That’s about 100 pages a day.
Whew! I loved to read too at his age, but I don’t remember devouring a book of that size in such a short time.
Happy New Year 2017, everyone!
That’s about 100 pages a day.
Whew! I loved to read too at his age, but I don’t remember devouring a book of that size in such a short time.
Happy New Year 2017, everyone!
This being the Shakespeare milestone year (his 400th death anniversary), it is tempting to speculate whether the Christmas festivities find mention in his writing, and if so, where.
Shakespeare makes extremely few references to Christmas in his plays; just four if one believes one source. But if this seems surprising, it shouldn’t be.
Until the beginning of the 1800s, the traditional Christmas festivities as we know them today were non-existent. The high point on the Christian calendar was Easter, a rejoicing of the Resurrection and all it represents, a cathartic experience after Lent and Holy Week.
The marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in 1840 made many German Christmas traditions from the Price Consort’s native Germany more widely popular, notably the Christmas tree bedecked with candles, decorations, fruits, sweets and gifts.
One clear Christmas connection in a Shakespeare play is to be found in Twelfth Night. The very title of this comedy betrays this: it was written to be performed at the end of the Christmas season, on the ‘Twelfth Night’.
Christmas was seen as a twelve-day commemoration (called Christmastide in England), and depending on whether one began counting from Christmas Day (25 December) or the day after (26 December, Boxing Day), the twelfth day fell on either 5 January or 6 January, the Epiphany, or Feast of the Three Kings.
But Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has nothing more to do with Christmas, apart from its intended performance date. A clear reference to Christmas does appear however, in ‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’. In Act I, Scene 1, Marcellus says to Hamlet’s friend Horatio and to Bernardo after they have seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s father on the frozen battlements of Elsinore castle:
“Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes/ Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated, / The bird of dawning singeth all night long: / And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad; / The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike, / No fairy takes nor witch hath power to charm, / So hallowed and so gracious is the time.”
So Christmastime is “hallowed”, and supernatural beings or forces, be they spirit, fairy, witch or planet are rendered powerless by it. But there is no mention of anything joyous about it.
(I found this on the Net and it’s quite clever!)
Two Christmas references by Shakespeare occur in Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of his early comedies. In fact, its earliest recorded performance even occurred at Christmas in 1597 before the court of Queen Elizabeth II.
The first allusion to Christmas is at the beginning of the play, after the King of Navarre and his friends swear an oath to scholarship, which includes fasting and avoiding contact with women for three years. Berowne, one of the King’s attendants, hesitates before he joins in:
“Why should I joy in any abortive birth? / At Christmas I no more desire a rose / Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled shows; / But like of each thing that in season grows; / So you, to study now it is too late, /Climb o’er the house to unlock the little gate.”
Christmas is clearly not a time for shunning worldly pleasures, not for Berowne. And towards the end of the play, Berowne again brings up Christmas (Act V, Scene 2) when he fails to impress the ladies: “I see the trick on’t: here was a consent, / Knowing aforehand of our merriment, /To dash it like a Christmas comedy.”
What does he mean by “a Christmas comedy”? Could it be an inside joke, referring to the play itself, a comedy being performed on Christmas Day? Comedies were staged as entertainment in the Christmas season, and indeed Shakespeare’s own The Comedy of Errors was staged on 28 December 1594 at Grays Inn.
Shakespeare and his company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were invited to perform their plays at the Inns of Court (the main hall in Grays Inn, an important location in Shakespeare’s London where young law students were educated and would gather for social occasions as well) on numerous occasions, especially during the annual Christmas festivities known as the Revels. Often at such events, the social order was overturned, with the lowliest member of the court invited to preside as Lord of Misrule, etc. It was a prestigious and lucrative gig for Shakespeare’s company; theatres were often closed for the winter, so an indoor performance to a captive audience of affluent lawyers was quite attractive.
The Gesta Grayorum, a sort of predecessor to today’s gossip magazine, reported of that performance: “The Night was begun, and continued to the end, in nothing but Confusion and Errors; whereupon it was ever afterwards called the Night of Errors.”
So what happened? According to one account in the historical archives in Kew, from the Treasurer of the Chamber of Elizabeth I, William Shakespeare seems to have undertaken a booking to perform for the Queen on Innocents Day (28 December) as well. They therefore attempted to honour both bookings, one (for the Queen) in the afternoon, and at Grays Inn in the evening. But the second performance didn’t go as planned, perhaps due to fatigue or overindulgence. Another version sees this as an attempt of the employers (Grays Inn) to shift the blame to Shakespeare’s troupe for their own folly of overcrowding the hall.
The last Christmas reference I could trace is in another of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Taming of the Shrew. In Scene 2 of the Induction of the play, a dramatic troupe has arrived at the house of Christopher Sly and he questions his servant about them:
SLY: Marry, I will; let them play it. Is not a commonty [comedy] a Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick?
PAGE: No, my good lord; it is more pleasing stuff.
Sly has a rather low impression of Christmas festivity. But that should not be extrapolated back to Shakespeare himself. He probably enjoyed it as much as everyone else. Have thyself a Merry little Christmas too!
(An edited version of this article was published on 25 December 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
A whole generation of Americans remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and decades later, Britons had this same experience with the tragic death of Princess Diana in a car accident in 1997.
Psychologists term this a ‘flashbulb memory’ i.e. “an especially vivid image that seems to be frozen in memory in times of emotionally significant personal or public events.” Psychologists Dennis Coon and John O. Mitterer cover this at length in the chapter ‘Memory’ of their textbook ‘Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behaviour’. They go on to say that “Some memories may go beyond flashbulb clarity and become so intense that they may haunt a person for years.”
This is certainly true for me, and must be so for most of you when it comes to the tragic brutal death of Fr. Bismarque Dias exactly a year ago. Just thinking about it takes me back to those awful moments and hours after he was first reported missing. I tried calling the number I had stored on my phone but was getting no response. Frantic calls to his acquaintances yielded nothing. That night, my family offered a litany of Hail Marys and an emotional appeal to Her to bring him back safe and sound. But even then, there was still a glimmer of hope that he would eventually turn up unscathed and laugh away everyone’s needless anxiety. And one clung on to that hope for dear life, but the undercurrent of unease persisted.
The news broke the following morning, after a restless night. I received the following SMS at 0958 hours on 7 November 2015 from a mutual acquaintance: “Body of environmental activist Fr. Bismarque Dias found in water near sluice gate at St. Estevam where his belongings were found yesterday.” I stared at the phone screen, numb with shock and disbelief. How does one process such news, received so innocuously, so mundanely? This is the unfortunate “flashbulb memory” that most of us, at various times and in various ways, would have experienced last year. His death was a cataclysmic blow to Goa, to all the good causes that he stood for and for which he had fought so fearlessly and tirelessly.
The powers-that-be would have us believe his death was an unfortunate accident, a night swim gone wrong. But I am not convinced, and I believe I have good reason not to buy this theory. There are just too many loose ends, too many facets of the case that just do not add up, so much evidence that actually contradicts the “accident” hypothesis. The bungling of the investigative process and the heavy-handed suppression by the government machinery of a peaceful protest in Panjim that month only add fuel to the suspicion of a cover-up, an attempt to shield the guilty.
Had Fr. Bismarque been alive today, he would certainly have been participating in the electoral process as a candidate for the 2017 elections, either as an independent or perhaps for the Aam Aadmi Party. I know it is conjecture on my part, but what I do know is that he would have supported any political initiative that he believed would favourably change the way Goa has been ruled in the last few decades, and that would safeguard Goa’s precious, fragile, dwindling environment for future generations.
Sceptics have questioned why he entered the political fray back in 2012. Didn’t he know that politics is a numbers game, that he was pitted against political heavyweights, that it is not easy to “fight the system”? But although Fr. Bismarque did not win the Cumbarjua seat, one can view the result in two ways. The jaded, smug view, which even some of his genuine well-wishers took, was “I-told-you-so”; those who had predicted he would lose were, whether they admitted it to themselves or not, glad to be proven right. But viewed another way, the election result also rocked the boat. Although he lost, the vote tally in his favour was not insignificant, bearing in mind he was a first-time candidate. If he would garner such a margin the first time round, what could he have achieved in 2017? I think this must have unnerved his political rivals.
Nevertheless, his legacy should not be allowed to die. Fr. Bismarque was an inspiration to me, for his optimism and positivity despite all the portents of doom and gloom on the political and environmental fronts in Goa. He firmly believed in the democratic process, that politics need not be a dirty game if good, honest citizens entered the fray, if they made their voice heard through the ballot box and through activism. He led by example in fearlessly challenging corruption and irregularities and disastrous planning policies. His optimism rubbed off on everyone who knew him, and I am grateful to him for this gift of Hope. With his death, some of that optimism and hope died as well, at least for me, but we have to get it back again somehow.
Many scoffed at his Kindness Manifesto as too philosophical, as empty platitudes out of sync with on-the-ground issues. But he was driving at something much deeper, much more revolutionary, which went to the core of our collective mindset. In his Manifesto, rather than another predictable list of promises, he was asking us to change, to treat each other, all living beings and the environment with Kindness. He asked us to pledge to “Be Kindness, live Kindness; to be Kind to ourselves, to others and to the environment.”
This strong belief in our inherent limitless capacity for Goodness and Kindness, is something for which I will always remember Fr. Bismarque. And every time I think of him, I shall try to renew the pledge I made during his Cumbarjua trail. If more of us also do this, his legacy will live on.
This is the Festival of Light. Last year, an inspirational Light was cruelly snuffed out and snatched from us. But we can each be those lights, and spread the light. Watching from above, this would gladden Fr. Bismarque’s soul more than anything else.
(An edited version of this article was published on 06 November 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
Maestro Zubin Mehta turns 80 on 29 April, and a series of concerts in Mumbai with the Israel Philharmonic and soloists Pinchas Zukerman, Amanda Forsyth, Denis Matsuev, Andrea Bocelli, and Maria Katzarava mark this momentous milestone.
Information and music are so readily available today, literally at the click of a mouse or a touch of a screen, that it seems unreal to recollect how difficult it was back in the 1970s.
The only music I had access to at that time was the unwieldy spool tapes that fitted onto a machine that weighed a ton, and had very low sound fidelity, and LPs (long playing records, at 33 1/3 rpm or revolutions per minute), 78s (78 rpm) and 45s. Classical music was to be found mainly on the spool tapes and the LPs.
And before audio cassettes burst upon the scene, changing the way we listened to music, the only way to build one’s music library was to hunt for records, and Sinari’s near the Secretariat was the only place to go. But classical music was pretty hard to come by in those days. I remember Sinari’s once having an exhibition of Melodiya records from the USSR at Menezes Braganza for several days, and it was a treat to go there just to listen to the music. In retrospect, it was part of the Soviet bloc’s Cold War cultural diplomacy, but we weren’t complaining.
The 70s saw Zubin Mehta scaling unimaginable heights in the world of classical music, which few even today, let alone someone coming from India, could rival. At the age of 25, he had conducted three of the world’s major orchestras, the Vienna, Berlin and Israel Philharmonic orchestras. He was director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1962 to 1978, of the Israel Philharmonic in 1977, and of the New York Philharmonic in 1978, a post he would hold for 13 years, the longest in the orchestra’s history. Think of a contemporary conductor, and hardly any have had such a comparably astonishing, meteoric trajectory.
We read about Mehta in the Indian press, and whenever Time magazine covered his achievements. But through the 70s, as far as I could remember, there wasn’t any actual music accessible within India that we could listen to. In the music collection that my father brought back from Germany in 1970, we had nothing conducted by Mehta.
This is why I was so excited when CBS Gramophone Records and Tapes (India) Ltd saw fit to release in 1983 a recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto, played by Isaac Stern, and with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta. It remains etched in my memory, because it was a first of everything for me: the first time I would hear the Brahms Violin Concerto, the first time I would hear Stern play, and perhaps the first recording I would hear of the New York Philharmonic (it is possible that I might have heard them before on the radio via the BBC World Service’s wonderful Thursday request programme “the Pleasure is Yours”), and the first time I would hear Mehta conduct.
It was the first classical LP I remember buying. If I’m not mistaken, it cost Rs. 50, and I remember the short walk home, gingerly holding it right side up so the record wouldn’t roll out of its sleeve!
My dad’s LP collection featured largely German or Austrian orchestras, and the programme notes on their sleeves were usually in German, if at all. So it was refreshing to hear an ‘American’ sound. And I could read about the music in English for a change.
The striking, arresting cover photograph was taken by Bill King, who (although I didn’t know it then) was one of the most acclaimed fashion photographers of his time, a regular on Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Vanity Fair, the toast of the Milan and Paris fashion elite, and whose “exuberant images celebrated youth and optimism”. He seemed a more likely choice for a Rolling Stone cover (and indeed he was, often) than for the front of a classical music LP.
King has an unbelievably youthful Mehta looking us straight in the eye, while Stern looks somewhat self-consciously away, his violin scroll cradled against his left collarbone. The picture has a grainy quality that somehow makes it look hip and dignified at the same time.
The programme notes were written by one Joscelyn Godwin, and they helped me right then, to start ‘joining the dots’, as it were, when it came to musical history. For instance, she points out that Brahms had completed his Second Symphony a year before this concerto, “and it seems as if that particular mine of musical inspiration was not yet exhausted, for the Violin Concerto is almost like a sister piece”.
I happened to have the Second Symphony in our collection, so was able to listen and compare. And yes, the similarities were indeed there: similar opening statements, both in triple meter, both in D major. And “as in the symphony, strength is always tempered with gentleness”. It was thrilling to be able to hear exactly what she meant.
But even she couldn’t resist slipping in some contemporary culture: karate and kung-fu were big by then, hoo-haa-ing into film and music (remember ‘Kung Fu fighting’ by Biddu, sung by Carl Douglas, now making a comeback with Kung Fu Panda 3). So I was tickled pink by the way she concludes her programme note: “Yet just before the end there is a moment of calm, as if to show that neither Brahms nor his performers are allowing themselves to be swept along in a mindless race for the finish — the gesture of a karate master who can stop a blow a hair’s breadth from its target”.
To this day, I cannot hear the finale of the Brahms Violin Concerto without this imagery in my head. I’ve been hooked on to reading programme notes ever since.
All these thoughts come rushing at me as I remember the first time I “heard” Zubin Mehta. Little did I know then that I’d hear him and the New York Philharmonic in Mumbai barely two years later.
Happy 80th, Maestro! May you have many many more, filled with good health, happiness and great music!
(An edited version of this article was published on 24 April 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
The classical music world is in celebratory mode at the birth centenary year of Sir Yehudi Menuhin, with elaborate events planned around the world to mark this milestone.
The popular UK classical music radio channel Classic FM began a 20-part series “Yehudi Menuhin: the Master Musician”. BBC Radio 3 presented a week-long (11-17 April) focus exploring his music and life. Those interested can listen online via the ‘Listen Again’ feature. BBC Four will have a documentary “Yehudi Menuhin: Who’s Yehudi?” which hopefully will eventually also be available online soon enough.
Warner Classics label will release 80 CDs, 11 DVDs and a book, all curated by Bruno Monsaingeon. Live Music Now Germany celebrates the centenary with 16 concerts, and its Austrian counterpart has a gala concert in Vienna.
On Menuhin’s actual birthday (22 April), violinist Uto Ughi plays the Beethoven Violin Concerto in Brescia Italy. The Yehudi Menuhin School Surrey has a commemorative festival (1-10 July) featuring present and past students of the school among others. And there’s much more.
I will be writing in the national press about Menuhin’s Indian connection, his love of yoga and Indian music, and his friendship with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha, and Dr. L. Subramaniam.
Researching Menuhin’s tryst with India revealed that it all began on his first visit here in 1952. I remember my senior friend, piano pedagogue Margarida Miranda telling me about this visit. I am grateful to her for poring over her archive of concert programmes to retrieve information about this historic concert.
It fired my imagination for several reasons. For starters, the rehearsals and the concert were held in Regal cinema Colaba Bombay (today Mumbai). The Regal was part of a trinity, along with Eros and Sterling that represented for me the epitome of cinema-going in my youth. You really had the full movie experience when you went to ‘town’ and ‘saw a picture’ in one of them. And Regal was the best of them in my view.
One movie that stands out in my memory is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). I still remember the rush of exhilaration as we watched E.T. and a gang of children cycle past an impossibly huge full moon to the heady, expansive background music by John Williams, in glorious stereophonic sound, the finest available in India then.
At the time, I had no idea that great music had been performed live barely three decades earlier, in that very ‘room’. I have since returned to the cinema with the specific purpose of trying to imagine how it must have been, and how a live orchestra would have sounded there.
The orchestra that played at the 1952 Menuhin concert would certainly have filled the stage: there were 20 first violins, 20 second violins, 8 violas, 8 celli, 6 double-basses, 4 flutes, 2 oboes, 4 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets and of course the timpanist. Whew!
The orchestra? The Symphony Orchestra of Bombay, conducted by Francisco Casanovas (the programme describes him as conductor of the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra). I guess in those innocent times, no-one paused to think that the orchestra’s acronym could stand for something else as well.
The programme? It began with a Mozart overture ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, followed by two (!) violin concertos, the Mendelssohn E minor and the Beethoven, separated by the mighty Chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin. The audience certainly got their money’s worth!
And what a stellar line-up of musicians! I’ll list here only those who I recognised and would be of interest to readers here. It had Mehli Mehta (father of Zubin Mehta) as concertmaster; the violins also included, in order of mention in the programme, Sebastian Vaz, Adrian de Mello, Mauro Alphonso, Siloo Panthaky, Josic Menzies, Oscar Pereira and Keki Mehta. Among the violas, I recognised the name of Terence Fernandes (who, with Vere da Silva, Keki Mehta and George Lester formed the Dorian string quartet, which was, I am told, Bombay’s first ever string quartet). The celli had, in addition to George Lester, Antonio Sequeira, who later taught cello at the Academia da Música (today the Kala Academy) in Goa. And Mickey Correa headed the list of clarinets. As I write this, I can’t help thinking what an incredible era that must have been, just to have all those musicians of such calibre in the same city at the same time. Virtually all the names I’ve listed are mentioned reverentially even today.
I try to ascertain who must have taught the violinists, for example, for them to have attained such great heights at their instrument. And the answers are increasingly hard to come by. Memories are fading fast, and first-hand accounts are now out of the question. I remember about a couple of years ago meeting Keki Mehta at a concert at the NCPA, and I got his number, with the intention of either dropping in or interviewing him by telephone. I wanted to capture his recollections of playing in the Dorian string quartet. But shortly after that, I heard that he had passed away.
The jazz age Naresh Fernandes chronicles and describes so vividly in his ‘Taj Mahal Foxtrot’ occurred alongside this golden age of western classical music, and all largely within a radius of a few miles in South Bombay. Perhaps we could call it the ‘Regal Minuet’?
(An edited version of this article was published on 17 April 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)
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the premiere of ‘Tristan und Isolde’, the three-act opera or ‘music drama’ by the German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). It is a landmark in the development of Western music, the beginning of a move away from hitherto ‘common practice’ harmony and laid the groundwork for the direction of classical music in the 20th century, with Wagner’s extensive use of chromaticism, orchestral colour, shifting tonalities and harmonic suspension.
The plot, or synopsis as it is known in opera, is essentially the tragic love story of Tristan and Iseult, a tale popularised through French medieval poetry in the 12th century, and inspired by Celtic legend, and possibly the 11th century Persian story of Vis and Ramin, and which in turn is believed to have influenced the Arthurian romance of Lancelot and Guinevere.
Tristan, a Breton nobleman goes to Ireland to fetch the fair maiden Iseult to be married to his uncle King Mark. Each version of the tale has a different twist, but the common theme is that they ingest a potion that causes them to fall madly in love with each other. Although Iseult is wedded to King Mark, the influence of the potion compels the adulterous relationship between her and Tristan to continue, and completing a classic love triangle: Tristan loves and respects his uncle Mark as his mentor and foster father, but is besotted with Iseult; Mark loves Tristan as his son but Iseult as his wife; and Iseult is grateful for Mark’s kindness but loves Tristan. As in most Wagner operas, there are enough supporting and peripheral characters to fit into a crowded Panjim city bus at rush hour, but this is essentially the gist of the plot.
There are as many endings to the story as there are versions, but most commonly it ends tragically as does in Wagner’s opera. In a Danish version, Iseult is a princess from exotic India! Other versions have the two lovers going on to have children named after themselves, while one version (rather ickily) has the two protagonists as brother and sister. I have actually met a brother-sister pair named Tristan and Isolde, and thought it really bizarre until I learnt about these versions.
In Wagner’s opera, Tristan is mortally wounded by his best friend Melot, who, as if two admirers were not distraction enough, also vies for Isolde’s attention. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Mark arrives on the scene when he realises that the adulterous, tempestuous love between Tristan and Isolde was due to a magic potion (yeah Mark, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything!), and Isolde then collapses by her beloved and dies as well, but not before she has sung her swan song, the famous ‘Liebestod’ (Love Death. Yes, cheerful stuff) where she envisions Tristan risen again. Mark is left bereft, the only remaining ‘angle’ in the love ‘triangle.’
Wagner was drawing inspiration from real life; in 1852, he was in a relationship (how platonic or otherwise is uncertain) with Mathilde, wife of his then patron, the wealthy silk merchant Otto Wesendock. He took the unprecedented step of setting five of Mathilde’s poems to music (he usually wrote his own texts), known today as the Wesendocker Lieder. A motif from one of them (‘Träume’ or Dreams) became the love duet in Act 2 of the opera, and a theme in another (‘Im Treibhaus’ or ‘In the Greenhouse’) became the Prelude to Act 3.
The opera is also known for the famous ‘Tristan chord’, the leitmotif for Tristan, heard at the very beginning. It is a wonderful musical evocation of yearning for the unattainable. It is of interest to musicologists for its context, in what comes before and after, and for its significance in moving away from traditional tonal harmony towards atonality. Wagner was writing from the heart, even if an unfaithful one.
By 1858, the love triangle (or quadrangle if you include Wagner’s unfortunate wife Minna) had become untenable, and Wagner had to extricate himself into self-exile in Venice. Minna wrote to Mathilde: “I must tell you with a bleeding heart that you have succeeded in separating my husband from me after nearly twenty-two years of marriage. May this noble deed contribute to your peace of mind, to your happiness.”
The irony was the Wagner was so obsessed with Tristan the he had set aside the ‘Ring’ (he was writing ‘Siegfried’ from the four-opera Ring cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen) jeopardising his wedding ‘ring’ in the process. His marriage never quite recovered, despite attempts from both to reconcile.
By 1865, when the opera premiered in Munich, Wagner had moved on romantically into another love triangle, cuckolding another close friend, the conductor Hans von Bülow by entering into a relationship with his wife Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt.
If there is enough material here for a Bollywood film, you are right. Subhash Ghai’s 1997 musical ‘Pardes’ may have nothing to do with Wagner, but it does draw inspiration from the legend of Tristan and Iseult.
Amrish Puri plays Kishorilal, a successful NRI businessman in the US, keen on finding a match for his son Rajiv (Apoorva Agnihotri). The father-son combine represent the ‘King Mark’ side of the triangle. Shah Rukh Khan (Arjun, Kishorilal’s foster son ) and Mahima Chaudhary (Ganga) complete the love triangle. The plotline is not a direct lift from Tristan-Iseult, but there are other similarities apart from the love triangle: the foster son-father relationship, and the moral-ethical conundrum Arjun faces, between duty, loyalty and honour on the one hand, and love and raw passion on the other. There is no love potion involved, but isn’t the ‘nashaa’ of ‘ishq’ potent enough?
Conventional love triangles are not new to Hindi (or indeed other Indian language) cinema. Even I, not a regular film-goer or watcher, can name a few: Ek Phool Do Maali; Kabhi Kabhie; Faraar; and of course Silsila. But this almost incestuous twist, where the two men in the triangle have a father-son sort of relationship, is unusual, in Bollywood or in our ‘prem kahaani’ folklore in general, unless I am mistaken.
(An edited version of this article was published on 21 June 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
This month marks the 175th birth anniversary of the great English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). The violin played an important part in his family and therefore his own life.
A description of his daily schedule when Hardy was in his 20s (in his ‘biography’, purportedly written by his widow Florence after his death, but now thought to have been the work of Hardy himself!) reads thus: “He would be reading the Iliad, the Aeneid, or the Greek Testament from six to eight in the morning, would work at Gothic architecture all day, and then in the evening rush off with his fiddle under his arm, sometimes in the company of his father as first violin and uncle as cellist, to play country dances, reels, and hornpipes at an agriculturist’s wedding, christening or party in a remote dwelling in the fallow fields, not returning sometimes till nearly dawn, the Hardys being still traditionally string-bandsmen available on such occasions, and having the added recommendation of charging nothing for their services, which was a firm principle with them, the entertainers being mostly acquaintances; though the tireless zeal of young couples in the dance often rendered the Hardys’ act of friendship anything but an enjoyment to themselves. But young Hardy’s vigour was now much greater than it had been when he was a child, and it enabled him, like a conjuror at a fair, to keep in the air the three balls of architecture, scholarship and dance-fiddling, without ill-effects, the fiddling being of course not daily, like the other two.”
He was able ‘to tune a violin when of quite tender years’, apparently aged four; and ‘extraordinarily sensitive to music’.
With no pretence at false modesty, Hardy (or his widow) writes: “It was natural that with the imitativeness of a boy he should at an early age have attempted to perform upon the violin, and under his father’s instruction he was soon able to tweedle from notation some hundreds of jigs and country-dances that he found in his father’s and grandfather’s old books. From tuning fiddles as a boy he went on as a youth in his teens to keep his mother’s old table-piano in tune whenever he had the time, and was worried by ‘The Wolf’ in a musical octave, which he thought a defect in his own ear.”
Perhaps because of his country origins, and bring acutely aware of class divisions in society, Hardy never felt quite at home in London. But he does seem to have made the most of the opportunities that living in London offered him when it came to music.
The ‘biography’ chronicles the notes made by Hardy in May ?1901 at a concert by the great violinist Eugène Ysaye (1858-1931) at Queen’s Hall, London of Johann Sebastian Bach’s violin concerto in E major: “The solo enters at the twelfth bar…Later in the movement a new theme is heard – a brief episode, the thematic material of the opening sufficing the composer’s needs. In the Adagio, the basses announce and develop a figure. Over this the soloist and first violins enter. I see them: black-headed, lark-spurred fellows, marching in on five wires.”
A few days later, he writes about ‘a feat of execution’ by another legendary violinist of the age, Jan Kubelik (1880-1940) at St. James’ Hall: “that of playing ‘pizzicato’ on his violin the air of ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ with Ernst’s variations, and fingering and bowing a rapid accompaniment at the same time.”
Music crept into Hardy’s writing as well, notably in his short story “The Fiddler of the Reels” where the children in the parish who could ‘burst into tears’ on hearing the fiddler Mop Ollamoor’s country jigs, reels and ‘favourite quick steps of the last century’ are a projection from Hardy’s own childhood; he admits how some tunes his father played could move him to tears in his memoirs. Mop Ollamoor seems a conflation of Hardy as well as his own father, Thomas senior.
But the most poignant tribute to his father I could find is the poem Hardy wrote in 1916, almost a quarter of a century after his father’s demise,titled “To my Father’s violin”:
Does he want you down there
In the Nether Glooms where
The hours may be a dragging load upon him,
As he hears the axle grind
Round and round
Of the great world, in the blind
Of the night-time? He might liven at the sound
Of your string, revealing you had not forgone him.
In the gallery west the nave,
But a few yards from his grave,
Did you, tucked beneath his chin, to his bowing
Guide the homely harmony
Of the quire
Who for long years strenuously-
Son and sire-
Caught the trains that at his fingering low or higher
From your four thin threads and eff-holes came outflowing.
And, too, what merry tunes
He would bow at nights or noons
That chanced to find him bent to lute a measure,
When he made you speak his heart
As in dream,
Without book or music-chart,
On some theme
Elusive as a jack-o’-lantern’s gleam,
And the psalm of duty shelved for trill of pleasure.
Well, you can not, alas,
The barrier overpass
That screens him in those Mournful Meads hereunder,
Where no fiddling can be heard
In the glades
Of silentness, no bird
Thrills the shades;
Where no viol is touched for songs or serenades,
No bowing wakes a congregations’s wonder.
He must do without you now,
Stir you no more anyhow
To yearning concords taught you in your glory;
While, your strings a tangled wreck,
Once smart drawn,
Ten worm-wounds in your neck,
With dust-hoar, here alone I sadly con
Your present dumbness, shape your olden story.
Hardy’s father’s violin, now unused (”your strings a tangled wreck”) becomes a medium of tribute to its owner who loved it so much, and we acutely feel the poet’s pain. Hardy is now seventy-six, but the “merry tunes” “at nights or noons” still speak to his heart, and ours.
(An edited version of this article was published on 14 June 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
A special 2-euro San Marino commemorative coin has been issued this year to mark the 90th death anniversary of Giacomo Puccini (22 December 1858 – 29 November 1924). Puccini was the last of a “Golden Age” of Italian operatic composers, “the greatest composer of Italian opera after Verdi”, and some of the world’s most loved operas were written by him.
Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was born into a musical dynasty going back four generations before him. The Puccini family had held the post of maestro di cappella of the Cattedrale di San Martino in Lucca for 124 years, but little Puccini was only six when his father Michele died and so was too young to continue the lineage. He nevertheless sang in the boys’ choir and later was organist at the Cattedrale. In the absence of a father figure in his life, Giacomo was a bit of a wild child, and it is even claimed he sold some of the cathedral’s organ pipes to buy cigarettes!
He received general education at the seminary, and studied music with his uncle. Puccini’s impetus to devote his life to composing came from watching a performance of Verdi’s famous opera Aida when he was seventeen. He walked 30 km to see the production in Pisa. The story goes that he bluffed his way in without a ticket. He got a scholarship in 1880 to study at the Milan Conservatory, where his teachers included the composers Amilcare Ponchielli and Antonio Bazzini. Milan was the Mecca of its time for opera, with the famous opera house as its high altar of worship, and steeped in the tradition of the great Italian operatic composers. As a city, it was at its peak as well, as the capital of a united Italy. There Puccini wrote the Messa di Gloria, the culmination of his family’s long tradition with church music. Already in this work you see the fingerprints of an operatic composer in the making, and it is often compared with Verdi’s famous Requiem. Puccini’s graduation piece was an orchestral work called Capriccio Sinfonico, which contains a couple of minutes into the composition the same melodic theme he would later use to open his famous masterpiece La bohème to such dramatic effect. Puccini was true to his own voice, his own stylistic sound, from the very beginning.
At Ponchielli’s encouragement, Puccini wrote his first opera Le Villi in 1883. It was entered into a competition which was famously won by Puccini’s contemporary Pietro Mascagni for Cavalleria Rusticana. Nevertheless Le Villi still impressed the right people to help Puccini launch his career as an operatic composer.
His next opera Edgar (1889) was a dud, largely due to the fact that it had a weak plot and a poorly written libretto. For his next opera Manon Lescaut (1893), Puccini announced he would write his own libretto so that “no fool of a librettist” could ruin it. It was fate that brought the duo Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa to collaborate with Puccini to complete the opera, and it was a huge success. The duo went on to write the libretti for many of Puccini’s greatest operas.
A string of successful operas followed, which are still mainstream repertoire today: La bohème (premiered in Turin in 1896 conducted by Arturo Toscanini); Tosca (1900, arguably Puccini’s first verismo opera, opera with ‘realistic’ depictions of everyday life); Madama Butterfly (1904); La fanciulla del West (1910); La rondine (1917); Il trittico (a triptych of three short operas with contrasting moods: Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi 1918); and Turandot (left unfinished and completed posthumously based on Puccini’s sketches).
Some of the most iconic arias in the entire operatic repertory were written by him: Che gelida manina (La bohème); Recondita armonia, E lucevan le stelle, and Vissi d’arte (Tosca); Un bel di (“One fine day” from Madama Butterfly); O mio babbino caro (Gianni Schicchi); Nessun dorma (Turandot). The last went on to become a football anthem and Luciano Pavarotti’s signature aria after the 1990 World Cup. Puccini’s operas are by far the entry point to the world of classical music in general and to opera in particular to millions all over the world.
Opera producer Jonathan Miller in the BBC documentary series “Great Composers” devoted to Puccini describes him as a “master dramatist, a musical dramatist on a par with Mozart.” Soprano Julia Migenes qualifies this by saying that unlike Mozart’s music, which “goes to the mind”, Puccini’s music goes straight to the heart.
He certainly had an instinct, not only as an orchestral colourist and possessing a great knowledge of the human voice as an instrument, but is able to let the music bubble up to the surface as it were, at just the right moment to reflect the emotional mood of the setting. In Migenes’ words, “he seems to have had a great sense of acting in his music.”
The metaphor is a good one, because Puccini writes his music and plans his scenes the way a master movie director or producer would work with film today, knowing just how long a scene ought to last before it seems like “too much of a good thing.” He obviously learned a trick or two from Verdi’s operas.
Puccini had his ear to the ground to the musical developments brought about by his contemporaries further afield as well. The revolutionary opening of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (the now-famous “Tristan chord”) influenced his own prelude at the beginning of Act III of Manon Lescaut, where he quotes a lot of the love themes that have unfolded in the opera until this point. Other influences include Bizet, Debussy (the whole-tone scale from Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande creeps into Madama Butterfly) and Stravinsky.
There is a little of Puccini in his own opera. In La bohème, he seems to allude to his own impoverished yet bohemian young student days. Apparently he got so involved in writing this opera that he broke down at the point where Mimi dies, saying “I’ve just seen my child die!”
He was obsessed with dramatic accuracy, getting his details right. For instance when writing Tosca, he did field research, climbing to the top of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo and the other sites to take in the sounds and use them in his score. The result is a “campanological symphony”, where he mimics the bells of Rome in Act III. Similarly the lake near his Torre del Lago house is believed to have inspired much of the music of Madama Butterfly, “local, Japanese and universal all at once.” He didn’t visit Japan, but invited a Japanese soprano to his house for six months as part of his “research”. For Turandot, he listened to phonographs of Chinese music and called up people for advice. A friend had been to China and returned with music boxes from there. He used one of these tunes to create the theme for Princess Turandot.
Having said that, three of his operas (Madama Butterfly, Fanciulla del West and Turandot) are set in exotic locales (Japan, the Wild West and China respectively) that Puccini never ever visited.
He evokes water again very vividly in the opening of Il Tabarro. He layers the orchestral texture, and it ebbs and flows in varying time signatures, with swells of woodwinds. The basses are the boats, floating on the rest of the flowing orchestral texture.
His passion trickled into his personal life, eloping with the married woman Elvira Geminiani who would eventually become his wife, with a tempestuous marriage punctuated by serial philandering on his part.
Puccini lived in exciting times of modernisation, and technology fascinated him. Thomas Edison was a personal friend, a gifted him a gramophone. He bought an early radio set, cameras, a motorcycle, cars, motorboats, and procured a telephone as soon as it could be installed in his home.
In 1924, he was diagnosed with advanced throat cancer, brought on by his heavy smoking. He went to a Brussels clinic, where the treatment involved surgery and a radium collar, whose side-effects caused him tremendous suffering. Belgium accorded him a state funeral, and his remains returned to Torre del Lago.
Puccini’s death brought the curtain down on a “Golden Age” of Italian operatic composers, but in Miller’s words, he was also a “prophet” and pioneer of what we today regard as popular modern music. He has left his mark on Broadway, with overt adaptations of his works (Rent is based on La bohème; Miss Saigon on Madama Butterfly) and much more subtle but deep influences on the whole genre.
(An edited version of this article was published on 30 November 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)