Video Volunteers Goa very kindly made a video documentary about the work of Child’s Play India Foundation!
Do come to our concert this Sunday (17 December 2017, 6 pm Menezes Braganza hall Panjim Goa India).
Video Volunteers Goa very kindly made a video documentary about the work of Child’s Play India Foundation!
Do come to our concert this Sunday (17 December 2017, 6 pm Menezes Braganza hall Panjim Goa India).
Mahatma Gandhi of course was a central figure in our school history books in the chapters devoted to the Indian freedom struggle. But I don’t remember Mirabehn getting any mention; if she did, it must have just been in passing.
She “came to life”, as it were, for my generation, in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 hagiographic film ‘Gandhi’. At almost the exact midpoint of the film, she arrives at Gandhi’s Sabarmati ashram, Ms. Slade, the “daughter of an English admiral”, but who prefers the name Gandhi has given her: Mirabehn.
But who was she, and what could have caused her to leave the comfort of her home in Britain to work with Gandhi? It was her love of classical music, and specifically her adoration of the music of Beethoven, that propelled her on her journey.
Mirabehn (1892-1982) was born Madeleine Slade, to an aristocratic British family, daughter of Rear-Admiral in the Royal Navy, Sir Edmund Slade. As her father was posted overseas for long stints, she grew up at her grandparents’ country estate, inculcating a love for nature and animals.
The music of Ludwig van Beethoven was another abiding passion that began early in her childhood. She had started on the piano, and her father had bought her a “player-piano” or pianola, a self-playing piano containing a mechanism that operates the piano action by “reading” or “decoding” a complex patterns of holes or perforations on a roll of strong sheet of paper, called a piano roll. The pianola was extremely popular until superseded by the phonograph and radio in the early 20th century.
In her autobiography ‘The Spirit’s Pilgrimage’, Mirabehn writes: “I played and listened, but nothing interested me particularly except one piece which held me from the moment it began. It was Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 31 No. 2 [popularly called ‘The Tempest’]. I played it over and over…. I …procured one Beethoven sonata after another…. I was finding something far beyond the music…. I threw myself down on my knees in the seclusion of my room and prayed.”
She visited India when her father was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the East Indies Station; but the experience “meant nothing to me but a life of social functions and formalities in a very restricted society which did not appeal to me.” So at some point during her family’s return to England, she preferred to stay on there, where she “played and listened to Beethoven day after day… I imbibed, more surely than if there had been words, a sense of fearlessness, strength and purity passing, especially in the slow movements, to those regions of the spirit which lift one into that which can only be felt but never spoken.”
She became a concert impresario, and in 1921 organized a series of concerts featuring Beethoven and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, ending the British boycott of German composers during the Great War.
Her Beethoven obsession prompted a pilgrimage to his birthplace in Bonn and to Vienna, where his career was established. She then heard of the “epic novel” by French novelist and mystic Romain Rolland (1866-1944) on Beethoven. She took a year out in France in order to improve her proficiency in French, just so that she could read the book.
She met Rolland at his home in Villeneuve, Switzerland. It was then that he mentioned a book he had just completed (1924), on the Mahatma. (Incidentally, Rolland had written the book without even meeting Gandhi). Mirabehn describes her reaction in her autobiography: “I looked blank. “‘You have not heard about him?’ he asked. “‘No’, I replied. So he told me, and added: ‘He is another Christ.’”
She read Rolland’s biography of Gandhi, and it changed her life. She corresponded with Gandhi, expressing her wish to become his disciple at Sabarmati ashram.
The book ‘Romain Rolland and Gandhi correspondence’ makes very interesting reading, as it chronicles, through extracts from letters, diary entries and press interviews the awakening of Rolland’s interest in Gandhi and the freedom struggle. His diary entry in September 1925 states: “I write to Gandhi to recommend my “daughter” Madeleine Slade who is leaving for Bombay on 24 October… She says her example has carried along her parents; her mother is spinning, and her father, the admiral, is weaving (cursing Gandhi all the while).”
There are several references to Beethoven in the book. On more than one occasion, Rolland calls Beethoven “the European Mahatma”. In a postcard to Gandhi’s secretary Mahadev Desai (February 1924), he signs off: “As our European Mahatma – Beethoven – sings in his Ode to Joy: Let us – millions of human beings –embrace each other.”
In a letter to Mirabehn (25 April 1927), he writes: “If Gandhi knew him [Beethoven], he would recognize in him our European Mahatma, our strongest mediator between the life of the senses and eternal Life. And he would bless this music which perhaps, for us, is the highest form of prayer, a permanent communion with the Divinity.”
Rolland chronicles Gandhi’s visit to him in 1932 in a letter to a friend: “On the last night, he [Gandhi] asked me to play him something by Beethoven; for he knows that Beethoven was the link between his great European disciple Mira (Miss Slade) and myself, who then did the same between her and Gandhi. So all three of us brought our gratitude back to Beethoven.” He even mentions what he played: a piano reduction of the Andante (second movement) from his Fifth Symphony. Piano reductions of orchestral works were a common way of acquainting oneself with such compositions, again before the era of the phonograph and radio.
He then went on to play ‘The Elysian Fields’ (Dance of the Blessed Spirits) from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera ‘Orfeo ed Eurydice’, and Rolland elaborates: “(the first orchestral melody and the flute melody, for I know from Tagore’s example that there’s no page of European music better attuned to an Indian’s sensibilities)”.
In another letter to a friend in 1932, Rolland reassures him not to worry about Gandhi’s impending prison sentence, as “Prison is his time of rest and reading, and there is nothing better for his health.” He further writes that Gandhi’s secretaries informed him that in preparing for a stint in prison, Gandhi was “setting aside your [Rolland’s] books on Beethoven for that time in the cells.”
And what did Gandhi think of the “European Mahatma”? If he expressed an opinion, I’ve not come across it yet in my reading.
(An edited version of this article was published on 15 October 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
After some hesitation due to overhyped ‘controversies’ in the recent Walt Disney Pictures release of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ which were dispelled by other parents who gave it a thumbs-up, we took our son to see it a few days ago. And we loved every minute of it. Inevitable comparisons are drawn with the 1991 animated version of the musical romantic fantasy, but this ‘real actors’ version has its own charm, quite apart from the 3-D and other special effects, and the four additional songs.
Inox for some reason sometimes screens English subtitles even for films in English, and I must frankly admit they can be quite a help sometimes in catching all of the dialogue, so I’m not complaining. In fact, that’s how I caught the fact that the Belle’s town was named Villeneuve in this latest version of the story. I vaguely remembered the name Villeneuve being associated with the original story, and decided to look it up when I got home.
Sure enough: Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (1685-1755) was the author of the original story of La Belle et la Bête (1740). The story was abridged, rewritten and published by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756, without crediting Villeneuve, so Beaumont is often misquoted as the original author. It is my guess that in naming Belle’s town Villeneuve (also a clever pun, as it means ‘new town’ in French), the production team gave a nod to the original author.
Incidentally, Villeneuve drew inspiration from other French authors of fairy tales, notably Charles Perrault (1628-1703), author of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood), Cendrillon (Cinderella), Le Chat Botté (Puss in Boots), La Belle au bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty), and Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard).
In reading up all this and finding cross-references, I came upon an interesting, if unfortunate, real-life story that was the inspiration for Villeneuve’s fairy tale.
Pedro González (also referred in medical literature and historical records as Petrus Gonsalvus) was born in Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1537. He would have led an unremarkable existence had he not been born with a rare skin condition called hypertrichosis, characterised by an abnormal amount of hair growth over the body. Its synonym is ‘werewolf syndrome’, and it is thought that the notion of the mythical werewolf (man-wolf, or lycanthrope) itself might have originated from sufferers of this condition.
González is thought to be descended from the indigenous kings of Tenerife before its conquest by Alonso Fernández de Lugo to the Crown of Castile. His skin condition must have been pronounced even in boyhood, and he was taken captive aged just 10 and sold, and perhaps after changing owners several times, was presented as a curiosity in 1547 to the court of Henry II, King of France. His presence probably added to the contemporary treatises on werewolves in France.
Possibly on account of his descent from Tenerife’s indigenous nobility, he was accorded special treatment as a nobleman, and given the title ‘Don’ Pedro González. He was kept in the French court as a sort of sideshow freak, the “wild man” with “hair as soft as sable”, the “werewolf of the Canaries”. He was given fine clothes and tutors from whom he learnt Latin (perhaps accounting for his Latin appellation as well) and two other languages, and other court refinements. Nevertheless, he was nicknamed ‘Barbet’, a kind of shaggy Belgian dog.
Upon the death of Henry II in 1559, his queen Catherine de Medici took it upon herself to find a wife for González. Thus began the search for a ‘beauty’ for the ‘beast’, as many quite seriously regarded González at the time.
From the marriage records, we know this real-life ‘beauty’ to be Catherine Raffeliny. According to a Smithsonian channel documentary, the Queen had kept the identity and therefore the appearance of González a secret while seeking an arranged match for him. When Raffeliny first laid eyes on him, she was repulsed. Over time, she grew to love him for himself, and the couple had six children, four daughters and two sons. As congenital hypertrichosis is an X chromosome-linked dominant disorder, the condition was sadly transmitted to their daughters.
The González family became something of a travelling circus, becoming the talking point of Europe, and having paintings commissioned. A painting of Pedro González still hangs in the Chamber of Art and Curiosities, Ambras castle, Austria, which is why hypertrichosis is also called Ambras syndrome.
The family González settled in Italy with a new noble patron, the Duke Renuccio Farnese of Parma. Tragically, despite their trying to live as normal a life as possible, managing an estate in Parma, the affected children were given away by the Duke as curiosities, as gifts to his guests. One can only imagine the psychological trauma to children and parents. There is a painting of one hapless young daughter Antonetta, holding up a letter recounting her story, and the fact that she is now ‘owned’ by a new patron.
Pedro González finds mention for the last time in 1617, at the christening of his grandson. We know he died in 1619 in Capadimonte Italy, after 40 years of married life with Catherine. But it is possible he did not receive a Christian burial, being still not considered fully human.
So not quite the fairy-tale ending in real life, then. Perhaps the story of the Beauty and the Beast can be viewed as a parable about inner beauty, regardless of external appearance.
Those that appear different from the ‘norm’ are still unfortunately regarded as curiosities: remember the Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz? Or the achondroplasia and other forms of dwarfism employed as clowns in circuses?
I remember the stir created in medical circles some years ago by a person with hermaphroditism, and the rush to get clinical pictures taken and a case report written and published (“Publish or perish”), mindless of the feelings and trauma to the person at the centre of it all.
I can’t help also thinking of the letter to a section of the Goan press (with a picture helpfully accompanying it) complaining about the ‘menace’ posed by a homeless man living rough on our streets. The caption below the picture of the poor dishevelled long-haired bearded man asked “Is this a man or beast?” That the press saw fit to run it at all was outrageous, and thankfully there were several responses that reflected this outrage. In my opinion, holding up this homeless man to ridicule was the beastliest act of all.
(An edited version of this article was published on 2 April 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
When we began our music charity for disadvantaged children Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), we made an appeal to the community to donate unused musical instruments to us. Seven years on, this is not as big a crunch as the need for more teachers to allow us to widen our reach. But even so, we occasionally get instruments that have travelled long distances, and from very different backgrounds. One cannot help speculate who their owners were, what they were like, what melodies they played on them, and (if student instruments) whether the former owners have continued playing, and to what level.
It was with great interest therefore, that I heard about the Oscar 2017 nomination of ‘Joe’s Violin’ under the Documentary Short Subject category. The short (24-minute) documentary film narrates how an instrument collection drive for disadvantaged schoolchildren in New York City brought a 91-year old Holocaust survivor Joseph ‘Joe’ Feingold and the recipient of the violin he donated, 12-year old Latina seventh-grader schoolgirl Brianna Perez in the Bronx (“the nation’s poorest congressional district”), together.
In the documentary, we learn that Feingold had stopped playing his violin about eight to ten years ago as his age advanced. “How long can you live with memories?” he asked himself when he heard of the instrument collection drive, run by popular radio station WQXR serving the New York City metropolitan area.
“It’s very simple!” we hear the RJ say in a cheery voice “You have an old instrument sitting around? Drop it off! The instruments will be distributed to schools in New York City and it seems like every instrument has a story behind it.” The collection exceeded WQXR’s expectations; they estimated they’d receive a thousand donations, but they got thrice as many, five hundred on the first day alone.
We hear an overlap of donors’ voices mentioning their name, instrument, and a little about its history. Then we hear Feingold’s voice over a picture of the WQXR Instrument Drive form he filled out. He reveals that he bought the violin while in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Germany in 1947, after the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust had ended. He explains in the form that it was a camp for Holocaust survivors. He bought in a flea market there in exchange for just a carton of cigarettes!
Why buy a violin when he probably had much more mundane necessities at that time in his life, his daughter wonders. And then Feingold’s life unfolds. Born in Warsaw in 1923, he grew up playing the violin. “I delighted learning about the strings, the tonality.” His mother loved music, and it meant a lot to all the family. He would play as she sang.
The war in 1939 shattered their idyll. The family separated, with his father and he escaping to the Russian-occupied part of Poland, only to end up in a Siberian labour camp. His mother, brothers (and his violin) stayed on in their home. Despite hard labour, he wrote his mother every month. In one letter, she replied in the words on Solveig’s Song from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt: “The winter may pass and the spring disappear; but I know for certain you will come back again and even as I promised, you will find me waiting then.” Appropriate words for a mother missing her son. Its poignant melody obviously holds a special place in Feingold’s heart.
But they never met again; his mother and one brother perished in Treblinka.
WQXR partnered with the Mr Holland’s Opus foundation (MHOF). Many of you will recall the 1995 film Mr. Holland’s Opus, with the title role beautifully played by Richard Dreyfuss; it is a heart-warming story of a brilliant musician who takes on a teaching position in a school system that doesn’t value music education very highly, and how he wins colleagues over while touching the lives and hearts of a whole generation of students that pass through him. MHOF was created a year later by Michael Kamen, the composer of the soundtrack for the film. Its catchphrase is “Keeping Music Alive in our schools”, which it does by “donating musical instruments to under-funded music programs nationwide, giving economically-disadvantaged youth access to the many benefits of music education, helping them to be successful students, and inspiring creativity and expression through playing music.”
When MHOF heard of Feingold’s violin donation, they felt a sense of responsibility for this instrument in particular, “to find a home for it, where it can continue having its voice.” And that home was found in the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls (BGLIG). Students are accepted on a lottery basis, largely from new immigrant families. Every child from kindergarten upward learns violin; “the violin project is treated like any other subject area”. We’d so love to do this at Child’s Play, if only we could get more teachers to join us.
What struck a chord in MHOF when zeroing in on BGLIG was the fact that its principal called her girls “survivors”, the same word Feingold had used to describe himself.
Raised by a single mother, Brianna Perez identifies with her childhood obsession, Tinkerbell, “independent, hardworking fairy”, and believes that like her, she too “was chosen for something special.” Her mother attests to how she gets transformed when she plays, going “inside the music.” She calls it her “light”. The melody she plays in the film is Bach’s Minuet 1 from Suzuki Violin Book 1, so it resonates a lot with me as our kids have played it and many have gone way past it. And many of our children’s stories mirror Brianna’s as well.
Joe’s violin is handed to Brianna by her violin teacher in a very emotional ceremony, watched by her schoolmates. She calls it “history in my hands”, “more than just a violin”, “an adventure” and marvels at all its secrets.
Why did Joe buy the violin in 1947? Because it transported him back to a happy place and happier times, before the war. That’s the healing power of music. His wife knew this, and her first gift to him was a music-stand.
The climax of the film is the even more emotion-charged meeting between Feingold and Perez, after she wrote him a letter to invite him. She plays for him –you guessed it – Solveig’s Song.
Feingold seems perplexed by the fuss surrounding his donation: “To me it’s a very simple thing; I don’t use [the violin], let someone else enjoy it. Did I really deserve [the fuss]? What did I do?”
“You never gave up”, answers Perez. “That’s what you did. You had hope.” And Perez has hope too: to be a music teacher someday.
Here’s the whole documentary:
(An edited version of this article was published on 26 February 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India and in the Serenade online magazine)
By the time you read this, a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts called the Understudies (featuring Karan Bhagat, Megha Gulati, David Stanton and I) will have performed excerpts from his plays (‘Bardy Bits’ as Karan christened the event) at Museum of Goa Pilerne to commemorate the Bard’s 400th death anniversary. The selection was an eclectic mix of histories, tragedies and comedies from Shakespeare’s oeuvre.
It has been such a thrilling experience, immersing ourselves in the wit, the punning humour, the wickedly intelligent verse of Shakespeare’s writing, and one has to marvel at his insightful grasp of psychology and the human condition. I really wish we had read more Shakespeare at school and college. I remember having studied just two pithy extracts from Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice in our English syllabus in secondary and higher secondary school.
The comedic excerpt at our event was taken from one of his finest, Love’s Labour’s Won, better known as Much Ado about Nothing, written in the middle of Shakespeare’s career, between 1598 and 1599.
The “nothing” in the title is believed to be a triple entendre, meaning not only “nothing” but also “noting” (a homophone in Shakespeare’s day to “nothing”, with “noting” meaning overhearing, rumour, scandal and gossip) and the bawdy Elizabethan slang for “vagina” (derived from the pun of a woman having “nothing” between her legs, or “an O-thing”).
Although like most Shakespeare plays there are several main characters and even more peripheral ones, much of the witty back-and-forth exchanges occur between Beatrice and Benedick, and are today considered the leading roles of the play. King Charles II even wrote ‘Benedick and Beatrice’ beside the title of the play in his copy of the Second Folio.
The French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) understood this as well, giving his opera comique based on Much Ado about Nothing the title ‘Béatrice et Bénédict’.
Berlioz got a double whammy when he was introduced to Shakespeare in 1827 in Paris. A company of English actors gave a series of performances of Shakespeare plays at the Odéon theatre. Among the cast was an Irish-born actress named Harriet Simpson, who played Ophelia and Juliet in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet respectively. He was instantly smitten by Shakespeare and infatuated by Simpson, raising the curtain on what he himself called “the greatest drama of my life.” It is striking that the performances were in English, which Berlioz did not understand at all, yet he still fell under the spell of the verse, prose and drama.
From then on, he constantly read Shakespeare, often aloud if he had company, and could connect personal experiences and parallels with characters from the plays.
His Shakespeare-inspired musical compositions are many: his 1831 overture King Lear (Le roi Lear) and his composition Lélio for orchestra, chorus, solo voices and spoken text which features a fantasy on The Tempest; the symphony Roméo et Juliette (1839), his 1849 choral work Tristia has two scenes from Hamlet, the death of Ophelia and the funeral march from the final scene (La mort d’Ophélie; Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet); but his biggest work is ‘Béatrice et Bénédict’, which had a gestation period of almost three decades before it was staged in 1862.
Berlioz himself wrote the French libretto to the opera, staying closely to Shakespeare’s text. He was “in pain and impatient for death” at the time of completing the opera, suffering from a condition then termed as “intestinal neuralgia”, which he endured in the last decade of his life. But you wouldn’t guess it from the exuberance of the music.
The verbal sparring between Béatrice and Bénédict takes the form of a soprano-tenor duo, while an allegretto trio showcases the “conspiratorial humour” of Don Pedro, Claudio and Bénédict (incidentally we used this excerpt in our ‘Bardy bits’ event) where the latter swears never to marry.
The overture is a lot of fun both to play and to listen to. It wittily depicts in the music the back-and-forth, tit-for-tat exchanges between Béatrice and Bénédict, and makes several references to the music that unfolds later in the opera.
If the pattern of boy-girl trading insults initially, only to discover that they have feelings for each other, with a happily-ever-after ending sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve encountered this time and again in Hindi films. Indeed the 2001 comedy-drama hit film Dil Chahta Hai is believed to be based (very loosely) around Much Ado about Nothing. Preity Zinta-Aamir Khan (Shalini-Aakash) are the modern-day Beatrice- Benedick counterpart in the film.
In the Sydney Australia sequence, when Shalini enters the frame, there is a sailboat to the right named ‘Much Ado’. When she takes Aakash to the Sydney opera (the ‘play-within-a-play’, a device commonly used by Shakespeare himself), it is another Shakespeare-inspired work being staged, Troilus and Cressida. Although if one looks it up, the opera is alleged to be English composer William Walton’s work, I am not so sure. I could be mistaken, of course, but the music doesn’t seem to bear his mark, and the libretto is being sung in French, not English. And Walton based his opera on Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, not the Shakespeare play. Be that as it may, the scene is in some ways central to the film, as this is when Aakash realises that Shalini is the love of his life.
If only Berlioz’ own real-life “greatest drama” had nearly such a happy ending, though. From the moment he set eyes on Harriet Simpson, he would besiege her hotel room with love letters. His Symphonie Fantastique was inspired by his obsession with her, and the concept of the idée fixe entered his musical writing as well. The couple did marry, a good six years later, despite neither being fluent in the other’s language. But living together was very different from worshipping Simpson from afar, as Berlioz would soon realise. They were evenly matched but in the wrong way: both were hot-headed and prone to outbursts of temper. Simpson took comfort in alcohol after her acting career ebbed away, and eventually over two stormy decades later, the couple separated, although Berlioz continued to support Harriet financially for the rest of her life.
(An edited version of this article was published on 20 November 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
What’s with animation movies and classical music? The love affair seems as old as animation itself, a notable high point being the 1940 Walt Disney film ‘Fantasia’ with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski, a deliberate marriage between the two genres.
And animators have much comic material to draw from opera in particular, with its over-the-top emotions, the often ridiculous plotlines, the airs and graces of prima donnas, and the tendency of both the classical music profession and their rarefied audience to often take themselves much too seriously.
A while ago, I had written a column on the use of the aria ‘E lucevan le stele’ from Giacomo Puccini’s opera ‘Tosca’ in ‘Happy Feet 2’. I had stumbled upon this only because my son was watching the film, and I happened to be with him at the time.
And the same circumstances applied for ‘Ice Age: Collision Course’. He was keen on seeing it, and it fell to my lot to chaperone him to Inox. The film is the fifth in the Ice Age franchise, and quite frankly the franchise ought to have been ‘put on ice’ after the very first episode. But box office considerations seem to trump even the basic need for a genuine spark of creativity. Far easier to keep creating sequels and milking an old idea rather than think of a new idea.
Buck the weasel (given voice by Simon Pegg, who is Benji in Mission Impossible III) is an addition to the menagerie of Paleolithic (and the franchise has received a lot of criticism for not even attempting to be scientifically accurate about chronology and timelines) in the third instalment of the series Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009).
He gets written out of part four (Continental Drift 2012) but makes a swashbuckling return in Collision Course. And how does he make an entrance? With the Figaro aria.
The aria itself is actually titled “Largo al factotum” from Gioachino Rossini’s opera “Il barbiere di Siviglia” (The Barber of Seville) based on the comedy play Le Barbier de Séville by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799). It, in turn, is part of a trilogy of ‘Figaro’ plays, of which Le Barbier de Séville is the first, followed by Le Mariage de Figaro (better known today as a basis for Mozart’s famous opera of the same name, but in Italian) and La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother).
All the plays are centred on the character of Figaro. It is thought that Beaumarchais thought up the name Figaro as a phonetic transcription of the words ‘fils Caron’, therefore a creation or ‘son’ of his own.
Beaumarchais himself had much in common with his character Figaro in terms of intelligence, quick-wittedness and versatility: Beaumarchais was at various points in his life horologist (inventing a timepiece that was accurate to the second and tiny enough to fit into a ring), inventor, playwright, satirist, musician, publisher, horticulturist, diplomat, spy, arms dealer, revolutionary (playing a role in both, the American and French Revolutions) and financier.
At preliminary examination, the content of the plays seems innocuous enough, following a pretty traditional Italian Commedia dell-arte structure, with Figaro modelled upon the character of Brighella or Arlecchino. Both belong to the zanni (from where we get the English word ‘zany’) or comic servant characters in Commedia dell’arte. Figaro too is a former ‘comic servant’-turned barber who is capable of doing everything. Brighella is essentially Arlecchino’s smarter and older if somewhat more vindictive brother in the Commedia dell’arte cast of characters. Both Brighella and Arlecchino have a striking resemblance to Buck the weasel in Ice Age, in that all are mask-wearing, club- or sword-wielding characters. I am not sure whether these were deliberate additions to Buck’s appearance to prepare him for Figaro, or mere coincidence.
What made the plays so revolutionary was the subterfuge of the social order, with the servant clearly shown to be smarter and more resourceful than the master, and even prompting the master’s decisions. Louis XVI was prophetic when he said of Le Mariage de Figaro: “For this play not to be a danger, the Bastille would have to be torn down first.” Napoleon Bonaparte called it “the Revolution in action.’
In the Rossini opera, like Buck in Ice Age Collision Course, Figaro bursts upon stage with the Largo al factotum aria. The title literally means “Make way for the factotum”, factotum being a sort of jack-of-all-trades, deriving from the Latin for “do everything”.
The aria is a virtuosic showpiece for any baritone, one of the most difficult in the repertoire to perform, on account of its allegro vivace, almost nonstop singing of tongue-twisting lyrics set into the rhythm of triplets in 6/8 metre, and having to make it look effortless while gesticulating and acting out the lines. It is Rossini arias just like Largo al factotum that so inspired the Victorian-era theatrical partners, librettist-composer Gilbert and Sullivan to write their ‘topsy-turvy’ comic operas that so cleverly interwove lyrics and music.
This is where Buck’s aria in Ice Age falls far short. The English lyrics are lame, just not as witty or funny as they could have been. The English National Opera routinely performs the operatic repertoire in English, and their translations are done with much imagination and thought. The text to Buck’s aria however seems to have been put together in a slapdash manner, perhaps in a hurry to meet a deadline. It attempts to be a pastiche or parody of the original, but ends up being neither.
Contrast this with the much older Tom-and-Jerry “take” on Largo al factotum, where there is such humour in the delivery and the exploitation of the music score to dictate what happens on screen. Timing is everything in comedy. This is truly brilliant animation. For all its 3-D effects, the weasel is not a “patch” on that cat and mouse.
That said, Buck’s aria will familiarise young audiences with classical music, even if this is just a few minutes of it. Bollywood actor Arjun Kapoor does the voice-over in the Hindi version of Collision Course, thus widening its reach even further.
(An edited version of this article was published on 14 August 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
This year marks the 400th death anniversary of the greatest bard of the English language, William Shakespeare, and elaborate celebrations have been planned around the world to run through 2016 for this milestone.
His canonical plays, his comedies, histories and tragedies have provided grist to the creative mill of thinkers, poets and writers in English and other languages, to painters, composers and librettists.
It might be interesting to periodically give the spotlight this year to key characters and settings from Shakespeare’s plays and look at how they inspired the creativity of others over time. Let us start with ‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’, his longest play, his first masterpiece, and “arguably the greatest tragedy in the English language”.
Perhaps it is not surprising that such a dark brooding tragedy in which almost all the main characters eventually die, except for Horatio who lives to tell the tale, should inspire in different ways at least three Russian composers: Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote two compositions dedicated to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The fantasy overture ‘Hamlet’ (Opus 67a, 1888) and incidental music for a benefit production of the play at the Mikhaylovsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg (Opus 67b, 1891).
Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet fantasy overture is an underrated and underperformed masterpiece. Unlike his other fantasy overtures (like ‘Romeo and Juliet’, or ‘The Tempest’ for example), it lacks a structural development in the conventional sense (exposition-development-recapitulation) but it magnificently captures the gloomy atmosphere of the battlements at Elsinore castle and the dilemmas and conundrums tearing Hamlet apart. A beautiful plaintive oboe melody represents Ophelia, the central love theme.
In the incidental music, Tchaikovsky uses an abridged version of the fantasy overture, followed by 16 other pieces. He adapted some music from earlier compositions but also wrote new material. Although he apparently enjoyed the performance of the play with his music in it, he did not think much of his own music and refused permission for it to be used in a subsequent production in Warsaw. Today, the incidental music is performed (again, not often enough) in a concert version using 10 of the pieces including the condensed overture.
Prokofiev also wrote incidental music to Hamlet, when it was staged in Leningrad in 1937-38 by Sergei Radlov. Radlov had previously worked with the composer on his satirical opera ‘The Love for Three Oranges’ and his ballet masterpiece inspired by another Shakespearean play ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The incidental music to Hamlet only gained public interest after Prokofiev’s death. In ten movements, it begins with The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, followed by Claudius’s March, Fanfares, Pantomime, four songs of Ophelia, The Gravedigger’s Song, and Fortinbras’s Final March.
Hamlet’s existential quandary, his chronic inability or unwillingness to act, became known as ‘Hamletism’, something Russians could identify with as it so closely resembled Oblomovism, the indolent hero of Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel.
Dmitri Shostakovich himself attracted this label, and even today, his Fifth Symphony is sometimes referred to as his Hamlet Symphony. His opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had been viciously attacked in the “Muddle instead of Music” article in the Pravda, and his Fifth Symphony was a chance for the composer to ‘rehabilitate’ himself in the eyes of the Stalinist regime. After the peace offering of this symphony, in the official view, he was now “a Hamlet who had risen above metaphysical dithering to claim his place in the world”. But in the words of music critic Brian Morton, “perhaps this fallen prince of Russian music was still mad and dissembling sanity”. Is the exultant march in the finale really triumphal, or a death march?
Shostakovich dealt with Hamlet more directly on three occasions in his music: the first was a disastrously ‘comic’ farce of the play by Akimov (1932), and the next two were collaborations with Grigori Kozintsov. Shostakovich recycled music from King Lear for the 1954 staging of Hamlet, but his music for the 1964 Kozintsov film adaptation of Hamlet is today regarded as among his best film scores. His friend Lev Atovmian arranged the film score into an eight-movement suite. The music has three themes, two masculine (Hamlet father and son) and one feminine (Ophelia). The dithering Hamlet junior is sometimes portrayed by aggressive brass, at other times by plangent woodwind. Ophelia’s theme is dance-like, fluid, and given the tone colour of the harpsichord.
The British composer William Walton collaborated with Sir Laurence Olivier to produce three of the most highly acclaimed Shakespeare films of all time. The film Hamlet got Walton an Oscar nomination for his score, and won Olivier the award for Best Actor. Olivier wanted his production to portray a “psychological/Freudian” Hamlet, and does Walton give him that in his score! The music from the film has been adapted by Christopher Palmer into a fourteen-movement concert suite “Hamlet: A Shakespeare Scenario”. An historic recording by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and with Sir John Gielgud as speaker is well worth a listen.
When it comes to film adaptations in languages other than English, Vishal Bhardwaj’s hard-hitting Haider (2014) will probably jostle for elbow room with the best of them. I’ve watched it a few times and my admiration for it keeps increasing. The translocation of the setting from the medieval kingdom of Denmark to turbulent 1990s Kashmir is a stroke of sheer genius. The casting is excellent, right down to the Salman 1 & 2 avatars of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But it is Tabu’s Gertrude that steals the thunder even from Shahid Kapoor’s Hamlet. The high points for me are the adapted “To be or not to be” soliloquy (“Hum hain ke hum nahin”) and the play-within-the play scene, turned into a superbly choreographed song ‘Bismil’ at the Martand Sun Temple Kashmir. Critics have faulted it for taking too many liberties with the Bard’s words or even the spirit of Hamlet. But this is artistic license, not a slavish translation, in my view. I’ve not seen Bhardwaj’s Maqbool or Omkara (his adaptations respectively of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Othello) and this might be the perfect year to “make amends ere long”, to borrow a line from the Bard from another play.
(An edited version of this article was published on 13 March 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
We all seem to have grown up reading Asterix comics. It was certainly this nostalgia trip that prompted me to go to the 2014 French-Belgian 3D computer-animated film “Asterix and Obelix: The Mansion of the Gods” at Inox recently.
I had of course read the 1973 comic book it was based upon, and was delighted that the film stayed fairly faithful to the script.
I am not sure at what point in the film, however, it dawned on me that the plot had some uncomfortable parallels with our lot in Goa.
For the uninitiated, the story is set around 50 BC, in the reign of Julius Caesar. All Gaul is occupied by the Roman Empire. Only one small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out. But how much longer can Asterix resist the mighty legions of Julius Caesar?
In this episode (the seventeenth in the series), Caesar hits upon a devious plan to subjugate the stubborn Gaul village: He will ‘civilise’ (‘develop’?) it. With the help of trendy Roman architect Squaronthehypotenus, he orders the building of a modern housing estate (a mega-project, before the term could even be invented) by denuding the life-giving (eco-sensitive?) forest adjacent to the village.
Caesar will in a brilliant stroke achieve what could not be accomplished by force: the village will be ‘assimilated’ into Roman culture by establishing a Roman patrician colony, that he dubs “The Mansion of the Gods”.
The survival of the village depends upon the forest. It is not only the source of the game (boar) that Asterix and Obelix hunt and retrieve as food for themselves and the village, but is an invaluable repository for the herbs and foliage used by the druid Getafix for all sorts of medicinal concoctions, especially the magic potion, secret of the invincibility of the village.
Under heavy Roman guard, an army of slaves of different nationalities (upon whom the whiplash is used liberally) is put to work to clear the forest and build this patrician paradise. It is marketed aggressively in Rome, and advertisements are placed everywhere and even read out at ‘commercial breaks’ at the circuses in the Coliseum.
The ploy works, and masses of Romans descend upon the newly-built “Mansions of the Gods”, ‘to get away from it all’, to sample a quality of life they cannot enjoy in the urban sprawl that bedevils the Eternal City.
The villagers are initially puzzled, but gradually accept the new reality, and even turn their own village into a little antiques market. Nothing is sacrosanct, not even the shield upon which their chief Vitalstatistix is ceremonially carried. Due to the new influx of money from well-heeled, affluent Romans, used as they are to ‘Roman’ prices, the cost of everything in the village skyrockets in an escalating price-war. Among other things, fish is no longer affordable to the villager any more (sound familiar?).
Eventually, the villagers (except for our heroes Asterix and Obelix) embrace the Roman way of life, and are dazzled enough to want a place in “The Mansion of the Gods” themselves.
Until perhaps the 1980s or even the early 1990s, Goa was relatively unspoilt (or ‘undeveloped’, depending on your viewpoint). It did not need the goading of any megalomanic dictator to set off a construction boom that gradually encroached further and further upon our life-giving forests and all they sheltered: water bodies, river sources and a bio-diversity that we still haven’t even documented. We are destroying it faster than we can even realise what we have lost or are losing.
Like the Roman patricians lining up to own an apartment in “The Mansion of the Gods” (the title sounds so much like “God’s Own Abode G.O.A”, the slogan suggested for our Goa), the buyers of our plush spanking-new apartments, villas and mansions are more often than not the moneyed ‘rest of India’, ‘rest of the world’, rather than we ourselves. They have been wooed here by trade fairs and slick packaging offering them “a piece of Goa”, as one firm advertising its concrete boxes quaintly put it.
Ironically, a Konkani film marvellous in so many respects for upholding Goenkarponn had after the interval a real-estate advertisement selling built-up property near the “much-awaited Mopa airport”!
And these “pieces of Goa” are built by our own “army of slaves”, our unsung construction workers coming from impoverished parts of the rest of India, who live and toil under pitiful conditions for very little remuneration to build our roads, buildings and everything else. And if our rivers and creeks are polluted, we blame them, not our patrician guests dwelling in those apartments or patronising our casinos, or ourselves.
Heavy police ‘protection’ (for whom? from whom?) has been repeatedly used to foist unpopular projects upon our people.
And we, the “jolly villagers” of the story, struggle to adapt to our current reality. Except for alcohol and petrol, everything is more expensive than in the rest of India. Our priceless family heirlooms are in danger of entering the antiques market, if they haven’t already.
There are of course many practical reasons for some of us abandoning our village ancestral homes to live in more convenient urban apartments, or compelling us to leave our land to go abroad, but the scene in the film where Asterix finds his whole village deserted by its inhabitants in favour of the upwardly-mobile Roman alternative reminded me of quite a few bylanes in our Goa where once-proud houses are falling into ruin because nobody lives there anymore.
In the film (Spoiler alert! Read no further if you wish to see the film or read the comic book), Getafix’s magic potion somewhat predictably saves the day. Yes, all the Roman patricians go back where they came from, and the buildings are dismantled. It isn’t quite clear what happens to all the debris, but it’s a happy ending, so who cares? Furthermore, Getafix’s magic acorns instantaneously reforest the areas where The Mansions of the Gods once stood. Paradise once lost, is regained.
We already have our Asterix heroic figure. Claude Alvares even looks the part. What will the magic potion be, though? Let’s hope it continues to be our judiciary and the Supreme Court.
Unlike chief Vitalstatistix, we are not afraid of the sky falling on our heads. Sadly, we may not even have to fear the possibility of a coconut falling on our heads anymore, unless we can challenge the government ruling on the definition of Cocos nucifera. We Goans are really quite crazy!
(An edited version of this article was published on 28 February 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
If like me you’re a fan of the Godfather film trilogy, you’ll recognise the reference in the title at once. Brilliant as the films are in so many respects, try to imagine them without the film score, and so much of their essence would be ripped out of them.
The composer of the soundtrack to the first two films of Francis Ford Coppolla’s Godfather trilogy was Giovanni “Nino” Rota (1911-1979). He was born in Milan to a very musical family. A true child prodigy, he had written at just eleven years of age his first oratorio ‘L’Infanzia di San Giovanni Battista’ (The Childhood of St. John the Baptist) which was performed the following year in Milan and Paris. He wrote a three-act lyric comic operatic adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale ‘The Swineherd’ (Il Principe Porcaro) when thirteen. He studied first at the conservatory in Milan and then the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome.
Although he is remembered today as a film composer (he was extremely prolific, writing over 170 film scores, averaging three scores a year during his busy years, sometimes as many as ten a year), his list of more ‘mainstream’ compositions is also pretty impressive: 11 operas, 5 ballets, 32 choral works, 13 concertos, 24 other orchestral works, 30 chamber music compositions, 22 compositions for piano, and seven for voice. He also composed music for many important theatre productions, juggling all these while continuing a teaching career for almost 30 years at the Liceo Musicale in Bari, Italy.
Rota’s partnership with Italian film director Federico Fellini spanned decades, and Fellini could not lavish enough praise upon him: “The most precious collaborator I have ever had, I say it straightaway and don’t even have to hesitate, was Nino Rota — between us, immediately, a complete, total, harmony … He had a geometric imagination, a musical approach worthy of celestial spheres. He thus had no need to see images from my movies. When I asked him about the melodies he had in mind to comment one sequence or another, I clearly realized he was not concerned with images at all. His world was inner, inside himself, and reality had no way to enter it.”
This partnership began from quite a chance, almost quirky encounter. Fellini recalled it: “Outside Cinecittà, I noticed a funny little man waiting in the wrong place for the tram. He seemed happily oblivious of everything. I felt compelled… to wait with him… I was certain that the tram would stop in its regular place and we would have to run for it, and he was equally certain it would stop where he was standing… To my surprise, the tram did stop right in front of us.”
It seemed like a joyful collaboration, from Fellini’s description: “He was someone who had a rare quality belonging to the world of intuition. Just like children, simple men, sensitive people, innocent people, he would suddenly say dazzling things. As soon as he arrived, stress disappeared, everything turned into a festive atmosphere; the movie entered a joyful, serene, fantastic period, a new life.”
Rota felt equally at home in the world of ‘serious’, music, the music of the concert-hall just as he did the music of the cinema theatre. He counted several other composers as his personal friends, notably Igor Stravinsky, who was almost thirty years his senior, and whose music had a profound impression upon him. Rota recalled the friendship: “Stravinsky was fun; his mind struck sparks. Age was no barrier – ours became a true friendship, despite distance and meeting ever more rarely.”
Along with another equally brilliant and prodigious film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the music of Nino Rota is being re-evaluated by the often snooty world of classical music which had summarily dismissed their music as facile merely because there is so much of it, and therefore somehow of lesser merit. Both Korngold and Rota had the ‘audacity’ to not only write film music as well, but be resoundingly successful at it.
On 27 February, music-lovers and film buffs will get a singular opportunity to hear one of Nino Rota’s chamber works heavily influenced by Stravinsky: his Trio (1958) for the rather unusual combination of flute, violin and piano. It will be performed at Menezes Braganza hall by Ensemble Riccardi-Feola-Bager (Laura Riccardi, violin; Angela Feola, piano; Jonathan Bager, flute).
The work is in three movements (Allegro ma non troppo—Andante sostento—Allegro vivace con spirito), the two energetic outer movements bookending the core, soulful heart of the piece.
Speaking of “the heart of the music”, this is what Rota writes about his own output: “When I’m creating at the piano, I tend to feel happy; but – the eternal dilemma – how can we be happy amid the unhappiness of others? I’d do everything I could to give everyone a moment of happiness. That’s what’s at the heart of my music.”
So come on for this “moment of happiness” (all twelve minutes thirty seconds of it) on 27 February. It is an offer you really cannot refuse!
(An edited version of this article was published on 21 February 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
Both were English, and at the top of their profession. Both died aged 69, within days of each other from cancer this month.
David Bowie of course is an icon: singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, painter and actor. But his connection with classical music is not that well-known.
What do you give your seven-year old son for a Christmas present? It’s a question I’ll have to deal with this Christmas, and it will probably be a book, or a toy. But if you’re David Bowie, the answer was quite simple: you take on the narrator’s part in Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. The music was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Eugene Ormandy conducting. The music album was released in 1978 on the RCA Red Seal label. Bowie was signed on almost as a last-minute choice, as both Alec Guinness and Peter Ustinov had been offered the part and turned it down.
The album crept to 136 on the US Pop Albums chart. Rolling Stone magazine in its review described Bowie’s contribution as “engaging and benevolent” and that he had “found his most charming guise since Hunky Dory [Bowie’s much acclaimed fourth album]”.
It really is a remarkable recording, and can still be found online for those interested. Bowie’s understated elegant style is a delight, and the lush sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra makes it a real winner. The album was released on vinyl LP, and has on the flip side Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. The record was specifically geared to “introduce children to the sounds of the individual instruments in the symphony orchestra”, to quote verbatim from the sleeve notes, and it succeeds in this objective admirably. One can well imagine a teenager in the 1970s wanting to listen to this record because his/her pop idol Bowie was on it. Perhaps it was a good thing Guinness and Ustinov were not interested, after all.
The album invites inevitable comparisons with the more recent version of Peter and the Wolf with Sting as narrator, and Claudio Abbado conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (1991). This is video as well of course, and I am still a fan of this recording, but having now listened to Bowie, I find my loyalty in question. The Bowie recording was re-released at Christmas 2013 on CD, with another bonbon, Tchaikovksy’s Nutcracker suite.
Bowie’s music became the unlikely muse for American composer Philip Glass. When commissioned to write a symphonic cycle, his very first symphony (1991) was inspired by music from Bowie’s eleventh album “Low” (1977). “Low” was written at a difficult time in Bowie’s life, when he was trying to shake off a cocaine habit. The title is believed to be at least partly a reference to Bowie’s “low” moods during the album’s genesis. The album cover has a profile picture of Bowie under the title, a clever pun on “low-profile”.
Glass, in a video conversation with Bowie, describes his composition as a “symphonic homage to a very important record at the time, a record that went completely beyond the niceties and categories of pop music and pointed in a different direction.”
Glass’s three-movement symphony takes one Bowie theme for each movement. The outer movements (“Subterraneans” and “Warszawa”) are inspired by tracks that feature on the original 1977 album, while the central movement “Some Are” uses thematic ideas from a bonus track in the 1991 CD release of “Low”.
To those interested, I would recommend listening to the three back-to-back, first to the original Bowie and then to what Glass does with the “material”, as he calls it. It is a very accurate tribute. Bowie, in his turn admits that he was influenced very much by Glass’ music while writing “Low”.
One hears, in addition to Bowie and Glass, the imprint of Aaron Copeland as well as the repetitive structures and rhythms of Indian music. Glass had worked in the 1960s with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha, which had a profound effect on his musical thinking.
In the video conversation, Glass comments “People think of pop music and classical music as if these are fixed categories. Well, actually the people that work in these fields… ” he trails off as Bowie, nodding in agreement completes his thought: “… very rarely feel the confines of that.” Glass continues: “It’s more fluid than that. To me, a composer who works in, let’s say, concert music who isn’t aware of what his contemporaries, his colleagues are doing, is just out of touch with the world”.
As if to prove this point, classical guitarist Rupert Boyd who performed in Goa recently, acknowledges the influence of David Bowie upon him: “Whenever I’ve been asked which living person I’d most like to meet, I’ve always answered David Bowie. I hoped that one day I’d bump into him at a bar in the East Village, and have a chat over a beer. Hunky Dory & Ziggy Stardust have been soundtracks to my life, and are two of the albums I’ve listened to most often. I listened to Blackstar [Bowie’s final album, recorded while he was battling cancer] a few days ago, and at the time, now ironically, was startled by how full of life he sounded. I listened again today, and wept over the track Lazarus. “This way or no way, you know I’ll be free”. I just can’t imagine singing those words, knowing this would be it. It is the role of art and the artist in society to help us understand life and mortality, but to both so secretly, yet publicly, sing about his own illness is heartbreaking. Lazarus. The title says it all. R.I.P. David Bowie”
Glass returned to Bowie for “material” in his fourth symphony, subtitled “Heroes” (1996). Its six movements are symphonic reworkings of themes by Glass, Bowie and David Eno (from their 1977 album “Heroes”).
Alan Rickman has a less direct connection with music. But he starred as Judge Turpin in the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”. He also features in a song by Alan Leonard titled “Not Alan Rickman”. He was Master of Ceremonies announcing the various instruments in Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells II” (1992). He recites a Shakespearean sonnet on the album “When Love Speaks”, and features on a music video by Texas called “In Demand”.
Rickman, heartthrob of female fans everyhere, took time out from his villain roles to feature in a romantic music drama “Truly madly Deeply”. He took cello lessons to play the character of Jamie, a cellist who returns as a ghost after his demise to comfort his grief-stricken lover.
(An edited version of this article was published on 31 January 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)