For the last couple of years, I have been listening to symphonies, solos and concertos. What began as a lark has turned into an obsession. The problem is that I still haven’t cracked it. I am nowhere close to getting my arms around Mozart, Haydn and Verdi. I don’t mean in the mastery sense, which will take several lifetimes, but even in the “at last, I begin to get it” sense.
Don’t go solo: To appreciate and enjoy Western classical music, find a guru. Dieter Nagl / AFP
Western music, like our music, is vast. The difference, however, is that there is oodles of prose about it. For those inclined, there are video recordings of performances, discussions on radio that focus on one composer or concerto. There are books and treatises that offer fascinating glimpses into the minds and lives of a Bach or Beethoven; movies such as Amadeus; and music appreciation courses that systematically take you through the Western music universe. All of these give glimpses of the treasures to be had but leave you hungering for more.
For someone as simple-minded as I am, the only way to grasp a concept or a music piece is to hear it again and again, be it Raga Darbari or Mozart’s Requiem. Once the music becomes part of me, once it has filtered down to my nerve endings or whatever, once I know it pretty much by heart, only then do I feel that I grasp it.
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To become a connoisseur—of the arts, ideas, food, wine, languages, movies, sports, economics or history—is ultimately a selfish exercise. You begin because you cannot help yourself; because of an abiding interest, one that will not let you go. Digging deeper becomes self-perpetuating after a while: The more you know, the more you want to know. At some point, you reach a crest and flip over. Once you pass that stage, beautiful things happen. You will hear a snatch of a Bollywood song and be reminded of a symphony. You will make uncommon connections that are ultimately the gift and pleasure of learning something new. A butterfly’s flight will look like an adagio, which refers to slow tempo in music.
The arts offer intangible, immeasurable pleasure if only you can figure out how to learn and experience them. Mostly, this involves finding the right guru. For Western classical music, my guru is George Clark, an astrophysics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). So I emailed him.
George and Charlotte Clark, who live in Boston, are sort of like my godparents. They took me in when I was an undergraduate student in the US. I lived with them during summers and learnt much of what I know about American values through them. The Clarks are Boston Brahmins in the best sense of the term. Their ancestors came in the Mayflower and their home in Boston is filled with musicians, artists and scientists. Widely travelled, intellectually curious, brilliant and accomplished, George taught astrophysics at MIT, built his vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard pretty much by himself, and played the grand piano in his living room every evening.
Thanksgiving dinner at their home was a grand event, with their 20-seater antique dining table loaded with food and surrounded by intellectuals of all kinds—from Japanese architects to Indian student-sculptors to Harvard economists. After dinner, port and cigars, George would play a concerto on his piano while someone—his daughter Tasha—perhaps would accompany him on the violin. It was divine chamber music in scintillating company—bliss.
One night a group of us sat around the piano till dawn, discussing Eastern and Western motifs in music. The Clarks have influenced my life in more ways than they could possibly guess. In some sense, every dinner party I throw is an attempt to recreate the literary salons I enjoyed at their home. Naturally, when my interest in Western classical music deepened, I turned to George.
“Hey, George,” I asked, “if I were to listen to one piece of Western classical music that would encapsulate much of its beauty and ideas, which one would that be?”
Without missing a beat, he told me to start with Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K.364. If possible, he said, I should listen to a Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta, with Itzhak Perlman playing the violin and Pinchas Zukerman the viola.
“Thanks, but what about the Jupiter?” I asked.
He paused. “You know about the Jupiter,” he said. “You are further along than I thought.”
The Jupiter symphony refers to Mozart’s Symphony No. 41. It is informally called the Jupiter, perhaps in reference to the magnitude of its accomplishment. It was arguably the last piece Mozart composed. Woody Allen, apparently, said that listening to the Jupiter was like experiencing God. The final movement involves a harmonic convergence of five separate movements, a virtuoso display of counterpoint that has not been equalled since.
And so it comes to be that if you visit me these days, you will hear Mozart’s Jupiter symphony coursing through my home.
Shoba Narayan experiences God in many ways but not (yet) through the Jupiter symphony. Write to her at email@example.com