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An ode to music

When I wrote ‘An elegy to music’ (Oct 21, 2018) last week, little did I realise that soon I would be writing an ode to music too. But before the ode, let me clarify one point that I inadvertently missed in my last column.

Jawad Sharif has directed, edited and produced the documentary ‘Indus Blues’ and Arieb Azhar is the creative director, somehow it was not clearly mentioned in my previous column that Jawad Sharif is the director of ‘Indus Blues’, causing some confusion to many readers. And now, something about an enchanting encounter with some of the best live music that this writer had on August 23, in Peshawar.

A work-related stay at the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar turned out to be an experience to remember. Stradivaria, the baroque ensemble of Nantes, performed captivating pieces of music from the great French composer Rameau and the Austrian prodigy Mozart to the German genius Beethoven. Stradivaria is a French ensemble that was created 30 years ago in Nantes.

In the presence of hundreds of ensembles in Europe, what is so peculiar about Stradivaria? If you are a fan of classical Western music, you must be familiar with the baroque. The distinguishing feature of Stradivaria is that it specialises in the baroque and classic music of the 17th and 18th centuries.

This is essentially an instrumental ensemble led and directed by one of the most well-known French violinist, Daniel Cuiller. The event was organised in celebration of the friendship between two arch enemies of the past, France and Germany. The two countries were marking the centennial of the end of the First World War that concluded in 1918 and left a Europe that was more of a Wasteland – in the words for T S Eliot – than a continent thriving with civilisation. The French and German ambassadors were present on the occasion and both had some valuable notions to share with the audience before the ensemble performed.

Before sharing with the readers the most sensible suggestions from the ambassadors to restore peace in South Asia, something about the performances. The first compositions performed were from Rameau. For starters, it is pertinent to mention that the French composer and music theorist, Rameau, was a shining star of the French opera in the early 18th century. The baroque music of that period was witnessing a turning point – from sacred to secular overtones. Rameau became a watershed symbol between the stile antico and stile moderno ie from an antique style to the modern one.

If you just type Jean Philippe Rameau in YouTube, you get to listen to some of his best compositions from Fonds Decroix (the Decroix collection). Decroix was a French aristocrat who brought together all of Rameau’s compositions in his collection. In these compositions you will notice a remarkable combination of violin and harpsichord work. He was one of the very few who not only composed and played music but also contributed to the theory of music by writing books on how to write music. His Treatise on Harmony (1722) is still considered a masterpiece by music enthusiasts.

Unfortunately Rameau’s fame declined after his death, as a new genius was coming on stage, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Stradivaria performed from Mozart’s Divertimento from his Salzburg Symphony 1. Again if you just type Divertimento KV 136, you will listen to the mesmerising music of Mozart who was just 16 years old when he composed the first of his Salzburg Symphonies. If you are more of a visual person, watch the Academy Award winning feature film ‘Amadeus’ directed by Milos Forman in 1984. The film will take you to an amazing musical journey with the tragic life of a child prodigy who died at the age of 36.

Finally the last composition played by Stradivaria was from Beethoven, arguably the best of them all. The piece they played was from the String Quartet No 1 Opus 18. The second movement of it was inspired by the tomb scene from William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Though the ensemble played just the Allegro con Brio, but it was a fine conclusion to a very engaging evening that offered the audience a chance to listen to some of the masterpieces of the French, Austrian, and German music from the 18th century.

And now something about what the ambassadors suggested. The French ambassador to Pakistan, Dr Marc Barety, was more circumspect in his remarks and while welcoming the guests he reminded them that France and Germany fought devastating wars for centuries. And it was only after the two great wars of the 20th century that they realised the futility of hatred caused by excessive nationalism and overblown patriotism. He recalled that over 17 million people were killed in the First World War and the casualties in WWII were over 50 million. Both the wars contributed nothing to the national prestige of any country.

Without naming any country he suggested that it would be much better if other countries learnt from the French and German experiences. He said that sooner or later enemies have to become friends, and the path to friendship may go through battlefields or via boardrooms. In the first route, there was harm while in the second there is harmony as reflected in the music. So his preference was to go through music which is why he was keen on inviting the musicians at the centennial of WWI.

The German ambassador, Martin Kobler, was more candid and did mention Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. He recalled that after WWII when he was still a child, he travelled with student groups to Germany that had occupied France just a decade earlier. At that time the French and German governments were making deliberate efforts to wipe out the bitter and despicable memories of their past enmity. At the governmental level, exchange visits were made to each other’s schools and colleges so that young people, rather than hating each other, started loving each other despite a huge backlog of chauvinistic fervour.

Kobler also shared with the audience that both countries decided to reach a common understanding of history by acknowledging their past mistakes. They formed committees to write joint textbooks of history in which, rather than blaming each other, independent and objective historians presented a more realistic picture of history that did not defend their past atrocities but called a spade a spade even if that went against their traditional nationalistic grain. Both countries also linked their big and small cities with their sister cities across the border. This helped in nurturing harmonious relations among the people.

Finally, the German ambassador asked the audience to imagine if Afghanistan, India and Pakistan could create common history books for their children in schools and colleges. “Imagine if your students can freely study in each other’s universities and work in each other’s companies.” Both the ambassadors spoke from their heart and one could feel a genuine desire in them to see peace in South Asia. Sadly the audience was not sanguine about these suggestions and when this writer applauded not many joined in. Despite repeated requests from the organisers, many in the audience kept talking to each other or into their phones even during the musical performance. The Hashoo Group must be congratulated for this brilliant event and, overall, this writer enjoyed the stay despite a bit of an issue with the food and a repeatedly deactivating key to the room.

Dr Naazir Ahmad, "An ode to music," The news. 2018-10-28.
Keywords: Social sciences , Musical performance , Government level , National prestige , Freedom Movement , World war , Germany , Afghanistan , India , Pakistan