By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Vienna's Music : Fascinating Story Of Many-sided Manifestations

Having just shared with you my sentimental take on Mozart's Vienna, I am now tempted to show you  my essay about a fascinating lecture on Vienna's music, given by a visiting Austrian musicologist in New Delhi a couple of years after the Mozart Bicentenary Year :-  
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Sri Vishnu Sahasra Naama Satsangam  --  Lord Vishnu is a major Hindu god.  In Sanskrit (India's ancient classic language), Sahasra Naama means 'thousand names', and Satsangam is a religious institution organizing prayers, discourses and recitation of holy texts.  The SVSNS in New Delhi is concerned mainly with regular recitations (by the whole congregation) of a sacred verse containing 1000 names of Lord Vishnu. 
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New Delhi

5 March 1993

Vision of Vienna's Music

Last week in this column I wrote how consistently the Sri Vishnu Sahasra Naama Satsangam in South Delhi has been organizing group recitations every Sunday morning for the past 25 years.  In a recent lecture at the India International Center, Professor Harald Goerz from Austria narrated how the Vienna Boys' Choir has been singing for the mass at the Imperial Chapel in Vienna every Sunday morning for the past 380 years or so!  The event, he said, is one of Vienna's major tourist attractions today.

'Music from Vienna' was the  second of three lectures delivered in New Delhi by the distinguished musicologist in February.  The other two lectures, at the Delhi Music Society in Chaanakyapuri, were 'Two hundred years after Mozart' and 'Revolutions and Restitutions'.

The DMS lectures were extremely scholarly, and -- although illustrated with short extracts from audio recordings -- their appeal to the ordinary music-lovers was rather limited.  But the IIC lecture was a delightful treat for everyone -- it was a session of sheer story-telling, shorn of all technical phraseology.  And here is the story, as the good Professor told it :-

Church music and opera

Four hundred years ago there was a strict tradition in Austria that women should never sing for the mass, and so  counter-tenors and boys' choirs sang in the church.  A Boys' Choir with around 16oo talented boys was constituted in Innsbruck, and was subsequently shifted to Vienna.  Since then, the Choir has been singing for the mass every Sunday at the Imperial Chapel.  Schubert used to sing at the Chapel when he was a little boy.  

Not only did the Hapsburg emperors sponsor church music, but some of them were also accomplished musicians, like Charles VI, who was a good composer and a skillful cellist.  With the end of imperial patronage by 1918, the Vienna Boys' Choir was increasingly commercialized.  The boys received training to widen their repertory, and began touring the world in different groups.

There was a period when opera reigned supreme in Vienna.  Italian opera dominated the scene till the middle of the 18th century.  Technical virtuosity gradually gained ascendancy, to the detriment of musical values and dramatic expression.  That period of artificiality was followed by a reformative phase in which story and lyric became important again. 

Classical music scene
Then came ballet and choreography, integrating music and dance.  Opera and theatrical music continued to flourish.  Mozart came from Salzburg and settled down in Vienna.  By 1800, the Viennese became obsessed with music.  Orchestral music was enriched by the influx of accomplished composers from Hungary, Bohemia and elsewhere.  The 19th century was the era of Haydn, Beethoven, Liszt, Bruckner, Dvorak and Mahler.

During that period a great musical infrastructure -- institutions, buildings, orchestras and choirs -- came up in Vienna.  Large musical groups were formed and huge music halls constructed.  Several professional orchestras emerged the foremost among them being the Vienna Philharmonic.  New conservatories were established.  Two famous buildings constructed at that time were the Hall of the Society Of Music Friends -- which is considered to have the best acoustics in the world even today -- and the Opera House.

With the advent of Paganini and Liszt. new styles of violin and piano playing came, leading to better instrument-making.  Stronger, louder and more beautiful instruments began to be manufactured.  In the late 19th century light music became popular, with the Strauss Brothers in the foreground.  Then there was a boom of operettas, and many music theaters flourished in the period between the two world wars.

After the Second World War, there was a big boom in music festivals, and music became the most substantial export of Austria.  The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra gave hundreds of commercially successful performances.  18th century and earlier music, especially the works of Mozart, Haydn and Monteverdi were re-discovered.  Hundreds of musical organizations mushroomed, many devoted to performing the works of chosen individual composers.

Education and conservation

The musical activities in Vienna depend a great deal on public subsidies, which have encouraged education, documentation, music libraries and archives.  There are hundreds of professional choirs and radio choruses, which can sing in several different languages.  Innumerable instrumental groups perform chamber music in the country and abroad.  Instrument-making thrives as a business.  Austria leads in making the organ.

Music education is a vital element of Austria's cultural life.  There are many conservatories, music colleges and schools.  Travelling music tutors train the rural population.  The Vienna Academy of Music -- where Prof. Harald Goertz heads the Department of Composition, Music Theory and Direction -- happens to be the alma mater of Zubin Mehta, who studied there in the 1950's.

One of the most spectacular contributions of Vienna to the world of music is the annual New Year's Eve Concert given by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, led by a distinguished guest conductor and highlighting the music of  Johann Strauss Jr.   It is a prestigious event which is televised internationally for the benefit of millions of music-lovers all over Europe.

The lecturer's lucid  and racy narrative held the audience spellbound for an hour, and produced a lovely vision of Vienna and its music activities as they have evolved in recent centuries. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

Mozart's Last Piano Concerto, In His Last Performance As Soloist, 225 Years Ago

A few days ago I shared with you my essay Mozart's Vienna, which I wrote soon after the eventful world-wide Mozart Bicentenary Year (1991) extravaganza was over.  During that year I had written a few reviews of related performances by foreign musicians visiting New Delhi, and also an article about Mozart's last Piano Concerto (which seemed to reflect the melancholy spirit of the maestro's professional life in a feudal society -- just as his Clarinet Concerto did) :-

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New Delhi

5 April 1991

The Farewell Concerto

This is the bicentenary year of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and quite predictably every chamber music ensemble which comes to New Delhi this year plays some works of the composer.  If we had a symphony orchestra visiting us from the West now, Mozart is bound to be featured prominently in its program. 

But when one thinks a little carefully about this, one realises that there is nothing very special about this scenario, which has always been more or less so!  For Mozart is among the composers of Western classical music whose works figure most frequently in the repertoires of symphony orchestras and chamber music groups in the West.

Mozart composed hundreds of works, the mere cataloguing of which had proved to be an arduous task for the scholars.  They include more than 40 symphonies, many concertos for the piano and one for the clarinet, numerous quartets and quintets for the string and wind instruments, many pieces of music for vocal and instrumental ensembles, several sonatas for the piano and the violin, many operas, serenades, masses, oratorios, cantatas, litanies and songs, and even some ballet music.  And this stupendous body of music was created within a short life-span of 35 years -- a truly mind-boggling achievement!

It is ironic that Mozart led a very insecure and troubled life, never being free from debts and worries, stifled by and rebelling against the enslavement of the artist in the 18th century feudal Europe.  Even though he had created a sensation all over the Continent and in England as a pianist when he was a mere child, he never tasted success in terms of the luxury and joy of a life free from petty concerns and frustration.

The tragedy of Mozart's life is perhaps summed up by a public announcement made in March 1791, just a few months before he passed away due to terminal illness :  "Herr Bahr, Chamber Musician presently in the service of the Imperial Russian Majesty, will have the honour of being heard playing several pieces on the clarinet, at a grand musical concert on Friday next, March 4, in Herr Jahn's hall, at which Madame Lange will sing and  Kappellmeister Mozart will play a concerto on the fortepiano.  Those still wishing to subscribe can obtain their tickets from Herr Jahn.  The concert begins at 7 p.m."

Not having any interesting musical preoccupation last week-end, I just imagined attending the concert at Herr Jahn's, which was a famous restaurant in Vienna.  It turned out to be nothing less than the premiere of Mozart's Piano Concerto in B-Flat Major (K-595), although the composer-soloist was so far down in the billing.  The 595 Concerto is not known to be a joyful composition , unlike many of Mozart's works.  In the words of Wolfgang Hildescheimer ("Mozart", Dent & Sons, London, 1983, page 300), it is "thought to have the quality of a transfigured farewell."  Indeed, it really was Mozart's last performance as a soloist.

My limited reading and research do not enable me to know how precisely the public and the critics reacted to Mozart'ss composition and performance that Friday evening in Vienna 200 years ago.  So far as I was concerned, with my 20th century perception of the master and his works, in my mind's eye I left Jahn's hall in a euphoric mood, determined to write a rave review predicting immortal fame for the composer, the pianist and the concerto.

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PostScript, 2016

Sound and spirit
As mentioned earlier, I was swept by an emotional hurricane when I wrote Mozart's Vienna, and kept listening to an LP record of the Clarinet Concerto repeatedly as I sorted out my thoughts, selected my quotations, and typed out the text.  I had been in a far less convulsive mood when writing Farewell Concerto a few months earlier, and didn't have a recording of it to hear during the exercise anyway. 

But as I set out to key in this vintage article again now after a quarter-century, I did feel extremely moved, and couldn't resist turning to YouTube for the sound and spirit of the music.  And I found, among others :

A powerful recital in the majestic ambiance of a superior 20th century concert hall, showing Russian pianist Emil Gilels with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig :

A delicate performance on the fortepiano, as in Mozart's own times :

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Hostile Asylum : How Mozart's Vienna Oppressed Him When He Was Alive

As mentioned in the preceding blog, although I normally avoid reading thought-provoking books in areas in which I am interested as a writer  --  for fear of letting any of them adversely affect the flow of my own original ideas  --  I do sometimes feel tempted to graze in the forbidden fields. 

Of course, my worst fears do come true sometimes ;  but there are occasions when some books contain insights which give me fascinating glimpses of some unfamiliar scenarios, and I am glad to share them with my readers by quoting significant passages verbatim  --  as I did in the following essay : 

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19 January 1992


Mozart's Vienna

Several months ago the Austrian Embassy in New Delhi sent me a booklet entitled "Mozart's Almanac 1991 - Vienna", containing a calendar of the music-oriented events scheduled to take place in Vienna during 1991, the bicentenary year of the passing away of the great composer.  This almanac, published by the Vienna Tourist Board, listed a staggering number of performances dedicated to Mozart's music, spread throughout the year.  It also gave details of various related exhibitions, film festivals, guided tours and collections of stamps, coins and medals.

In this publication, which acquired historic value at the end of the year, the city of Vienna proudly takes credit for the hospitality extended by it to Mozart, who hailed from Salzburg.

"Two hundred years ago, in April 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, already a celebrated personality, submitted a petition to the city of Vienna,"  the almanac says, and quotes him :-
"Most honourable and most learned Municipal Councillors of Vienna,  Most worthy gentlemen,  When Kapellmeister Hoffmann was ill, I thought of venturing to apply for his post, seeing that my musical talents, my works and my skill in composition are well known in foreign countries, my name is treated everywhere with some respect, and I myself was appointed several years ago as composer to the distinguised Court of Vienna . . .

"Kapellmeister Hoffmann, however, has recovered his health ;  and in the circumstance  --  for I wish him from my heart a long life  --  it has occurred to me that I might be of service to the Cathedral . . . if I were to be attached for the time being as an unpaid assistant to this . . . worthy man . . . thus gaining the approbation of our learned Municpal Council by the actual performance of services which I may justly consider myself peculiarly fitted to render, on account of my thorough knowledge of both secular and ecclesiastical styles of music . . ."    

The almanac adds, laconically and with obvious satisfaction :  "His request was granted."  Mozart died on December 5, 1791, at the age of 35.  So then, for all of eight months (or perhaps even less) the city of Vienna honoured him as an unpaid apprentice to a court conductor, and thus covered itself with glory for ever  --  so that 200 years later, when the whole world celebrated Mozart's memory in a special way, it could claim to have recognised his credentials when he lived.

Terminal travails

How did Vienna treat one of the greatest musicians just a few weeks before it bestowed this remarkable municipal munificence on him?   Here is an extract from the book "Mozart" by W. Hildescheimer (English translation, J.M. Dent & Sons, London, 1983).  The author begins by quoting a public announcement made a few months before Mozart's death :

"Herr Bahr, Chamber Musician presently in the service of His Imperial Russian Majesty, will have the honour of being heard playing several pieces on the clarionet, at a grand musical concert on Friday next, on March 4, in Herr Jahn's hall, at which Madame Lange will sing and Herr Kappellmeister Mozart will play a concerto on the fortepiano . . . "

Hildescheimer comments :  "Herr Jahn was a restaurateur whose establishment happened to be very near Mozart's apartment.  Mozart had only to go round the corner for his last performance as a soloist . . .  [to be] overshadowed by the artistry of Herr Bahr." 

And how did Vienna treat the master a few months later?  To quote from the same source :  "His very last official appearance was as conductor of of the first two performances of Die Zauberflote on September 30 and October 1,  1791.   But that was not in the city center, and did not count as a first-class event in the imperial city's musical life . . .

"The composition rendered by Mozart in this concert was none other than his own last piano concerto, which he had just completed and which is acclaimed today as his finest work.  As for Die Zauberflote, it happened to be Mozart's valedictory musical drama which ushered in the very era of German opera.  When one connects all these relevant facts, one can see the excruciating irony of the situation." 

Endless struggle 

How had Vienna treated this genius during the ten years since 1781 when he lived there?  Let us borrow a thought from the book "Mozart" by the eminent German musicologist Alfred Einstein (English translation, Cassell, London, 1946).  The author quotes Mozart's own perception of the musical scene in Vienna when he went to live there :  "It is perfectly true that the Viennese are apt to change their affections, but only in the theatre, and my special line is too popular not to enable me to support myself . . ."

And Einstin observes :  "Considering the fact that as a composer Mozart had a far greater passion for opera than for keyboard music, perhaps he was being over-optimistic.  In any event, things did not work out the way he had imagined.  He did have a certain measure of success in the beginning, but thereafter languished in the city even as a pianist for several years till he died, increasingly ignored by the nobility and the bourgeoisie alike  --  perhaps never losing hope altogether, but never properly rewarded.

"Mozart's failure to prosper in Vienna was all the more frustrating because he had consciously chosen that city as an asylum from a hostile world which included his native city Salzburg.  Whichever way he turned during his short lifetime, he could never find a way of earning an adequate income which would enable him to lead a life which was both secure and dignified.

"Wherever in Europe he tried to find some gainful employment without surrendering his artistic liberty  -- Salzburg, Mannheim, Munich, Florence, Bologna, Paris, and finally Vienna  --  his efforts were mercilessly thwarted by the wealthy and powerful patrons of art.  The high-sounding designation of Royal and Imperial Court Composer in Vienna, which Mozart did obtain in 1787, carried only a small honorarium which hardly sufficed, and involved only very trivial tasks like composing routine music for ballroom dancing.

"His astonishingly varied and prolific output of brilliant compositions -- orchetsral and chamber music, operas and church music, adding up to more than 600 works -- could not fetch him a reasonable income."

Oppressive asylum

There is a significant comment in an essay written by Dynelly Hussey in the book "The Music Masters" (Cassell, London, 1948) :  "The contrast between his easy successes as child and the harsh difficulties he encountered as a man may well have aroused in him the bitterness which embroiled him with authority.  But it was not with authority alone that was in perpetual conflict.  There was no abiding rapport between and the public where he happened to live, in spite of the continent-wide sensation he had created as a child pianist-composer and the admiration expressed by some of the greatest men of his times  --  such as Haydn and Goethe  --  for the fabulous creativity of his adult life."

The following incisive observations which lie scattered across Hildescheimer's book cited earlier  --  and which I have arranged in a sequence appropriate to this essay  --  reveal the true nature of Mozart's ordeal in the city which he had so mistakenly visualised as his ultimate sanctuary.

"After 1790, Mozart was not only overlooked, but subdued . . .  Vienna closed the door to him . . .  put him off as if waiting for his death . . .  It had scorned what he offered, quashed his aspirations, and rejected his applications . . .  And yet in an inexplicable way he remained true to it, no doubt bound by debts and miserable obligations . . ."

Well, that was Mozart's Vienna when he actually lived there two centuries ago!  The fact that he continued relentlessly to create music of transparent nobility in such an oppressive environment is a measure of his absolute commitment and great fortitude.  A few weeks before he collapsed due to a mysterious illness, Mozart composed his famous Clarinet Concerto.  This work, which consciously avoids virtuosic effects and ornamentation, has a crystalline beauty which transcends all artistic and spiritual barriers and chokes the sensitive listener's heart wherever it is heard in the world.  In some passages the solo instrument sounds as if it weeps for the composer, as all Vienna weeps for him today.

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PostScript, 2016

Memorable readings

I remember playing an LP record of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto over and over again as I wrote the above essay, and I actually wept after finishing it  --  just as I am hearing the same composition on YouTube right now (Sabine Meyer, Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major Kv 622), and could feel my heart bleeding as I keyed in the same text again after 24 years.

I had another memorable experience almost 30 years ago, reading the book "Essays On Music" by Alfred Einstein, the same German scholar quoted in the Mozart saga.  I recalled that in the following twin blogs  -- perhaps you may like to read them if you hadn't done so earlier, or refresh your memory if you had :

The Legend Of Lord Rama Condensed In A Capsule! 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

When Improvisation In Performance Transcends The Grammar Of Music

I don't normally read books containing deep insights into matters which fall within the areas of my interest as a writer, because I have a life-long fear that if the authors express opinions which resemble even remotely any of my own original ideas, it would diminish my sense of independence and severely undermine my ability to write about them forcefully.  And, of course, the better the books are, the greater the danger would be! 

But once in a while I do find myself falling into the traps of temptation and reading some fine books in the forbidden areas.  When this happens, sometimes I get shell-shocked because someone else's insights and mine overlap intriguingly, and have been expressed admirably. 

For example, in a set of books on jazz which I borrowed from a library when I was on vacation in the winter of  2008, I found some observations on true improvisation in music so closely resembling some of my own thoughts that I couldn't help feeling that I would find it difficult to discuss them ever again in the context of Carnatic or Hindustani music without letting these reflections interfere with the flow of my own words.

However, I just couldn't resist quoting them verbatim  --  as equally and eloquently relevant to Indian classical music  --  in my column 'Musicscan' in THE HINDU. 
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'Manodharma'  --  explained in text . . .  read on!

 Aruna Sairam  --  prima donna of Carnatic music.

Carnatic/Hindustani music  --  classical music of South/North India.

Sawai Gandharva festival  --  a prestigious Hindustani music festival.

Pune  --  Indian city, not far from Bombay  

Sanskrit  --  ancient classical language of North India.

Tamil/Marathi  --    languages of Tamilnadu/Maharashtra States in South/West India. 

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Friday Review
13 Feb. 2009
'Manodharma' in jazz

"The magic of music is that it is the language of memory.  There are several moments in time that stand frozen in my memory . . .  This is where my soul begins to dance  .  . .  I do not think of these moments as anything other than a tryst with the divine . . .”

That’s what Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam said while recalling her thrilling experience at the Sawai Gandharva music festival in Pune, where she sang in Sanskrit, Tamil and Marathi in front of a large audience consisting mostly of lovers of Hindustani music.

Such sublime moments can materialise only when a performance transcends the mere grammar of the music and flows freely from what we call the artist’s ‘manodharma’ in Indian classical music.  Of course, it’s impossible to translate this Sanskrit term perfectly into English, and the best expression I can find is ‘mind’s vision.’

In the normal course, I would have taken for granted such a sentiment expressed by Aruna, for I know all about the soulful and memorable quality of her music, and have myself described it admiringly in these pages.  But on this occasion, her comment made a special impression on me because it came just when I was reading a book about jazz which had set me thinking about the relevance and importance of ‘manodharma’ in jazz.

The book  --  Souljazz: The Heart of the Music, by Michael Brewin, an American jazz guitarist, composer and scholar  --  contains the following insightful remarks on improvisation which can be equally and eloquently true of Carnatic and Hindustani music :

Simple and memorable

"While jazz musicians need a solid foundation of technique and musical theory in order to improvise successfully, they must also utilise intangible features which transcend the physical mechanics and mental physics of music . . . 

Some of the most memorable improvisations in jazz history have been over simple progressions . . .  Most listeners, too, find simpler forms more accessible than cerebral explorations . . .  Simple or sparse arrangements often free musicians to use their entire consciousness to express themselves more purely and clearly, without focusing attention unduly on form . . .

The more complicated the arrangement . . . the more mental energy a musician will have to devote to the technical aspects of improvising.  Therefore only highly accomplished virtuosos of improvisation are able to spontaneously fuse emotion and creativity in the course of soloing over difficult and complex forms at fast tempos . . .

An improvisation too preoccupied with theoretical concepts, form or technique will be experienced by an audience as an academic exercise, whereas the most simple cry of the heart . . . is easily recognised by the sympathetic vibrations within the hearts of its audience.  Moreover, the heartfelt note radiates a sincerity that a flurry of carefully contrived phrases can never emulate . . .

 In fact, the very act of conceptualization (‘thinking’ as opposed to ‘awareness’) removes one’s consciousness from the here and now of the moment, creating a duality of consciousness and an alienation from the heart (‘feeling’) . . . In true improvisation, the heart and mind must be singly focused on the omnipresent, without distraction or self-consciousness.  The key to this feat is to always subordinate everything to the call of the heart — the rest will follow, provided one is already amply prepared, technically speaking . . .
Most jazz musicians have expended considerable energy practising over different forms, methodically applying a variety of theoretical tools. Sometimes musicians will practise a composition until they feel so comfortable and familiar with it that they can then improvise more freely . . .

The highest kind of improvisation happens when a musician becomes so technically disciplined, so immersed in the call of the heart (‘feeling’), and so absolutely single-pointed in concentration that every note combination and nuance unfolds into a new magical excursion, developing into a sublime, cohesive pattern and culminating into its most supreme expression.

Musicians who attain this level with regularity are undoubtedly the musical masters of jazz."

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Postcript, 2016

When I read the above article now, seven years after writing it, it occurs to me that perhaps I should have added the following sentence after that long quotation, to get the focus back on the point I was stressing :-   

Just substitute the expression "masters of Indian classical music"  for "musical masters of jazz" in the above text, and these reflections of Mr. Michael Brewin will still ring absolutely true!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Saint Louis Blues : A True Gem Of Classical Jazz

After expressing my life-long admiration for Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong  --   and quoting several American writers praising his performance of 'West End Blues'  --  in my column 'Musicscan' in THE HINDU, I couldn't resist the temptation to follow it up immediately with an article on the fascinating jazz classic 'Saint Louis Blues' :- 

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Friday Review
19 Dec. 2008

Great favourite

Talking a couple of weeks ago about the legendary jazz singer and hornblower Louis Armstrong playing West End Blues, one of the most famous examples of early-20th-century jazz, I had quoted some rave reviews from certain American sources, and had given a useful guideline for obtaining an authentic impression of that fabulous piece of music (Musicscan, November 28) :

“If you wish to understand the true significance of those glowing words of adoration and critical acclaim,”  I had said, “all you have to do is to look online for ‘West End Blues’ (easily accessible on YouTube) and play the three-minute 78-rpm gramophone plate of OKeh Records made 80 years ago, which . . . features the finest sample of Louis Armstrong’s music.  And if you do take the trouble of getting that far, surely you will not be able to resist hearing many other recordings of the maestro, all of which invariably contain the very essence of what I call classical jazz!”

I hope some of you did take my suggestion seriously, or will do so now.  In which case, you couldn’t have missed (or can’t miss) hearing another jazz masterpiece called St. Louis Blues, which is in fact even more famous than West End Blues.

It was one of the most striking tunes and songs I used to hear repeatedly on the short-wave radio broadcasts of the Voice of America in the 1960s ;  and 50 years later, I can still hear it occasionally without getting bored.  It was composed almost 100 years ago by the pioneer jazz musician W.C. Handy (known as ‘Father of the Blues’), but still remains a great favourite among jazz-lovers all over the world.. .

River of tradition

How exactly do you define or describe ‘the blues’?  John Edward Hasse, jazz musician and curator for American music in the Smithsonian Institution, puts it in a nutshell as follows : “The blues may have begun when a 19th-century African-American thought up the idea of accompanying a field holler (an extemporaneous solo cry used in cotton-picking and other work settings) — probably at first with a one-chord accompaniment.  In this scenario, elaborations developed over time, and eventually the blues’ three-chord pattern coalesced . . .
“While many people think the blues have to be woeful or complaining, in fact many blues songs are celebratory.  But either way, they are packed with emotion and spirituality.
When a jazz musician really plays the blues, he or she is dipping into a deep river of tradition that speaks of struggle, community, affirmation and transcendence over adversity. The blues brings relief to the performer and uplifts the audience.” (Jazz - The First Century, HarperCollins, New York, 2000).

Spirit of St. Louis

St. Louis Blues is one of the most recorded songs in the whole history of American music, more than a hundred versions being recorded in the early gramophone era of the 1920s and ’30s.  It has also figured in dozens of American movies.  It has been arranged for various instrumental jazz ensembles, and sometimes even for large orchestras, and has been performed by many eminent jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong (trumpet and vocal), Duke Ellington (piano), Benny Goodman (clarionet), Dave Brubeck (piano), Bessie Smith and Velma Middleton (vocal).  It has been rendered in varying tempos and with modified lyrics, but the most popular versions invariably retain or echo the original spirit and flavour of the song.

The lyrics of classical jazz were usually very ordinary, and were often quite trivial ;  but what lifted the songs sky-high were the poignant tunes and the intensity of the sentiments expressed.  The case of St. Louis Blues was no exception, as you can see and hear for yourself if you glance at the following lines as you listen to the music online or on records (spelling and punctuation mine):

I hate to see dat evenin’ sun go down -- I hate to see dat evenin’ sun go down -- 'Coz ma baby he done lef’ diz town.

If I’m feelin’ tomorrow, juss like I feel today --  If I’m feelin’ tomorrow, like I feel today -- I’ll pack my trunk an’ make my get-away!

Sain’ Loui’ woman, wid’ all her di’mond rings -- Stole dat man o’ mine, by her apron strings -- If it wazn’t for powder, an’ her store-bought hair -- Dat man dat I love wudn’t ’ave gone nowhere!  -- Nowhere!

I’ve got de Sain’ Loui’ blooz, just as blue az I can be -- Lor’, dat man’s got a heart like a rock cast in de sea -- Or else he wudn’t ’ave gone so far from me!

Gee, I love dat man like a schoolboy lov’z his pie -- Juss like an ol’ Kentucky col’nel lov’z his rock an’ rye -- I guess I’ll love dat man until de day I die! 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Growling And Glowing Music Of Louis Armstrong, Maestro Of Classical Jazz

"I wasn't a lover of Carnatic music to start with.  Till I was nearly 30 I was only fond of Western music.  I loved Beethoven and Brahms, Chopin and Tchaikovsky.  I loved New Orleans jazz, and I admired Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.  I was thrilled by the powerful voices of Mario Lanza, Benjamino Gigli and Paul Robson. . . "  --  So I had written in an article in the Evening News in New Delhi in 1975, which I recalled in my blog  How The Maestro Gave Me A Glimpse Of God And Converted Me To Carnatic Music! 

For half a century my fascination for Louis Armstrong had been based on my impressions gained mainly from a few long-playing records and marginally from radio broadcasts.  It's only in the Internet era that I've been able to hear his music extensively, thanks to YouTube.  And in 2008 I happened to read some books on his life and music, from which I was tempted to quote some significant thoughts in the following article:-

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Friday review

November 28, 2008  

The magic of Satchmo

Two weeks ago in this column (November 14), I had used a rather unusual but significant expression ‘classical jazz’, referring to the early styles of jazz which had evolved in America (mainly in New Orleans, Chicago and New York) in the first half of the 20th Century.  These were the trends known as Dixieland Jazz, Swing, and Dixieland Revived.  Recently I have been refreshing my impressions of classical jazz with some serious reading and some online listening.  And I’ve come across such well-expressed views on Louis Armstrong  --  alias Satchmo, the towering black musician who dominated those trends and influenced them forcefully -- that I am tempted to string together a few detailed quotations here.

Growling and glowing

Lawrence Bergreen, a distinguished American journalist and biographer, describes Louis Armstrong’s unique musical skills as follows : “There was, initially, a cornet -- and later a trumpet -- that was more expressive than a mere instrument : sweet, singing, lilting, cajoling, teasing, ebullient.  And then there was his . .  . unforgettable voice which behaved like a huge instrument : growling, laughing. . . .  soothing, fierce. 

"The combination of the voice that sounded like an instrument and the instrument that sounded like a voice created the universally recognized persona of Satchmo.  He looked and felt like a glowing lump of coal, hot and alive and capable of igniting everything around him.  For him, music was a heightened form of existence, and he sang and he played as if it could never be loud enough, or go deep enough, or reach high enough.” (Louis Armstrong : An Extravagant Life, Broadway Books, New York, 1997).

In fact, Armstrong’s rustic and rasping voice often echoed the vigorous and vibrant tone of his horn, infusing very ordinary lyrics with a soulful quality ; sometimes even scat-singing (which meant producing senseless vocal effects such as ‘rip-bip-ee-doo-dee-doot-doo...’) in fascinating ways.  And one of his most famous gramophone records (1928) attracts the following rave review from Bergreen :- 

“If a single recording could be said to represent the peak of Louis’s art, it would be  West End Blues.  Like many of his other masterpieces, the tune . . . was unremarkable on its own . . . (But) in Louis’s hands, (it) became a tapestry of pain, joy and transcendence through musical artistry.  He starts off with what would become the most famous horn solo in jazz, a nine-measure opening cadenza of dizzying difficulty that for decades aspiring horn-players would struggle to imitate.  It is a summons to the soul, dignified and daring. 

“Once the horn has gotten the listener’s attention, the song shifts gears, slows down and dawdles along, until Louis begins scat singing in a light, delicate voice, trading phrases with the clarinet, and trolling in the lower registers.  Then, without explanation or apology, Louis takes a second solo, holding a note for so long that it pierces through the fabric of the music like a gleaming arrow.  With brilliant timing, he finally lets go of it . . . with a shudder of . . . cymbals.”

Hallmark of excellence

Now let us also hear what the authors of two other important books on jazz have to say about this supreme example of technical and artistic excellence.  Richard Hadlock, jazz critic and American radio host, says : “West End Blues, perhaps Armstrong’s finest recorded performance of his career. . .  has everything : big-toned bravura trumpet-playing ; effective contrast of expressive simplicity and instrumental complexity ; logical development of mood and theme from beginning to end ; a heart-warming, tender scat vocal refrain ; a perfect balance of all historical aspects of the Armstrong musical personality. . . West End Blues is a milestone in the history of jazz". (Jazz Masters of the Twenties, Collier Books, New York, 1974). 

Gunther Schuller, horn-player, composer, and president of the New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, says: “When on June 28, 1928, Louis Armstrong unleashed the spectacular cascading phrases of the introduction to West End Blues, he established the general stylistic direction of jazz for several decades to come . . .  The clarion call of West End Blues served notice that jazz had the potential capacity to compete with the highest order of previously known musical expression". (Early Jazz -- Its Roots and Musical Development, Oxford University Press, New York, 1968).

If you wish to understand the true significance of those glowing words of adoration and critical acclaim, all you have to do is to look online for West End Blues (easily accessible on YouTube) and play the three-minute 78-rpm gramophone plate of OKeh Records made 80 years ago, which, according to the overall assessments by eminent and sensitive observers in America, features the finest sample of Louis Armstrong’s music.  And if you do take the trouble of getting that far, surely you will not be able to resist hearing many other recordings of the maestro, all of which invariably contain the very essence of what I call classical jazz!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Importance Of Improvisation In Carnatic music and jazz

I have great pleasure in recalling the following artcile I had written several years ago, in which I had highlighted the fact that the common element between jazz and Carnatic music (viz. the classical music of South India) is the tremendous scope for improvisation which exists in the mutually alien systems. 

Friday Review

14  Nov. 2008

A century of Jazz

“The Carnatic musician improvises, and the immediacy of that approach to invention ensures that the message comes from the heart.  At the same time, the depth and scope of the Carnatic language... make that communication as deep and articulate as musical expression can be...”  —  John Edward Hasse, Curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution, U.S. 

If you are wondering how Mr. Hasse had obtained such a clear and deep insight into the true nature of Carnatic music, let me confess that I have taken a liberty and substituted the word ‘Carnatic’ for ‘jazz’ in the above quotation from the book Jazz, The First Century, which is edited by Mr. Hasse and contains an impressive collection of revealing essays and reflections (including his own) on the musical manifestation called jazz.  And let me call you as a witness for the defence: doesn’t that modified statement sound absolutely true? 

Of course, there’s no resemblance at all between the governing spirits of jazz and Carnatic music, which have a socio-romantic and religious perspective respectively. 

The striking similarity is in the tremendous scope for improvisation which exists in both systems.  We had considered some significant aspects of the concordance between these mutually alien cultural phenomena in a series of essays on an imaginary musical excursion called Tyagaraja-Jazz Suite  in this column (, Chennai edition, June 22, July 6 and 20, Aug. 3, 2007).  Moreover, there’s a certain resemblance in a historical sense also.  It was in the first half of the 20th century that Carnatic music in its present mode of performance and presentation evolved in South India, just as the early styles of jazz had evolved in the U.S., mainly in New Orleans, Chicago and New York. 

 Twin discoveries

Personally, I had discovered the magnificent dimensions and qualities of classical jazz and Carnatic music almost simultaneously around the middle of the century, thanks to a wonderful daily radio programme called Music USA — The Voice of America Jazz Hour, which could be heard anywhere in India in static-free and crystal-clear short-wave broadcasts relayed from Tangier, Manila or Colombo. It was presented by the legendary radio host Willis Conover.

Willis Conover’s contribution to the world-wide dissemination of jazz, even penetrating the Iron Curtain into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, has been summed up as follows by Tad Lathrop, who is the author of the book, This Business Of Music Marketing And Promotion, and is one of the many contributors to Jazz - The First Century : “Conover, as the personality who most frequently brought jazz abroad, was one of the United States’ most effective diplomatic and foreign policy tools during the Cold War... From his first Music USA broadcast in 1955 to his last [broadcast] 40 years later, Conover may have done more for the global spread of jazz than any other single person...”

Cultural influence

And now let us see how Mr. Hasse of the Smithsonian Institute sums up the progress and cultural impact of jazz within the United States of America, in the admirable book edited and partly written by him: “A new form of musical expression emerged at the outset of the 20th century. One hundred years later, it was still vital... And somehow, in the intervening years, it had become the most expansive and influential approach to music introduced during that time. 

“That music was jazz. And the idea behind it was powerful. Employ improvisation, hot rhythm, and other enlivening devices in the performance of music from an array of sources — in effect, making something new and exciting from something old and familiar... The music grew accordingly... Jazz not only mirrored social and cultural change, but also brought it on. Long before American society was racially integrated, jazz musicians were recording in multi-hued bands and becoming celebrities across the colour line. 

Jazz moved many African-American musical practices right into the musical mainstream, thereby transforming American music and spurring the creation of new styles, including rock and roll... “Jazz did all those things because, at its core, it’s about honest, instantaneous, high-level communication. The jazz musician improvises, and the immediacy of that approach to invention ensures that the message comes from the heart. At the same time, the depth and scope of the jazz language... make that communication as deep and articulate as musical expression can be... It wouldn’t be that way if not for the freedom jazz affords and encourages.”