& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Beethoven got Gandhi, Rolland & Mirabehn together

June 21 is world music day

My long rides from work to home in the evenings often compel me to listen to music on my cellphone. Unlike most of my co-commuters in the bus, who have earbuds perennially plugged into their ears, I don’t normally listen to music, preferring to read news features on Flipboard, or read a book. But when I’m running low on data, I occasionally switch over to music, and often the music is either Indian or western classical.

I’m not an expert at either, nor an aficionado, but I can claim to have an appreciative ear for both, and enjoy the music.

I’ve noticed that unlike reading, which always leads to thinking and occasionally to aggravation, listening to music is soothing, it calms the nerves.

The two collections that I frequently listen to are Western Classical – Top 50, and Voices of India – Bhimsen Joshi. Both CDs bought many years ago in India, then transferred to my laptop, and now on my cellphone.

The Western Classical – Top 50 has some of the most beloved compositions known to music lovers across the world, and includes, among others, such perennial favourites as:
  • Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik (Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major);
  • Vivaldi’s The Four Season Spring (Part 1);
  • Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, ‘Fate’: Allegro con brio;  
  • Carl Orff’s Carmina burana i o fortuna;
  • Bach’s Suite for Orchestra No. 2 in b minor for flute and string bwv 1067 vii badinerie;
  • Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet sui; and
  • Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.

My favourite, of course, is Carl Orff’s Carmina burana fortuna. Although I don't comprehend a word of what is being sung, I can never tire listening to it; and unlike most of the compositions in the collection, this one is relatively new, from the last century.

This version has the minimalist lyrics of the classic,
and that perhaps makes it more interesting

I recalled reading of how Beethoven brought together Mahatma Gandhi, Romain Rolland, and Mirabehn (Madeleine Slade). In his book Music of the Spinning Wheel, Sudheendra Kulkarni narrates the encounter between Rolland and the Mahatma:

“I played him the Andante from the Fifth Symphony, and, on Gandhi’s request, returned to the piano and played Gluck’s Elysian Fields from Orfeo, the first orchestral piece and the flute melody,” writes Rolland.

Kulkarni says, “Since Gandhi never showed much interest in Western classical music, we can ask ourselves the question: Why did he expressly ask Rolland to play him Beethoven?” There are many answers to this question, Kulkarni says, and then adds: “…there is another, more important, reason behind Gandhi’s request to Rolland to play Beethoven for him. That reason was Mirabehn.”

What follows is a fascinating narration of a little known history:

“Strange though it may seem, Beethoven had played a pivotal role in bringing Madeleine Slade to Gandhi. She fell in love with Beethoven’s music when, at age of fifteen, she first heard a composition by him, Sonata Opus 31 No. 2 She writes in her autobiography, The Spirit’s Pilgrimage, that her whole being was stirred by it; she played it over and over again…She learnt French so that she could read about Beethoven’s life in Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe (the 10 volume novel that got him the Literature Nobel)…”

Upon meeting Rolland, she was advised her that “the only living person worthy of the sort of veneration you have felt for Beethoven is Mahatma Gandhi.” Of course, Madeleine had never heard of the Mahatma. Then, after she had read Rolland’s book on the Mahatma (which he had written without having met him), she decided to visit India.

Kulkarni writes, “(Rolland)…had been himself craving deeply for many years to receive Gandhi in Villeneuve and to let him experience Beethoven’s sublime music. In a letter to Mirabehn on 25 April 1927 (that is, four years before Gandhi came to meet Rolland), he had written” “If Gandhi knew him (Beethoven), he would have recognized in him our European Mahatma, our strongest mediator between the life of the senses and eternal Life. And he would bless this music which perhaps, for us, is the highest form of prayer, a permanent communion with the Divinity.”

“Earlier, too, in his letter to Mahadev Desai on 24 February 1924, Rolland had described Beethoven as ‘our European Mahatma’ who ‘sings in his Ode to Joy; Let us – millions of human beings – embrace each other.’”

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