Semmelweis the Musical

At a time when hand-washing is trending, at least among those in this world fortunate to have access to running water and soap, on account of the coronavirus, it is perhaps not surprising that even the Google Doodle chose to celebrate the pioneer of hand disinfection, Hungarian physician and scientist Ignaz Philipp Semmelwess (1818-1865).

The date chosen by Google Doodle, 20 March, marked the day in 1847 that Semmelweis was appointed Chief Resident in the maternity clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, where he deduced and demonstrated that requiring doctors to disinfect their hands vastly reduced the transmission of disease.

Semmelweis google doodle

This pandemic has brought him out of obscurity back into the spotlight. Semmelweis is acknowledged as a pioneer of antisepsis, a concept that seems fundamentally self-evident to us but for which he faced much hostility in his lifetime.

Today Semmelweis is widely remembered as the ‘savior of mothers” and “the father of infection control. ” Semmelwiess found that the incidence of puerperal sepsis or fever (“childbed fever”, bacterial infection of the female reproductive tract following childbirth or miscarriage) could be drastically reduced simply by hand-washing and disinfection with chlorinated lime solutions in 1847 while working in the First Obstetrical Clinic of the most influential medical establishment in Europe, Vienna General Hospital. At the time, the maternal mortality in the doctors-administered wards (with doctors often turning up to deliver babies directly from dissecting cadavers without washing their hands in between) was thrice that in the midwives’ wards. Indeed, it was safer to have a ‘street birth’ than to be admitted to the maternity clinic before hand-disinfection became accepted practice.


Despite the proven efficacy of the intervention and his publication of the results, his ideas were rejected by his peers and the medical community at large, as they conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time.  Semmelweis was unable to offer a scientific rationale for his findings (although he correctly attributed the cause of the disease to a “lack of cleanliness”; he called the mysterious agents “cadaveric particles” as he deduced that doctors were bringing it with them from autopsies). Many doctors were offended at the suggestion that they needed to wash their hands. In 1849, he was compelled to leave the clinic when his term expired and wasn’t renewed.

He had to petition for an inferior post of docent in the same clinic, which limited his duties mainly to teaching, with very scant clinical work. He left abruptly soon after, “unable to endure further frustrations in dealing with the Viennese medical establishment”. Some observers blame Semmelweis at least partially for the impasse, for his “brusque manner, arrogant insistence that everyone obey his rules without explanation, and failure to communicate his results.” But there seems also to have been an element of xenophobia, a Hungarian viewed with dislike by the Austrian medical fraternity.

In 1865, he was committed to a mental asylum (supposedly for a ‘nervous breakdown’) by his colleagues. He died around two weeks later, aged just 47, from a gangrenous wound on his right hand, the wound allegedly sustained after being beaten by one of the asylum guards.

His contribution was acknowledged posthumously, after Louis Pasteur’s ‘germ theory of disease’ offered the rationale for Semmelweis’ hand-disinfection suggestion, and Joseph Lister implemented the idea of operating using hygienic methods.

Today, Semmelweis has become a byword; Semmelweis reflex” is a metaphor for “reflex-like rejection of new knowledge because it contradicts entrenched norms, beliefs, or paradigms. “

A remarkable man with a life-saving contribution to posterity, but you’d hardly expect him to be the subject of a stage musical.  But there are at least two, one of them released in his birth bicentenary year,2018.

“Semmelweis” is a 75-minute opera-theater work by Raymond J. Lustig (music) and Matthew Doherty (Hungarian libretto) and endorsed by the Semmelweis Foundation It poses hard-hitting questions: “what is it like to be the first to see into a terrible blind spot and perceive a truth too awful to believe? To be an “outsider”—a “foreign” doctor, Hungarian, but living and working in Vienna’s top hospital in a xenophobic era—and to fear that no-one heard you, that the answer may die with you? To hold an earth-shattering insight, and yet be haunted by all the mothers that would not be saved?”

The story of Semmelweis is still relevant, the Foundation page reminds us, because “our world seems still not to have absorbed its powerful lessons. There has never been a more urgent moment in history to reflect on the mystery of insight, the tension between truth and hubris, our cultural myopia, and the clear truth that we, as individuals and as a society, need our ‘outsiders,’ our fresh and brave ideas, literally to survive.”

It is scored for women’s vocal ensemble (8 voices minimum, 3 sopranos, 3 mezzos, 2 altos), one male soloist (baritone), and seven instrumentalists (piano/organ, percussion, and string quintet), as well as specially designed music boxes and tuned bells played onstage by all soloists and chorus.

The women’s voices represent different women haunting Semmelweis’s failing mind (patients, mothers, midwives, nurses, his wife).

In a video (available on YouTube, uploaded during this pandemic, two months ago), Lustig talks about the relevance of the work in our own time, and salutes and dedicates it to front-line health workers, among them his own wife, a nurse.

“Semmelweis –When the Truth is not Enough” is a musical by Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Aaron Shrand , “based on a true story that pits one man’s struggle for truth and justice against the cynicism and politics of the medical system.”

In the page about the musical on his website, Dr. Shrand explains that though it concentrates on the life and work of Semmelweis in the 1840s, “it is a damning comment on our own time.  Semmelweis stirs issues of women’s rights, the conflict between medical care and managed care, about the ethics of medical research and discovery, the conflict between the religious right and the scientific community, about love, loyalty, betrayal, intrigue, sanity and madness.  The musical delves into our relationship to God, discovery and rejection, elation and despair, and the ultimate sacrifice of one man to save the lives of thousands.”

“His discovery, so simple and so pure, was ridiculed and abandoned in his time.  Now, it is so accepted that it is inconceivable it was ever questioned.” Those interested can watch Dr. Shrand talk about his musical, also released during this pandemic, and also pointing out the relevance of the Semmelweis parable today, with the same non-belief in what science is telling us today.

Then it as antisepsis, today it is global warming and humankind’s direct contribution to it through environmental destruction, and the spread of diseases like this pandemic. And similarly, people could die needlessly, just because too many of us refuse to listen and learn.

(An edited version of this article was published on 05 August 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)


What a difference a teacher makes!

If you Google ‘Peter Watmough’, you don’t find very much, not even a picture of the man.

But if you look up ‘Tasmin Little,’ British concert violinist, you literally get millions of results.

Tasmin Little

Peter Watmough died on 17 July 2020. He was Tasmin Little’s very first violin teacher. She paid a glowing tribute to him on her Facebook page.

In her tribute, she tells us she was just six years old at New End state primary school in London when she decided that “I simply had to start playing the violin.”

The system then only enrolled children for music education after they were eight years old. But the young girl was “impatient and insistent” to get started. So her mother talked to the violin teacher at the school, Peter Watmough, who kindly agreed to give her an ear test. He was “very excited” to find that Tasmin had perfect pitch and “immediately removed all obstacles” so that she could begin lessons with him, initially for 15 minutes each week, rising to half an hour a few months later.

Think about how the stars aligned for that little girl: her yearning for the instrument that has become her life passion and career began spontaneously from her, at six. She was enrolled in a London school that had an in-built, well-established music education programme. And although the prescribed starting age was eight, here was a teacher who was willing to take the time to listen to her, and having, whether from experience and/or gut instinct, spotted the beginning of great potential right then, “immediately removed all obstacles” to get her started. We don’t know what those obstacles were in real terms, but to his credit he did it.

He was proven right pretty quickly: Later that same year, Tasmin Little gave a school concert playing the first movement of Bach double concerto in D minor, BWV 1043, in which she played the first violin part with Peter on second violin.

“At one point we were not quite together and Peter said to my mother afterwards that he knew I would be a professional player because I simply kept going!” she reminisced in her tribute. “All his pupils liked him – he never got cross but was always encouraging and kind.”

By that Christmas, Watmough had said to Little’s mother that she would soon outgrow what he could teach her and it was imperative that she should audition for a specialist music school, such as the Yehudi Menuhin school in Surrey. She gained a place at that school the following March.

Pause here and think of the infrastructure that a young child had access to, back in the 1970s. Among the very few results that come up for Peter Watmough is the programme brochure of a three-day all-schools prom concert series in November 1979 at London’s Royal Albert Hall, in which  the New End school where Watmough taught also featured.

Screenshot (11)

The programme note describing the New End School String Ensemble (conducted by Watmough and performing a single work, Ferdinand Kuchler’s Concertino in D, Op. 15, “written in a style typical of a concerto by Vivaldi, with the technical ability of a young string player sensibly kept in mind”) states that it “has its roots in the string teaching done at New End Primary School… Pupils are given an opportunity to learn the violin, viola, cello, and double-bass and piano. As they progress, they join the school orchestra, string quartets and string ensemble. Parental participation in lessons and practice is very much encouraged.”

This is one very good example (among many others in that brochure) of a grass-roots music education programme.

And now look at the mission statement of the Yehudi Menuhin School: “to provide a place for musically gifted children from around the world to develop their talents to the highest level within a nurturing and stimulating academic environment, regardless of their economic background.” The last five words are significant.

One could argue that Tasmin Little’s irrepressible potential would have surfaced one way or another, but one would still say she was fortunate to be so well supported at every step so early in her life. And very importantly, Watmough not only spotted the spark in her, nurtured it, but had the maturity to know when it was time for her to move on, beyond what he could offer her. And how fortunate she was that such an institution already existed, not too far from her.

I keep driving home the point of music education, because even half a century later, we still have miles to go in providing something like this to our own children.

Little acknowledges her debt to her first teacher even after entering the Menuhin school: “I had been learning only one year but his teaching had enabled me to learn difficult pieces such as Mozart E minor sonata.”

When she left New End school, Watmough gave her “a much treasured gift of the complete set of Bach sonatas and partitas”, which she still uses.

Tasmin Little returned to New End a few years later, in her teens to play for the pupils at Watmough’s invitation. Later, when she heard that his job there was being axed due to funding cuts in the state education system, she wrote letters of support, “sadly to no avail.”

Watmough seems to have left the teaching profession after this happened, and took up the business of lavender products. His present to Little of one of those products, as well as her very first violin book that he had kept for so many years, are her cherished mementos of him. And he, for his part, attended many of her concerts, and “it was always wonderful to see him.” One can imagine him, seated modestly among the audience, but his heart swelling with pride at seeing the “little” girl he once taught, now in full bloom, as the star performer Tasmin Little.

When Little heard that Watmough had taken ill some months ago, she wrote him a long letter of gratitude and received a beautiful handwritten card in reply. “This now sits inside my copy of the Bach that he gave me”, she wrote in her tribute.

Little was “moved beyond belief” to learn that the night before Watmough passed away, his family played him her recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’,  inspired by the eponymous 1881 poem by the English writer George Meredith, and a work that Little has made her own during her career.

One can feel the emotion as she wrote towards the end of her tribute “I am full of gratitude at the kindness and selflessness of this dear man who gave so much to a little girl all those years ago.”

The concluding lines of ‘The Lark Ascending’ poem could well be his epitaph:  “As he to silence nearer soars,/ Extends the world at wings and dome,/ More spacious making more our home,/ Till lost on his aerial rings/ In light, and then the fancy sings.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 29 July 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)


We need more Winstons if we want more Antheas

Music educationThe meme accompanying this column has been on my desktop for some time, awaiting its turn. And now is as good a time as any.

As someone passionate about and invested in music education, the picture spoke to me at once. But a recent news item in a section of the press a few days ago only reinforced the powerful truth of the message.

14-year old Anthea Luna-Marie Dias won a prize in an online music competition, and the icing on the cake will be a winners’ recital performance at Carnegie Hall. It is every musician’s dream.

There is a standing joke (even celebrated on the Carnegie Hall website as “The Joke”), thought to have actually happened to the great violinist Mischa Elman, but has evolved to accommodate other legendary musicians from Menuhin to Heifetz to Rubinstein. It’s so well-known that if you ask the question “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” (even if just an innocent query for directions from someone lost in New York City), the wisecrack answer will inevitably be “Practice, Practice, Practice.”

Practice, Practice, Practice! | Luis Dias

Practice, Practice, Practice! | Luis Dias

That is what came through in the article about little Anthea, that she “practiced all day, before and after meals” I know the girl and her grit, determination and industriousness well enough to know that her mother Marianela wasn’t just using a figure of speech. Anthea actually put in the hours. And as if to fulfill “The Joke”, she’ll “get to Carnegie Hall” next year.

But even hours of dedicated practice would be futile without the guidance and supervision of an experienced, knowledgeable and passionate teacher. Anthea’s family was fortunate to have found Winston Collaço at just the right time in her development. It is no exaggeration to say that Winston is one of Goa’s foremost teachers for upper strings (I was glad to see him take up viola in a video, and am sure he’s introducing it to his students too) today; the prowess and achievements of so many of his students apart from Anthea speak more powerfully than words ever could. I’m not aware of another Suzuki teacher here, or indeed in the rest of India, who has the maturity and insight to discern at what juncture in a pupil’s trajectory of progress to supplement the prescribed Suzuki pieces with the much wider, rich classical music repertoire, and pedagogical etudes, scales, arpeggios, dominant sevenths and what-have-you, and also introduce them to chamber and ensemble repertoire.

While we all rightly celebrate and pop out the champagne at Anthea’s success, a wider look at the state of music education in Goa should also give us pause. There just aren’t enough high-calibre experienced music teachers on the ground. I’ve had parents bring their children to me for lessons from Salcete after school and a hasty packed lunch on the way. The children would understandably be exhausted after the long school day and the long drive, through roadworks and traffic jams, often arriving a little later than scheduled for these reasons. In their own interest I ask them to find a teacher closer to home. But the sad truth is they’ve knocked on all the doors, and the good teachers are full-up. This is true across Goa. There is a crying need for more.

This pandemic and lockdown have aggravated matters. There are limitations to online teaching, and young students are likely to lose the motivation to practice without supervision, and sloppiness and bad habits are more likely to creep in. But this is a current, hopefully temporary glitch.

Quoting again from the news item, Anthea’s recent achievement is all the more commendable, coming as she does from “a small state that has no conservatory that many of her competitors are enrolled in.” This is quite true; a profile of other winners across age categories reveals that many of them have had the advantage of a conservatory education, so kudos to Anthea (and Winston) that she joined their ranks.

But turn that statement on its head and ask yourself how many more young musicians of high caliber we’d have, how many more of our children would discover and fulfill their music potential to the fullest, if more were invested in music education, not just in Goa, but all over India, and not just at conservatory level, but much more importantly, at the grass-root beginner level too?

The truth is that at the moment, all over India, despite some institutions having “conservatory” and similar titles in their names, teaching that can measure up to world-class standards isn’t happening. One hears rumours about endeavours in bigger cities, but if they’re producing students of world-class ability, so far we aren’t hearing them or of them. And even these are so prohibitively expensive that they are out of reach to the majority.

The issue with state or government-funded initiatives, wherever in India they may be, is that they are too dependent on the whims of politicians and bureaucrats in whichever government is in power at the time; which means that a regime change can mean a drastic shift in funding, focus and direction, which is not how any academic institution ought to function. A music education programme, whether at grass-roots or higher levels all the way to conservatory-level, needs a long-term (going several decades into the future) vision, planning, and stability in funding, administration and high-quality teaching at all levels, even beginner level. The grass-roots level is arguably most important, because only a strong foundation can allow one to build sound technique, intonation, tone and further aspects such as musicality, phrasing, and interpretation.

If one looks at the financial models of many prestigious music conservatories, academies and pedagogical institutions worldwide, they are either wholly funded by the private and philanthropic sector, and in some cases with state support or subsidies. But the long-term vision, the pursuit of excellence is never compromised. This makes for a robust foundation, and the results are there for everyone to see and hear when their graduates grace the world’s concert stages as soloists and fill the rank and file of the world’s top orchestras and chamber ensembles.

This was true in the ‘western’ world (Europe, Great Britain and later North America, Australia and New Zealand) but post-WWII has happened all over South-East Asia too. Why does India still lag behind, despite centuries of western influence? Glib excuses are made: “It’s not our culture”; “Our own culture is much too vibrant for western music to make significant inroads”. Well, the same argument held for South-East Asia, but look where they have got to.

Then there’s the NGO charity sector and initiatives like Child’s Play. Our cello project, if funding remains solid and consistent, will be a game-changer for lower strings in a few years.

Simply put, if we want more Antheas, we must have many more Winstons, and not just for upper strings but in all orchestral instrument disciplines. We must plant seeds today if we want orchards tomorrow.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 July 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Love of a Father

Due to the time difference, the Metropolitan Opera nightly livestreams make it possible for us to watch them in the mornings here. As I am an early riser, I can often watch an entire opera before the rest of the household is up and about. At the time of writing this, the tally count has crossed a hundred.

As Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1931) is virtually the poster boy for operatic composers, it isn’t surprising that his ‘hit’ operas (and there are many!) have featured on the list of livestreams.

Verdi love of a father

Having watched so many of them in such close succession, I began to notice a pattern: many (but not all) of his operas have touching portrayals of the bond between father (in a few cases the mother) and daughter (or son), and how that relationship can be put to the test due to their circumstances. It may not always be the central theme of the opera, but quite an important one all the same. It almost seemed as if Verdi were drawn to libretti that had this parent- offspring theme.

While other operatic composers go to town exalting romantic young love and put it right at the centre of their works (think of the ravishing tenor soprano love duets in the operas of his later compatriot Puccini, for example), Verdi’s great operatic moments are his baritone-soprano (or sometimes baritone-mezzosoprano) duets, usually between father and daughter.

I read up a little on the operas I watch, and this includes the biographies of their composers. And reading Verdi’s life story, it becomes poignantly clear why he would be partial to libretti that gave prominence to the parent-child bond.

Verdi fell in love with Margherita Barezzi, one of his students, and they were married in 1836, when he was 23.

Portrait of Margherita Barezzi Verdi, Wife of Giuseppe Verdi by Augusto Mussini

Two children followed quickly, a daughter Virginia Maria Luigia in 1837 and a son Icilio Romano in 1838. Unfortunately, both were short-lived, dying in 1838 and 1839 respectively. And the following year, 1840, Margherita passed away as well, leaving Verdi a childless widower at 27. Even one such loss would be a heavy blow to most, but Verdi suffered three in a very short time span. Mortality may have been more common in the past, but the emotional pain of loss and bereavement would have stung just as much as it would today.

Although he began a relationship (deemed scandalous by society then) with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi some years later,

Giuseppina Strepponi - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia

only marrying her in 1859 (they had no children), it is thought that the losses Verdi suffered in his twenties left a deep psychological scar. Many of his operas can be thus seen as an emotional outlet for what he had lost in his own life.

Take Nabucco (1841), written shortly after his personal crisis and the opera that truly established his career as an operatic composer. Short for Nabucodonosor, (Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon c. 605 BC to c. 562 BC), it is a tale about an arrogant father (Nabucco), his wicked supposed daughter Abigaille), and a virtuous true daughter Fenena.

In Luisa Miller (1849), the title character sacrifices her own romantic aspirations in order to save her father’s life.

It doesn’t end well for her, as she dies in her father’s arms.

The father-daughter theme is found in other Verdi synopses. In his potboiler Stiffelio (1850), one of his less well-known operas, Stiffelio’s wife Lina and her father Count Stankar have poignant moments, and the father drives much of the action in the storyline.

Look at Rigoletto (1851), one of the three operatic ‘peaks’ of Verdi’s ‘middle’ period. The hunchback title character’s jealous over-protective love of his daughter Gilda dominates the plot.

In a tragic twist of mistaken identity, he ends up murdering her instead of his own debauched employer, the Duke, with whom she was fallen madly in love.

There is a gender switch in Il Trovatore (1853); instead of a father-daughter relationship, we have a mother-supposed son bond in gypsy woman Azucena and Manrico.

Operatic synopses are usually convoluted, but this one takes the proverbial biscuit. To avenge her mother’s wrongful execution by burning at the stake at the behest of the Count di Luna, Azucena meant to immolate one of his two children, but in her confusion sacrifices her own child, and has to bring up the Count’s actual son Manrico as her own instead. When the Count’s son eventually unwittingly orders Manrico’s (his own biological brother’s) execution (long story), Azucena’s mother is finally avenged.

There is a slight variant of the theme in Verdi’s famous La Traviata (1853), but here the dramatic tension is between father and possible daughter-in law, when Giorgio Germont prevails upon the courtesan Violetta Valéry to break off her relationship with his son Alfredo, as it is jeopardizing his own daughter’s engagement prospects. Pura siccome un angelo, Iddio mi diè una figlia – “Pure as an angel, God gave me a daughter”, he pleads with her.

In a later opera, from 1857, Simon Boccanegra (based on a real-life Doge of Genoa who lived in the 1300s), we are told in the prologue that the woman he loves has died, and that the child she bore him out of wedlock has disappeared without a trace. Although he gets appointed Doge of Genoa, he realizes that the two people he most loved in the world are lost to him.  The plotline moves to twenty-five years later, when he has an emotional reunion with his long-lost daughter Amelia in a most beautiful duet, “Figlia! a tal nome io palpito” — “Daughter! At that name I tremble.

One can almost picture Verdi imagining what it would have been like to behold his own daughter had she not been snatched away from him so cruelly in infancy.

In the opera, the father’s joy is short-lived, as Simon Boccanegra dies at the end, leaving his daughter in the hands of her beloved Gabriele, who succeeds Boccanegra as the new Doge of Genoa.

In Aïda (1871), the title character, an Ethiopian princess kept in captivity by Egypt, is torn between her love for Radamès, Captain of the Egyptian Guard and vanquisher of Ethiopia’s army, and her loyalty to her father Amonasro, king of Ethiopia and to her native land.

To thicken the plot, the Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris also loves Radamès, making the two women love rivals. Aïda fulfills her duty to her father and country by extracting military secrets from Radamès, but joins him in an entombed death when he is punished for high treason on account of that betrayal

Verdi wrote over 25 operas in all, not counting revisions. But the parent-child bond in so many of them must mean that he was attracted towards such libretti, and that he was drawing from personal trauma and experience when he wrote such potent, immortal music.

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 July 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)

Fire and Ice: Ida Haendel (1928-2020)

More than 20 years ago, on Friday 23 June 2000. I went to a recital at London’s Wigmore Hall. By then, I had been in the city for two years, and had explored most of its classical music venues. But a visit to Wigmore Hall (“the sacred shoe-box of chamber music, Vikram Seth poetically calls it in his brilliant novel ‘An Equal Music’) is always a special occasion.

Wigmore Hall | Music in Marylebone, London

It’s a long time ago, but I’m guessing I decided to go for two reasons: the great Polish-born violinist Ida Haendel would be playing that evening. I had only heard her (and of her) through the suitcases of audio cassettes that Prof. George Trautwein had left behind for me upon his return to the US after a long stint in Goa in 1989. And the other reason was that she would be playing the Brahms Third Violin Sonata in D minor that I had grown to love. I certainly remember that sonata, and that she also played another ‘third’ sonata, this one by George Enescu, a tribute to her own childhood teacher, and that, even in her seventies, she still “had it”.

That was the one and only time I heard Ida Haendel in a live concert.

Ida Haendel

She passed away on 30 June 2020, aged 92. Tributes immediately poured in from classical music media everywhere.  The Guardian’s music correspondent Robert White praised her “combination of classical rigour and romantic warmth—ice and fire”, her “perfectly judged use of the expressive slide, the portamento,” (one of the hallmarks of great playing from an earlier generation, and woefully out of fashion among string players today) which contributed to “a highly characteristic sound that combined great accuracy with intense lyricism.”

A true child prodigy, she picked up her sister’s violin at age 3, and incredibly, in 1933, (when she would have been just five! Although there is some confusion about her birth year; some sources quote 1923, in which case she’d have been ten, whil is still pretty awesome!) she performed the Beethoven violin concerto, winning the Warsaw Conservatory’s Gold Medal and the Huberman Prize. In 1935, age seven, she competed alongside the great virtuosos David Oistrakh and Ginette Neveu to become a laureate of the first Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition. At nine, she made her London debut at the Queen’s Hall with Sir Henry Wood conducting.

Her pedagogical lineage was impressive. Prior to studying with George Enescu in Paris, she was also the pupil of Carl Flesch in London.

The composer Jean Sibelius was so impressed by Haendel’s rendition of his Violin Concerto in a 1948 Finnish radio broadcast that he exclaimed to her in a fan letter: “You played it masterfully in every respect … I congratulate myself that my concerto has found an interpreter of your rare standard.” The Sibelius Society awarded her the Sibelius Medal in 1982.

Sifting through the flurry of tribute articles and obituaries on the internet after her death, I came across an old article which happened to be written just a day before her 2000 Wigmore Hall. It was written by British commentator on music and cultural affairs, novelist, and the author of the classical music gossip blog Slipped Disc, Norman Lebrecht, and the article had the intriguing title “Ida Haendel – The one they don’t want you to hear.”

I was surprised to learn from him that the concert I had attended was in fact her Wigmore Hall debut. He ascribed the woeful shunning of this extraordinary icon by the classical music world to sexism, to the insistence on “ female soloists (only females) being wrinkle-free” while “pensionable male soloists with trembling hands still strut the circuit,” and the preference for “bare shoulders over bold interpretation.”

Having read how enthusiastically the composer himself endorsed Haendel’s interpretation of his concerto, it was painful to read that, in 1998, she was invited to participate in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius festival, only to be told she wouldn’t be playing the concerto (“that she has owned for half a century”, says Lebrecht); that honour would be given to Anne-Sophie Mutter, while Haendel’s role would be much more modest. Understandably, she bowed out of the vent. “The loss was ours”, rues Lebrecht.

The irony is that Mutter herself, along with so many other present-generation violinists from Maxim Vengerov to David Garrett, regarded her with awe.  Lebrecht reminded us back then in 2000, of the further irony that Mutter herself would in time be pushed to the margins in “a man’s world”, while male soloists would be treated much less harshly.

On account of such attitudes, Lebrecht felt in 2000, Haendel had “failed to acquire the Augustan eminence of a Menuhin, the serenity of a Stern. Ida Haendel is angry, and an angry old woman is more than the twittery music business can bear.”

A decade later, in 2010, in the documentary ‘I Am The Violin’, Haendel expressed her anger and frustration at being passed over in favour of the “new, young”, and not necessarily always with ability.

And yet, she was mentor, to among others, the then-young Chloe Hanslip. Obviously the fact that she was also a child prodigy struck a close bond.

“Bach is the root of everything”, she told Hanslip in a 2002 joint interview to The Telegraph. In a Masterclass session to The Strad on the Bach Chaconne in D minor a year ago, she said “There are some works where you are free to do whatever you want, to be absolutely personal with taste—Rave and Sarasate for example–but Bach is pure. The only way to interpret it is to be as close to the composer and his intentions as possible.”

She wasn’t impressed with those who treated Bach as a “virtuoso exercise”, to “show off their advanced violin playing.”

“What’s the most difficult part of being a ballerina? The slow tempo, the adagio, not the fast dancing, not running around the stage. It’s the same with violin playing. To play fast, it’s over before you know it and nobody can even pinpoint what’s wrong when it goes so quickly. The real problem for violinists is control of the adagio.”

Even more profound was her advice on self-criticism: “The greatest art of music-making is being capable of listening to yourself in a critical way so that you can distinguish what you are doing in regard to phrasing, vibrato and technique in every bar. You have to listen to yourself as if from a distance, as you would listen to someone else playing. To be self-critical is one of the greatest arts.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 08 July 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)



Fantasies and Delusions

It’s funny how circumstances sometimes lead you almost by the nose in a certain direction.

When I switched on the WSO (Wiener Staatsoper or Vienna State Opera) to watch a production of Mozart’s Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), Billy Joel was furthest from my mind. But, as I elaborated in an earlier column, a video plug for the city of Vienna during the intermission of the performance happened to this time feature Billy Joel.

I realized there were many aspects to Joel’s life and music that I was hitherto unaware of. I had a read-through of ‘A Biography in the Life and Times of Billy Joel’ by Christy Brans

A Biography On The Life & Times of Billy Joel by Christy Branson

on and ‘The Definitive Biography of Billy Joel’ by Fred Schruers

Buy Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography Book Online at Low Prices ...

and learned much.

Maybe the die-hard fans among you already knew, but I didn’t know ‘Billy’ (William Martin) Joel was of Jewish descent, and that the family of his father Howard (born Helmut) Joel, a classical pianist fled Nazi Germany to Switzerland, having to sell the family business (mail-order textiles) for a pittance, and eventually reaching the US via Cuba to circumvent the strict direct immigration quota for German Jews. The account of relentless, ever more hateful and systematic anti-Semitism the family endured before leaving their homeland has disturbing parallels with Islamophobia in our own time.

Howard Joel married Rosalind Nyman, also from a Jewish émigré family in 1946, and “Billy” was born to them in 1949. But the darkness of Howard’s earlier years (“Life is a cesspool”, he once said to six-year-old Billy, who remembers it as “a pretty rough thing to say to a kid”), the anti-Semitism, the war, the culture shock of arriving in America, which he hated, never left him.  He would go to the family upright piano and play Chopin, Beethoven and Debussy. Joel reminisces: “I thought it was pretty great; I would get stoned from listening to it. But when he finished, he was always in a really bad mood. I guess because it made him feel frustrated, angry that he wasn’t a virtuoso pianist. But what would put him into a bad mood would put me into a great mood. I thought, if I could do that, I’d be a really happy guy.”

In some ways, Howard’s desertion of the family, while depriving Joel of a much-needed father-figure, freed him to make choices his father would never have approved, such as his decision to be a rock musician.

An “excruciatingly” shy youth, Joel discovered he could let his piano do the talking when words failed.

Joel’s maternal grandfather made up for his father’s emotional absence, taking him to concerts, bribing ushers with packs of unfiltered cigarettes in postwar America to let them in as he was too poor to afford tickets for the two of them, or lying about Joel’s age so he could go in for free.

I also learned another important thing from reading Joel’s biography. How many of us would continue learning music if we were teased and beaten up while going to music lessons? But Joel actually took up boxing, just to beat off the bullies, so he could walk to his lessons unmolested. And he got “pretty good” at boxing: of his 26 bouts, he only lost two by judges decisions, two more by knockouts, and had 22 wins!

Billy Joel a boxer? Piano Man was a bad ass in the boxing ring

Interestingly, he sees similarities between boxing and piano-playing: discipline and hard work. But boxing also required a ‘killer instinct to excel’, which he admits he never had.

Piano lessons “sometimes felt like drudgery, but I’ve continued to rely on that training every day of my musical life.”

The love of classical music informed Billy Joel’s release of his 2001 album ‘Fantasies and Delusions’, a collection of piano pieces composed by him, just solo piano, no vocal line, and well worth a listen for its sincerity and lack of pretension (or delusion, despite the title).

Fantasies and Delusions

In an explanatory YouTube video, Joel says: “I write all the time; people may not know it because I don’t record it. But I’m just writing thematic music, which led to ‘Fantasies and Delusions. Piano pieces have been my first love before I even started to write a song. I loved music even before they were songs. I love Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin. This [album] is more ‘me’ than anything else.”

Joel got his longtime friend, the British-Korean pianist Richard Hyung-ki Joo to record the album because he admits that while “I can write it, I can’t play it the way it should be played.”

Why the title? “Well, the album IS kind of a fantasy and a delusion. It [the cover] looks like the Schirmer classical music editions [the yellow background trimmed with a green border] in which we got the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin études, etc. So that’s a delusion — comparing myself to Chopin or Beethoven! But I did want it to be recognized that I was trying to write classical piano pieces.”

“I’m picturing a piano teacher with a student who says ‘I want to play a Billy Joel song’. My regular songs sound like crap on the piano. But now the teacher can point to the sheet music book (that accompanies the album) and learn Opus 1, 2 or 3. They’d have something they could actually learn with.”

There are 10 pieces in all, Opus numbers 1-10, all available on YouTube.

The whole album is a tribute from one Piano Man to all the Great Ones before him. This is no “crossover” music, no pop melodies “prettified” or “dressed up” in classical clothing. One hears the influence of certainly Bach and Chopin, perhaps Schumann, and the title of the first track (Reverie–Villa d’Este) suggests a bow to Liszt as well, some nuances of Rachmaninov.

Perhaps the sleeve notes shed more light on the subtitles, so I’ll only guess based on listening to the tracks. Waltz 1 (Nunley’s Carousel) is a reference to the once-famous New York carousel park, tinged with wistfulness for a bygone era.

Aria (Grand Canal) is extremely Chopinesque, perhaps a reaction to his Barcarolles. Chopin never visited Venice, but the Grand Canal subtitle conjures dipping oars and swirls and eddies in murky canals.

Invention in C minor is a clear salute to Johann Sebastian Bach. Soliloquy (on a separation) is perhaps the most Joel-ian piece in the set, eloquent and straight from the heart.

Suite for Piano (Star-crossed) has three movements, ‘Innamorato’, ‘Sorbetto’, and ‘Delusion’. Like Waltz 2 (Steinway Hall) and Waltz 3 (for Lola) and Fantasy Noir (Film Noir) that follow, there probably are stories behind them all, but they can be appreciated on their own too.

Air is a Song without Words. Perhaps Joel will incorporate it into a song someday. One also hopes that Joel will keep writing ‘classical’ pieces, even if played by others. Gramophone magazine was a little patronising in its review, calling the works ‘pleasing, ‘undemanding’ and ‘pastiche pieces.’ There’s all of that, but there’s also potential. Billy Joel’s best Opus is still inside him.

(An edited version of this article was published on 01 July 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)

Pretty Amazing

We all know the power of advertising. But sometimes the advertisement can in’ad’vertently sell you something unintended, but worth far more than the branded product. Priceless, in fact.

Many of you will remember the British Airways ad, featuring the beautiful ‘Flower Duet’ from Delibes’ opera ‘Lakmé’ which appeared on our movie and television screens in the 1980s. If there was any other airline ad also around at the time, this ravishing one beat all its rivals into oblivion. I was in my teens then and not travelling anywhere, but if I could, I would have flown British Airways just because the ad made it so alluring. Like Morgan Freeman’s character ‘Red’ in the Shawshank Redemption, I had no idea then what those ladies were singing about, but who cared? It was heady stuff.

That same ad had a much more profound, in fact life-changing impact on a sixteen-year-old girl in Piet Retief, a town in the timber-growing region of Mpunamalanga province, South Africa.

Pretty Yende

Pretty Yende was watching TV in 2001 with her family when the commercial was aired. In a 2017 interview to Oprah, she recalled, “The voices captivated me—but I had no idea what it was. The next day I asked my teacher what I’d heard, and he told me it was opera. I’d planned to become an accountant, but those 30 seconds were powerful.”

I find such stories of people’s entry points into music careers utterly fascinating, precisely because they are so diverse and so unpredictable. Pretty Yende is an operatic soprano today, and has performed leading roles at opera houses internationally, including La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera. Powerful 30 seconds indeed!

It wasn’t an easy decision. Yende was in her last year of high school at the time and had received a scholarship to a university. Her parents thought opera should be “just a hobby”, but as Yende told Oprah, “I knew I belonged in that world.”

Since making her professional operatic debut at the Latvian National Theatre in Riga as Micaela in Carmen, she has been seen at nearly all of the major theaters of the world, including the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Opéra National de Paris, Metropolitan Opera, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Staatsoper Berlin, Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, Opernhaus Zürich and Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.

I’m writing about Yende in the wake of this opera bonanza from all over the world, particularly the Metropolitan Opera that I’ve been lucky to watch daily, almost from the beginning of the lockdown. Some 80 opera livestreams later, I’ve seen very few black male or female leading role singers. I’ve been keeping a log, and on consulting it, among the leading role female black singers there were just four: the two big names from yesteryear, Jessye Norman (1945-2019 and Leontyne Price (1927-); Kathleen Battle (1948-) and then a long dry spell; until Pretty Yende showed up in the leading role of Adina in Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto opera L’Elisir d’Amore (The Love Potion).

Metropolitan Opera: L'Elisir d'Amore | Interlochen

That’s quite an under-representation. And none at all from India or the rest of South Asia, but that’s another story.

Classical music in general, and opera in particular suffers (perhaps justifiably so) from the perception that it is an overwhelmingly “white” art form.

But there is cause for optimism, and it may well come from South Africa, from singers like Yende.  “We are a singing nation. We are born with a beat. We cry, we sing. We laugh, we sing. We’re sad, we sing. We lose, we sing. We win, we sing. So song has been part of us from a long long time,” said Yende in a 2011 interview. All that is happening is that this passion for singing is being extended into opera once elitist, but no longer.

“All I wanted to do was to sing. All I wanted to do was to know how to sing,” Yende told Agence France-Presse. “Even now, all I want to do is to sing well.”

In 1994, South Africa transitioned from a system of apartheid to one of majority rule. Along with the many sweeping changes that came along with it, it also leveled the playing field in the artsl. Voices that were literally stifled under apartheid could now blossom to their fullest potential.

“Formerly people were not even allowed on the stage and that’s why it looks as if there is a huge upsurge. But what it is, is that suddenly things opened up and people started realising they could make careers. These singers have always been there but they have always been ignored. It’s a pity because a lot of wonderful talent has gone missing in the process because of the situation that we had in this country,” said Virginia Davids, head of vocal studies at the South African College of Music (SACM) based at the University of Cape Town in an interview. Yende studied at the SACM too, graduating cum laude, with Davids as one of her teachers. “At the moment our best singers are black,” said Davids. Yende’s younger sister, Nombulelo is also an opera singer.

Racial prejudice is rife in the classical music world. I was re-reading a book I had bought a long time ago, ‘Who’s afraid of Opera?’ (1994) by Michael Wlslh, then music critic for Time magazine. While written in light-hearted vein, one detects shades of bias in his writing and judgment. He gleefully recounts how he refused to do a cover story on New Zealand lyric soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. He raked up in passing what he called the “nonmusical aspects of her interesting life”, namely her half-Maori parentage, and her adoption by another mixed-race couple. His reasons for his refusal? He “wasn’t terribly fond” of her singing, and that in his opinion “her lack of a strong musical foundation was a crippling interpretative handicap”, so on and so forth. His bias effectively killed off what would have made a great cover story. Further, toward the end of the book, Walsh talks about the “distinctive colouring” of Leontyne Price’s voice and adds “some profess to hear a ‘black’ sound in it” (without elaborating what this means. Is there a ‘white’ sound too?) and that Price “is a sterling example of how to conduct, prolong and even milk a career.” Maybe I’m reading too much into his comments, weighing each word too carefully. But these passages did make me wince.

The other issue is the inherent racism in the libretti and synopses (and often ingrained in the music as well; listen to Puccini’s Turandot or Madama Butterfly for instance when Eastern characters are given caricaturized musical form) of so much the classical operatic repertoire itself. This of course reflects the attitudes and thinking of the times in which they were written. But it is in the interest of the very survival of opera as an art form that it attract a wider audience base beyond its traditionally white (and ageing) demographic for there to be wider representation on its stage, and greater sensitivity in staging stereotype-ridden plotlines while not sacrificing the soaring beauty of its music.

(An edited version of this article was published on 24 June 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)

Miles Davis and the Summer of ‘59

Life was looking good for American jazz trumpeter, bandleader and composer Miles Davis (1926-1991) in August 1959.

Miles Davis: 15 Essential Albums Birth of Cool

His fortunes had skyrocketed after performing at the second annual Newport Jazz Festival in 1955, with a Columbia label recording contract close on its heels. His Miles Davis quintet, formed in 1955, and increased to a sextet in 1958, was making waves with each new album. And in earlier 1959, Davis recorded what many critics consider his greatest album, ‘Kind of Blue’. It remains the bestselling jazz album of all time.


But on 25 August, an incident quite literally brought him down. Davis was taking a break from a recording session at the iconic Birdland nightclub in New York City for the US Armed Services. He had just escorted a white lady friend to the street, hailed her a cab and was having a smoke outside to unwind when a rookie cop Gerald Kilduff (white, of course, but it bears mentioning) told him to “move on”. Davis explained he was working at the club, and even indicated his name and picture on its marquee, to no avail. Things escalated quickly, with more police officers arriving on the scene. Witnesses say Kilduff punched Davis in the stomach with a nightstick without provocation, and that the cop was drunk, with the smell of liquor on his breath. Another officer approached Davis from behind and beat him in the head with a “billy club” (a police truncheon. I had to look that up).

Miles Davis

Davis was arrested on the charge of ‘felonious assault’ on an officer, then taken to a hospital where he received five stitches to his scalp, and later released on a $525 bail (US$4,605 in 2019 dollars). He was also stripped off his cabaret card, depriving him of the right to perform.

Many sections of the press faithfully reproduced the police version of the incident as fact,

Milestones: A Miles Davis Archive — During a gig at Birdland in ...

but the New York Amsterdam News carried a front-page story headlined ‘Witnesses say ‘It was Police Brutality”,’ with a picture of trumpet-clutching Davis captioned ‘Cop Victim’ and a large headline ‘Miles Davis’ own story: “They beat on my head like a tom-tom.”’

Ted Gioia on Twitter: "In jazz circles, 1959 is remembered as the ...

Eventually, in January 1960, Davis was acquitted of disorderly conduct and third-degree assault.

Gerald Early in his book ‘Miles Davis and American Culture’ quotes Davis as saying later the incident “changed my whole life and whole attitude again, made me feel bitter and cynical again when I was starting to feel good about the things that had changed in this country.”

In the biography “Miles Davis” by Brian Morton, a whole chapter ‘You’re under Arrest’ is devoted to his run-ins with the law, in which this incident is graphically recounted. Davis had his flaws, with domestic violence and drug abuse, but Morton also writes that Davis was “no stranger to racial prejudice”, in milder form in his student years at Juilliard, but more obvious over time. As Morton puts it, “the sight of an exotically dressed black man in a red Ferrari still seemed to inspire unreasoning resentment.” Davis and his wife Frances in interviews said they would frequently get pulled over, to investigate whether he, a black man, “had stolen his master’s car.” “It’s not nice to be going around, you know, every day, thinking that shit.” Wife Frances recalled how he would send her to the reception desk of a hotel when checking in, because he couldn’t deal with the real possibility that he might be turned down on account of his race and colour.

Fellow jazz trumpeter and colleague Dizzy Gillespie when interviewed about Davis’ 1959 arrest, said, years later “Our country hasn’t overcome that hurdle…yet, of being racist. I don’t care how big you get. There’s always a possibility of this showing its ugly head, this dragon with steam coming out of its nose, this racism.”


This incident from over sixty years ago is circulating on social media in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, who died after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed face down in the street last month and the widespread protests and unrest that followed, in the US and beyond, from the UK and Paris to New Zealand.

How video of MLK, Rodney King and George Floyd changed our view of ...

Comparisons were drawn with Rodney King, also a victim of police brutality in the US, in 1992, and lists drawn up of police brutality going back to the 1960s Civil Rights movement. What, if anything, has changed?

91) Duchess of Sussex speaks out: "George Floyd's life mattered"

In India, police brutality is so rife that it is almost ‘normalised’. One only has to look at recent instances during this coronavirus lockdown of police excesses on poor starving people in search of food and migrants trying to walk home, hundreds of kilometres away.

Sidharth Bhatia, founding editor of The Wire, recently wrote an op-ed “Why Indians Don’t Come Out on the Streets Against Regular Police Brutality”. He refers to how police ‘encounter’ killings are even applauded by the middle classes and media, and the gulf between the middle and poor classes in their experience of the police. But he shies away from talking about casteism, although he does mention the police violence against Muslims.

Sometimes overseas observations can be extrapolated to our situation. An article in The Spectator (US) “Even in a riot, the races aren’t equal” by Dominic Green makes these two sobering points: “The sad truth is that black people could riot every summer in every city and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to the rest of the country. The American juggernaut would, as it has done for centuries, roll right over them and send them the bill.”

And this one: “The simple fact is that this nation was founded by white property-holders. Many were slave-holders, and the rest more concerned about import duties and preserving a common front against the colonial power than about the humanity of Africans.”

Substitute ‘black’ with Dalits and oppressed minorities and tribals, and ‘white’ with dominant castes, and these are very true here as well.

Another op-ed on Scroll-in by Mauktik Kulkarni, “My caste privilege in India blinded me to the reality of racism in the US” joins these dots very chillingly.

A disturbing link connecting police brutality in the US, Palestine and India is the role of the Israel military in the training of police. US activists are concerned that training of US police with Israeli military invites civil rights violations, police brutality and murder of innocent citizens, as happens routinely in Israel-occupied territories. Durham (North Carolina) recently became the first US city to ban police training with Israeli military, giving cause for hope in reversing the trend.

But since 2015, Indian Police Services officers have been visiting Israel as part of their training programme to learn techniques and best practices in ‘counter-insurgency’, ‘managing low-intensity warfare’ and ‘use of technology in policing and countering terror’. If these terms sound to you like euphemisms for lowering the threshold for police brutality of vulnerable minorities, surveillance and invasion of privacy even further here, then you should be as worried as I am.

(An edited version of this article was published on 17 June 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)





Piano Men: Billy Joel on Beethoven

Like many of you, I grew up listening to American singer-songwriter, composer, and pianist Billy Joel.

Billy Joel

The hits that come to mind are ‘Uptown Girl’, ‘The Longest Time’, ‘An Innocent Man’, ‘Piano Man’, ‘She’s Always a Woman.’ A little later, in the early 1990s, his ‘We didn’t Start the Fire’ became an unofficial anthem of sorts during the Goa Medical College resident doctors’ strike.

But I only learnt of Joel’s admiration of Beethoven very recently and quite unexpectedly, during a commercial break in the interval between Acts of an opera livestream.

I’ve written before about the Metropolitan Opera livestreams. But there are many other opera houses worldwide doing this too, so one is really quite spoilt for choice. There’s the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper, WSO).

This year should have been a major tourist attraction draw for Vienna, as it is Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year, and the city where he lived most of his life had pulled out all the stops to celebrate this momentous milestone.


I had made plans to visit Vienna sometime about now and had made bookings for concerts, operas and the ballet. I had been planning for it a year in advance. It would only be my second visit to this European music capital, after almost a quarter-century. I had an itinerary chalked out, to visit all the Beethoven (and other composers from Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Brahms to Johann Strauss II) ‘pilgrimage’ destinations, museums and galleries. And then of course the pandemic struck. Needless to say, all the events have been cancelled. I was fortunate to get full refunds on bookings. But one can imagine how the classical music profession, and tourism in general, must have taken a colossal hit, from which many gloomily say it will take an extremely long time to recover, if ever.

The Vienna tourist board’s website, has a listing of all planned Beethoven 2020 events, not just concerts, but tours, walks etc. All that has presumably been shelved until further notice. The website also prominently features an “All Ears on Beethoven” video series in which a host of musicians talk about what Vienna means to them, why it is so important in music history and today, and their own connection with ‘birthday boy’ Beethoven. These videos would randomly be inserted into the intermission breaks of WSO opera screenings.

The list includes predictable names like violinists Joshua Bell and Julian Rachlin, pianist Yuja Wang, operatic tenor Juan Diego Florez and film composer Hans Zimmer. I didn’t expect to find Billy Joel in that number, so that came as a refreshingly pleasant surprise.

In the short five-and-a-half minute black-and-white video, a baseball-capped, goatee-bearded Joel tells us he heard Beethoven’s music virtually all his life, as his father was a pianist and his mother would play his music on the family record-player. It underscores the importance of introducing children to music as early and as much as possible, a point I keep making to students and parents. This is not in the hope of churning out another classical musician, and Joel’s career path is a good example of this, but it inculcates not just a love of music, but also gives one a good grounding and a discerning ear. One meets too many young people who are exceptionally musically inclined and adept, but don’t seem to think a better knowledge of classical music, and a lot more time spent listening to it, is vital to their art. One could argue that Joel would not be the musician he is today had it not been for his immersion in music, from birth, and perhaps even in the womb, as his parents loved music so passionately. They even met at a concert, a Gilbert and Sullivan performance.

Joel rates Beethoven as “the greatest composer that ever lived,” and explains why he thinks so. While “Mozart is almost God-like”, because “his music is so perfect,” with Beethoven Joel hears “the stops and starts, the fits and struggles,” against a backdrop of inexorably advancing deafness. The struggles are what make Beethoven “more human” to Joel, “because it’s not easy to write that stuff.” Confessing that he struggles as a composer too, Joel says wryly, “My favourite part of writing is when I have written.”

Joel then talks about one of his songs, ‘This Night’ (from his album ‘An Innocent Man’), in which he ‘borrows’ from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13. I hadn’t heard this song before, so I gave it a listen.

And sure enough, the chorus, “This night is mine, It’s only you and I; Tomorrow is a long time away, This night can last forever” is set to the dreamy, somewhat wistful main theme of the middle movement (Adagio cantabile) of the sonata.

In the video, Joel plays the melody on the piano, exclaiming at the end, “That’s a song right there, even without singers or lyrics!” This is unsurprising, as it is clear from the ‘cantabile’ (in the singing style) in the movement’s title that Beethoven wanted it to have this sing-able quality.

Joel even graciously credited “L. v. Beethoven” on the album sleeve as ‘co-writer’. “I couldn’t pay him because he wasn’t around”, he jokes in the video.

He then talks about Beethoven Sixth (‘Pastoral’) symphony in F major, opus 68 (1808), calling it “happy Beethoven” music.

Again, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Joel wonders whether Beethoven “must have been shacked up with someone he really liked, for a while” when he wrote this symphony. But in actual fact, although Beethoven’s ‘middle years’ (1800-1808) were among his most prolific and path-breaking in terms of emotionally complexity and scale, he was writing in the face of the sober knowledge that his growing deafness was incurable, unstoppable; and these years were also among the most unhappy in his private life due to his tendency to fall in love with women who were “out of his reach” due to their social station (relative to his) and/or their marital status.

The rest of Joel’s video focuses on Vienna, the city where Joel discovered a half-brother (who incidentally is also a musician; a classical pianist and conductor) and was reunited with his father. To him, it is the “city of Beethoven, where he lived and composed in so many places”. “So many places” is right; Beethoven moved house some 70-80 times in his Vienna years, from 1792 until his death in 1827. To say he was a fussy, difficult tenant, with a succession of exasperated landlords and landladies would be an understatement.

The love of classical music informed Billy Joel’s release of his 2001 album ‘Fantasies and Delusions’, a collection of piano pieces composed by him, just solo piano, no vocal line, and well worth a listen for its sincerity and lack of pretension (or delusion, despite the title).

This is no “crossover” music, no pop melodies “prettified” or “dressed up” in classical clothing. One hears the influence of certainly Bach and Chopin, perhaps Schumann, and the title of the first track (Villa d’Este) suggests a bow to Liszt as well. The whole album is a tribute from one Piano Man to all the Great Ones before him.

(An edited version of this article was published on 10 June 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Concert Pianist who Dislikes Concerts

Remember the good old days when we could travel freely? This is from mid-February 2020, not so long ago, but it seems like a forgotten era.

My trusty cabbie had advised an early start to the airport. “Konn tori Purtugal-chyan ieta aiz!” he said with some exasperation, anticipating delays en route.

While most of Goa was going ga-ga over the visit of the Portuguese President here, (with even our beloved CM abandoning his customary hostility to the country he loves to hate, perhaps even more so than everyone’s whipping-boy Pakistan! Thank heavens the President tested negative for COVID-19 too), I travelled to Mumbai to listen to a veritable Portuguese icon who had slipped into India without any cerimônia: Maria João Pires.


Politicians come and go like so many viral epidemics, but Pires is a living legend, certainly the greatest classical musician to emerge from Portugal in our time, perhaps ever in her nation’s history.

I was privileged to hear her several times during my decade in the UK. Two memorable concerts that still stand out are her appearances at the BBC Proms festival, first in August 1998, barely a month after I arrived in London, when she played Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the baton of Claudio Abbado; and a year later Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in G major with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Myung-Whun Chung.

In 2014, when I got wind of her maiden visit to India for two performances at the NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts) Mumbai, I immediately brought it to the notice of the then-Director of Fundação Oriente, Eduardo Kol de Carvalho, and suggested we try our best to organise her recital in Goa. A lengthy correspondence with her agent sadly didn’t yield fruit. A pity, as her performance fee, while steep (and understandably so for an artist of her calibre) was far less than, say, a Bollywood star would charge (and sponsors here would readily cough up) for merely an appearance. A lost opportunity for Goa.

I went to Mumbai to hear her play Mozart Piano Concerto no. 9 (‘Jeunehomme’) K. 271 with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) under the direction of her good friend and musical partner Augustin Dumay in September 2014.

Another reason I made the trip was that I had heard of Belgais. In 1999, Pires founded the Centro de Belgais for the Study of the Arts, near Castelo Branco, an institution devoted to the teaching and dissemination of music among children, especially disadvantage and abused children. I had heard also of the many obstacles she faced. I wanted to talk to her about Child’s Play and seek her advice.

In a 2007 interview to the Telegraph, “Why I turned my back on my homeland”, Pires spoke of being “crucified” by her country’s press, and of how the resistance, hostility and slander she faced began to affect her health, influencing her decision to move to Brazil, leaving Belgais in the care of a friend. But she then embarked on a comparable scheme in socially difficult areas of Brazil, aimed at involving children in choral singing and giving them hope and a sense of pride that they might not otherwise acquire.  In 2017, Pires moved back to Belgais where I’m sure she must have some involvement in the work there, although she vowed to “learn from mistakes” and not take on too much all by herself.

Pires greeted me warmly backstage in the green room after her 2014 concert. We spoke for quite some time, until the throng of autograph-seekers could no longer be kept at bay. She stressed the importance of choral singing for children, of learning how to “be silent, to listen, to pay attention”, the sense of the collective, the “we” instead of “I” when making music, and in life in general.

She repeated to me what she’s said several times before in interviews, how much she dislikes being in the limelight, how “unnatural” it is. In a 2010 interview to the London Evening Standard, she had said “I don’t enjoy being on stage — I never have — but it’s one thing not to enjoy it, another not to cope with it.”

That might seem like a bizarre admission from one of the world’s greatest concert pianists alive, for whom the concert stage has been ‘home’ for close to seven decades now, given that her first public recital took place at the age of five, in Portugal. But I think it isn’t at all paradoxical. She just is much more comfortable making music with others (the “we” instead of “I”) in cosier settings for smaller audiences. It is no coincidence that the composers she has recorded, performed most often and obviously loves very much (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Franck, Debussy) pre-date the age of the mammoth concert hall that seat hundreds, sometimes thousands, instead of a much more modest, intimate circle. In a sense, Pires belongs to a different era.

As at her last visit, Pires was the box-office draw again in February 2020, with not an empty seat in NCPA’s 1109-capacity Jamshed Bhabha auditorium. But when she emerged to tumultuous applause after the interval to play Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in C minor, opus 37 with the SOI, again led by Dumay, she seemed almost embarrassed by the fuss.

There is nothing flashy about the concert persona of Maria João Pires, quite the opposite. Her dress sense is understated, practical, with sober colours as if to encourage the listener to focus not on her but the music.

Many observers point to the influence of Buddhist thought in her approach to music; her grandfather was a practicing Buddhist, and she studied Buddhism seriously in her forties, but doesn’t like the ‘Buddhist’ label. “Before anything, I’m a human being,” Pires stated disarmingly in a 2012 interview.

The sleeve note to her Beethoven album (featuring this same concerto with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding on the Onyx label) contains an essay by her in which she speaks of “music’s essential power to bring out a primal simplicity, which is present deep inside each one of us, waiting to respond when summoned”.

Pires readily admits that she prefers the recording studio to the concert hall, but it is this same “primal simplicity” that she strove to awaken in each one of us that happy evening.

This time round, I didn’t attempt to meet her again backstage. Her parting shot to me in 2014, when I sought her advice on Child’s Play, was to “never give up, come what may!” It is advice I have taken to heart.

(An edited version of this article was published on 27 May 2020 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India)