The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 1, 2000
Time Off

Among the immortals
By Manohar Malgonkar

THE coming of the compact disk has brought good music — or at least well-recorded music — right into our homes, and, for some of us, it has changed our way of living. I spend a lot of time just listening to music, mainly of European composers. But I have a score or so disks of vocal ragas, too, by some of our pandits and ustads, plus a couple each of sitar and flute.

It seems to me strange, that while in the case of Indian music, my disks are all by contemporary artists, in the case of the European composers, there is not even one by a living composer and offhand I can think of only one as having been around in the 20th century, Mahler. The others are all from the 18th or 19th centuries: Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin...

Notice anything odd? All these composers, venerated like kings and prophets of their calling, are as a rule referred to by single names. Indeed, so familiar are they to music lovers of the West that few people so much as know their full names; that Bach was Johann Sebastian, or that Chopin’s first name was Frederic. Just the single-word names, Bach, or Chopin, were enough.

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Letters for sale
July 30, 2000

Retreat from Naulakha
July 16, 2000
The land of goats
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What a tangled web !
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Rivers for sale
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Knowing when to stop
May 14, 2000
The lingering memory
May 7, 2000

Which makes me wonder why we refer to our music makers as pandits,if they’re Hindu, and ustads if they’re Muslim! Is it merely a meaningless social courtesy or a melancholy product of our centuries-long subjecthood to alien rulers; first the Sultans, then the Mughals, and then the British? After all, in a true democracy, a title is an oxymoron, indeed a negation of unfettered equality of all castes, creeds, religions, office. Surely, to call Bhimsen Joshi a pandit does not add lustre to his name — as it wouldn’t if Beethoven were to be called Doctor Ludwig van Beethoven? — the very idea seems absurd? And what about Chopin? Count Frederic Chopin?

But never! To call Chopin a count would not only be a sort of downgrading, it would be cruel — a nagging reminder that it was a fellow-exile from Poland who lived in Paris, Count Wodzinski, who caused Chopin to give up his lucrative career in Paris as a performing pianist who also taught piano playing to society ladies who tended to fall in love with him.

In 1830, Chopin, who was 20 years old, began to show symptoms of tuberculosis, and also fell violently in love with Count Wodzinski’s daughter. But when he proposed marriage, the Count was furious. How dare a commoner, who earned a living by playing the piano, aspire to marry into the nobility? He was shown the door and banned from its portals. That dismissal, which must have caused a breakdown in his health, also drove Chopin into the arms of a woman of legendary sexual appetite, the Baroness Dudavent, who wrote the most shocking novels of the times under her famous pen-name: George Sand. She, too, had had a broken love affair. She decided to leave Paris to go and live in the sun and fresh breezes of the island of Majorca in the south, and took Chopin with her.

The authorities in Majorca made life difficult for the lovers. Convinced that what Chopin suffered from was leprosy, they threatened to throw him out, but later relented just enough to let him live in a disused monastery where, for nearly a year, they refused to let him have his piano.

And that was how it came about that Chopin, restless and frustrated, living in a monk's cell, composed some of his haunting ‘preludes’ without being able to hear what they actually sounded like: the melody flowed only in his imagination, flawless, sparkling and a hallmark of his genius.

Ill as he was, Chopin was tough, too; for he not only survived his confinement in a monk’s cell in Majorca but even his passionate love affair with George Sand. Two years later, he made his way back to Paris, alone, hoping to resume his cushioned and perfumed life as the piano-teacher to society ladies. But his health was already failing, and Paris, for her part, was in no forgiving mood.

In his last years, he identified himself with the cause of Polish exiles in Paris and gave generously to his fellow Polish expatriates by continuing to write immortal piano pieces — but this time with a piano in his room to try out his scores. He died in 1849, well short of his 40th birthday.

The music maker who, by general consensus, towers above all others, Beethoven, was afflicted by something approximating a divine curse: at the age of 28, he discovered that he was becoming deaf. Ten years later, he was totally deaf, unable, as Hendrik Van Loon tells us, "even to hear himself when trying out something he had composed."

What sustained courage must have kept Beethoven going on composing? Indeed he even continued to conduct public concerts till, at the age of 54 and in the middle of a performance, he had to give up "because he had no idea what his musicians were doing."

Three years later, in 1827, Beethoven died, and this, compared to the life-spans of some of the others, seems a long innings. Chopin died before he was 40, and Mozart, as we shall see, when only 36. Was it, one wonders, that the gods themselves became jealous at a mere mortal daring to create celestial music, that made them pronounce such a horrifying sentence on Beethoven — that he should not hear the music that he created?

And so to Mozart, that loose cannon among music’s immortals. There must be around dozen or so of his biographies, many by authors of impeccable scholarship and honesty, which is just as well because without their evidence, it is not easy to believe that a man of such gifts and capacity for sustained labour really existed, and that one man in a brief life-span could produce such a phenomenal volume of complex musical works of the highest quality.

Mozart was barely out of his cradle when he was "composing ageeable little minuets," and began to give public performances as a child of six. He wrote his first opera while still a boy. On a visit to Rome, he attended a recital of holy songs at the Sistine Chapel, whose musical scores were supposed to be the well-guarded secrets of the chapel’s priests. After Mozart had heard them, once, they were no longer secret, for on going home, he wrote them all out from memory.

But if Mozart was a child prodigy, he was certainly not an oddity, and he grew up into an upstanding young man, handsome and with elegant manners, and devoted to his family. Add to these qualities a veritable passion for hard work — seldom less than 18 hours a day. If any man can be said to have killed himself with overwork, it was Mozart.

So, what were his rewards? He was humiliated by his patrons, kept out of the limelight by jealous rivals and harassed by people to whom he owed money.

Today there are monuments to Mozart’s memory in the oddest places, and two cities with rival claims as Europe’s musical capitals hold annual festivals in his honour: Vienna and Salzburg. But while he was alive, both cities seemed to vie with one another to making his life miserable. One of his patrons ordered him to leave Vienna and never to set foot in the place again; and the other, while giving him a seemingly important job, paid him so meanly that he was forced to take on extra work to have the means to indulge in such youthful dissipations as treating his girlfriends in the city’s most fashionable cafe to its new-fangled delicacy: icecream.

Mozart was broke when he died, in the winter of 1791. On the day of his burial it rained so hard that even the few devoted friends who wanted to go to the cemetery were forced to turn back. Only Mozart’s dog is said to have braved the weather and "sloshed through the mud and snow and was present when his master disappeared into the common grave of the poorest of the poor."

A few days later, when Mozart’s widow went to the cemetery with some flowers, no one could tell her where her husband was buried. Even now no one knows.

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