Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Bach, Beethoven And Berlin Wall

Tamil film music icon Ilayaraaja performed to packed houses in Canada and US in February of this year. Auditoriums that seated thousands filled up with tickets priced at $75-$500+. I did not even notice that he was coming until my cousin told me. Many of my friends who attended the events posted running commentaries on Facebook and twitter. Arguments ensued. Questions about what is music, when does music become art and even why not consider Ilayaraja on par with Mozart (yes, please trust me) and more were asked. Confession, just yesterday I bought 10 of Raja's songs on iTunes to add to my existing collection of several hundreds that I listen often while I drive or read. I love music, in my own way. So why did I choose not to go and enjoy Raja? Do I not love music enough to seek an evening of film songs that I grew upon in the 80's and 90's? Can somebody love Beethoven and Ravi Shankar and ignore a Raja event? Would that be proof of 'feigning' interest in music for a snobbery value? I've gathered ideas for several blogs which I shall write in the days to come. 

A further confession. Though I learned to play violin for nearly 5 years (carnatic) I'd not call myself a musician. I cannot and will not speak of music in technical terms like raaga or notes or scales. There are many ways to talk of music. 

Defining what can be called 'classical music' is a contentious task by itself. Julian Johnson, author of 'Who needs classical music, offers some ideas. A music is not called 'classical' owing to its antiquity. When music transcends the immediate across ages and is capable of transmuting itself to various meanings it acquires an eternal relevance earning the label 'classical'. This is easier for instrumental music since there are no words to tie it down to a context. Does that mean a symphony has no meaning? Does music have a meaning?

Legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein posed that questions to kids of New York City in his 'Young People's Concerts' that he conducted to familiarize a generation of children, that he felt, did not take a fascination for classical music, the cornerstone of Western civilization. Bernstein would play a piece and ask the children to imagine what theme would fit that music. He offers 'Superman' flying to address a crisis as a suitable theme. The music was originally written to portray Don Quixote. Did Bach compose his immortal cello suites imagining that one day his music will be played when history's worst symbol of oppression, the Berlin wall, would fall? Did Beethoven envisage that his 9th symphony will be played to commemorate the first anniversary of Berlin wall being brought down? 

Bach was not a very political person. When I visited his home in Leipzig I saw the contract that he had to comply with at his employer's place, a church. He was contracted to write music almost every week for the students. In essence one could say he was no different from any film musician who produces music for money. Yet for over 300 years his music has attained an eternity for the genius that was poured forth in them. The fugues were composed in response to a challenge by Frederick the Great and we will come to them later. Bach's cello suites were actually lost and discovered accidentally by legendary cellist Pablo Casals. The cello suites were an architectural beauty with six movements per cello. It is here we must pause and teach Tamils who don't know Western classical what that feat means.

Unlike Carnatic music Western classical is written for specific instruments. Carnatic, written without notes, is purely vocal in its original form. The instrumental accompaniments we hear in Carnatic are all improvisations, a technique that is the soul of Carnatic music. A six movement suite is where a composer strains his compositional talent to write music that would tease out every musical capability of an instrument over 15-30 minutes for each suite. Bach was a genius in writing music for an instrument to showcase the instrument's musical capabilities. The Well Tempered Clavier Book 1 & 2 is almost two hours of music written exclusively the plumb the depths and scale the heights on one instrument, the keyboard in 24 major and minor keys. This is compositional genius of a different scale from composing music for a Tamil film song for 5 minutes of which the overture/prelude for less than a minute is really musical setting the stage for a 'melody' that the stanzas adhere to. Then come equally short interludes and postludes. 

Mstislav Rostropovich was a Russian cellist exiled from Soviet Russia for his support of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Rostropovich was highly respected for the genius virtuoso that he was. One day while he was in Paris Rostropovich heard that the most notorious symbol of Soviet tyranny, the Berlin Wall, was being demolished. Rostropovich rushed to Berlin, pulled up a chair and started playing Bach's cello suite No.2 (watch here http://youtu.be/FiwXUJJjL6g

Crowds milled around Rostropovich. If Rostropovich had been a film musician or if what he played was from music score the moment would have been silly. Rostropovich's personal stature as a genius, his exile, his fight for liberty all compounded with Bach's stately cello suite to create a moment that speaks volumes about a society which respects such an artist and such art. Two years later while Gorbachev was under house arrest and the Soviet empire was poised to strike back at Yeltsin Rostropovich smuggled himself into Moscow. Rostropovich's arrival into Moscow to support Yeltsin and a nascent democratic movement electrified Russians unlike anything else could have done. Can one imagine Michael Jackson or even the Beatles at such a moment? Again the man and the kind of the music are an inseparable whole. Bach's music that speaks to the most sublime within every human being and a society that loved Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, the ballet and more revered art so highly that Russian tanks paused. It is not exaggeration to say Rostropovich saved Russia that day.

Celebrating the fall of Berlin Wall an internal orchestra with musicians drawn from Russia, France, Germany, America etc was commissioned to perform under the baton of conductor Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein, educated at Harvard, would imbibe a multi-disciplinary approach to music. His lectures were a tour-de-force across disciplines. Bernstein chose to play Beethoven's 9th symphony, considered possibly the greatest composition in all of western classical music.

Beethoven, unlike Bach, was a deeply political person. He starting writing his 3rd symphony dedicated to Napoleon. When he heard that Napoleon had declared himself 'emperor' Beethoven tore the dedication away and composed a pessimistic symphony that he called 'Eroica'. Beethoven broke traditions when he composed the 9th. The 9th is also referred to as 'choral symphony' because it is the only symphony by a major composer to have a choral piece.
The 9th was grand architecture in 4 movements with the 4th movement being a mini symphony itself with smaller 4 movements and the electrifying choral section all amounting to nearly an hour (74 minutes) of music that would engulf and elevate a soul. The symphony was scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes,   2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, cymbals, soprano, alto, baritone and more. 

Carnatic music is 'melodic' in structure. The notes succeed one and another successively. The word 'symphony' means a harmonious sound when more than one instrument is played 'together'. The latter taxes compositional talent because one has to imagine how 2 instruments would sound together. Now extrapolate that to all those listed instruments played alone and together in places. Add the complexity of a song like Schiller's 'Ode to joy'. Finally consider composing such music for an uninterrupted hour. 

Bernstein, in a typical gesture, altered the choral piece replacing the word 'joy' with 'freedom' to signal liberty. The complete performance has been uploaded here. We have to appreciate that this is an orchestra drawn from across the globe and the conductor is a 70 year old who would die 10 months after the performance. Bernstein's 1979 performance of the 9th, which I am watching as I type, shows a conductor who pours forth phenomenal physicality into the act of conducting and at places he appears rapturous close to tears. The Berlin performance was 20 years later.

Beethoven never dreamt that his symphony would be played to celebrate the demise of an evil empire. Even before that Berlin performance and even before the fall of the wall Chinese students protesting in Tianenmen square in July 1989 played the 9th from loudspeakers to drown out government propaganda and to lift their spirits. Women taking out a rally in Chile protesting the murderous Pinochet regime would alter the 9th and play it. That's why the 9th is considered classical music. In an immortal music Beethoven had provided channels to express human aspirations from China to Berlin to Chile across centuries. 

I remember an article that I read nearly 30 years ago in Readers Digest. The author was asked to list historical events that he wished he had witnessed alive. Alongside a desire to see how Moses led his people from Egypt, the Exodus, the author had listed the first performance of Beethoven's 9th symphony.

Dmitri Shostakovich's violin concerto No.1 Op99 is another tale to be told when music becomes the vehicle for a tortured soul that suffers under totalitarianism. Art is not for the ivory tower. It speaks to and embodies everyday travails and triumphs. About that later.

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