During the formative phase of my professional career in the late sixties at the Regional College (now, Institute) of Education in Mysore, Professor Praful N Dave was my mentor and a major influence on me. He taught me the principles of educational evaluation through Bloom’s taxonomy as well as his own modified version. More significantly, he introduced me to the wonderful world of western classical music through his impressive collection of LP records. I got hooked to the compositions of great masters like Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Strauss, Tchaikovsky and a host of others and developed an abiding interest in them. I built up a small collection of taped western classical music and used to listen to them whenever possible. Beethoven’s seventy minute long Ninth Symphony was, and still is, my most favorite piece of music and I have listened to it with the greatest of joy a countless number of times.
Once long ago, while traveling with three friends in a first class railway compartment in central India, one of them persuaded his Bengali friend to entertain us with some music in his native language. This person, rather reclusive up to that time, opened out with a few pieces of Rabindra sangeeth which enthralled me greatly with its distinctively melodic style and depth of feeling though I could not understand any of the words making up the music. This was my gateway to Rabindra sangeeth which I have enjoyed ever since, as much as western classical music, though these are poles apart.
My interest in Rabindra sangeeth received a huge boost from my esteemed friend and former professional colleague, Professor Somnath Datta, and his wife, who are both strongly addicted to all forms of Rabindra sangeeth, especially Tagore’s great dance dramas. I have attended a number of sittings at their home and listened to their orchestral duets. I still don’t understand most Bengali words, but this has certainly not hampered my enjoyment of this great form of music. With their help I have built up a small collection of Bengali music to add to my collection of western classicals.
In between, my liking for and interest in the traditional Hindustani style of classical Indian music has also grown considerably. I enjoy listening particularly to the vocal renderings of great masters like Paluskar, Jasraj, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Gangubai Hangal, Mallikarjun Mansur, Bhimsen Joshi and a host of others belonging to a rich variety of styles or Gharanas. Needless to say, I have built up a good collection of Hindustani classical music as well.
In 2005, which marked the hundredth anniversary of Einstein’s great discoveries in Relativity and Quantum Physics that heralded what is perhaps the greatest revolution in human intellectual history, I had to dig up information about Einstein’s life as well as his work for a series of lectures to students and teachers of physics. I stumbled upon an article* summarizing the conversations that took place in Germany during two meetings of Rabindranath Tagore with Albert Einstein. Music being the obvious common factor connecting these two extraordinary stalwarts of the twentieth century, a considerable part of their conversation was centered round the similarities and differences in the western and Indian classical styles of music. In view of my great admiration for both of them, one for his revolutionary work in science and the other for his lasting contributions to music in particular, I read this article with tremendous interest. I had casually mentioned this to Prof Datta during one of our meetings.
Recently the Dattas had invited me with a number of their other friends to an evening of Rabindra sangeeth commemorating the 150th death anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore. The highlight of the evening was some orchestral duets rendered by the Dattas and a few of their friends. Prof Datta also wanted me to speak about the Tagore-Einstein conversation on music during this get-together. I obliged with a mildly edited version of the conversation I had come across. I later felt that this could go into one of my blog posts since most people appear to be unaware of what transpired in the Tagore-Einstein meetings. Here it is.
Tagore-Einstein Conversation on Classical Music
Tagore and Einstein met through a common friend, Dr Mendel. Tagore visited Einstein at his residence in the suburbs of Berlin on July 14, 1930, and Einstein returned the call and visited Tagore at the Mendel home. Both conversations were recorded......... The July 14 conversation is (partially) reproduced here:
Tagore: ...........the musical system in India, which is not so rigidly fixed as western music. Our composers give a certain definite outline, a system of melody and rhythmic arrangement, and within a certain limit the player can improvise upon it. He must be one with the law of that particular melody, and then he can give spontaneous expression to his musical feeling within the prescribed regulation. We praise the composer for his genius in creating a foundation along with a superstructure of melodies, but we expect from the player his own skill in the creation of variations of melodic flourish and ornamentation. In creation we follow the central law of existence, but if we do not cut ourselves adrift from it, we can have sufficient freedom within the limits of our personality for the fullest self-expression.
Einstein: That is possible only when there is a strong artistic tradition in music to guide the people's mind. In Europe, music has come too far away from popular art and popular feeling and has become something like a secret art with conventions and traditions of its own.
Tagore: You have to be absolutely obedient to this too complicated music. In India, the measure of a singer's freedom is in his own creative personality. He can sing the composer's song as his own, if he has the power creatively to assert himself in his interpretation of the general law of the melody which he is given to interpret.
Einstein: It requires a very high standard of art to realize fully the great idea in the original music, so that one can make variations upon it. In our country, the variations are often prescribed.
Tagore: If in our conduct we can follow the law of goodness, we can have real liberty of self-expression. The principle of conduct is there, but the character which makes it true and individual is our own creation. In our music there is a duality of freedom and prescribed order.
Einstein: Are the words of a song also free? I mean to say, is the singer at liberty to add his own words to the song which he is singing?
Tagore: Yes. In Bengal we have a kind of song-kirtan, we call it - which gives freedom to the singer to introduce parenthetical comments, phrases not in the original song. This occasions great enthusiasm, since the audience is constantly thrilled by some beautiful, spontaneous sentiment added by the singer.
Einstein: Is the metrical form quite severe?
Tagore: Yes, quite. You cannot exceed the limits of versification; the singer in all his variations must keep the rhythm and the time, which is fixed. In European music you have a comparative liberty with time, but not with melody.
Einstein: Can the Indian music be sung without words? Can one understand a song without words?
Tagore: Yes, we have songs with unmeaning words, sounds which just help to act as carriers of the notes. In North India, music is an independent art, not the interpretation of words and thoughts, as in Bengal. The music is very intricate and subtle and is a complete world of melody by itself.
Einstein: Is it not polyphonic?
Tagore: Instruments are used, not for harmony, but for keeping time and adding to the volume and depth. Has melody suffered in your music by the imposition of harmony?
Einstein: Sometimes it does suffer very much. Sometimes the harmony swallows up the melody altogether.
Tagore: Melody and harmony are like lines and colors in pictures. A simple linear picture may be completely beautiful; the introduction of color may make it vague and insignificant. Yet color may, by combination with lines, create great pictures, so long as it does not smother and destroy their value.
Einstein: It is a beautiful comparison; line is also much older than color. It seems that your melody is much richer in structure than ours. Japanese music also seems to be so.
Tagore: It is difficult to analyze the effect of eastern and western music on our minds. I am deeply moved by the western music; I feel that it is great, that it is vast in its structure and grand in its composition. Our own music touches me more deeply by its fundamental lyrical appeal. European music is epic in character; it has a broad background and is Gothic in its structure.
Einstein: This is a question we Europeans cannot properly answer; we are so used to our own music. We want to know whether our own music is a conventional or a fundamental human feeling, whether to feel consonance and dissonance is natural, or a convention which we accept.
Tagore: Somehow the piano confounds me. The violin pleases me much more.
Einstein: It would be interesting to study the effects of European music on an Indian who had never heard it when he was young.
Tagore: Once I asked an English musician to analyze for me some classical music, and explain to me what elements make for the beauty of the piece.
Einstein: The difficulty is that the really good music, whether of the East or of the West, cannot be analyzed.
Tagore: Yes, and what deeply affects the hearer is beyond himself.........
Tagore’s musical accomplishments are very well known. Einstein’s credentials in this respect were considerably lower – confined to being a highly accomplished non-professional violinist who performed in private just for the pleasure of doing so. However, it has been said of Einstein that, had he not become the outstanding scientist that he was, he might well have attained a comparable status in music.
In the conversation documented here, Tagore is understandably the more dominant and authoritative partner while Einstein is seen more as an admiring student.
The conversation brings out in an unambiguous manner the basic differences between western and Indian classical music. While the former is dominated by harmony, grandeur and a high degree of rigidity the latter is dominated by melody, rhythm and a high degree of flexibility. I find both equally edifying and enjoyable.