By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Friday, July 8, 2016

Researching And Presenting Ancient Phases Of European Music

Writing on Carnatic and Western music in THE HINDU's New Delhi edition in the 1980s and '90s, I was addressing a cosmopolitan community of highly intelligent and sophisticated readers in the Capital's cultural and diplomatic circles, and I earnestly hoped that my reflections would stand the test of time and still be readable in the 21st century.  And sometimes my reviews did have the specific gravity of serious essays, as in the following context :- 


Ragas  --  In Carnatic/Hindustani (South/North Indian) classical music, standard melodic patterns well established by tradition.

Shehnai  --  Oboe-like North Indian wind instrument, traditionally played in auspicious settings like weddings and patriotic celebrations, and not in the concert mode.

IIC  --  India International Center.

New Delhi
13 March 1988

Horizons of tradition

Wherever there is a great cultural heritage, scholars and critics are vitally concerned with questions relating to its preservation.  One of the basic questions which arise in this context is, how far does a tradition stretch into the past?

Whether in India or in the West, the prevailing traditions of classical music, as usually depicted on the concert platform, go back only up to the 18th century or so.  What about the music which existed before that?  In Indian music, what were the melodies like, before they evolved into what are called ragas today?  What were the rhythmic structures which governed our ancient music?  In the Western world, how did the music sound before polyphony became its sheet anchor and the tonal range of instrumental music expanded in the Renaissance era?

Elusive answers

These and other similar questions are bound to occur now and then to all intelligent music-lovers, but usually the answers are extremely elusive.  While such issues are no doubt raised and discussed in academic circles all over the world, they are seldom presented to the music-loving public in an interesting manner.

There is, however, a growing awareness of the need to do so.  In Italy, which was the cradle of Western music in the medieval and Renaissance periods, there appears to be a determined effort to reconstruct the music of those times in public performances, using the same type of instruments which were in vogue then.  In fact, there are some professional groups there which specialize in such activity.

It will be recalled that in November 1986, as part of the Leonardo da Vinci Fesival in New Delhi, the Cultural Center of the Italian Embassy had invited a scholarly group called Ensemble del Riccio from Italy.  The musicians used characteristic ancient European instruments like the recorder (called flauto dolce or 'sweet flute' in Italian), crum (curved) horns, spinett (harpsichord), sackbut (trombone), lute, drums and bells -- and gave us an authentic experience of live Renaissance music.

In the last week of February this year, the Embassy, in association with the Delhi Music Society and the India International Center, presented another set of six musicians who belong to a group called Concentus Musicus Patavinus, from the University of Padoa in Italy.  Using several recorders, crum horns, a shennai-like insrument called shawn, and medieval drums, the ensemble played musical tunes which had been in vogue in Italy in the 14th to 17th centuries.  These works were the creations of legendary composers like Landini, Della Torre, Brochus, Susato, Gabrieli and Rossi, of the late medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods. 

Educative experience

As a member of the attentive international audience which heard this unusual concert in the overflowing auditorium at the IIC, I am happy to report that it was an interesting and educative experience, which, like the Riccio ensemble's concert in 1986, did answer some of those questions which had been nagging my mind for several years. 

I wonder, however, why the musicians and organizers chose to call the program 'a concert of ancient musical instruments'.  Surely the focus of such an event should be on the music as a whole, and not exclusively on the instruments!  In fact, I would even express the opinion that some of this music should perhaps be transcribed to suit modern chamber orchestras, and included in their normal repertoires -- otherwise such ventures will necessarily remain academic in nature, and are not likely to serve the intended purpose of widening the horizons of the tradition itself. 

Probing the popular

While some scholarly musicians are engaged in presenting such obscure parts of the tradition in an entertaining way, others are interested in analysing and explaining to the public the technical aspects of major works which are extremely popular in Western classical music circles..

In a couple of lecture-concerts arranged by the Max M├╝ller Bhavan and the India International Center recently, Frieder Reininghaus, a journalist and music researcher from Cologne, outlined the influences and principles of construction governing several sonatas and concertos composed by Mozart.  The lecturer who played the piano, and Ms. Lene Lutz who played the flute, simulated the orchestral scores where necessary ;  but even the edited versions had their own beauty which brought Mozart's music vibrantly alive.

It is of course a mere coincidence that there were two such unusual musical occasions in New Delhi within the span of a few weeks.  But it is a clear indication of the steadily increasing tempo of activity in the Capital's Western music circles.  Isn't it ironical that in this favorable climate, our own Delhi Symphony Orchestra seems to be unusually inactive?

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