairman. Too often (in fact it would be hard to think of an exception), the Chairman while in office also holds other political responsibilities which eclipse the duties of the Chairman from the very outset. I have lost count of the number of times I have tried to meet various Chairmen, only to be told they were tending to the other portfolio which overshadowed all else. Meetings and decisions get postponed indefinitely, and files languish on tables in the meantime. It is an untenable situation. Such an important position, if it has to exist in the hands of a politician, cannot be a part-time consideration.

The story with the post of Member-Secretary is depressingly similar. I know of some dynamic teaching faculty members taking innovative proposals up to the administrative section, only to have them shot down on some pretext or the other. And on the other side of the ‘glass wall’ that divides administration from faculty and the department in general, they claim that teaching staff get complacent due to the security of a government job.

The argument on both sides holds for the other disciplines as well. Faculty from the Indian music, dance, and drama sections have at various times privately expressed their frustration with the system in place.

With the musical chairs (if you will pardon the pun) that is the order of the day with the administrative staff that make crucial decisions about the Kala Academy, it is impossible to have a comprehensive, studied, long-term vision, which is so crucial for the growth of any artistic, creative enterprise, certainly when building a lasting pedagogical tradition.

Aruna Sunderlal not only possessed this vision, but the grit and determination to see it through against all odds, to the end of her days. May her soul rest in everlasting peace.

(An edited version of this article was published on 17 July 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Advantage Music

“The scene is a garden at dusk; a tennis ball has been lost.” The beginning of a play or a novel? This was the opening sentence describing the scenario to the audience of Claude Debussy’s ballet ‘Jeux’ (Game), which is based loosely on the game.

I thought the euphoria of the Wimbledon finals would be a good enough excuse to explore the fascination of musicians with tennis.

Although Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was twelve years younger than Debussy (1862-1918), they struck up a friendship, although not a close one, which would last more than a decade. That friendship extended to the tennis court as well. The relationship soured later for musical as well as personal reasons.

Two other composers that played tennis together were Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and George Gershwin (1898-1937). They seem unlikely partners, as their compositional styles could not be more different. Gershwin’s lavish Beverly Hills home had a tennis court, which saw the two composers sparring fiercely every week.

Their playing styles were markedly different as well. One observer account describes Gershwin as ‘nonchalant’, ‘chivalrous’, and ‘always playing to an audience’, whereas Schoenberg was ‘overly eager’, ‘choppy’ and had ‘learned to shut his mind against public opinion’. As in music, so in tennis?

Schoenberg’s obsession with notation extended to tennis as well. He devised a unique short-hand notation system for tennis, in which issues like ‘foot fault’ and ‘player rushes to the net’ were dutifully recorded. It never quite caught on.

Although British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) had a “damaged heart” following a severe attack of pneumonia as a baby and was told he would never lead a normal life, he became a keen sportsman, especially for outdoor pursuits like cricket, football and tennis. And when he played, he gave it everything.

Author Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy writes “Ben was intensely, remorselessly competitive in an almost sadistic way…When you were beaten by him at squash or tennis… you literally felt that he’d been ‘beating’ you.”

“My primary occupations are playing tennis and scoring the opera”, wrote Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) in 1916 to his friends while away in Finland working on his opera ‘The Gambler’. He was known to argue heatedly over every point as he played. Possibly the game could encroach upon his work as well, as he writes in another missive: “The famous international tennis star Prokofiev has arrived in Kuokkala and has taken part in a huge tennis competition. ‘The Gambler’ suffered most of all”.

Twenty years later, tennis was still important to him: “Besides working, I’m playing tennis and chess, swimming and reading.” He was a perfectionist on court as well as in music.

Tennis courts (or the courts for the game that preceded it, the Jeu de Paume, or ‘Game of Palms’ as the game initially was played without racquets, which were introduced later) have been used as venues for music events, notably opera. La Salle du Jeu de Paume de la Bouteille does not exist anymore in Paris, but it was the site of the first public performance of the opera ‘Pomone’ by the seventeenth-century French composer Robert Cambert (1628-1677), also the first known opera in French.

Cadmus et Hermione, the first tragédie-en-musique (tragic opera) by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) was staged at the Jeu de Paume du Bel Air in the rue de Vaugirard in 1673.

The Burgtheater Wien (Vienna Burgtheatre) was initially a tennis court, being refurbished as a theatre for operatic performances and plays in 1741.

Should instrumentalists play tennis or should they avoid it for fear of injury? This gets debated at lot on dedicated music forums even today. But the violin greats of the past and present seemed not too worried.

Heifetz tennis

The definitive violin virtuoso of the 20th century, perhaps of all time, Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) was a keen tennis player. In his autobiography “Early Years in Russia”, he writes in a letter to music critic and friend Viktor Valter: Heifetz: “Not far from us is a tennis court. I often play and have already learned to play pretty well, although I don’t have time to play every day”. And he was not alone, by his account. Other students like him, of the great violin pedagogue Leopold Auer, would come to play as well.

Another great violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001) seemed to love the game even more. In his autobiography “My First 79 Years”, he writes: “[Tennis] may seem a strange attraction for a violinist, who should be more cautious than most when it comes to hands, but I had never paid much attention to my hands and had discovered early in life that if I didn’t worry about them, they’d take care of themselves.”

Stern further related how he once sprained his wrist while playing tennis, before an important concert where he was scheduled to perform the Brahms Violin Concerto. His doctor placed his right wrist in a cast for several weeks, removing it just days before the performance. But his mind-over-body concentration ensured that he played the concerto right through without feeling any pain or discomfort. In his words “That’s one of the things the body (or brain?) can do sometimes in moments of great need.”

He continued playing tennis even after this experience: “I didn’t start worrying about my hands, and I didn’t stop playing tennis. Artistic control of one’s medium should never be achieved at the cost of draining the joy from life. “

Stern even uses tennis analogies when dispensing pedagogical advice, comparing bow strokes to wielding the racquet, and the follow-through needed in both.

Present-day violinist Joshua Bell plays tennis “pretty well”, and in his childhood was Indiana State Junior Champion (age category 9 to 10), apparently without having had a single tennis lesson.

When Pinchas Zukerman got bored of “just being a soloist” in his youth, he seriously contemplated becoming a professional tennis player! He would pack a tennis racquet along with his violin when on tour, rush straight from the airport to the nearest court, and back to it again after rehearsal. Fortunately for us, he stuck to music.

Closer to home, Khushroo Suntook , chairman of the NCPA Mumbai and founder of the Symphony Orchestra of India, was a national-level tennis player in his youth.

The occupational hazard of tennis players, called tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) can afflict violinists and other musicians too, regardless whether they wield a racquet. Zubin Mehta actually needed surgical treatment for it in 1984.

Conversely, do tennis players have a musical connection? Rafael Nadal’s grandfather (also called Rafael Nadal) was a conductor, directing the local band in their hometown Manacor, Majorca.

And Roger Federer took up the violin in 2013! Just for a commercial to mark 75 years of the Lucerne Festival. Do watch the video:

For one heart-stopping moment, he grips the violin like a racquet. To use your own words, Rog, please “stick to tennis”.

(An edited version of this article was published on 10 July 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Discrimination, Persecution, Caste and Music: The story of János Bihari

 

Many of you will be familiar with the song by Cher, “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” that hit the pop charts in the 1970s. The title refers to the stereotyping of an entire group of itinerant people, constantly on the move, and therefore viewed with suspicion and exploited wherever their wagon rolls to a halt. We use the term ‘gypsy’ generically for anyone who travels a lot. The Maruti SUV was presumably named ‘Gypsy’ presumably because of its implied ability to go anywhere, even into the most inhospitable terrain.

I’ve just finished an excellent novel “Hungarian Dances” by my friend, England-based music journalist and author Jessica Duchen. In it, Duchen interweaves the past and the present, fiction and music history so skilfully that they all come to vibrant life. The main protagonist is British-born violinist Karina Veres, of Hungarian Gypsy descent, and in unlocking the secrets of her own family history, she is able to see her own life, her career and future so much more clearly. I won’t give away more than this, because it is a book I highly recommend, an un-putdown-able page-turner that had me under its spell from start to finish.

In the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, Duchen credits a long list of musicians, scholars, books and websites that helped her research. Among the books was “And the Violins stopped Playing: A story of the Gypsy Holocaust” by Alexander Ramati. It was a book I had read many years ago, after I had watched the film of the same name on British television. It is Ramati’s “biographical novel about an actual group of Gypsy, or Romani people and their flight from persecution by the Nazi regime at the height of the Porajmos (Romani Holocaust; the word literally means “the devouring”) during World War II.”

The book is a heart-wrenching read for its vivid description of the humiliation and persecution of an entire people for no reason other than their “otherness”. Upto 1.3 million Romanis perished in the Porajmos.

What surprised me, however, was the fact that I was able to get the gist of much of the conversations in the Romani language between characters in the book, drawing solely from my own rudimentary knowledge of Hindi. The numerals sound very similar to ours, and other words, for nose, eye, foot, skin, dust, water, knife, work, village etc are also strikingly similar.

In fact, it is this very linguistic clue that points, among other things, back to India in determining the origin of the Gypsies, also known as the Romani people, or simply the Roma. The term Gypsy in English (French ‘gitan’, Spanish ‘gitano’, Turkish ‘kipti’) is believed to refer to their supposed Egyptian origin, now thought to be incorrect. But another sound-alike word, Frech ‘tzigane’ (German ‘zigeuner’, Hungarian ‘cigány’) is more telling, derived as it is from the Greek ‘athínganos’, meaning ‘untouchable’.

The Roma are thought to have originated from the northern Indian subcontinent, present-day Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab. Genome data from 2012 seem to suggest that “the ancestors of present scheduled tribes and scheduled caste populations of northern India, traditionally referred to collectively as the Ḍoma, are the likely ancestral populations of modern European Roma.”

An article on the subject in OPEN magazine the following year stated: “Because of the country’s caste system, which keeps DNA locked within communities, India is fertile ground for such [genetic study] research.”

Professor Ian (Yanko) Hancock, himself a Romani, and Director of the Program of Romani studies at the University of Texas in Austin in his book “Danger! Educated Gypsy: Selected Essays” lambasts many ‘Gypsy experts’ and linguists for their racist bias and ignorance and reinforcing stereotypes about the Romani people through flawed research and conclusions arising from it. He produces linguistic evidence to support the hypothesis that the migration from India westward into the Byzantine empire (Byzantium was also known as ‘Rum’, from where the term Roma could have derived) began in the 10th century AD, as the foot-soldiers of armies defeated by Mahmud of Ghazni, and their camp retinue colleagues and families, fled from his wrath. There is oral tradition among the Banjara community to support this as well.

It was through a passing mention in Duchen’s “Hungarian Dances” that I stumbled upon the story of Hungarian Romani violinist János Bihari (1764-1827), founder of the verbunkos, the Hungarian dance and music genre. It is tempting to speculate on the provenance of his surname, but I am not sure that the region of present-day Bihar would have been known by this name all those centuries ago, and most Romani literature doesn’t indicate the region as their source of origin.

The surname is more likely linked to the Bihar county of the Kingdom of Hungary, today the Bihor county in present-day Romania.

Janos Bihari

In his heyday, János Bihari and his family ensemble of strings and cimbalom were famed and much in demand throughout the Austro-Hungarian empire and beyond.

He was nicknamed the “Hungarian Orpheus”, “The King”, and Franz Liszt was deeply impressed with his playing: “The tones sung by his magic violin flow on our enchanted ears like the tears.” The finale of Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) borrows a theme from János Bihari; Liszt used the same melody is his Hungarian Rhapsody number 13. Even Beethoven fell under his spell, using his themes in his commemorative work “König Stephan”. Jenö Hubay’s ‘Hejre Kati’ also takes Bihari’s melody for its finale. Quite a legacy for someone from the fringes of society who could not notate his own music.

Tragedy struck twice, first with the loss of his son to bowel cancer, and then the injury to his left hand in an accident. High society seems to have abandoned him once he was unable to play his magic violin. He died in abject poverty, a dramatic downturn from his earlier life of lavish luxury. His funeral was attended just by his Roma community, according to historical records.

Fortunately for us, contemporary violinist Roby Lakatos (who is also acknowledged at the beginning of Duchen’s book) is a direct descendant of János Bihari. Bihari’s spirit certainly lives on through him. I have been fortunate to hear him twice in London, and his feats on his violin, performed with effortless ease, beggar belief.

Apart from Beethoven, Sarasate, Hubay and Liszt, other composers have also had Gypsy references or inspiration in their music: just a few prominent examples include Giacomo Puccini’s opera ‘La Bohème’; Johann Strauss II’s operetta ‘Der Zigeunerbaron’ (The Gypsy Baron); Maurice Ravel’s rhapsody for violin and piano (played incidentally with much verve by Joris Decolvenaer in the city recently), later adapted for violin and orchestra.

But for all society’s fascination with and glamourisation of the idea of the Roma and their culture, they have been persecuted through history and continue to face discrimination at every turn, with racist stereotypes flogged even harder by a militant far-right wave sweeping across Europe.

(An edited version of this article was published on 3 July 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Medicine and Music: Sutures and Strings

Life is full of the oddest coincidences sometimes. For instance, catgut entered my consciousness simultaneously in the worlds of medicine and music, sometime in the late 1980s.

In medicine, of course, in any field involving surgery, one learns about catgut as a suture material. But around my medical student and internship years, I was also exposed (via audio cassettes from VP Sinari) to the music of Concentus Musicus Wien conducted by its founder Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who passed away just months ago (1929-2016).

Concentus Music Wien is a period instrument ensemble begun by Harnoncourt in the 1950s. It was my first introduction to HIP music. ‘Historically Informed Performance’ or HIP is an approach to the performance of Western music and theatre. As far as music is concerned, it essentially means performing music with special attention to the technology and performance conventions that were present when a piece of music was composed.

The stimulus for this concept is believed to have been Johann Sebastian Bach’s second death centenary in 1950, around which time the composer Paul Hindemith wrote: “We can be sure that Bach was thoroughly content with the means of expression at hand in voices and instruments, and if we want to perform his music according to his intentions we ought to restore the conditions of performance of that time.” The concept was even older, but the Bach milestone brought it into focus in the music world.

This idea profoundly influenced Harnoncourt, and with his Concentus Musicus Wien was soon at the vanguard of this movement. So the Magnasound label cassettes I bought (at forty rupees each then!), featuring him directing the Concentus Musicus Wien in performances of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos and violin concertos for instance were ear-openers. I was familiar with the works, but I had never heard them played them anything like that.

It compelled me to think of how music would have sounded in the time it was written. But is impossible to be absolutely certain, even using the most faithfully reproduced, ‘authentic’ period instruments. The contemporary tendency to revere the score as a ‘perfect’, ‘faithful’ representative of the music has turned music itself into a text-based art form rather than a more spontaneous, creative performance-based one.

What has this to do with catgut, you may well ask? Well, the stringed instruments of Bach’s time for example were strung with catgut. When I first learned of this, it excited me greatly; that a mundane workaday surgical material used in the profession I was studying and beginning to practice, was once (and still is, by players of period-instruments and HIP music) pressed into service to produce some of the most sublime music in the world.

In fact, the clue lies in the very term. Catgut has nothing to do with the guts of cats. Catgut, whether used for purposes surgical or musical, is made from guts (or intestines) alright, but of sheep, goat or cattle. So catgut is believed to be a shortened form of ‘cattle gut’. But an alternative explanation attributes the name to a corruption of ‘kit’gut, ‘kit’ being a folk term for a fiddle or violin. There existed a kit violin used by dance masters in royal and noble courts and by street musicians alike, small enough to fit into a pocket, hence also called a pochette (French for pocket). So ‘kit’ is thought to be a reduction of ‘pocket’, or even a corruption of ‘cittern’, the Renaissance stringed instrument.

catgut

Surgical catgut of course would need a preparation and sterilisation process very different from the manufacture of strings. In my medical student years, I managed to procure a sufficient length of surgical catgut (I can’t remember whether plain or chromic ie treated with chromic acid salts, but it was a thick diameter) and strung it up on my violin. Both my violin and the suture protested at the indignity of the experiment. The suture seemed to be saying “I was made to thread the eye of a surgical needle, not a lowly violin peg! I’m a life-saver, not an entertainer!” But it did produce a sound under tension when the bow was applied to it. It was more of a rasp than a pleasing tone, and the bow didn’t grip it easily at first. I didn’t try ratcheting up the tension and therefore the pitch further as I feared the suture would break under the strain, and my violin bridge along with it.

In my England years, I was able through my musician colleagues and at luthier ateliers to try out actual period-instrument baroque violins fitted with catgut strings. They produce a warm, rich tone with overtones quite different to the sound created by ‘modern’ strings. But they tend to slip and slacken more easily, and one has to keep re-tuning the instrument.

The thinner, higher-pitched catgut strings are made from plain gut, whereas the thicker, lower-pitched strings have a gut core wrapped in sterling silver wire to improve their tone.

The more I thought about catgut ‘binding’ my profession and my passion, I began to realise that other suture materials have at various points been used as strings on musical instruments as well. Take non-absorbable suture materials like silk, or nylon, polyester or even stainless steel. Ethnic Chinese instruments used silk, and so many instruments use nylon and metal strings.

Perhaps this should not be so surprising as all that. In both cases, we are looking at a sufficient length of “string”, of a certain tensile strength; in surgery, we want knots to maintain their tautness, in music strings need to be resilient enough to be stretched to the required pitch. In both cases, they should not have the ‘wick effect’: in surgery this is to prevent infection and also not to compromise the integrity of the suture, and on a musical instrument, a hygroscopic effect would also compromise the life of the string, perhaps jeopardise the instrument itself (being made of wood) and play havoc with pitch.

And the ultimate requirement for music is the ability to produce a sweet, pleasant tone when plucked or bowed. The mellow sound produced by a catgut E string is unforgettable if you have been used all your life to the metallic shrillness of a ‘regular’ E string. I’m not a convert yet, but I have a healthy respect for catgut, quite apart from all its uses in surgery.

(An edited version of this article was published on 26 June 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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