Some thirty-five or so years ago now, during my student days in Glasgow, I was walking quite late one evening from the university back to my digs. And I had the Act 2 trio from Don Giovanni circling obsessively around my head. I had recently seen a broadcast from Glyndebourne of the opera (it was on ITV, as I remember: haven’t things changed!), and, even more recently, had seen a Scottish Opera production conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson, and featuring Robert Lloyd and Willard White as Don Giovanni and Leporello; and what would I not have given then to have been able to hear that music that very evening, at that very moment? I knew then that I needed to listen to that music again, and listen to it often, and, given that this was back in the Dark Ages before YouTube or Spotify, I had no choice but to buy myself a recording. Even if it meant living on beans on toast for the rest of the term (which I was doing anyway – so no great sacrifice there), I had to have this music with me.
And so started my record buying, which, after a few years, became CD buying. Those of us unable to make music for ourselves must be content listening to those who can. Which is fair enough, I suppose: I’m not complaining.
I didn’t grow up with Western classical music, neither at school nor at home. My parents were Indian (Bengali, to be more precise: they were from the part of Bengal that stayed within India after Partition); I myself was born in Bengal, arriving in Britain as a five-year-old nearly 50 years ago now. The music I heard at home as I was growing up was Bengali music, and, inevitably, that meant Rabindrasangeet – the songs of the poet Rabindranath Tagore. It is a bit difficult to describe Tagore’s stature in the Bengali speaking world, as there is no equivalent in the West, but it isn’t going too far to say that he virtually defines the nation’s culture all by himself: for more than 60 years, he wrote a vast body of poems that are of the highest quality – an extraordinary variety, never repeating himself, forever renewing his art; he wrote also novels, plays, short stories, essays; he exhibited paintings; and he was, on top of all this, a gifted musician, composing both the music and the lyrics of literally thousands of songs. These songs, Rabindrasangeet, form, effectively, Bengal’s national music, and I know of no Bengali who would not be able to recognize at least a dozen or so of them. Personally, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know any of these songs: these are most likely the first music I ever heard.
As a teenager rebelling against parental values, I turned away from all this; now, in my mid-50s, I can’t believe how unutterably stupid I had been to have turned my back on such riches. As an illustration, here is one of my favourites, sung by two renowned practitioners of Rabindrasangeet, KanikaBandopadhyay and SuchitraMitra:
The lyrics, rendered into English, go something like this:
Who is it who travels on the path?
Who calls to me as he passes,
calls me from home?
The music that drifts on breezes on the path
echoes within my breast
with pain and longing.
In full moon night, the tide
floods in from the sea,
and tugs at my soul.
Eyes, unbidden, open wide.
Why should I now remain at home?
What thoughts keep me here?
(Please do not pass judgement on the poetic qualities of the original merely from this: I have made no attempt to reproduce Rabindranath’s poetry – that would be well beyond me. This translation is merely to give some indication of what the song is about.)
As for Western classical music, I knew nothing about it: it wasn’t, frankly, high on the list of priorities in the comprehensive school I’d attended in Glasgow. It was only in my late teens that I found myself, purely out of curiosity, trying to discover what this “classical music” lark was all about. I had heard of a few big names, of course – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – and I remember on my eighteenth birthday, using the gift vouchers I had received, buying LPs of Beethoven’s symphonies without having the faintest idea what to expect. The recordings featured the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karl Böhm. I now know that these are rather good recordings, but in those days, I didn’t even know that interpretations of music could vary significantly: I know absolutely nothing. And what I heard changed me. Till then, music was merely something to listen to in the background while I tapped my feet or hummed along or did something else: I had no idea that mere music, mere arrangements of sounds, could have so powerful an effect: that seemed then, and seems still, a miracle. I could not believe what I was experiencing.
Soon, as a student in Glasgow (my parents had moved down to England by then), I found myself attending concerts at the City Hall: The Scottish National Orchestra had in those days Sir Alexander Gibson as Principal Conductor, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra had as Principal Conductor the splendidly named Karl Anton Rickenbacker. I remember particularly a tremendously fiery Beethoven’s 7th symphony performed by Gibson and the SNO; and a superb Mahler’s 1st Symphony from BBCSSO conducted by Rickenbacker. I was, in short, hooked. I even found myself getting the Student Discount seats at Scottish Opera: to my surprise, these seats were no more expensive, and were often cheaper, than tickets for rock concerts, and, despite all that I read nowadays about the elitism of the classical music world, there was no-one standing at the door telling me “Sorry sir, you can’t come in, this event is for an elite only”. Strange, that.
I was fascinated. I regretted deeply my lack of a music education, and I took to taking out books from public libraries – which were well stocked in those days with rather good books – to find out something about the music that was fascinating me so; and I took also to checking out classical records from the well-stocked record library. Unlike today, when an interested neophyte would most likely be fobbed off with some patronising “easy-to-access” guff, everything was all around me then: I had merely to pick it up.
It is strange how first loves tend so often to be the strongest. The range of music I listen to now is, naturally, far wider than it was then, but the music I got to know in those early heady days of discovery remains dear to me still. I remember, for instance, having LPs of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which I had bought mainly because I liked the tunes. I love Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores still – kaleidoscopic orchestral colours, endless melodic invention, an ideal marriage of grace and of passion … what’s not to like? And the day I tire of Mozart operas or of Beethoven symphonies is the day I think I should give on music altogether.
Of course, it wasn’t just recordings: I continued attending concerts also. But, unless one lives in London (which I didn’t till much later) and is a very regular concert-goer, it is difficult, for someone like me at least, to get to know works without recordings. With any work of art that has any depth to it, first acquaintance is merely a tourist visit: one gets but a superficial impression at best, and at worst, sometimes, a misleading impression. To know a country well, tourist visits aren’t enough:one has to live there. I have never been able to form reliable judgements on types of music, or of composers, or, indeed, of individual works, without repeated listenings over a long period. And for that, live concerts, though indispensable, aren’t, on their own, enough: I need recordings.
Over many years of CD listening, many recordings have, naturally, become favourites. I don’t mean to list them all: this post is long enough as it is. But, leaving aside all those tiresome debates on “Is Maestro X’s recording better than Maestro Y’s?”, it would be remiss of me not to mention, at the very least, those wonderful recordings of Mozart’s piano concertos with Robert Casadesus at the keyboard, and Georg Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra; or Schubert’s Winterreise performed by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten; Klemperer’s monumental studio recording of Beethoven’s MissaSolemnis; Bartók’s string quartets performed by the Juilliard Quartet; and a live performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelik, with Janet Baker quite incandescent in that heartbreaking final song. There are many, many more I could pick, of course,but these five give, I think, a fair indication of the range of my tastes.
And opera: ever since I became hooked on opera in my student days, I’ve never tired of it. Shortly before the birth of our first child, my wife and I decided to have one “Last Big Night Out”, as it were: we bought tickets to see Le Nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden. (It’s a very favourite opera of ours: the first present I ever gave my wife, back in the days before we were married, was a recording of this very same piece.) On that night, Jeffrey Tate conducted; Thomas Allen and Carol Vaness were Count and Countess; Marie McLaughlin and Lucio Gallo were Susanna and Figaro.That whole evening was about as close to perfection as can be imagined. Many years later, we returned to Covent Garden to see the same opera, now conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras; and this time, we returned with our two children in tow, bothby now teenagers. I love all three Mozart-da Ponte operas, but, not surprisingly, Figaro has, over the years, acquired for me considerable personal significance. When I think of my favourite operas, it’s the three Fs – Figaro, Fidelio and Falstaff – that come most readily to mind. Throw in Boris Godunov, and maybe one of the products of Janáček’s extraordinary late flowering (The Cunning Little Vixen, say),and that would be a fair representation of my operatic taste.
My parents never really got my love of Western classical music: their ears – my late father’s ears, certainly – were too closely tuned to Indian idioms. As I was exploring Western classical music, it seemed to me that I was moving very far from my parents’ musical values; but my rediscovery later in life of Rabindrasangeet possibly indicates that the apple never does fall too far from the tree. However, fine as my tree is, I’m grateful that I have had the opportunity to explore far beyond its immediate environs, and to claim as my own whatever I may find.
One final memory of a concert: in 2006, at the Edinburgh Festival, I attended, with my son (then aged 14), a concert performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. I must confess to not being a fully paid-up Wagnerian: my feelings towards his music remain deeply ambivalent. But that evening, I had no reservation at all: it was a splendid performance, and I remember coming out of it floating, as it were, on a cloud of joy. Most notable was the tenor singing Walther: I had not heard of him then. His name was Jonas Kaufmann. I had heard good singing before, but this really was special.Our lad, that evening, came out of Usher Hall a fully fledged Wagnerian, and his enthusiasm remains to this day undimmed. I didn’t go quite so far, but even I knew it was the kind of evening that could change lives. And that is no hyperbole.
Himadri Chatterjee is an operational research analyst. He lives near London with his wife and two teenage children, and what little spare time he has is taken up with reading, listening to music, and, lately, indulging his logorrhoea and love of literature and music on his blog The Argumentative Old Git