Program Notes

Notes on Music for the Last Raj by Artistic co-Director, Robert Eisenstein, followed by an essay by guest scholar, Indira Viswanathan Peterson

We are delighted to present this concert of music from two traditions at a small but influential court in south India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There is so much to say about these two traditions, and their confluence at Serfoji’s court in Tanjore. Here are a few notes on our European composers, George Frideric Handel and William Shield, both wildly popular in their day. Following these notes, Indira Viswanathan Peterson, whose scholarship is the inspiration for this program, has offered an essay on both the European and Karnatic music at this court.  Following her notes, you will find additional information on the Karnatic music and our ‘cross-over’ pieces embedded in the texts and translations.

George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Germany, in 1685, and died in London in 1759. His long career included positions in Italy, Germany, and England. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest composers of the Baroque and has always been recognized as such. Unlike Bach and other illustrious contemporaries, Handel's reputation (at least in English-speaking countries) never suffered a long decline and subsequent revival, and as we shall see, his fame extended as far as India. This fact is certainly due to the unbroken tradition of performances of his oratorios, especially the famous Messiah.

Handel was the son of a respected barber-surgeon who, for the usual financial reasons, wished the boy to become a lawyer and forbade him to practice music. The story is told of how Handel managed to practice secretly (and presumably softly) in the attic on a clavichord. Fortunately, his father was convinced by a local noble to let Handel study music, and he received his early training under the organist Zachow, who exposed Handel to a large variety of German and Italian scores. He studied organ, harpsichord, and violin, and learned composition and counterpoint, and in short was trained very much in the German Kapellmeister tradition. By 1703 he was employed as a second violin in the opera at Hamburg, then a major commercial and cultural center. In his early years Handel struck up friendships with other young musicians who were to become well-known, including Telemann and Mattheson, who credited him with "a natural inclination to dry humor”. From 1706 to 1710 Handel was in Italy, the font of opera, oratorio, cantatas, concerti, and sonatas. During those years, spent largely in Florence, Rome, and Venice, he met and worked with most of the great practitioners of Italian music including Corelli, Vivaldi, and the Scarlattis. Handel's famous keyboard contest with Domenico Scarlatti in Rome ended with all agreeing that both were great harpsichordists, but that Handel far surpassed on the organ. His years in Italy were tremendously important. He arrived there as a well-trained but somewhat stiff musician in the German tradition but left as a cosmopolitan and polished composer equipped with the wonderful Italianate melodic flair which was to enliven his music from that point on. 

It was not long before Handel made his first visit to London, the city that was to become his permanent home. His opera Rinaldo, first produced for a run of 15 performances in 1711, was the first Italian opera composed for London, and was a great success. Handel continued to write and produce opera in London until 1741. His years of greatest operatic success were the years at the Royal Academy, a company established under the patronage of the King to establish Italian opera permanently in London. Handel was the music director, and between 1719 and 1728 this company was responsible for some of his greatest commercial and artistic productions. But like many more recent large musical organizations, the Academy was troubled by financial difficulties, squabbling directors, and by a growing disinclination on the part of audiences to attend operas with rather far-fetched plots sung entirely in Italian by Italian singers. The success of The Beggar's Opera, given 62 times in 1728, hastened the end for the Academy. 

Of course, during his years in London, Handel was not entirely occupied with his operatic career, composing instrumental and sacred music as well. As early as 1713, he was in the habit of playing on a new organ at St. Paul's Cathedral, and then crossing the street to the Queen's Arms Tavern to indulge his legendary appetite for other than musical refreshments. Some of his companions in these expeditions were undoubtedly church musicians, and in fact Handel's early ceremonial court and cathedral music shows a thorough assimilation of the English choral tradition, and especially the music of Purcell. 

Almost all the writers who knew Handel agreed on his personality. He was a large and imposing man of great intelligence, and somewhat gruff and direct. Burney, who was only 10 when he met Handel, said his "general look was somewhat heavy and sour; but when he did smile, it was his sire the sun, bursting out of a black cloud. There was a sudden flash of intelligence, wit, and good humour, beaming in his countenance, which I hardly ever saw in any other”. In fact, Handel was a man of great humor, as evidenced by his music no less than the numerous anecdotes about him that survive. Burney, again, thought that "had he been as great a master of the English language as Swift, his bons mots would have been as frequent, and somewhat of the same kind”. There seems to be no question that he was a man of scrupulous honesty and integrity in all his dealings, and was known for his generosity to charitable organizations.  Perhaps this is why the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was moved to invite Handel to Dublin in 1741, the occasion which caused the first performance of Messiah.

In addition to the instrumental chamber music presented here, we include chamber arrangements of selections from two works, the oratorio Samson and the opera Amadigi di Gaula. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many works composed for orchestra (and in this case, soloists and chorus) were printed in reductions for keyboard and sometimes a couple of other instruments. It is the sort of arrangement that Serfoji was able to hear of this music at his court.  Handel completed the oratorio in 1741, just before the premiere of Messiah. Samson was first performed at Covent Garden in 1743 and was a great success. If one is familiar with Messiah and new to Samson, the similarity in musical style is a delightful discovery. We present the overture here, most likely in a manner not dissimilar to the reading it received at Serfoji’s court, and the most famous aria from this oratorio, Let the Bright Seraphims.

The opera Amadigi di Gaula, first performed in London in 1715, is based on later versions of the epic poem Amadigi by Bernardo Tasso. The opera is written for a small cast of singers including three sopranos. Our excerpt, Ah, Spietato! is an aria for the sorceress Melissa (who also appears in Handel’s Rinaldo). In this wonderful example of the emotive power a da capo aria is capable of displaying, Melissa is vying with the other characters for the love of Amadigi. The role was originally sung by Elisabetta Pilotti-Schiavonetti (c.1680 – 1752) who was something of a specialist in sorceress roles. 

William Shield (1748 – 1829) was a string player, composer and collector of popular songs.  Born near Newcastle upon Tyne, he was the son of a music teacher. By 1770 he became the leader of theater bands at Scarborough and then Durham before moving to London to play violin and then principal viola at the King’s Theatre. He retained that position even after becoming the house composer at Covent Garden in 1784. Shield was admitted to the Society of Musicians in 1779 and soon thereafter was appointed to the King’s Music. He helped to found the Glee Club and Philharmonic Society as well. The comic opera Rosina, composed in 1782, is Shield’s best-known work today, and like all his comic operas it is a wonderfully engaging pasticcio of traditional music and charming original compositions. In the 1780s and 90s Covent Garden was in competition with Drury Lane to provide fashionable music in a popular vein, and so Shield’s interest in English and Scottish songs proved very useful. Shield collaborated with the antiquarian Joseph Ritson in publishing collections of folk songs, and in Rosina and his other comic operas it is sometimes difficult to tell whether a song is a real folk song or a composition that sounds like one by Shield himself. There are also examples of ‘real’ arias in Rosina, like ‘When William at Eve’, to contrast with the actual Scottish song ‘When bidden to the wake or fair,’ both performed here. It is easy to see the appeal of this piece for Serfoji, who delighted in the opera-like productions of his own court, which featured folk and popular themes and tunes as well.


The Last Raj:

European and Karnatic Music at the Court of Serfoji II of Tanjore

by Indira Viswanathan Peterson

This concert showcases a fascinating chapter in the encounter between European and Indian music, one that unfolded at a small south Indian royal court in the early 19th century. The Maratha royal court of Tanjore (Thanjavur), at the kingdom’s eponymous capital, is well known as the foundational center of the south Indian classical traditions now known as Karnatic music and Bharata Natyam dance. Among the new developments in the 19th century was the advent of European music, along with British colonial rule. In late-18th and early-19th-century Tanjore, even as key compositional forms such as the kriti were developed, Karnatic music also absorbed European musical styles and European instruments such as the violin and the clarinet. Indeed, the violin became and remains the principal accompaniment in Karnatic concerts. Serfoji II, the polymathic Maratha king who ruled the vastly reduced Tanjore principality under British supervision from 1798 to 1832, played a key role in these innovations. The Indian performing arts reached new heights of creative excellence at Serfoji’s court. At the same time, the king built on his European education – unusual for Indians in his time – to achieve a cosmopolitan synthesis of Enlightenment and Indian knowledge systems, and European and Indian arts and cultural practices, becoming a pioneer in south India’s transition to modernity and an important figure in global interchange of ideas.

Musical production and innovation at Serfoji’s court drew on the multiple linguistic and cultural streams that converged in the Tanjore region in the early modern era, under the Nayakas and Marathas, rulers of diverse regional origins. Raga-based compositions in several languages – Telugu, Tamil, Sanskrit, and Marathi – were authored by brahmin men as well as by composers from hereditary artistic communities. Karnatic compositions were dedicated to Hindu deities, but court musicians also specialized in lyric-erotic courtly genres, and in works dedicated to the king. North and south Indian musical styles, dance and music, and temple and court, were intimately connected. Brahmin male singers and devadasi female courtesans performed the repertoire. A celebrated team of brothers known as the Tanjore Quartet pioneered brilliant new genres in music and dance. Serfoji also patronized unique folk-influenced genres such as the Kuravanji, a dance drama featuring a tribal fortune-teller. European music was seamlessly woven into the fabric of performance at court. Also active during Serfoji’s reign were the independent brahmin composers Tyagaraja, Muthusvami Dikshitar, and Syama Sastri, who perfected the tripartite kriti song, which became the core of the Karnatic repertoire. Although the Tanjore Raj ended in 1855, Tanjore remained a byword for Karnatic music, and court artists carried the Raj’s repertoire to other courts, and eventually to Madras, the urban center of Karnatic music today.

At Serfoji’s court, European music blossomed in conversation with the Indian arts. Serfoji was the first Indian ruler to develop a full-fledged European wind band. Well in advance of Indian contemporaries, the king acquired knowledge of a wide range of European music, including popular and classical chamber works for instruments and voice. He cultivated all of these kinds of music at his court, and experimented with ensembles of European and Indian instruments playing compositions in both systems as well as in a hybrid European-Indian style. Nineteenth-century Indian understandings of European music were shaped by British popular taste, in its colonial avatars. Colonial Britons formed chamber music circles, playing Bach, Handel and Corelli, but English armies spread fiddle and band music, mainly Scots and Irish airs and military marches, in British cities such as Madras, and in the provincial center of Tanjore, which was a garrison town in the 18th century during the English East India Company’s wars with the kingdom of Mysore. Colonial British music was deeply colored by rising British nationalism, which intensified during the Napoleonic wars and the consolidation of British power in India. For Britons, Handel, who had composed versions of ‘God Save the King’ and incorporated it in his Messiah and Coronation Anthems was a “national” composer. Thomas Arne inserted a version of ‘God Save the King’ in one of his English light operas. He and William Shield, another English opera composer, routinely included folksongs and popular airs in their works. These were the themes and forms through which Serfoji’s court musicians and other Tanjore composers and performers encountered European music.

Serfoji kept up with the latest developments in band instrumentation and repertoire. He engaged Europeans and Eurasians to tutor him and his courtiers in Western music, and even composed several band tunes. He also owned what was perhaps the most remarkable private Indian collection of European instruments in his time, including harps, harpsichords, pianofortes, clarinets and flutes. What distinguished Serfoji’s court musicians, both in chamber ensembles and in the court band, was the fact that they could sight-read European staff notation, in contrast with the Karnatic and Indian emphasis on oral-aural pedagogic and performance practices. Serfoji had his musicians trained to play the violin, piano, harp, and flute, and had them perform in local European chamber music ensembles. Predictably, chamber versions of music from Handel’s oratorios and operas were great favorites. At one remarkable concert in 1826, Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta, was “…particularly struck by the performance of two Brahmins who accompanied Mrs. Fyfe [the wife of the British political Resident] in several difficult pieces, and afterwards played the overture in [Handel’s oratorio] Samson by sight”. These court musicians also excelled in playing, on the violin and the Indian veena, “Marlbrook” and “God Save the King”, the same popular airs that the bands were playing. Band music was in the air outside the court as well. In his thirty-nine nottusvaram (“composition in European notes”) songs set to Scots and Irish airs, Muthusvami Dikshitar, famed for his majestic Sanskrit kritis, wrote lively Sanskrit hymns to gods and goddesses in the Western major scale. Later composers continued to compose “English Notes”.            

How might Serfoji, Dikshitar, and the court musicians have perceived their encounter with Western music? There are striking differences between Karnatic and European music. Although the Tanjore court specialized in compositional genres, the foundations of the music cultivated there were raga and improvisation, the core elements of Indian art music (and of other types of music). In performance, compositions served mainly as the scaffolding or anchoring points around which the Karnatic ensemble wove the tapestry of raga through multilayered, virtuosic, dialogic improvisations in melody (alapana) and rhythm (various types of manipulation of musical elements within the fixed tala beat cycle). Often translated as “scale” or “scale type”, a raga is, as T. Viswanathan and Matthew Allen put it, “at once a [subtly delineated] storehouse of remembered melodic history and a body of melodic potential to be drawn upon and realized in performance, a bit like a box of painter’s colors”. Indeed, Karnatic practitioners and listeners transact in the exploration and enjoyment of the unique and varied personalities of ragas. Learning and performing fixed compositions with notation as a basis, and the European emphasis on harmony, must surely have seemed strange to the Tanjore musicians. Dikshitar’s nottusvarams illuminate the Indian perception of European music as a configuration of unornamented, straight notes and metronomical rhythms, interesting, but lacking in depth, in contrast to the elaboration of ragas through subtle gamaka and other microtonal ornamentation, infinitely varied in performance.

On the other hand, the Tanjore encounter also entails a success story, that of the adoption of the European violin as a major instrument in Karnatic music. The veena, an ancient, lute-like instrument, was the queen of South Indian instruments, its potential developed to perfection at the Tanjore Nayaka court. Serfoji featured veenas in his Euro-Indian ensemble. As we know, however, the more portable and fretless European violin eventually edged out the veena in Karnatic performance. Ultimately, the story of Serfoji of Tanjore’s– and south India’s – engagement with European music is a tale of dialogues among violins, veenas and harps, and between “notes” and ragas, and of tunes that travelled across national and generic boundaries as well as multiple levels of culture.

In this program we seek to illuminate an historic moment in global encounter in music-making, and to explore the potential of such encounters in our times. Learning about Serfoji’s cosmopolitan experiments and those of the Tanjore Karnatic composers enables us to train our lens on Indian responses to European music, rather than on European reactions to Indian music. Our aim is not to reconstruct or replicate the early-19th-century Tanjore repertoire, but to appreciate the importance of Serfoji’s innovations, and equally importantly, to enjoy and evoke their dialogic, experimental, and playful spirit.

The typical Karnatic ensemble of the 20th century consisted of a vocalist accompanied by violin, mridangam drum and other instruments. Instruments such as the veena, flute, or violin could take the place of the principal vocalist, but the standard format was that of a central musician supported by accompanists, although recent years have seen more experimental ensemble playing. The performance of the Karnatic ensemble in today’s concert features a vocalist and violinist in free-form conversation with a veena player and a mridangam drummer, without focusing on a principal musician. Today’s concert is organized in three segments: The European Tradition, The Karnatic Tradition, and The Traditions Combined. In the spirit of Serfoji’s experiment, the performance foregrounds extensive improvisation, and equal and multidirectional exchange among the musicians in the Karnatic ensemble and the Folger Consort, both within their own ensembles, and in dialogue with the other ensemble and tradition.

The European repertoire presented in the first and third segments is designed to represent that used and performed by Serfoji and his courtiers, drawing on information gleaned from Palace records, visitors’ accounts, and Serfoji’s collection of European music. Featured prominently are works by Handel, and Shield’s opera Rosina; the emphasis is on the colonial European repertoire, as well as on the popular airs that circulated widely in Britain and India, pointing up serendipitous parallels in the turn to the popular in the early nineteenth-century European and Tanjore traditions.

The second segment, on the Karnatic Tradition, opens with Tamil compositions for performance at the temple. The 11th-century Chola temple of Shiva Brihadisvara in Tanjore was a focal point for worship and the expression of sovereignty for Serfoji. We next present what we know of the Tanjore courtly repertoire, mainly through its preservation by hereditary performers and from recent research. We eschew major genres such as padam and padavarnam, staples of the court repertoire, since their performance demands leisurely development. We showcase, instead, two short javalis, lyric pieces in the spirit of the padam, by later composers, and a major kriti by Ponnaiya of the Tanjore Quartet. Also included are songs from a Marathi Kuravanji drama on a scientific theme, a charming novelty piece authored by Serfoji himself. The final segment, The Traditions Combined, features lively improvised conversations between violins, voices, and entire compositions in both European and Karnatic styles. Here, airs by Shield are paired with Telugu kritis by all three composers of the Karnatic “Trinity”. We also offer a taste of the band tunes written for Serfoji, and of Dikshitar’s delightful nottusvarams, one of them set to the tune of “God Save the King”. Evoking the spirit of a nearly forgotten episode in East-West musical dialogue, we hope that this concert also reveals the flexibility and dynamism of both European and Karnatic classical traditions, and their enduring vitality.