Pleasures of Listening to Western Classical Music for Indians-Part I

Ashok Boghani
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Ashok Boghani
Ashok Boghani

(Editor’s note: We are pleased to launch a five-part series on pleasures of listening to Western Classical Music by Ashok Boghani.

“One of my recent missions in life has been to introduce the pleasures of listening to Western Classical Music to my Indian friends,” says Boghani. “I was fortunate to get introduced to it early in my life–when a pen friend of mine sent me an LP of Beethoven’s violin concerto when I was still in IIT. After coming to the US, I got more into it, helped by friends who were experts. That passion continues for me and in fact I am spending even more time on it, now that I have “retired”.

Boghani says that although he is delighted that the scene for Indian Classical Music in the Boston area is thriving, he is disappointed that in all his years of his going to Western Concerts, he has yet to see another Indian.

“I feel that living in the West, one should learn to appreciate the Western music as well as Indian,” says Boghani, who upon request of several of his friends put together this series of articles.)

An introduction to Western Classical Music for Indians

By Ashok B. Boghani

Western Classical Music (WCM) can be intimidating to the uninitiated. For those of us who grew up in India, the challenge is particularly daunting because we never hear it. One of the likely reasons is that the Indian Classical Music (ICM) is so well developed, that people do not have to depend on WCM to satisfy their need to enjoy music in a deeper way than what they can get through the popular music. That is not the case for those growing up, say, in another Asian country like Japan or Korea. WCM is a lot more popular there than in India.

However, I have found that it is important to learn to enjoy WCM. It opens up a whole new world, a treasure chest that keeps on giving. To that end, I have written this document to introduce WCM from the perspective of someone from India. I am hardly an expert, but I have been enjoying WCM ever since a pen friend of mine sent me an LP of Beethoven’s violin concerto some time in the late 60s when I was in college. That initial interest was fortified while I was in MIT and met a couple of WCM aficionados. WCM has given me hours of enjoyment and now that I am retired I hope to further learn and appreciate it.

I will begin by identifying differences and similarities between WCM and ICM. Then I will proceed to introduce the instruments in an orchestra. Next I will describe the different forms of compositions. The rest of the document, the bulk of it, is devoted to sampling of some of the most popular works of various composers. I have done that is an approximate chronological order divided according to the periods or eras of WCM—Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern (after 1900). Thanks to YouTube, I can provide links to interpretations of all these works.

A word of caution—this is a personal view of this vast field. All my biases and preferences will show up. Just because I am not fond of a composer’s music does not mean that you would not find it enjoyable.

  1. The differences and similarities between the Western and Indian Classical Music

A major difference between the two types of music is that WCM is composed previously by a composer, often several centuries ago, and written down for future performance. An orchestra under the direction of a conductor then performs it. ICM, on the other hand is composed and performed by an artist in real time. In that sense, Jazz is more similar to ICM than WCM, although one can argue ICM is more advanced and elaborate than Jazz. However, that is my perception, as I know ICM more than I know Jazz. (I simplify a little bit…ICM is not entirely composed at the time of performance; some parts are previously composed and memorized.)

The compositions in both types of music are creative expressions that follow certain rules. In WCM, the “key” in which a piece is written specifies what notes can be included in the composition, just as is the case with Ragas in ICM. (I am simplifying this a bit, as the rules for Ragas include more than permitted set of notes.)So, when a composer writes a symphony in “C Minor,” he/she is allowed to compose using only certain notes as specified by the term “C Minor.” C refers to a key on piano, same as Sa in ICM. This is generally true, as I am told that ICM permits some flexibility in selecting the exact frequency of Sa. Minor (or Major) refers to what notes above and below that are allowed in the composition.

WCM most frequently includes an ensemble of performers (although there are numerous pieces written for solo artists), while ICM is performed most often by one person with minimal accompaniment, say, of tabla and tanpura. Given that fact that numerous musicians playing instruments simultaneously are involved, it becomes obvious that one needs to have music written down a priori in WCMJ.

In some ways the difference between the two types of music is similar to that between color vs. black and white photographs. Both can be beautiful, and require virtuosity to create, but are of different type.

Using the photography metaphor, performers playing different instruments provide the color in WCM. So a composer can add “dark color” by including a woodwind instrument or a “bright one” by having brass instrument. That is generally absent in ICM, which relies on shades of grey. Further, several performers playing the same instrument, mostly a violin, adds richness to the sound and volume.

A WCM composition generally has several distinct parts, called movements, just as is the case with an ICM composition. What is interesting is the fact that a WCM composition frequently starts with a bang, a fast movement, while ICM piece begins slowly and builds up.

Both WCM and ICM have melody, however, only WCM has harmony, which requires multiple strands of music playing at the same time. In ICM, rhythm is provided explicitly by a tabla, not so in WCM. In WCM, the rhythm is woven in the composition through emphasis on notes by the instruments. In general, I find that rhythm in ICM is vastly more complex than in WCM.

The performance of ICM is interactive. The artists expect the audience to show appreciation (“wah wah”). In fact the quality of performance depends on it. No such situation in WCM. One is expected to maintain pin-drop silence through out the performance, and clap only at the end of a composition, not even a movement.

The capability and skill of an ICM artist makes a big impact on the raga he/she sings. This is to be expected, as he/she is composing at the same time. For a beginner (like me), the same composition (say Beethoven’s symphony number 7) played by different orchestras does not sound all that different. Of course, there are variations but that is for an advanced listener. The point of departure in WCM is the composition, not its performance. The primary affinity one develops is to a composer and less so to an orchestra or conductor.

At this stage, let me clarify how different compositions get their names. The first identifier is the composer (say, “Beethoven” or “Bach” or “Mozart”). The second is a number that approximates the sequence of a specific type of composition in the composer’s lifetime. So Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is the one he wrote after his 4th Symphony. The third identifier is the “key” as I mentioned above. So, Beethoven’s Symphony number 5 in C minor is a fairly complete description. Occasionally, but not always, there is a nickname associated with the composition. So, for example, Beethoven’s third symphony is called “Eroica”—or heroic (not erotic ;-)). His sixth is called “Pastoral”, and so on. Finally, there is a thing called Opus number that is assigned sequentially to a composition. So generally, Opus 1 is what the composer created first and then the number increase after that. Beethoven’s fifth is Opus 67.

Now in terms of common threads among different works—-there is some similarity among compositions by the same composer. This is because of when it was composed and the style of the composer. So, I may be able to identify a piece as Mozart’s even though I had not heard it before, based on certain nuances.

However, a Beethoven’s C minor symphony is not at all similar to Mozart’s C minor symphony, although they both were composed under the rules imposed by the selection of the key. In fact, often, a composer may have two symphonies in the same key, both very different from one another. This is like the same raga sung by different artists in ICM. Two different artists ones sing raga Bhairavi quite differently, although they are creating their compositions under the same set of rules.

Finally, the number associated with the work is just that, a number. Beethoven’s third symphony is called third because it was written by him after the second symphony, that’s it. It has nothing to do with, say, Mozart’s third symphony.

Now, let’s begin by listening to this composition by Beethoven (as you might have guessed, my favorite composer). This is his Symphony 5 in C minor. Note the various instruments providing “color”. Also, how different strands of music, sometimes playing different but complementary melodies, are woven into the composition. See what the conductor is doing. If possible, listen to the entire piece, all four movements. Note that movements have terms that indicate what type of movements they are (e.g., “Allegro con brio”). Don’t worry about it for the moment.

This is an extremely popular piece of music, which depicts, in many people’s mind, the struggle Beethoven went through as he found out he was going deaf. It moves from agitation and anger (first movement) to acceptance (second), and finally to triumph (the last two).



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