By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Sunday, July 10, 2016

More Music And Musical Instruments Of The Middle Ages

It was only very rarely that scholarly musicians came down from Europe to New Delhi to perform the music of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras with authentic vocals accompanied by carefully preserved or restored instruments which had been in vogue during the relevant periods (or effective copies of them).  The very infrequency of such events made us extremely attentive in the concert hall, and all such occasions were memorable ones.

I am talking about the last quarter of the 20th century, when I was writing about the Western music scene in New Delhi, successively in the Hindustan Times Evening News and (from 1986) in THE HINDU.  Equally rare were legitimate opportunities for writing humorously in a concert review (unless it was a piece of  pure satire, which suited the evening paper but not THE HINDU).

On both counts the following occasion was a rare one, and I just couldn't resist rounding off my review with a hilarious jab  at the British Council. 


Max Müller Bhavan  --  German language and cultural center.

IIC  --  India International Center. 

Sruthi  --  In Indian classical music, a continuous pre-set droning sound which marks and anchors the proper pitch to suit the given voice or prime instrument, unobtrusively becoming an integral part of the music.

New Delhi

22 July 1988
The abbot and the beauty

How many people in New Delhi, including resident foreigners, are deeply interested in Western art music?  I have no clear idea :  maybe a thousand, maybe only 500.  Judging by the attendance in the free concerts organized fairly frequently by the Max Müller Bhavan, the Delhi Music Society and the cultural wing of the Italian Embassy -- generally in collaboration with the India International Center, in the latter's small and compact concert hall -- one can safely assert that the number of serious Western-music-lovers here cannot be less than about 300 or 350.  That is the number required to fill this hall and make the audience overflow just a little into the aisles, which creates the right ambiance for the successful performance of chamber music, and which often happens.

But how many people could we normally expect to turn up for a scholarly rendering of medieval European music?  Surely only a small fraction of this number?  But no, one would be quite mistaken in thinking so!  I found a gathering of at least 200 people, Indians and foreigners together, when a visiting trio called Sinfonye performed in this venue last week, in a concert of 13th-century music organized by the British Council and the IIC. 

Hard-core circle

What is the value of attending such a program?  It is a demonstrative exercise in musicology, and is more informative than entertaining.  If two-thirds of the IIC auditorium can be filled for a program like this, and mostly by local citizens, then we would be justified in concluding that there certainly is a hard core of sincere Western-music-lovers in this country and in this city.

The appetite of this hard-core circle for Western music is enormous, and the institutions which have now started bringing a wide spectrum of Western music within its reach deserve to be thanked profusely.  The hundred unoccupied seats should never discourage them and make them doubt the immense value of continuing this activity :  the 200 happily occupied seats should be the true barometer.

Medieval colors

The trio was led by Stevie Wishart, who played reconstructed versions of a medieval fiddle and an interesting instrument called 'sinfonye' (from which the ensemble derives its name).  The latter, known as 'hurdy-gurdy' in common language, has a resin-coated wheel which is turned by a crank and grazes several strings simultaneously, producing the melodic lines and also a droning sound similar to the 'sruthi' in Indian music.

Mara Kiek provided the vocal element, and Jim Denley played a couple of flat medieval drums (a square one, and a circular one).  They rendered, with obvious competence and commitment, some romantic, courtly dance tunes and songs which had been in vogue in the French district of Provence in the feudal era (circa 1300). The ensemble also presented a set of nostalgic songs in a Spanish-Portuguese dialect, depicting the emotions of a sea-side woman pining for her absent sailor-lover.

Translation travails

As there was a strong vocal display, the organizers had thoughtfully provided an English translation of the songs in the program notes distributed to the audience.  But perhaps not effectively enough, I should say :  for when hearing the soulful songs rendered by Mara Kiek, the listeners needed not only a translation, but the text also.  How useful  it would have been if the actual words had also been printed side by side with the translation, as in the sleeve notes of an LP disc displayed in the foyer!  A point to ponder, for Sinfonye, wherever in the world they perform in the future.

Moreover, the translation was extremely clumsy, and in some places quite confusing.  To give you an example, the following passage was supposed to elucidate one of the songs :  "Now sing the praise, let the command of the Abbot be praised.  Beauty were you a nun of our house, in favor of all the monks, you would take the tribute.  But you shall not spend a single day, Beauty, except lying on your back, so says the Abbot."

Perhaps we would have enjoyed the music better -- even without understanding a single word of the lyrics -- if we didn't have such distracting puzzles to solve.  In any event, we certainly didn't expect to see such a muddled specimen of the English language being handed out by the British Council, of all people!

PostScript, 2016
Made in Europe!

It was a tribute to the average Britisher's positive sense of humor that my light-hearted barb was well-liked in the British Council and in the U.K. Embassy in New Delhi.   The organizers' regretful explanation was that they had obtained the foreign-made translation from the visiting trio and hadn't vetted it before passing it on to the audience. 

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