Oriental and Occidental Music

Oriental and Occidental Music


Translated from the original Bengalee by Basanta Koomar Roy

IN the West Mr. Tagore is known at a poet, but he is primarily famous as a writer, singer, and composer of songs. His poems are read by the thousands, but his songs are sung by the millions. Millions of Indian peasants who are deliberately kept in illiteracy and ignorance by the ruling power, and who do not know even by reputation the great poet, sing his songs morning, noon and night

ONCE during my stay in Brighton I went to a concert to hear a famous singer. Her name just escapes my memory, but I guess it was Madame Nilsson or Madame Albani. I never before had heard such a powerfully rich voice. Even the great singers in my own country cannot resist the temptation of singing for singing's sake. Men whose voices are quite incapable of using high and low notes properly feel no hesitancy in singing rather indifferently. There is a reason for this. In our country the connoisseurs of music do not mind the defects in presentations, for they create in their imagination the ideal as they listen to a song, and in this creation find perfect joy. It is for this that they look with disdain upon the supposed perfection of a song sung only in a sweet voice. The real nature of the thing finds its fullest expression in its original beauty through outward harshness and comparative imperfection. This is like the outward poverty of Shiva—a poverty that is glorified in its utter nakedness.

The spirit of this philosophy is altogether absent in Europe. There the outward finish must be flawless to make any favorable impression on the audience. The least defect makes the performance a total failure. We here do not mind a bit if we have to wait half an hour watching the players turning the pegs of tanpura or tuning the tobla with a hammer. In Europe these preliminaries are attended to behind the curtain; there everything before the public gaze must he the very acme of perfection. It is for this reason that the voice of a singer must be without the least trace of any weakness.

In India our best thoughts are engrossed in the devotion to song, and we have to overcome the difficulties mainly in the song; in Europe devotion to voice is their first concern, and they perform most complicatedly wonderful feats with it. An appreciative audience in India is content to listen to the beauty of the song alone; but in Europe they listen to the singing of the song. In Brighton I noticed the same thing—that lady's technique of singing was phenomenally wonderful. It seemed to me that she with ease was driving a circus horse in her voice. The ripples of transparent melody that were playing on her vocal chords were expressing themselves without the least obstruction. However wonderstruck I might have been that day, I must confess that I was not moved in the least by those songs. Especially those places where she tried to imitate the singing of birds appeared exceedingly ridiculous to me. On the whole I felt that her voice was transcending the normal limitations of the human voice. Afterwards I was much relieved at listening to the songs of male singers, particularly the tenors. For it was not like the lamentation of a storm wind without any form—in it could be traced the emanation of voice from vocal chords made of human blood and muscles.

EVENTUALLY, by repeated hearing and constant study I began to appreciate European music. But still I hold that the provinces of Western and Eastern music are distinctly separate. They do not lead through the same gates into the same chambers of the heart. European music is, as it were, strangely entwined with the actualities of life, so it becomes easy to connect the air or a song with the multiform experiences of life. An attempt to do the same without music would be fatuous, and the result most unwelcome. Our music transcends the precincts of every-day life, so there is to be found so much of tenderness and indifference to worldly joys and sorrows—as if it is ordained to reveal the glory of the innermost and inexplicable mystery that surrounds the soul of man and of the universe. That mystery world is very quiet and solitary with its bowers of delight for lovers and hermitages for worshippers of God, but there is no provision made for the world-wrapped pragmatists.

It would be impudent on my part to say that I have been able to enter into the very heart of European music; but I must confess that judging as a layman it has made a profound impression on only one side of my nature. It is romantic. It is hard to explain what the word romantic really means, but broadly speaking, it represents the spirit of variety and exuberance—the spirit of the dashing waves of the ocean of life—the spirit of the reflection of light and shade over things that are in incessant motion. And there is still another aspect of the romantic: it is that of easiness which reflects the calm blue sky suggesting the presence of the infinite in the dim, distant horizon. It may be that I have failed to express my idea, but it is certain, nevertheless, that every time I listen to Western music I think within myself—"it is romantic, it is exquisitely romantic indeed." It practically translates the various experiences of human life into musical notes. It cannot be denied that there are attempts in our music towards the achievement of the same thing, but they have not yet ripened into robust fruition. Our songs sing of the starlit night and the radiant glow of the gold-embroidered dawn; as they also sing of the universal pangs of separation felt in rainy July, and the consuming ecstasy of the spring in its youth.

OUR music differs from the European in being a single strain of melody, not the harmony of various voices and instruments. Also we have numerous scales, and the melodies written in each scale are appropriate to a certain range of emotions. For example, certain airs are always sung in the morning, others at twilight, others at night; so that their strains are associated in our minds with those hours.

In the same way a certain range of melodies is consecrated to the emotion of love, another to that of heroic valor, another to repose, and so on.

Music, on the whole, is not dependent on words. It Is majestically grand in its own glory. Why should it condescend to be subservient to words? When it is inexpressible, then music is at its best. What words foil to convey to human mind music does with perfect ease. So the less there is of verbosity in a song, the better it is for the song itself. Music begins when words end.

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