A conversation between Carnatic and Western classical

One of the pleasures of writing is to hear back from readers who have views that are opposite your own; and who are able to educate you about their area of expertise.  A while ago, I wrote a piece in Mint about western classical music conductors here.

I heard back from a reader who told me about a conductor I had never heard about.  Thus began an email exchange about Carnatic music and Classical music.  I have– with his permission– pasted it below.  He lives in New Delhi and his name (fake but authentic to his region) is Bijoy Banerjee.  Read below from bottom to top for context and history.  Top to bottom for content.  Will be posting more from our exchanges as they come up.

From: joy gmail.com>

Date: 14 November 2012 12:40:58 PM GMT+05:30
To: Shoba Narayan
Subject: Re: The Symphony Orchestra

Dear Shoba,

In my last tutorial, I spoke of the Renaissance period of Western classical music. Before proceeding to the Baroque period, it would be very useful to summarise the salient aspects of the Renaissance period as it will help in maintaining the thread of the argument I am trying to develop.
The two significant developments in the Renaissance period were the beginning of the classification of the human voice into registers and the start of the use of major and minor keys. This could be called the beginning of harmony which is nothing more than a pleasing succession of chords and chords are a pleasing collection of notes played simultaneously according to a set of pre-ordained rules.
I do not know much about Carnatic music but this was certainly when western music began to diverge from Hindustani music. In Hindustani music no instrument may do what the human voice cannot. The gayaki style exemplifies this the best. Also, Hindustani music developed a sophisticated theory of melody. Tansen, who is generally credited with the codification of the ragas, did so in the fifteenth Century.
The Baroque period (c.1600 – c.1750) made progress in the harmonisation of music in fits and starts. I say this because, in other spheres of human activity, there were stalwarts like Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) and Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) who must have given a musical genius like Bach his fascination for metronome-like precision.
This inspired him to write many fugues, the best example of which is:
The best definition of a fugue is in Wikipedia:
In music, a fugue (play /ˈfjuːɡ/ fewg) is a compositional technique (in classical music) in two or more voices, built on a subject (theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation(repetition at different pitches) and recurs frequently in the course of the composition.
Another aspect of the Baroque period is the technical development of the instruments. Thus the precursor of the modern piano, the harpsichord, was developed. It also had a foot or pedal keyboard:
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) was a very prolific composer of both religious and secular music. In his later life he wa the organist and choir master of St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig where he was required to write music for every Sunday Mass but even earlier, he wrote many famous religious works like his Christmas Oratorio:
and the Mass in B minor. Here is the Kyrie (Kee-ree-ay) or Lord have mercy. Notice how he wields the different parts of the choir. This is probably because he himself was a boy soprano when he was a kid.
There was another facet to Bach’s musical genius – that of a great teacher. In fact he wrote the Well-Tempered Clavier only to teach his students the intricacies of the keyboard. It went on to gain fame in its own right.
I have spent a fair bit of time on Bach he is generally considered one of the 3 greatest composers ever. This leaves me with no choice but to have more tutorials for the rest of the Baroque period.
I hope you like it.
Begin forwarded message:
Date: 11 November 2012 7:27:43 PM GMT+05:30
To: Shoba Narayan
Subject: Re: The Symphony Orchestra

Dear Shoba,

I’m glad you liked it. Feel free to post this on your blog. No names please. This way the brickbats will be for you!

Regarding yesterday’s article, you ain’t heard a swearing truck driver unless you know Punjabi. Punjabi truck drivers are really inventive when they let fly.
P.S Am working on the Baroque period. It is a bit problematic as it is very fecund.
On Sun, Nov 11, 2012 at 2:46 PM, Shoba Narayan wrote:
Thank you so much for this.  Can I put up our conversation (without any details of your real name) on my blog?
Thanks and let me know.
Next installment of carnatic music coming up.
On 10-Nov-2012, at 10:40 AM, ji wrote:
Hi Shoba,
Thanks a lot for your blog. It couldn’t have been a better introduction to Carnatic music. I was spell bound by Kurai Ondrum Illai. Till, now Carnatic music was slightly intimidating but here I was almost sent into a meditative trance.
Let me now keep my side of the deal. First you should listen to the following link carefully.


The most charitable thing I can say about this music is that it is non-descript. But it is important for our purposes. Let me explain.
The harmony is virtually non-existent but we can discern the beginnings of harmonic development. For instance, the voice sings within a defined register. Thus was a choir organised into 4 registers. From high to low they were soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
The fact that this song was written by Henry Vlll, the guy who broke from Rome and formed the Church of England is important. After splitting from Rome, he found his coffers empty and so he pillaged the monasteries. Hi immediate objective was solved but he found the new Church of England without intellectual leadership.
So he turned to Oxford and Cambridge. The nascent choral movement thus of the Rennaissance era got a huge fillip as every college had a chapel with a choir. And as women scholars were non-existent, they developed all-male choirs.
This fact resulted in an explosion of choral music in the Baroque Period. But more about it later.
The Renaissance Period is officially from c. 1400 to c. 1600. But is too precise a classification not to be arbitrary. There are not many composers from this period who have withstood the test of time but below is a link to a lute composition which shows the beginnings of harmony and the first steps towards classification of major and minor keys.
There is also an excellent example of choral religios music below.
Please give me a feedback. It will be very useful.
Best regards

On Wed, Nov 7, 2012 at 9:30 PM, Shoba Narayan wrote:

Okay, here is a go.
On 04-Nov-2012, at 12:27 PM, Bijoy wrote:

Here’s the deal.

You introduce me in a structured way to Carnatic music about which I know nothing. You could use Youtube to give examples.
In return I could give you a few tutorials on western classical music and its development. I do not promise that these tutorials will meet with the approval of pundits but they will set you thinking.
How is that deal?
On Fri, Nov 2, 2012 at 6:32 PM,  wrote:

Dear Shoba,

Just interested, I guess. And I don’t believe in falling for propaganda. You do not know who I am because I believe in flying below the radar. So no Google search will get you anywhere.
I am not based in Bangalore even though it is my wife’s home town.
Do you ever come to Delhi? In that case I will buy you a coffee.
Incidentally, I have done a series of programmes for an esoteric Parisian FM channel on the difference between the gharanas of Hindustani music. Had lots of fun.
I promise to tell you what I am doing in the coming year. Its quite brilliant even though I say so myself.
Best regards

On Fri, Nov 2, 2012 at 2:49 PM, Shoba Narayan  wrote:

Dear Bijoy :
Who are you and how do you know so much about western classical music?
On 02-Nov-2012, at 10:02 AM,  wrote:

Dear Shoba,

My views on Ave Maria would earn me an ex-communication if I were a Catholic! Let me explain.
On the face of it, this is a song in praise of Mary, Mother of God. However, Mary was elevated to this status only in 1950.
In my opinion, the two best versions are by Gounod/Bach and Schubert. Both Gounod and Schubert were Romantic composers and so the fact that they both wrote/superimposed this piece shows that the movement to elevate Mary had started and it only culminated in 1950.
Gounod only superimposed the lyrics on Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’. Bach himself would not have written this piece as he was a Lutheran. In any case he was from the Baroque period.
The best listening experience is provided by Pavarotti even though the piety may be totally misplaced.
This entire debate was given a totally irreverent twist by a French friend of mine after a few glasses of wine. He is a Calvinist with a Catholic girl friend whom he decided to needle.
Since Ave Maria can mean Come, Mary, he said at table that if he wanted Mary to come he would not burst into song!
Best regards
On Thu, Nov 1, 2012 at 4:45 PM, Shoba Narayan <shoba@shobanarayan.com> wrote:

Dear Bijoy:

Do you have a view on Ave Maria? There seem to be so many versions– Caccini, Schubert, etc.
Which singer did the song justice, you think?
From: livemint
Sent: Thursday, October 18, 2012 1:04 PM
To: Seema Chowdhry (Mint Editorial, New Delhi)
Cc: Priya Ramani (Mint, New Delhi)
Subject: FW: The Symphony Orchestra


Sent: 29 September 2012 09:45:21
To: livemint
Subject: The Symphony Orchestra

Hi Shoba,
I read with considerable interest your article on the Symphony Orchestra of India. I was reminded of an interview Zubin Mehta gave to the much maligned All India Radio.
When asked why India could not produce a good orchestra, he replied that, in order to have a good orchestra, a good string section was essential but a good string section required a majority of Jewish players. Since this was not possible in India, we were destined to have mediocre orchestras!

Your discussion about chefs d’orchestre was incomplete without a mention of Furtwangler

Best regards,