Ebony and Ivory

 

One of the major regrets of my life is not having learnt to play the piano at a young age. I miss not being able to just go up to a keyboard and accompany someone or myself singing a popular song. I can work out harmonies and chord progressions but would love to be able to do so with more fluency.

When I was growing up, through a combination of circumstance and design, I guess I gravitated towards the violin. My father had learnt violin when he was young from names we utter in hushed tones today: Micael Martins and Dominic Pereira. So perhaps this played some part in the choice. Piano was not really an option. Neither of my parents played it. It was not being taught in my immediate neighbourhood. Furthermore, we didn’t own a piano, and there weren’t stores where one could peer through a shop window at a piano and say “I’d like to try that!” Wherever there were pianos in houses we visited, they seemed to be heirlooms from another generation, and often didn’t get played very much. And I assumed that an instrument that formidable and weighty would probably cost a fortune. They probably did, for us, in the 1970s, if one took into account the cost of shipping and handling.

It was also the time of the keyboard synthesizer boom and the sound world that came along with it, that gradually, inexorably replaced the acoustic unplugged sound of music-making. I remember how it replaced the pedal organ in the choir loft of our chapel. But thankfully I also had recourse to my dad’s collection of classical music records and spool tapes, and there were the excellent concerts organised by Cultura at Instituto Menezes Braganza. The names are a blur, but I still remember Anton Kuerti, Marina Horak, Edith Fischer, Klaus Zoll, and, Theresa Halloween, Tehmie Gazdar and Fali Pavri. So while I listened to Klaus Wunderlich, and the sound of the Hammond, Moog, Korg and Roland synthesizers, it was the possibilities of the acoustic piano that really “floated my boat”. Concerts I began to attend in Mumbai only further whetted my appetite, and the decade I spent in London really rocked my world for classical music in every sense, including piano.

Yet somehow piano ownership eluded me. In the early 2000s, while in the UK, I seriously considered taking a side-step from mainstream medicine into music therapy. However, all the centres in the UK offering it insisted on a significant level of accomplishment at the keyboard. By now, I was earning enough to afford a piano, but my job rotations every six to twelve months from one shoe-box to another made it impractical to have to keep carting it along with me. So I reluctantly settled for a lighter, more practical keyboard, a Yamaha Portable Grand DGX 500, and began taking lessons. It was difficult to find the time for lessons and practice with my hectic work schedules, first in hospital medicine, and then in General Practice, and with my violin lessons and orchestra rehearsals and chamber music sessions. Yet I persevered.

But it just wasn’t the same. The touch was different, the pedals felt wrong in more ways than one, and the sound was just too tinny to deign to compare itself with the real thing. But when we moved back to Goa, the keyboard came along too. And when my son began to explore the keyboard and began lessons, I realised it was time.

I talked to Christopher Gomes of Furtados Music about it, and last Christmas he let me know about a seriously good offer on a Steiner upright. This was it then! I began to have some last-minute doubts, as I do over any large purchase: what if my then five-year old’s interest in playing was just a passing phase? Would I really get that much use out of the instrument as I would like? In an old house, one is constantly battling the elements: heat, dust, light, moisture and more. Would a piano become another white (and black) elephant?

That same day, magically, an article from cyberspace surfaced on my screen which clinched it for me. It was in the Classical Music section of London’s Guardian newspaper. The article quoted world-renowned teacher and chairperson and artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition Dame Fanny Waterman as saying how she feared for the future of piano-playing in the UK, and one major contributor was the popularity of keyboards over acoustic pianos, and children starting to learn at a later age than in many other parts of the world.

She didn’t mince her words, stating that learning on an electric piano was “a waste of time, because you don’t get the speed of the key descent, you don’t get the different sounds.” Electric keyboards are “big business”, she said, likening them to playing the violin but studying the guitar – “different sound altogether”. Strong words, and the article kicked up quite a storm in the comments section and in the music world beyond it.  But it strengthened my resolve to get myself a ‘real’ piano at last. If I want to give my son a real chance at learning to play the piano, he has at the very least to have the right instrument. What happens thereafter, whether he takes to it or not, is not entirely within my control. But this is. Thankfully he really seems to enjoy it. And I’ve taken it up again as well.

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And so, I have entered a whole new world. I’ve never owned an acoustic instrument that was as large as furniture before. Or that was not portable, something I could carry with me on public transport. Or that required the use of my feet as well as my hands. Tuning it is not a do-it-yourself task like my violin or viola. I’m having to come to grips with the idea of piano tuners and dehumidifiers. But I’m grateful. Strike one off the bucket list.

(An edited version of this article was published on 24 May 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

“The Mendelssohn Violin and Piano Concerto is a genius piece!”

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Álvaro Pereira (violin) and Pedro Emanuel Pereira (piano) are two young Portuguese musicians (28 and 24 years respectively) visiting Goa under the patronage of the Consul General of Portugal Rui Baceira. They spoke about their concert at the Kala Academy Dinanath Mangueskar auditorium (Saturday 23 May 2015, 7 pm, open to the public) in an exclusive interview to the Navhind Times

Welcome to Goa! Tell us a little about yourself, Álvaro. What made you take up the violin?

AP: My parents are not musicians. As a child, I wanted to learn guitar or piano, but as there were no places available at school for these instruments but violin, I took up violin instead. I began learning violin at eight. I continued my studies at the Specialised School of Music (Artave) in Esmae, Oporto and finally at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, St. Petersburg under Alexandre Stang, where I graduated with the highest score.

And you, Pedro?

PP: My parents are not musicians either, but my mother sings in a choir. She would take me along to her rehearsals. She decided to take me to piano and organ lessons from the age of four. Somehow, from a young age, I knew that I wanted to be a pianist; I just loved it so much. I could imagine myself giving a performance. When asked what we wanted to become, my school friends would say “Figo” or “Pelé”, but I wanted to be a musician!

After completing my music diploma, I went at the age of seventeen to the Tchaikovsky State Conservatory, Moscow where I studied with Professor Vera Gornostaeva.

And how and where did the two of you meet?

AP: It is strange, that although we are compatriots and are both from Guimarães, we met in Moscow! I was the only Portuguese student in St. Petersburg, and Pedro the only one in Moscow. We were introduced in order to play a concert together, which we did at Moscow’s Great Hall.

And since then you have played together many times?

AP: Yes. We relate well as musicians, which is the most important thing.

Let us discuss your concert programme in Goa. Tell us what influenced your decision to play the Mendelssohn Violin and Piano Concerto in D minor. It is not such a well-known repertoire work.

PP: Yes, I agree. I read your article about it last Sunday in the Navhind Times. The Portuguese Consul Rui Baceira gave us an idea of the local ensemble that could make music with us for some of the concert. We realised that it was essentially a string ensemble. We also wanted a work that would allow both Álvaro and me to play, and the Mendelssohn work is perhaps unique in this regard, and it is a work of genius.

And what will the rest of your programme feature?

AP: As you are aware, the Mendelssohn is a large work, lasting around forty minutes. We will play this in the second part of our programme. The first part will be a violin and piano recital. We will play works by several Portuguese composers: António Fragoso (1897-1918); Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988); and Oscar da Silva (1870-1958). And as were both studied in Russia, the programme will also have some Shostakovich: his Four Preludes Opus 34 for violin and piano.

Any advice for parents regarding providing a stimulus to our children?

PP: The most important thing is to be happy and derive pleasure from making music. Regarding advice to parents, let me recount an anecdote about the great violinist David Oistrakh. Once, someone asked him how he chose which children would be his pupils. He gave an interesting and funny answer: “I don’t care too much about talent or if the child wants to practice, when they first meet me. The first thing I do is meet their mother. If the child has a “crazy”, driven mother who will motivate him/her to practice, I will take on that child.” The role of the parent is so important. Motivation to practice and support can make all the difference.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 23 May 2015)

The Mendelssohn Project

On 23 May at the Kala Academy, music-lovers will get a singular opportunity hear a work by the great German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) that has only relatively recently (1999) entered the public domain. Why such a long wait?

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During his tragically short life, Mendelssohn towered over the cultural life of Europe, as composer, conductor, pianist and organist. His artistic directorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra turned it into the cultural institution it still is to this day. His name was being uttered alongside those of Mozart and Beethoven, so widely was he respected. His renown as a prodigy in fact rivaled that of Mozart in Mendelssohn’s lifetime. All that seemed to change rapidly after his death, with rising nationalism and the intolerance that often goes along with such sentiment. Growing anti-Semitism seems to have been a major consideration influencing his father to renounce Judaism. Felix was deliberately not circumcised, and the children were baptized into the Reformed Church in 1816, with Felix taking on the full name Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.

Although Mendelssohn wrote more than 770 works (hundreds of musical manuscripts unpublished at the time of his sudden demise), nearly half of these have never even been performed. His prodigious talent instead of being celebrated, was held up as proof of his ‘facility’ which was cruelly equated with ‘mediocrity’. German poet, essayist and critic Heinrich Heine, himself a converted Jew, reviewed Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul, writing that it was “characterized by a great, strict, very serious seriousness, a determined, almost importunate tendency to follow classical models, the finest, cleverest calculation, sharp intelligence and, finally, complete lack of naïveté. But is there in art any originality of genius without naïveté?”

The more infamous posthumous broadside against Mendelssohn and indeed other artists of Jewish origin came from his envious contemporary, Richard Wagner in his anti-Jewish pamphlet Das Judenthum in der Musik: “[Mendelssohn] has shown us that a Jew may have the amplest store of specific talents, may own the finest and most varied culture, the highest and tenderest sense of honour – yet without all these pre-eminences helping him, were it but one single time, to call forth in us that deep, that heart-searching effect which we await from art…..The washiness and the whimsicality of our present musical style has been…pushed to its utmost pitch by Mendelssohn’s endeavour to speak out a vague, an almost nugatory Content as interestingly and spiritedly as possible.”

Wagner went on to declare Mendelssohn’s music “an icon of degenerate decadence”, and in its wake publishers declined to publish his manuscripts and letters.

Nazi Germany took matters further, adding Mendelssohn’s name to the lengthy list of “forbidden artists”. Mendelssohn’s manuscripts (published and unpublished) which were housed in the basement of the Berlin State Library had to be smuggled out and as a result were temporarily lost to the Western world, as they fell behind the Iron Curtain after WWII.

The work we will hear on 23 May at the Kala Academy is Mendelssohn’s concerto for violin, piano and strings in D minor. It was written in 1822 when Mendelssohn was just thirteen, for a private concert with his close friend and violin teacher Eduard Rietz. Mendelssohn revised it on 3 July 1822, adding timpani and winds.

It along with hundreds of other manuscripts was “lost” for reasons just mentioned. It was only revisited in 1960, with a miniature score published by Astoria Verlag Berlin. Six years later, the work was published in a reduction for violin and two pianos. In 1999, the 1960 miniature score was reissued in a scholarly edition with the wind and timpani parts added. We will hear the arrangement for string orchestra, as was Mendelssohn’s original intent.

The Mendelssohn Project has compiled the world’s most complete list of Felix Mendelssohn’s works, led by music director Stephen Somary and drawing upon “decades of thorough research by prominent Mendelssohn experts”. It equally focuses on the oeuvre of Felix Mendelssohn’s older sister Fanny, who was a composer in her own right, and whose death caused such grief to her brother that he died from a series of strokes a mere six months later. The Mendelssohn Project has the additional objective of recording their complete published and unpublished works.

The concerto for violin, piano and strings is a grandiose work for a thirteen-year old. It has three movements in typical fast-slow-fast fashion (Allegro-Adagio- Allegro molto) and its performance time is close to forty minutes.

Comparisons are inevitably made with Mendelssohn’s “other” violin concerto. We all know his famous violin concerto in E minor, but Mendelssohn also wrote a violin concerto, in D minor, the same key as the “double” concerto for violin and piano, just a year earlier. This work had also lain ‘dormant’ until violinist Yehudi Menuhin championed its revival and publication. The D minor violin concerto is also similarly constructed, with two allegros surrounding a central andante of great beauty.

In the “double concerto”, we hear a precocious understanding of the need to balance two completely different solo instruments; and the orchestra is allotted moments of beauty and brilliance befitting a tripartite conversation between equals. The central Adagio has the poetry and nobility of spirit of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, with soulful cadenzas for both instruments. It is ‘reminiscent’ in some ways of the opening of his string quartet (no. 2, opus 13 in A minor) that he would write just five years later.

This work does not yet have the maturity of the ‘highlights’ of Mendelssohn’s compositional achievements as a teenager: his famous ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream overture and his Octet for Strings. The first movement at eighteen minutes seems overly stretched. But there are all the hallmarks of Mendelssohn’s music in this work, to borrow the words of musicologist Jonathan Rhodes Lee: “Mozartean clarity stands comfortably alongside Beethovenian grandeur, the formal creativity of C.P.E. Bach beside the lyrical beauty of Schubert.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 17 May 2015 in the Navhind Times Goa India)

Is there a ‘tangerine’ element to the evolution of the violin?

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Any acoustic stringed instrument requires a hole (a sound-hole) to enable the sound to escape from its hollow chamber or ‘body’. One distinguishing factor of a modern bowed stringed instrument (as compared to their plucked counterpart such as the guitar) is not only the position, but also the peculiar shape of the sound-holes. A modern violin (and for that matter, the viola, cello and double-bass) has two sound-holes on its ‘belly’ on either side of the bridge, and these are called f-holes as they resemble a cursive ‘f’-shape and its mirror image.

But why this shape in particular? I had put it down to a flamboyant calling-card signature of some luthier down the line, and that others copied him after that. Some believed that it was in homage to the first significant client of the Amati family, Francis I of France. This theory is debunked, as the f-hole predates the appearance of the Amati family in instrument design.

On visiting museums in England and elsewhere where vintage instruments were on display, and looking at paintings where these instruments are featured, it became clear that the concept of the f-hole emerged around the 15th century. Prior to this, viols and other early stringed instruments have bilateral sound-holes shaped like a ‘C’.

By the time the purported ‘inventor’ of the modern violin Andrea Amati (1505-1577) began making instruments in Cremona Italy sometime after 1520, the f-hole was de rigeur.

Cremona in the 1500s was an interesting place, a confluence of mathematicians, alchemists, and importantly Latin, Hebrew and Arabic scholars beginning to rediscover the wisdom of ancient Greece with its knowledge of music, geometry and proportion.

So the f-hole may be a design born from Renaissance thinking. Golden measures or ideals are a very important part of this thinking. The f-hole can be regarded as two opposing (ie one clockwise and the other anti-clockwise) Fibonacci or ‘golden’ spirals. A Fibonacci spiral is a logarithmic spiral whose growth factor is dependent upon a ‘golden’ ratio. These spirals exist everywhere in nature, from the design of our inner ear (the cochlea) to the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem (phyllotaxis), to the arms of spiral galaxies in the cosmos. This design influences the shape of the violin scroll at its upper end as well.

Some more (literally) food for thought has been provided in the latest issue of The Strad magazine by instrument restorer Andrew Dipper. Although the idea has been around for some time, Dipper elaborates upon it at length in this issue. He describes the f-hole in one of the earliest Amati instrument (the ‘King’ cello of Charles IX of France) as a spheroid that has essentially been opened out by a helical incision from the opposing ‘north’ and ‘south’ poles. In simpler terms, a sphere flattened out by such a helical incision is the shape of the f-hole. Dipper reveals that it was ‘playing with food’ ie a peeling an orange that led him to think along these lines. Could the luthiers of the 1500s also similarly have arrived at this idea?

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The very word ‘tangerine’ betrays the origin of the fruit into Europe from Tangier, the seaport in Morocco on the Strait of Gibraltar. The orange begins to make an appearance into Europe around the 15th century, brought in by Italian and Portuguese merchants into the Mediterranean. Oranges were highly prized luxury items and status symbols, and conveyed social distinction and wealth in contemporary portraits. It is tempting to speculate that a luthier from the late 1400s or early 1500s might have been peeling an orange imported from Morocco, and hit upon this concept.

Dipper makes the case that “in terms of violin acoustics the knowledge of the link between f-hole and sphere is rather useful, since matching the f-hole area to the volume of the sound box is an important part of the design process.” He also argues that it might be the circumference of the f-hole shape rather than its area that could influence the power of the sound of the violin, which is what the later Cremonese luthiers like Antonio Stradivari began to do by adjusting the area of the polar circles of the f-holes to increase the overall circumference.

The idea of the sphere as a template for sound dissemination from a musical instrument might have been a very literal and practical application of the concept of the ‘music of the spheres’ or ‘musica universalis’ from antiquity. Something to think about the next time you are peeling an orange!

(An edited version of this article was published on 10 May 2015 in the Navhind Times Goa India)

‘A Triumph of Time’ for Ashley Rego

In February 2014 at the Monte Music festival, Ashley Rego did a splendid job as concertmaster of Camerata Child’s Play India in a concert programme that included highlights from Handel’s landmark oratorio “Messiah”. Had someone to predict to him then that in 2015, he would be concertmaster of the orchestral forces in a production of another Handel oratorio, but in Austria, he might not have believed it.

But this is exactly what this young Goan lad has achieved in such a short time since he left our shores last year.

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From 30 April to 9 June 2015, he will lead as Konzertmeister in seven concerts (two of which have already sold out) of an exciting staged production of Handel’s Italian oratorio from 1707, ‘Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno’ (The Triumph of Time and Disillusionment, HWV 46a) at the Landestheatre Linz, Austria. The ensemble and cast feature the most promising students of the Anton Bruckner Privat Universität Linz, so it is a testimony to Ashley’s diligent work and the esteem in which he is held by his peers that he leads them in this work.

In 1706, Georg Friedrich Händel was a young composer employed at harpsichordist at the Hamburg opera. He had already had one success (Almira 1705) to his name. Prince Ferdinand de Medici of Florence met Handel in Hamburg and encouraged him to travel to Italy, a literal ‘rite of passage’ not only for an artist but for a ‘gentleman’ at that time.

We know that in January 1707 Händel was in Rome, with the diarist Valesia noting that he “exhibited his prowess on the organ in the church of St John to the admiration of everybody”. This prowess got him the attention of the aristocracy and ecclesiastical figures, as well as his contemporary musicians, notably Arcangelo Corelli, Antonio Caldara and Scarlatti father and son (Alessandro and Domenico). Händel’s ‘Italianate’ compositions from this period are full of inventiveness, and great youthfulness and vitality. Indeed, Händel himself regarded his own music from this period (1707-1710) highly, returning to it periodically for inspiration. Many of these are small-scale cantatas, written with aristocratic salons in mind, but he wrote three grander works: the ‘Roman’ oratorios Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707) and La Resurrezione (1708); and the opera Agrippina (1709), intended for Venice.

Why oratorios for Rome, and an opera for Venice? Between 1698 and 1710, the Vatican did not take kindly to opera, and composers turned their attention to ‘sacred’ drama which in essence is the oratorio.

‘Il Trionfo’ is set to a text or libretto by one of Händel’s patrons in Rome, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili and most probably first performed at his palace. It was composed in the spring of 1707 and performed that summer. We know that the orchestra in that performance was led by the great Arcangelo Corelli himself! So absolutely no pressure there, Ashley!

Händel would revisit this oratorio at least twice in the next fifty years: in 1737, he (now living in England with the Anglicised named George Frideric Handel) revised and expanded it (from a two- to a three-section work, and adding choruses to cater to English expectations), naming this version ‘Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verità’ (HWV 46b). In 1757, he revised it yet again (HWV 71), reworking the libretto into English, expanding it further and titling it ‘The Triumph of Time and Truth’. This is technically his final oratorio, as this ‘revised’ work post-dates ‘Jephtha (1751), which traditionally claims this honour.

Handel would return to the rich ‘mine’ of musical material in ‘Il Trionfo’ and ‘quarry it on more than thirty other occasions. Its most famous aria “Lascia la spina” (Leave the thorn) is reworked by him into the much more famous “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Leave me to weep) from his 1711 opera ‘Rinaldo’.

‘Il Trionfo’s 1707 avatar has often been overlooked because it has been overshadowed by Handel’s English oratorios and his more ‘traditional’ contemporary Italian examples. The 1707 version has no chorus, that quintessential ingredient of English oratorio invented almost entirely by Handel. It does not have the standard three-part structure of an oratorio, contains no action, and all its characters are allegorical, something not that common in the genre of oratorio.

These allegorical characters are Bellezza (Beauty, a young woman), Piacere (Pleasure, a young man), Tempo (Father Time) and Disinganno (literally ‘unillusion’ but better translated as Counsel, and depicted by an older man). In short, Time and Counsel eventually convince Beauty after an elaborate philosophical discussion that she must “shed her vanity and hedonism in a spirit of true repentance.”

Such characters and topics, especially those of penitence were well-visited in Counter-Reformation Italy. In fact it is argued that Bellezza is a virtual synonym for the iconic penitential heroine of the Catholic Church, Mary Magdalene. Handel scholar Ruth Smith does a superb psychological analysis of Pamphili’s libretto, concluding that “to be able to live with oneself in the long term, one must go below surface appearances, face the truth about oneself, and achieve balanced self-perception”.

“It is the meshing of its religious-moral didacticism with psychological insight, fully realized in music, that makes Il trionfo one of Handel’s most intensely, most realistically and most satisfyingly human works.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 3 May 2015 in the Navhind Times Goa India)

Seen any good music lately?

Do sounds conjure up colours in your imagination when you hear them? Or do colours evoke specific pitches or timbres in your “mind’s ear”? This condition, where stimulation of one of the senses leads to a sensory cognitive experience of another sense is called synesthesia (from ancient Greek ‘syn’ together + ‘aesthesis’ sensation). And its subset, the association of sounds with colours and vice versa is known chromesthesia.

It is difficult to say with any degree of certainty how common this condition is, as many individuals will not report it as they do not realize that their perceptions are different from those of everyone else. Not surprisingly, the statistics vary anywhere from 1 in 2000 to 1 in 23.

However, some associations have been determined. People with synesthesia relating to music may also have ‘perfect’ or ‘absolute’ pitch, a rare auditory phenomenon where an individual is able to correctly ‘pitch’ a musical note without the benefit of any reference tone.

Recent studies have also suggested a link with autism. From a sample study of 164 adults with a condition on the autistic spectrum and 97 adults without autism, synesthesia was diagnosed almost thrice as often in participants with autism, as those without (Professor Simon Baron-Cohen et al, Cambridge University, 2013).

The concept of “coloured hearing” has been known since antiquity; Greek philosophers even attempted to quantify the ‘colour’ (chroia, what we today know as the timbre or ‘tone colour’ of music) of music. Isaac Newton suggested that common frequencies were shared by musical tones and colour tones. In his book “Opticks”, he proposed that perceived colours were harmonically proportioned like the tones of a diatonic musical scale. Goethe made a similar assertion in his book “Theory of Colour”, as did Schopenhauer and Rudolf Steiner.

The concept has spilled into the very terminology of music. We speak of a chromatic scale or chromaticism, implying a spectrum of notes similar to a colour spectrum, and using the same root ‘khroma’ (colour) from ancient Greek. Similarly, we use the words tone colour to refer to the timbre or distinctive sound of an instrument.

In medieval India, this idea was elevated to quite a sophisticated amalgamation of art, (and even poetry) and music with the famous ‘Ragamala’ paintings, a series of illustrative paintings based on Ragamala (‘Garland of Ragas’) depicting various musical modes (‘Ragas’).

Beethoven called B minor the black key and D major orange; Schubert envisioned E minor as “a maiden robed in white with a rose-red bow on her chest”. Were they waxing eloquent or were they synaesthetes (people who experience synaesthesia)? Composers who are thought to have been synaesthetes include Franz Liszt, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Oliver Messiaen.

Although the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was heavily influenced by synesthesia, it is thought that he did not personally experience it. Unlike most synaethetic experience, his colour system follows the circle of fifths i.e. a colour assigned to a particular note or tonality which changed every five notes up the scale, and with no colour difference for a major or minor tonality of the same name. So C major and C minor would have the same colour, red. His original colour keyboard (Clavier à lumières), and an associated turntable of coloured lamps are still preserved in his Moscow apartment. The instrument played like a piano, but projected coloured light on a screen in the concert hall rather than sound. The clavier finds use in a specific composition by him, called Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910). Scriabin had planned a grand week-long performance of his unrealized magnum opus Mysterium which would combine music, light, scent and dance at the foothills of the Himalayas that would “bring the dissolution of our world in an armageddon of bliss, and usher in a new world”. Scriabin’s multi-media concerts paved the way for today’s rock concerts with overhead lights and pulsating strobes.

Pianist Marouan Benabdallah recently performed Scriabin’s music in Morocco, which also added colour and perfume as vital components of the experience.

The Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov writes an interesting account in his autobiography ‘Recollections’ of a conversation he had with Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov about the association of colour and music. Rachmaninov was himself a sceptic. He was surprised that the other two were in agreement and he tried to point out the differences between their perceptions on the subject: while both agreed that D major was golden-brown, to Scriabin E-flat major was red-purple, and to Rimsky-Korsakov it was blue. Rimksy-Korsakov then pointed out a passage in Rachmaninov’s opera “The Miserly Knight” where the Old Baron discovers a treasure of gold: it was in D major! “Your intuition has unconsciously followed the laws whose very existence you have tried to deny”, Scriabin told Rachmaninov.

In the western art world, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Paul Klee experimented with image-music congruence in their paintings. Kandinsky compared painting to composing music:”Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul”. Kandinsky had the gift of ‘colour-hearing’, the ability to transfer what he heard onto the canvas. He used colour in a highly theoretical way associating tone with timbre, hue with pitch, and saturation with the volume of sound. He even claimed that when he saw colour he heard music.

And it has been a two-way street: Kandinsky, Klee and particularly Mondrian were inspirations to the early pointillist musical aesthetic of serialist composer Pierre Boulez (1925-).

Kandinsky's "Composition 8"

Perhaps we should not try too hard to create our own experience of sight and sound. Here is Kandinsky’s advice: “Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and… stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to ‘walk about’ into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?”

(An edited version of this article was published on 26 April 2015 in the Navhind Times Goa India)

Music and Physics: Simple Harmonic Motion, Harmonics and Overtones

Physics class in higher secondary college for the most part was spent working out long-winded derivations and equations that at the time seemed to have no practical application in our teenage lives. So when we got to ‘Simple Harmonic Motion’ and there was a reference to the “oscillations of a violin string” by way of example, I became quite excited. I eagerly suggested to our professor that I could bring my instrument to class to watch these oscillations. The class erupted in laughter, and the professor gave me such a withering look that it killed my curiosity and I dissociated this important link between music and physics for quite some time thereafter. That was a real shame, as it could have been such a wonderful learning experience for us all.

Then I learnt how to play those ‘whistling’ sounds on the violin called harmonics, and I had to revisit this concept. I understood the idea of an ‘open’ string (i.e. a taut string resonating freely between the bridge and the top nut of the instrument, unimpeded by the fingers) vibrating (or ‘oscillating’) at, and therefore producing a sound at a ‘fundamental’ sinusoidal frequency when the bow was drawn across it. And lightly touching the string at ‘nodal’ points that divided it into half, or thirds, or quarters and so on, would produce distinct sounds at multiples of this fundamental frequency.

And the fascinating thing is how mathematical ratios can be exploited to make music. If an open string is lightly touched at its midpoint, the sound produced is an octave (eight notes) above the fundamental. If this is done at a third of its length, you get a fifth (five notes) above this octave; and quarter of its length, you get a tone two octaves above the fundamental. And so on. These are the wonderful whistling pure tones that the famous jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli used to such dazzling effect in his improvisations.

Harmonics and overtones

An open string being played is in effect ‘vibrating’ simultaneously at its fundamental frequency as well as at these other frequencies, giving it its distinctive ‘fingerprint’.

Musicians and physicists differ in their use of terminology for these sounds. Musicians use the terms harmonics and overtones interchangeably. But for a physicist, the sound produced by an open string ie the fundamental frequency, is the first harmonic. The sound created by lightly dividing the string in half is the second harmonic or the first overtone, and so on.

Back when I was a student, we had to rely on diagrams to understand these concepts but technology has made this so much easier. Here’s an idea for a science project. Take any stringed instrument, and take a video on your camera phone while plucking or bowing a string. When you play back the video clip in slow motion (or even at normal speed if you have a good-quality camera function with decent resolution on your phone) you will see the string vibrate in a typical sinusoidal pattern, with peaks and troughs and nodal points. The lower the pitch of the string, the more visible these oscillations are likely to be.

These principles govern not just vibrating strings, but apply just as well to a vibrating column of air, which means woodwind and brass instruments, panpipes, pipe organ, etc.

This brings us to the concept of ‘ringing’ notes on stringed instruments. So if for example one were to play the note A by stopping the lowermost string on the violin (G) with the first finger on the fingerboard, then you can actually see the A string begin to vibrate ‘sympathetically’, as this is the first overtone of the note being played ie the octave. And the E string, which is pitched at the same frequency as the second overtone, will also vibrate. So although just one note is being played, two other strings join in, and the whole instrument ‘rings’ or resonates sympathetically in a way that would not have been possible had one just had a solitary string stretched across the instrument. This ‘ringing’ quality is one of the secrets of tone production on stringed instruments. John Burton, cellist and professor at the University of Texas, goes so far as to say that “intonation and tone are synonymous”.

These are also considerations that composers consciously or otherwise take into account when deciding in what key their composition will be, and the ‘moods’ ascribed to different keys are in large part a result of this physical aspect of music-making.

And just to make things more interesting, (or more complicated), one can produce harmonics (‘artificial’ harmonics) on a ‘stopped’ string (ie a string shortened by a finger to produce a new ‘fundamental’) with another finger lightly touching the string further away to produce the sound.

Not only this, but each instrument has its own distinctive ‘pattern’ of overtones, governed by the physical qualities of the materials it is constructed from; which is why the same note (example concert pitch A) played on a violin will be noticeably different when it is played on a piano or a clarinet.

This is an area that fascinated thinkers from Pythagoras and Ptolemy to Saint Augustine; Copernicus to Galileo, Descartes, and Kepler; and Leonardo da Vinci to Isaac Newton; and musicians from Josquin des Prez to Gesualdo to Johann Sebastian Bach and his son Carl Philipp Emanuel among so many others. And grappling with the complexities arising from it ie how to ‘divide’ an octave into equal parts without compromising other important internal ratios is what led musicians over time to devise what in western music is known as the twelve-tone or ‘tempered’ scale. The traditional 22 shruti or microtones within an octave in Indian music address this as well.

(An edited version of this article was published on 19 April 2015 in the Navhind Times Goa India)

Did this “Dutch Cap” originate in Goa?

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

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

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

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

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

Goa Dutch cap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwing Caution to the (Wood)winds!

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

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

P1470765

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven Last Words of Christ

 

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

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

7_last_words  

The order of the sayings is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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