A Miracle never to be forgotten

 

What do you give someone as a gift on their wedding day? Well, if the groom is the reigning ‘King of the Violin’ and you just happen to be one of the most celebrated composers in the land, called ‘Père’ even by other composers and students, a violin sonata would be just the thing.

On Tuesday 17 January 2017, Child’s Play India Foundation presents a benefit concert at the Menezes Braganza hall 6.30 pm featuring Madeleine Mitchell, Professor of Violin at the Royal College of Music London and pianist US-trained Goan-origin Evelyn Dias.

One of the highlights of their programme will be the César Franck Violin Sonata in A major, arguably one of the finest sonatas for violin and piano ever written, and certainly one of the composer’s best-known and most-loved works.

It is the only sonata César Franck (1822-1890) wrote for the violin, and was completed in 1886, just four years before his death, and a year before the other work he is also remembered for, his monumental (and only) Symphony in D minor.

A violin sonata was on his mind for several decades before that, as he had promised one to Cosima von Bülow (illegitimate daughter of Hungarian pianist-composer Franz Liszt, and who married first the conductor Hans von Bülow and then Richard Wagner), as far back as 1858, in acknowledgment of her praise of his music.

That promise lay unfulfilled, although it is thought that Franck must have begun work on the sonata and got the impetus to finish it in time for the wedding of 31-year old Belgian violinist virtuoso and composer-conductor Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe. He presented it to the groom-to-be on the morning of his wedding, 26 September 1886. A hurried playthrough took place soon after, and Ysaÿe and pianist Léontine Bordes-Pène (who had also been invited to the wedding) played it for the wedding guests at the reception.

It is a measure of the prowess of both musicians that they performed it after such a brief acquaintance with the new score. Apart from the punishing demands on the violin, the piano part is extremely daunting as well. Franck was himself a pianist and organist and had exceptionally large hands, so the writing reflects this, especially in the second movement of the sonata, with its virtuoso runs, leaps and extended figures. Obviously a legend like Ysaÿe had no wedding-day jitters the moment he picked up his violin!

Franck believed in thematic unity in his compositions, and this work, like many of his other compositions, is written in ‘cyclic form’: a theme or thematic material occurs through the work in more than one movement, (often transformed), as a unifying device.

I came across an interesting description of the César Franck sonata for violin and piano seen almost as a metaphor for a wedding and marriage, by pianist Nicholas Burns, which I found quite vivid and helped me to regard it in a new light: “The work itself neatly encapsulates the story of the happy bride and groom. The first movement evokes the first flickers of attraction, eventually building to great outbursts of love. The couple, now together face their first feud in the second movement where the spurned party can be heard in the pleading quieter passages while the violent fury of the faster writing vividly portrays their conflict.  All is resolved in the quietly meditative slow third movement before the famous finale cleverly captures the wedding ceremony itself.  Written in canon, the violin follows the piano exactly before the roles are reversed, mirroring the repetition of the wedding vows.  The quiet, solemn writing evokes prayer and again huge outbursts of emotion punctuate the writing before we once again hear the celebratory Parisienne bells right at the end.”

The sonata was premiered in public at the Musée Moderne de Peinture in Brussels on December 16, 1886, by Ysaÿe and Bordes-Pène as the last work of an all-Franck concert. Franck’s pupil and admirer Vincent d’Indy was present and chronicled the performance: “It was already growing dark as the Sonata began. After the first Allegretto, the players could hardly read their music. Unfortunately, museum regulations forbade any artificial light whatever in rooms containing paintings; the mere striking of a match would have been an offense. The audience was about to be asked to leave, but, brimful with enthusiasm, they refused to budge. At this point, Ysaÿe struck his music stand with his bow, demanding, “Let’s go on!” Then, wonder of wonders, amid darkness that now rendered them virtually invisible, the two artists played the last three movements from memory with a fire and passion the more astonishing in that there was a total lack of the usual visible externals that enhance a concert performance. Music, wondrous and alone, held sovereign sway in the blackness of night. The miracle will never be forgotten by those present.”

Many music-lovers might remember Madeleine Mitchell’s recital in Goa, with Klaus Zoll her accompanist, in 1989. I was also in the violins of the Bombay Chamber Orchestra when she performed the Max Bruch Violin Concerto under the baton of Dr. George Trautwein in the same India tour. And Evelyn Dias has performed in Goa much more recently, both as soloist and as accompanist.

Madeleine Mitchell Evelyn Dias

During my England years, I heard through the music grapevine that Mitchell had become Professor of Violin at the Royal College of Music London, and I heard her play on BBC Radio3 a few times. It has been a great pleasure for Child’s Play India Foundation to contribute to bringing her back on an India tour, with Evelyn Dias as her accompanist this time, after a hiatus of almost three decades. Goa is privileged to be on her itinerary. It will be an unforgettable concert.

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 January 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

A Roy-al Adoration

The Serendipity Arts Festival (SAF) is something everyone is talking about ever since it made its dramatic appearance on Goa’s cultural calendar last month.

It was so wonderful to find the beautiful heritage Secretariat building come to sparkling life after decades of stagnation and disuse. It was as if an evil spell in some fairy-tale had at long last been broken.

IMG_6376

We hope that this is the beginning of a fresh new lease of life for the iconic building. It was an exhilarating feeling, walking along former corridors and balconies of political power to find them repurposed as glorious celebrations of art, history and heritage.

What with the preparations for our Child’s Play Christmas concert, and being laid up with the flu the week after, and having to dash to Mumbai to the Royal Flemish Philharmonic concerts at the NCPA, I missed the publicity and buzz before the SAF, and most of the festival itself. It was through a chance meeting with my friend Jack Sukhija that I learnt of the exhibition of paintings in Campal by iconic masters of Indian Modern Art curated from the collection of DAG (Delhi Art Gallery) Modern, as part of the festival.

Image result for serendipity DAG modern

I managed to catch the last two days of the exhibition, and kept returning to it, almost in disbelief that there could be works by so many famous Indian painters all at once, and so flatteringly displayed, right here, in the heart of my hometown. I fervently hope that if SAF becomes an annual affair, that the DAG Modern returns along with them as well.

It was a joyous homecoming for so many of the paintings of Goan masters Francis Newton Souza and Laxman Pai. It is a crying shame that their homeland doesn’t have a dedicated space with more of their work, and of their Goan contemporaries prominently and appropriately displayed.

P1630966 P1630968 P1630978 Francis Newton Souza

P1630970 P1630972 P1630974

 

P1630982 P1630984 P1630986 Laxman Pai

P1630988 P1630990 P1630991 P1630994 P1630996

At my last visit to Mumbai, I was able to duck into the Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSVS) (formerly the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India) and spend a day there before the evening concert. I came across a few paintings by another Goan icon, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde in the Jehangir Nicholson gallery there, as part of a wider exhibition ‘The Infinite Project’, showcasing the work of Laxman Shreshtha. Although the museum does a great job of displaying the art, on repeated visits there, I have found the care-a-damn attitude of the staff really disturbing, in the way they chatter loudly among themselves or into their phones, paying no heed to visitors who wish to take in the exhibits in silence. This is all too often the case at the Goa State Museum as well. So the experience at the DAG Modern exhibition at Campal was a refreshing contrast to this.

At the CSVS Mumbai, I revisited “The Adoration of the Magi” attributed to Italian master Bonifazio Veronese (1487-1553), in the Sir Dorabji J. Tata Collection, and thought it would be appropriate to highlight it in this column, two days after the feast of the Epiphany.

But on returning to Goa and seeing the section of the DAG Modern devoted to Christian art, I was struck by a painting on the same subject by Bengali artist Jamini Roy (1887-1972). Although untitled, the work was described as “Madonna and Jesus with the Magi”.

P1630953

The contrast between the two paintings I had seen on the same subject in two cities within the space of a day could not be more striking.

Veronese and Roy are separated from each other by a vast gulf of time (four centuries) and space. The scale of the Veronese work dwarfs the Roy hugely. Veronese uses oil on canvas, while Roy’s painting uses tempera on box board pasted on masonite board.

And when it comes to the treatment of the subject, I couldn’t help remembering Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’, the tension created in the art world by the contact between East and West, and the completely different frames of reference in the Eastern and Western schools of art.

Veronese celebrates perspective, depth, chiaroscuro, foreground and background, detail and realism. Jamini Roy’s earthy style makes a break not only from Western tradition but from the Bengal School of Art as well, and draws inspiration from the Kalighat Pat, folk and tribal styles instead.

The Madonna and Child seems to have been a theme Roy returned to again and again, and there was one other such example on display in the exhibition as well, which although unmistakably Indian in style, still uses the Western format adopted by the Great Masters in the way the Mother holds the Child against her right shoulder.

So in Roy’s Adoration of the Magi, the Madonna and Child are featured, but Joseph does not. Also scale and proportion are less important than symbolism. Madonna And Child occupy the top centre of the painting, at the centre of what seems almost like a baandhini tie-and-dye circular decoration mounted atop a thin tapering pedestal upon a narrow base. Just two of the three Magi look solemnly unsmilingly at us on either side. They have matching crowns (just a horizontal brush-stroke of white paint, with little dabs above them as spartan embellishments) but different garb, although their stance is identical, almost as if they are standing guard for the Mother and Child, ready to draw their swords at any moment. They are larger, so perhaps they are meant to be in the ‘foreground’? But unlike most depictions, where they are turned towards the baby in adoration, here they direct their gaze at us instead.

The baby Jesus is given a different hue from the rest of the characters in the painting. This is something Roy seems to do in other depictions of the Madonna and Child as well when using the Kalighat pat style. When I pointed out the absence of Joseph and the third King to a young friend, he quipped “Maybe they ‘took’ the picture and the rest posed for it!” Today’s generation think only of photos and selfies.

In Goa, we are lucky of course to have the paintings of the son of the soil who revolutionised Christian iconography: Angelo da Fonseca. I remember the exhibition of his work at the Xavier Centre for Historical Research Porvorim a few Christmases ago. I don’t recall if Fonseca painted his own version of the Epiphany. It is time for me to pay his paintings another visit.

(An edited version of this article was published on 8 January 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Tempest

Many of you must have attended Talatum, the circus adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragicomedy The Tempest. This is the fascinating thing about Shakespeare; four centuries later, his plays still provide creative inspiration in the most unexpected ways.

Having been away from Goa for most of the Serendipity Arts festival, I must confess I didn’t have much of an idea about this production before going to see it, almost directly from the airport. So everything about it, from its staging in a big top tent, to the acrobatics, the sound-and-light show (the actual tempest was really spectacularly depicted) took me quite by surprise.

P1630793

This quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth has prompted me to delve into his plays more deeply through the year, so I was familiar with the broad outline of The Tempest, aided, I must admit, by the illustrated retelling for children that lies on my son’s bookshelf. He was able to follow the storyline as it unfolded far better than me.

P1630819

Amazing as the acrobatic displays were, I still felt there could have been more use of the text in the production. Upon returning home, I read the description which was almost a disclaimer: “The text for this production aims to transcend the barriers of language through minimal multi-lingual dialogue and pure visual expression.” Fair enough. But a little more of the Bard’s lines would have enhanced my enjoyment of the play. The microphone failed a few times, and sometimes Prospero’s accent in particular was a little difficult to follow. But I did catch a few lines, and they were like a lifeline, notably “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on.” Something about the surreal setting and the way the words floated into our consciousness called to mind the 1980s Eurhythmics smash hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”which I am quite sure was not Tempest-inspired.

There is a connection, albeit a tenuous one, with the New Year. In a critical essay about the play titled “The Day of The Tempest”, John B. Bender discusses the significance of the date the play was first performed in court, 1 November 1611. We know 1 November as All Saints’ Day, of course, but in Shakespeare’s time, it had even more significance than in our times, and was known as Hallowmas: “Hallowmas itself became a solemn day for praising all of the saints –tangible presentments of God’s presence on earth – and for anticipating the Last Judgment. It figures forth a sense of last chances, a sense of endings, for it was the time of the ancient Celtic New Year.”

I learnt later that Talaatum is the Urdu for sea-storm, and for upheaval. And whether we like it or not, following 8 November, the topic of discussion and the subject on everyone’s mind has been the currency crisis and the stress it has caused to people’s lives. I’m terrible for example at remembering PIN numbers for credit cards, and I often mix them up, sometimes to my embarrassment in public places. And the shortage of cash has meant that I am compelled to use the credit card more often. But I know I’m more fortunate than most; so many people I meet every day: posrekars, nustekanns, bhajiwallas, rickshaw-drivers, have had, and are still having it much much worse. They need cash on a daily basis to meet their living expenses and keep their businesses going. These are not terrorists or black marketeers or anti-nationals, but they, like millions of honest hard-working people all over India, have been hit the hardest by this obviously not-fully-thought-through demonetisation caper. Those who sniff at their suffering as “a minor inconvenience” and “media hype” from the comfort of their ivory towers should step down from them and just walk around the block and a few bylanes, talking to strangers they meet to learn the truth.

At Talatum, we were compelled to pay by credit card, as there was a change shortage. And sitting in one of the tiers of the big top amphitheatre, I was taken back to the circuses we went to in our childhood. And it struck me that the upheaval of the last two months is also A Great Indian Circus.

Clowns, jokers, jesters and buffoons a-plenty. Jugglers and acrobats and sleight-of-hand too. Now you see your own hard-earned money, now you don’t. Suddenly overnight it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. What was white is black, then white, black and then white again. You have to account for every last rupee and paisa in your wallet and bank account but political parties don’t have to account for anything. ‘Ordinary’ families have to budget family weddings to fit within 2.5 lakhs (and a very good thing too!) and furnish valid proof of said wedding, but ‘extra-ordinary’ people (politicians, businessmen) can spend 550 crores and everyone whistles and looks the other way. Abracadabra! What ought to be a newsworthy scandal is air-brushed, turned into thin air. China is the enemy for other boycotts, but not for PayTm, whose single largest shareholder is Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

An unprecedented source of hardship in our nation’s history to millions of its people is actually touted as a major triumph. “Wait and see”, we are paternalistically told, as if the electorate has less intelligence than the ruling political class.

Ridiculous medical analogies, to chemotherapy, to radical oncological surgery and labour pains are made, with the common underlying mantra that “you may suffer now, but it’ll be worth it in the end”. For whom is the question. Certainly for everyone invested in the banking industry and digitisation of money; for the rest of us the payoff is far from clear.

Democracy itself has become The Great Indian Circus. We wake up one morning to find ourselves forced to queue up to see a production of a Tempest that we didn’t ask to see, and are not enjoying so much. But if we protest, it is further proof of our lack of patriotism. Somehow the conjuror’s trick (or is it a confidence trick?) can neatly tie in the actual War on Cash to a supposed War on Black Money, Terrorism and Tax Evasion.

But will the evil triumvirate really vanish with the War on Cash? “Wait and See”. If one political analyst in a section of the press is to be believed, there will be no electoral backlash to this demonetisation (as civic municipal elections seem to indicate up north) because the Indian electorate historically votes along religious, caste and other fractious lines, no matter what suffering is dished out to them.

This is why empty displays of patriotism (standing to attention in cinemas for the national anthem) mean nothing as long as there is no empathy from the politicians for the people, the rich for the poor, the haves for the have-nots, the majority for the minority and the disadvantaged and vulnerable, and men for women.

But hope springs eternal, so let us enter the New Year with some optimism, however contrived it might feel right now.

(An edited version of this article was published on 1 January 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Manuel Dias and the Habit of Reading

It’s not even New Year and Manuel has already finished all 617 pages of his Christmas present, J.K. Rowling‘s “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”!  

P1640077

P1640085

P1640089

That’s about 100 pages a day.

Whew! I loved to read too at his age, but I don’t remember devouring a book of that size in such a short time.

Happy New Year 2017, everyone!

Have Thyself A Merry Little Christmas!

This being the Shakespeare milestone year (his 400th death anniversary), it is tempting to speculate whether the Christmas festivities find mention in his writing, and if so, where.

christmas-shakespeare

Shakespeare makes extremely few references to Christmas in his plays; just four if one believes one source. But if this seems surprising, it shouldn’t be.

Until the beginning of the 1800s, the traditional Christmas festivities as we know them today were non-existent. The high point on the Christian calendar was Easter, a rejoicing of the Resurrection and all it represents, a cathartic experience after Lent and Holy Week.

The marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in 1840 made many German Christmas traditions from the Price Consort’s native Germany more widely popular, notably the Christmas tree bedecked with candles, decorations, fruits, sweets and gifts.

One clear Christmas connection in a Shakespeare play is to be found in Twelfth Night. The very title of this comedy betrays this: it was written to be performed at the end of the Christmas season, on the ‘Twelfth Night’.

Christmas was seen as a twelve-day commemoration (called Christmastide in England), and depending on whether one began counting from Christmas Day (25 December) or the day after (26 December, Boxing Day), the twelfth day fell on either 5 January or 6 January, the Epiphany, or Feast of the Three Kings.

But Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has nothing more to do with Christmas, apart from its intended performance date. A clear reference to Christmas does appear however, in ‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’. In Act I, Scene 1, Marcellus says to Hamlet’s friend Horatio and to Bernardo after they have seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s father on the frozen battlements of Elsinore castle:

“Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes/ Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated, / The bird of dawning singeth all night long: / And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad; / The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike, / No fairy takes nor witch hath power to charm, / So hallowed and so gracious is the time.”

So Christmastime is “hallowed”, and supernatural beings or forces, be they spirit, fairy, witch or planet are rendered powerless by it. But there is no mention of anything joyous about it.

(I found this on the Net and it’s quite clever!)

Two Christmas references by Shakespeare occur in Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of his early comedies. In fact, its earliest recorded performance even occurred at Christmas in 1597 before the court of Queen Elizabeth II.

The first allusion to Christmas is at the beginning of the play, after the King of Navarre and his friends swear an oath to scholarship, which includes fasting and avoiding contact with women for three years. Berowne, one of the King’s attendants, hesitates before he joins in:

“Why should I joy in any abortive birth? / At Christmas I no more desire a rose / Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled shows; / But like of each thing that in season grows; / So you, to study now it is too late, /Climb o’er the house to unlock the little gate.”

Christmas is clearly not a time for shunning worldly pleasures, not for Berowne. And towards the end of the play, Berowne again brings up Christmas (Act V, Scene 2) when he fails to impress the ladies: “I see the trick on’t: here was a consent, / Knowing aforehand of our merriment, /To dash it like a Christmas comedy.”

What does he mean by “a Christmas comedy”? Could it be an inside joke, referring to the play itself, a comedy being performed on Christmas Day? Comedies were staged as entertainment in the Christmas season, and indeed Shakespeare’s own The Comedy of Errors was staged on 28 December 1594 at Grays Inn.

Shakespeare and his company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were invited to perform their plays at the Inns of Court (the main hall in Grays Inn, an important location in Shakespeare’s London where young law students were educated and would gather for social occasions as well) on numerous occasions, especially during the annual Christmas festivities known as the Revels. Often at such events, the social order was overturned, with the lowliest member of the court invited to preside as Lord of Misrule, etc. It was a prestigious and lucrative gig for Shakespeare’s company; theatres were often closed for the winter, so an indoor performance to a captive audience of affluent lawyers was quite attractive.

The Gesta Grayorum, a sort of predecessor to today’s gossip magazine, reported of that performance: “The Night was begun, and continued to the end, in nothing but Confusion and Errors; whereupon it was ever afterwards called the Night of Errors.”

So what happened? According to one account in the historical archives in Kew, from the Treasurer of the Chamber of Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare seems to have undertaken a booking to perform for the Queen on Innocents Day (28 December) as well. They therefore attempted to honour both bookings, one (for the Queen) in the afternoon, and at Grays Inn in the evening. But the second performance didn’t go as planned, perhaps due to fatigue or overindulgence. Another version sees this as an attempt of the employers (Grays Inn) to shift the blame to Shakespeare’s troupe for their own folly of overcrowding the hall.

The last Christmas reference I could trace is in another of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Taming of the Shrew. In Scene 2 of the Induction of the play, a dramatic troupe has arrived at the house of Christopher Sly and he questions his servant about them:

SLY: Marry, I will; let them play it. Is not a commonty [comedy] a Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick?
PAGE: No, my good lord; it is more pleasing stuff.

Sly has a rather low impression of Christmas festivity. But that should not be extrapolated back to Shakespeare himself. He probably enjoyed it as much as everyone else. Have thyself a Merry little Christmas too!

(An edited version of this article was published on 25 December 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Lyrics and Literature

 

Some years ago, the Centro de Lingua Portuguesa/Insitituto Camões Goa organised a poetry marathon (the occasion was, I think, World Poetry Day) where the public were invited to recite poetry in any language of their choice. On a whim, just because I had never had the opportunity to do so before, and because I was on a sort of Urdu “trip” at the time, I decided to participate by reading an Urdu poem.

One “poem” had caught my fancy years ago through popular culture, in the form of the lyrics penned by that genius among lyricists, Javed Akhtar, to the song “Ek Ladki ko Dekha” from the hit film musical “1942: A Love Story”. So I in effect recited the lyrics of this song, as verse, as a poem.

It was hard to shake off the imagery of the film or the meter suggested by the song as I recited the lines. But even as non-sung verse, the lines have their own inherent rhythm, meter, and one in some ways savours the structure of the poem without the distraction of melody. The lyrics are basically literature.

In the East, the two are often inseparable. The wonderful thing about attending a qawwali or ghazal concert is the interjections of “Wah! Wah”, often accompanied by “thaliyaan” while the performance is still on, something that would be frowned upon at a western classical concert today. These gestures of appreciation are most often in acknowledgment of the wry humour and wit in a couplet, or a clever pun or double entendre, basically the artistry in the use of language. The melody, rhythm and percussion are all there in the music, but the true stars are the lyrics themselves. Many of you would have attended the scintillating qawwali performance of the Warsi brothers of Hyderabad this February at the Sufi Sutra World Peace Festival to know what I mean.

I won’t pretend to have ‘gotten’ every witticism, or understood the reason for every roar of laughter from the audience, but one couldn’t help being swept away by the electricity, the euphoria in the room.

If one views all the sacred spiritual texts as literature as well, one will find that they are frequently sung, often as aide-memoires. In my GP years in High Wycombe, I had a few patients with the title ‘Hafiz’ added on to their name. I learnt from one of them that this title was conferred on someone (‘Hafiza’ if a woman) who has completely memorised the Qur’an. He obliged me by reciting an extract for me in my consulting room. The recitation was actually a chant, accompanied by a rhythmical rocking back and forth.

It is easier to memorise a text if there is a melodic line, a rhythm and cadence juxtaposed upon it. This trend is seen in most religions. There is still the tradition of singing-reciting Hindu sacred texts like the Ramayana, and they are believed to have been passed down through the centuries in the bardic tradition.

The neume, the basic element of Western and Eastern systems of musical notation, (precursor to the five-line staff notation we use in western music), was used to notate inflections in the melodic recitation of the Christian holy scriptures. A similar system exists to notate the recitation of the Qur’an as well.

Even in non-sacred writing, literature and lyrics can be hard to separate sometimes. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore would set his own poems to music. Incidentally Tagore was technically the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, although he won it for his collection of poems Gitanjali rather than explicitly for his songs.

And ironically, it was the text of his poems that inspired many western composers into writing works of music. Alexander Zemlinksy’s Lyric Symphony, his best-known composition and hailed as “among the finest musical works to appear between the two great wars”, has “seven related songs for baritone, soprano and orchestra, performed without pause” using seven poems from Tagore’s collection ‘The Gardener’. It is thought that Zemlinksy even played a piano version of the finale for Tagore at a salon in Germany, but unfortunately there is no record of Tagore’s impression of the piece.

lyrics literature 2

‘The Gardener’ seems to have provided a mine of inspiration for other composers as well, ranging from Leoš Janáček to Karol Szymanowski. Still others, such as Darius Milhaud, Frank Bridge, Josef Bohuslav Foerster, Richard Hageman and Pavel Haas have also been inspired by Tagore’s writing.

The recent death of Canadian singer, songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) brought again into focus what a wonderful lyricist he was. His song lyrics could serve as stand-alone poems. And the music serves the lines so well. Take for instance his most famous Hallelujah: when he sings “the fourth, the fifth; The minor fall, the major lift”, this chord progression happens along with the words. The keyboard accompaniment has the sound of a gospel organ, giving the whole song the feel of a spiritual, a gospel anthem.

And the lyrics to his song titled ‘Anthem’ are even more beautiful poetry. Some lines echo the way so many of us feel: “I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd; while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud. Ah, they’ve summoned up a thundercloud, And they’re going to hear from me.”

“Ring the bell that still can ring” seems like a clarion call to action, while he seems to offer solace in “There is a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in.”

Nobel-worthy or not? Did Bob Dylan’s Literature Nobel elevate song-writing to a higher plane? After this, will more songwriters also win a Literature Nobel? Should they, when there are other platforms to acknowledge them, and would it be doing a disservice to mainstream literature?

(An edited version of this article was published on 18 December 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Camões-inspired music: L’Africaine

Professor Landeg White’s presentation “Camões: Made in Goa” at the Fundação Oriente was truly revelatory.

I had been introduced to Luís Vaz de Camões (1524-1580) by my father while really young. I still have a copy of ‘Os Lusíadas’ in the original Portuguese that he presented to me on my seventh birthday. I didn’t appreciate it fully then, of course, and the absence of a handy English translation made my understanding of it very difficult in my later years as well. It is only in the last few years that I have begun to read it and really savour it.

The Landeg White presentation called our attention to the epic again, and it is a good springboard from which to examine music that got written as a result of it.

There must be other works as well, I am sure, but let us look at L’Africaine (The African Woman), the 1865 grand opera in five acts which was the last work of the German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864), perhaps the most successful stage composer of the nineteenth century.

Its gestation period was about three decades. The French libretto by Augustin Eugène Scribe originally dealt with the unrequited love of African princess Sélika for Portuguese naval officer Fernand, who spurns her in favour of Inès, the governor’s daughter. If this sounds somewhat familiar, it is because the idea of a non-European woman falling in love with a white man, often an officer, but being rejected, is repeated in operatic writing of that time: Delibes’ Lakmé (1883); and perhaps more famously, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1903). In all three cases, the rejected woman kills herself. In L’Africaine and Madama Butterfly, a white woman is preferred to the non-European, whereas in Lakmé, “duty to his regiment” causes British officer Gérald to desert her.

The initial inspiration was drawn from many sources, including Antoine-Marin Lemierre’s 1770 tragedy La Veuve de Malabar (The Widow of Malabar) and a poem by Alexandre Dumas. But in 1849-50, Meyerbeer read ‘Os Lusíadas’, and decided to replace Camões’ hero Vasco da Gama as the protagonist instead of Fernand. Meyerbeer was “enchanted by the poem, on which I will begin working with great confidence and pleasure.” Indeed, for a time, the working title of the opera became “Vasco da Gama, ou le géânt des tempêtes” (Vasco da Gama, or the Giant of Tempests).

It gave the libretto the advantage of taking the drama from mere personal conflict to giving it a historical backdrop.

But it is a spurious one at best. There are not only historical, but geographical liberties in the synopsis. There was obviously not much attempt to fact-check anything. For instance, Vasco da Gama married Catarina de Ataíde, but Scribe has him in love with Inès instead.

Vasco da Gama and Selika, from Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera L'Africaine. French educational card, late 19th or early 20th century.

And although the opera title is L’Africaine, it becomes obvious that Sélika is not from Africa, but from an island off its coast, likely Madagascar, although never explicitly stated. To confound the geographical location of the action even further, Sélika embraces death in the final act by inhaling the perfume of the poisonous blossoms of the manchineel tree (Hippomane mancinella, ‘the world’s most dangerous tree’ in the Guinness Book of World Records), native to the Americas! And all this is despite both Meyerbeer and Scribe having read the Camões epic as well as João de Barros’ detailed 1549 chronicle ‘Asia’.

Africaine 2

Musicologist Gabriela Cruz, in her paper “Laughing at History: The Third Act of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine” in the Cambridge Opera Journal (Vol.11, No. 1, March 1999) argues that they “conceived L’Africaine as an account of bygone events that is historically reflexive and prescriptive, providing the listener with a specific strategy to imagine and understand the past. In other words, the idea of history as a narrative is already built into the plot where it appears as in the ballad: a sung narrative which supplies a structured vision of ‘what happened’”. The ballad she refers to is the ballad of the legend of Adamastor (the Greek-style monstrous personification of the forces of nature the Portuguese combated, particularly around the Cape of Good Hope), sung in the third act by Nélusko, Sélika’s fellow captive and who is also navigator of da Gama’s ship.

L’Africaine is not in the mainstream operatic repertoire. Its most famous aria is the one sung by da Gama (tenor), in the fourth act, titled O Paradis! (O Paradise!), sung beautifully as a stand-alone piece with piano accompaniment by the exceptionally gifted but tragically short-lived American tenor Mario Lanza in the 1955 Hollywood film ‘Serenade’.

With the benefit of 21st century hindsight, one can find fault with the synopsis on so many levels apart from mere historical inaccuracy: racism, sexism, imperialist supremacy and ‘Orientalism’. But as with Camões’ ‘Os Lusíadas’, perhaps one should judge Meyerbeer’s ‘L’Africaine’ in the context and time in which it was written.

I came across an interesting paper ‘Camões in Brazil: Operetta and Portuguese Culture in Rio de Janeiro, circa 1880’ by Luísa Cymbron. It refers to the tercentenary celebrations of the death of Camões in Portugal and Brazil. Despite the “different ideological undertones and distinct political objectives on both sides of the Atlantic,” the bard was “exalted” as “an icon of national heritage, projecting a broader ideal of brotherhood between the two countries.”

Nevertheless, Rio de Janeiro’s Revista Illustrada reported, somewhat tongue-in-cheek: “This week never had its own story: it was devoted to leisure and rest, and the little that it lived, it lived from the festive life of the other, as the true parasite that it was. Everyone felt tired from so much partying, and they put aside their enthusiasm and their tailcoats, to stay at home and ruminate about Camões’s centenary, to stretch, reading the commemorative supplements of the daily papers, yawning and finally sleeping. . . . We have a shorter endurance than that of the Creator: God only rested after a week’s work; we stretch, half awake, on the fourth day of celebrations and enthusiasm. And I must confess that I have never seen so much resistance, so much activity, or so much thirst for festivities, in Rio de Janeiro, in honor of a man who cannot even thank us.”

Three operettas were premiered at the Fênix Dramática theatre, a collaboration between Portuguese violinist-composer Francisco de Sá Noronha (1820-1881) and the young Brazilian playwright Arturo Azevedo (1855-1908): “’A princesa dos cajueiros’, a political and social satire of current life (in a clear Brazilian adaptation of the Offenbachian model); ‘Os noivos’, a comedy of manners on a Brazilian theme; and ‘O’ califa da rua do Sabão’, an adaptation of a French comedy mêlée de couplets.” It would be interesting to be able to examine these works today, if one could get hold of the score and text.

(An edited version of this article was published on 11 December 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Mi’raj

Have you also experienced this phenomenon, where once a new thought or idea enters your life, it keeps springing up everywhere, or you begin to take notice of it because you’re aware of it now? It certainly happens to me.

For instance, in the initial years of my stint in the UK, I had no need of a vehicle, and therefore had not the slightest interest in cars, and paid no attention to them on the street, or if someone gave me a ride in one. But when necessity demanded that I purchase one, and I acquired a Nissan Micra hatchback (and I got teased a lot by my colleagues for choosing something so nondescript, not something flashier), suddenly as if by magic, I began to ‘find’ them everywhere. I‘d notice them on motorways, in parking lots, in hospital digs.

More recently, I was preparing our concert programme for Child’s Play India Foundation’s annual Christmas concert (10 December 2016, 6.30 pm, Menezes Braganza hall) several weeks ago. We have with us a visiting musician, Juilliard-trained cellist-conductor Avery Waite, and he had sent across via email an assortment of music to choose from, that our Camerata Child’s Play India could play under his baton.

There was the Christmas music, of course, but another piece caught my fancy as well: a work called ‘Miraj’, for string ensemble, by American composer John Meyer. I was intrigued by its title. I know Miraj to be an important railway junction (trainspotters might know it once had all three rail gauges; broad, narrow and metre gauge), but hadn’t imagined that there would be music inspired by it.

It is a short work, and has the following online description: “The exotic and mysterious sounds of this imaginative selection imply flavours of music from India. Unexpected harmonic shifts, interesting chromatic twists, haunting melodies, glissandos, and hand-drumming, all bring this challenging piece to a close with a raucous flourish.”

It is certainly a Western take, almost a stereotypical one, on India. And it seemed apt to have it performed in India under the baton of another American musician. But the reason behind the title still sort of eludes me. I got the Indian reference; but why Miraj in particular?

I decided to look it up. And I learnt that the southern Maharashtra city of Miraj is renowned for its nurturing of Hindustani classical music, with an annual music festival at the dargah of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan (1872-1937), the great classical music singer of the Kirana Gharana.

It is also famous for its rich tradition of handcrafting of Indian musical instruments, especially the sitar, but also the sarod and tanpura. Perhaps this piece is a salute to the rich music tradition of Miraj?

While looking all this up, I again stumbled upon a look-alike, sound-alike word I had come across quite recently, while researching a work played by Marouan Benabdallah, Dia Succari’s ‘Night of Destiny’. While reading about this, I had come across Mi’raj. Israa and Mi’raj are two parts of a night journey by Prophet Mohammed in the year 621 from Mecca to Jerusalem (Israa), and the ascent to the heavens (Mi’raj, which in Arabic literally means ‘ladder’), described in the Quran and in the Hadith literature. The journey is undertaken on a beautiful steed named Buraq. In painting and sculpture, it is represented with a human face, and in the feminine, even though this is not explicitly stated in the sources.

I paid a visit to the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore as there was an exhibition titled ‘Port Cities: Multicultural Emporiums of Asia (1500-1900)’ that had just opened while we were in the city, and I hoped it would give some attention to our own port cities, including Goa, and I was not wrong. But more about that another time.

While finding my way about the museum, I was drawn to the grand piano in a corner of a large room, and I was told that music concerts are regularly hosted in this space. And right next to it, as I was preparing to move on, I found the word ‘Mi’raj’ and stopped short.

Buraq_sculpture_(20th_century),_Asian_Civilisations_Museum,_Singapore_-_20151114

Perched on a pedestal and looking away from the piano was a majestic representation of Buraq in wood (provenance Mindanao, Philippines, early or mid-20th century), “half-mule, half-donkey with wings”. The placard below it informed me that although the Buraq is not uncommon in Islamic art, sculptures of it seemed unique to the Philippines. It added that “it is possible that the flourishing carving industry of religious images for Catholic Filipinos may have encouraged the making of such sculptures.” This cross-pollination of the arts and craftsmanship across faiths is always such a balm, especially at a time when we are constantly submitted to a barrage of news that makes one hate, turn away and stop engaging with the other.

What was the purpose of this sculpture? Was it decorative, to adorn a wealthy home? If so, where in such a home would it have stood? It left one guessing.

And just a few days later, I found a whole article on scroll.in (“From Islamic sculpture to contemporary Delhi: A visual history of Buraq, the Koran’s winged horse”) dedicated to “the enigmatic steed”). And I was interested to find it gave prominent place to an installation ‘Say Hello to the Hauz’ (2010), brainchild of Goa-based designer and film-maker Vishal Rawlley. Situated in the middle of a reservoir (Hauz-i-Shamsi) in Mehrauli, Delhi, the quirky exhibit allows you to ‘dial up’ and therefore light up an incandescent representation of Buraq.

Why Buraq? According to legend, the hauz was built in 1230 AD by Sultan Shamsudin Iltumish, following a dream in which the Prophet commanded him to build a reservoir at a spot marked by Buraq’s hoofprint, and the Sultan found the hoofprint at this spot.

I spoke to Rawlley about his project, and it is such a heartwarming example of art with a social purpose. He used to live next to the Hauz-i-Shamsi, and wanted to do something to change the appalling condition it then was in, and attract positive attention to it. His Buraq exhibit was on at the Hauz for two whole years and generated a lot of excitement not just locally but across the world, with people from overseas calling and skyping in to light up the installation. Even now,the area is considerably cleaner and well-maintained, and popular with locals as a place of relaxation and recreation.

Buraq unsurprisingly lends her name to two airlines, in Libya and Indonesia. The ‘Miraj’ work by Richard Meyer may have nothing to do with Mi’raj and Buraq, but it will certainly take you on a flighty musical adventure. Fasten your seatbelts!

(An edited version of this article was published on 4 December 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

O My Beloved Daddy

Some weeks ago I wrote in this column about Patricia Rozario’s historic concert at the reopening of Mumbai’s Royal Opera House last month.

Her concert programme had included the soprano aria ‘O mio babbino caro’ (O My Beloved Father) from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi. It is an aria that is in the repertoire of Rozario’s protégée Joanne Marie D’Mello as well. Some of you will remember hearing her sing it at the Art Chamber Calangute last year.

Sadly I missed Rozario’s recent performance in Goa as my family already had holiday plans which could not be altered by then. Although the destination was Singapore with a lot of kiddie-centred activities on the itinerary for our son and his cousin of the same age, I was keen that we devote just a little time experiencing some of Singapore’s rich cultural fare as well. My son is now seven, and had not yet heard a symphony orchestra in full force in a purpose-built concert venue, and a date with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra seemed the perfect remedy to this.

With a little internet homework, we found to our delight that there was a scheduled concert appropriate for children exactly during the days of our visit. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that it would be conducted by Jason Lai, who had conducted ‘my’ orchestra in my London years, the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra at St. James’ Piccadilly. Lai has now risen to the post of Associate Conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. He has literally gotten very far in a very short time.

The concert was part of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s Discovering Music! series. Billed as “suitable for ages 5 and above”, it was one of a trio of concerts “exploring how composers use stories, plays and poems as an inspiration to write great music. From Shakespeare’s plays to Wagner’s music dramas, and Tchaikovsky’s ballets to Stravinsky’s colourful ballets based on folk tales, feast your ears on some incredible music!”

The plug worked, as the Victoria Concert Hall was quite full of little children accompanied by adults. I spoke to one parent of a four- and a six-year old, and this wasn’t even their first concert.

This concert was titled “The World’s a Stage: The Drama of Opera”, with a child-friendly start time of 4 pm on a Sunday. I must confess I was a little sceptical of the appropriateness of the fare for little children, especially when I saw on the programme that the concert would open with music from Richard Wagner, the Prelude and Liebestod from his opera Tristan und Isolde, no less.

But I needn’t have worried. Jason Lai emerged on stage with a cheery greeting, and explained the opera synopsis, the emotion in the music, what to “look out for” or hear in the music that would unfold, in such a casual and candid manner that children and adults alike were sitting up in their seats. His comparison of the western classical music genre of opera to Korean television soap operas elicited knowing laughter from the house, and I thought to myself how well the analogy applied to Bollywood (well, some of it) as well: The plotlines may be far-fetched and the emotions over-the-top, and one doesn’t even need to understand every last word for the meaning to come through nevertheless, especially through the music. Just as Raj Kapoor’s Hindi films were a craze in the former USSR, loved by people who didn’t understand the language at all, opera can be similarly appreciated by audiences worldwide if only given half a chance.

And so it was that I heard ‘O mio babbino caro’ one more time in a span of a few weeks, in a city in another part of the world, sung this time by the Chinese soprano Cherie Tse, and with the orchestral forces written for the aria.

If anyone ever wants an easy introduction to opera, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is just the ticket. Just around an hour long, it draws you in right into the deep end from the very start. The final part of Puccini’s triptych (Il Trittico) of short one-act operas, Gianni Schicchi offers comic relief from the other two.

There are many versions out there well worth a watch and listen. I’d recommend Antonio Pappano’s 2011 recording for BBC Four at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, or Riccardo Chailly with the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro alla Scala Milan, both accessible via YouTube.

Without spoiling it for those of you who’d like to take in the whole opera: It is a theatrical farce, with Florence as its location setting. A wealthy miser Buoso Donati has died, and although his relatives have gathered ostensibly to mourn his passing, they are scavengers looking to see what he left each of them in his will. When they find the document and realise that he has left it all to the monks at the nearby monastery, they are furious. They quickly come to the conclusion that only local confidence trickster Gianni Schicchi can come to their rescue. But wily as he is, how can even he get a dead man to change his will? Ah, now that would be telling. Watch the opera to find out.

It is a non-stop riot, with very imaginative use of score-writing (for instance, Puccini uses the falling figure in the very opening motif to mimic the hypocritical weeping of the relatives around Bonati’s death-bed) throughout.

But right in the middle of all the commotion and madness, the action seems to abruptly stop for the breathtakingly beautiful aria. It is sung by Lauretta, Schicchi’s daughter, to her father. Gianni Schicchi is about to walk away in a huff after being told rudely by one relative, Zita, to “be off”. But his daughter Lauretta is in love with Zita’s nephew Rinuccio, and begs her father to let her be with the man she loves.

The aria makes several Florentine references: she wants to go to Porta Rossa to buy the ring, and threatens to jump off the Ponte Vecchio and throw herself into the river Arno if her father doesn’t relent.

And relent he does, and he resourcefully brings the opera to a grand conclusion. Does everyone live happily ever after? Again, that would be telling.

The aria entered into popular culture when Rowan Atkinson mimed and lip-synced it in Mr. Bean’s Holiday. It also is the main theme in the 1985 James Ivory film “A Room with a View”, sung by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

I’ll leave you with Ekaterina Siurina singing it in the 2011 Covent Garden production:

Although out of context, I thought of writing about it this Sunday as it happens to be my own father’s birthday today, and this is a little dedication to him. He would have been 88 today.

(An edited version of this article was published on 27 November 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)