Around three years worth of violin lessons from Eileen Prins and an equal number of years learning the piano from Mrs Niles meant a considerable number of hours ‘with music’ down School Lane, Bambalapitiya. I didn’t learn much. Aunty Eileen was exasperated and suggested that I try the piano. Mrs Niles, very gently, told me to concentrate on my studies. I like ‘theory’ because it was, to me, like mathematics and even someone who didn’t have melody and rhythm could ace it. Unlike number, however, I’ve forgotten all the theory they taught me.
All I remember and know of classical music are some names and this has nothing to do with what my teachers taught me. What stuck in my mind were short accounts of great composers in Ladybird books my mother bought for us. Pretty pictures, I remember. Interesting stories. The names stuck: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and Handel. That’s it.
But last night I did learn a few things. I attended the third edition of the ‘Royally Classical Recital Series’ presented by the Colombo Opera Company, courtesy a complimentary ticket. Kishani Jayasinghe, Soprano, and Soudarie David Rodrigo of the piano offered an hour of edutainment (speaking strictly for myself) at the Russian Cultural Centre. The event was called ‘Classically Italian’. This recital, I learned, followed two others, ‘Classically French’ and ‘Classically German’ featuring the music associated with those countries.
French, German and Italian and not languages I know or have even heard. Western classical music was another unknown language. I was in the dark. Kishani, thankfully, was gracious enough to acknowledge the presence of philistines like me and introduced each of the pieces. Briefly. The names didn’t mean a thing to me, but the emotions she promised they would deliver were useful, I thought at first. Then I learned that it didn’t matter. And that’s when I remembered something that the late Pundit Amaradeva told me about ten years ago: ‘music is not born in the melody or the voice but in the heart and mind.’
Sure, I was impressed by the artists. Music, I have heard, is a universal language and it did speak to me. I remembered something that my mother wrote in the exercise book I had to take with me to Aunty Eileen’s class: The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. “Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice,” she had written down the source as well. And of course, another line from Shakespeare, If music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it; that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die. Twelfth Night. Less about music-music (as we say in the Sinhalized English) than about the melody of words. I remembered though.
There were pieces from Puccini, Mozart, Handel and other composers whose names just didn’t stick in my mind. The themes of course were ones that cut across time and space. Love, after all, makes for a full range of emotions, from limitless joy to mindless sorrow. Kishani and Saundarie captured them all. And delivered.
So yes, I was impressed. I got something of the nuance which Kishani promised Saundarie would deliver. And Kishani’s prowess was certainly unmistakeable even for someone who does not think of Sinhala jana gee is a genre of lesser order.
But that’s not what mattered. It’s the heart or rather the heart-birthed nature of what was presented by these two amazingly accomplished artists. What Pundit Amaradeva said returned with even greater force because he had just passed away and also because I know no Italian. What’s born in the heart is eminently accessible at some level despite not knowing the language of rendition. Of course, Kishani’s facial expressions and her presence helped, but I could not help thinking that had I listened with my eyes closed I would still have gathered something of the essence of the feelings and emotions depicted. I am sure I ‘missed’ a whole lot that would not have been missed by others in the audience. If educating the uninitiated was even a small part of this programme, then I think it recorded a minor success.
Yes, last night I did learn a few things. And I remembered something which that eminent man of words, Simon Navagaththegama had said a long time ago.
He talked about the first radio in his village. Everyone had come to listen. One day it had broken. No one knew how to fix it. So they tapped and slapped it around and suddenly, it had started working again. In the process of ‘fixing’ it, the tuner had ‘stopped’ at a station which played Western classical music. No one dared touch the radio again fearing that it would be wrecked beyond repair. And so the villagers could listen only to classical music. And that, Simon said, was how he began to listen, appreciate and understand. He added, ‘sometimes you have to listen to something a lot before you can begin to comprehend.’
For me, this was a start. I learned that there’s so much more to learn. That was an invaluable lesson to have picked up over the course of a single hour.