By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Thursday, April 25, 2013

From Belgium With Love : German & French Poems & Songs

I am glad to note that there are some wonderful people out there in Germany, Austria and France who seem to think that it's worth the trouble to take a look at these India-based Articulations Online rather regularly.  While thanking them all for their consistent interest, I have great pleasure in recalling here an amusing review I had written in 1987 on a superb performance of German and French songs by a couple of accomplished musicians from Belgium visiting New Delhi.  

Of course, the humorous opening gambit was aimed at the majority of my readers who wouldn't have known any German;  but I came to know that the article was well liked in the German Embassy  --  and also at the Max Mueller Bhavan, where the German language was (and continues to be) taught and learnt quite seriously.


THE HINDU, New Delhi
3 April 1987

Rich baritone from Belgium

Aus meinen, Trannen spriessen
Ich will meine Seele tauchen
Hor' ich das Liedchen Klingen
Ein Junglling liebt ein Medchen

Even if you can't understand a word of the above lines, you can see that it's a German poem, can't you?

Well, if you said:  "Yes, of course, it is!", you would be quite wrong, in a sense!  For I have just listed four titles (numbers 2, 5, 10 and 11) from Robert Schumann's famous song-cycle 'Dichterliebe' (opus 48).

But in another sense you would be right, after all, because these titles are nothing but the first lines of some of Heinrich Heine's many short romantic poems which were set to music by Schumann.

The year 1840, when Schumann created the work mentioned above, was a landmark in his life  --  when the 30-year old composer, who was in the grip of a romantic spell, turned his attention from the piano to the human voice, and exploded in a frenzy of activity which yielded an amazingly rich crop of songs.  (His  symphonies and chamber music were to follow in subsequent years).

Memorable Sundays!

Heine's romantic poems, many of which consist of only one or two stanzas of four lines each, are not monumental works of poetry;  but they are extremely lyrical, and are admirably fit to be used as the texts of romantic songs.

I remember having got lost in the Madras University Library from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on a memorable Sunday more than 30 years ago (when I was a very young student), reading a book containing the English translation of Heine's poems.  Although I have never read his poems again, that first exuberant impression has never faded from my memory.

It was a delightful experience to have a second encounter with the poet's work, sung in the original German, when I attended a vocal recital by the visiting Belgian baritone Ludovic de San at the India International Centre last Sunday evening.

Ably assisted by pianist Dominique Cornil, also from Belgium, de San rendered the complete set of 16 songs in the cycle (taking an average of two minutes per song) during the first half of the brief concert.

French colors

In the second part of the recital, de San took up the works of two French composers.  The programme consisted of four songs composed by Gabriel Faure, including the romantic 'Automne' and the melancholy 'Claire de lune' ('Moonlight'), and four others composed by Henri Duparc, including the famous 'Phidyle' and 'Chansons tristes' ('Sad songs')  --  all of which have a highly poetic quality.

In a 15-minute interlude, Ms. Cornil played three short pieces for the piano composed by the Frenchman Maurice Ravel, creator of the famous ballet 'Bolero'.

While we have a steady flow of instrumental Western music in New Delhi these days, it is still quite unusual for us to hear a live performance by a baritone.  Ludovic de San, who has performed in some operas in Europe, has a rich and flexible voice, which acquires varying degrees of lustiness and delicacy as he sings on.

Although many of the music-lovers who were present could not have understood a single word of German or French, everybody's attention was fully captivated by the poetic mood created by the music.

In Ms. Cornil's hands, the piano was also sonorous or delicate in turn, reinforcing the mood of the evening.  Her solo rendering of Ravel's 'Alborado del Gracioso' was particularly impressive, parts of it almost sounding like some of Chopin's mazurkas.

Bouquets, Indian style!

The concert was jointly organized by the Belgian Embassy, the India International Centre, and the Delhi Music Society.  The hosts asked a pretty, tiny girl to garland the artists at the end of the recital.  I do like this Indian touch which the Delhi Music Society is introducing in the concerts held under its auspices.  By all means let us adopt the stiff Western concert manners when we hear live Western music;  but let us also relax and act like Indians when the performance is over and it's time to show our appreciation!


PostScript, 2013
Going back to the library

Thirty years had separated the two memorable Sundays I have mentioned above.  Twenty-six years have passed after that second Sunday, but the memory of the first one is still fresh in my mind!   One of these days I shall visit the Madras University Library on the Marina again and explore the same shelves where I had discovered the romantic poems of Heinrich Heine  so long ago --  and also the works of the French writers Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant and Alfred de Musset around the same time, and the paintings of the Dutch artist Jan Vermeer many years later.  So many old stories still left to tell, really!

Also, the concluding comments of the above review call for certain annotations  -- regarding the unique garland culture of India and the informal concert manners of Indians  --  to make them globeworthy.   But let us discuss them some other time!

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