Friday, May 01, 2009

Indian music to western ears

To the British of the nineteenth century steeped in European music, especially after the golden era of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, Indian music must have sounded quite mysterious and even jarring to their western sensibilities. A Captain Willard had first written a treatise on music in Hindustan around 1835. The Musical World, a weekly record of musical science, literature and intelligence, published in 1838 discusses Willard’s observations (you can read it here on pages 231-233 from Google Books)).

Among the number of historians that music has found to record her triumphs and extend the sphere of her balmy influence, few have turned their attention to the music of the East, from whence, notwithstanding, the greater portion of our scientific rules for performance in use up to the present time are derived. Still fewer have been the attempts of eminent orientalists to penetrate this elegant branch of Indian science, and with the exception of the observations of Sir William Jones, and the scattered notices of Hindu music, in the works of modern travellers, the musical reader has been left without any satisfactory information on one of the most curious, as it is undoubtedly one of the most ancient systems of music in the world.

Capt. Willard has supplied this long-sought desideratum in a work comprehensive, clear, and alike valuable to the musical student and oriental enquirer. In a sensible and well written preface, the author tells us, " that during the earlier ages Hindoostan, music was cultivated by philosophers, and men eminent for polite literature, for whom such general directions and rules for composition sufficed, after a course of musical education acquired from living tutors ; indeed, the abhorrence of innovation and veneration for the established national music, which was firmly believed to be of divine origin, preclude the necessity of any other; but when from the theory, a defection took place of its practice, and men of learning confined themselves exclusively to the former, while the latter branch was abandoned entirely to the illiterate, all attempts to elucidate music from rules laid down in books, a science incapable of explanation by mere words, became idle. This is the reason why even so able and eminent an orientalist as Sir William Jones has failed."

After several remarks upon the resemblance between the Greek, Egyptian, and Hindu systems, Capt. Willard gives evidence of the authority upon which his treatise is compiled, by stating that he has consulted the most famous performers, the first Veenkars* in India, the more expert musicians of Lukhnow, and llukeen Sulamut Ulee Khan of Benares, who has written a treatise on Music. In the introduction following the preface, he gives us an account of the origin of Hindu music, and here, very prudently, he examines into the causes of that repugnance to eastern music displayed by so many Europeans of cultivated minds; and this he rightly attributes to one or other of the following causes:—1). Ignorance, in which he includes the not having heard the best performers. 2) Natural prepossession (which he might have stated to arise from pride, in supposing every thing European to be so much superior. 3) Inattention to its beauties. 4). Incapacity of comprehension. We declare ourselves not to be of the number of these prejudiced persons ; on the contrary, the more we read and hear, the more decided becomes our conviction, that the genuine system of music that, founded on poetry, and assisted by feeling, melody is to be found no where in greater purity than in the East; but by an unfortunate circumstance, the ancient Brahmins, who were the living repositories of all scientific learning, threatened with excommunication, any of their tribe who should presume to apostatize and betray the sacred writings.

Thus we are excluded from a positive knowledge of the rules that guided these poet-musicians in their exhibitions of the art, and can only gather by collateral proof, sufficient to show that they sang their own compositions when under a unusual degree of mental excitement, by the occurrence of a victory, a death of any of their princes, a festivity, &., which afforded them in their retirement f a subject on which to expatiate. These men who adopted this austere method of living, concerning themselves little about the luxuries and vanities of the world, would not be bribed to display their talents in public, as hired professors. They neither cared for, nor accepted gifts or presents. Princes and great men of taste courted their friendship, and considered themselves honoured by accepting the fruits of their genius as a favour for which they possessed no other means of repaying them, but with respect and kind treatment. This order of bards, honoured, admired, and even reverenced by the natives, continued to meet due favour and patronage till the reign of Mohamed Shah. After his time they declined, owing to the disastrous wars and massacres in which that monarch's successors were engaged, leaving neither tranquility nor leisure for such amusements.

Capt. Willard goes on to describe the system termed Sungeet, including all their forms of solemnization. Their gamut is termed Surgum. The number of tones is the same as in the modern music of Europe; but the subdivisions are more in the manner of the ancient enharmonic genus of the Greeks. He mentions the great difference that prevails between the music of Europe and that of the oriental nations in respect to time, in which branch it resembles more the system of the Greeks and other ancient nations, than the measures peculiar to the modern music of Europe. This rhythm was no other than the poetical feat which formed the basis of their musical measure. That their language .was favourable to musical effects, will appear from the circumstance of the Sankcrit, containing more than double the vowels found in the English language.

" The peculiar nature of the melody of Hindoostan, not only permits but enjoins the singer, if he has the least pretension to excel in it, not to sing a song throughout more than once in its naked form ; but on its repetition, which is a natural consequence, occasioned by the brevity of the pieces in general, to break off sometimes at the conclusion, at other times at the commencement, middle, or any certain part of a measure, and fall into a rhapsodical embellishment called Alap; and after going through a variety of ad libitum passages, rejoin the melody with as much grace as if it never had been disunited, the musical accompaniment all the while keeping time."

Here we have exactly the same rules as those laid down by the great Italian masters, never to sing a melody twice in the same manner. Perhaps no term could better convey the "frightful heap of notes" as Mr. Worgan calls them, with which some singers of later times trick out the simple melodies they sing, than a rhapsodical embellishment. We have hitherto considered this a modern improvement, but lo here we see it is as old as the hills.

Update: Another lively observation on the state of music in South India, in the early nineteenth century can be found in “The Literary panorama (pages 545-550) “ where one Ragaviah Charry gives an “account of the Hindoostanee dancing girls, treating concisely on the general principles of singing and dancing” for the benefit of the Englishmen “ who are not acquainted with the poetical part of the Native languages, in which the songs are composed, and who must remain contented with the information of the eye; without that more rational relish of which the understanding is susceptible—which is the case even with many natives.” The article was published in the year 1808.

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