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You are here: » Archives » Oxford Bookstore Review » Interview - Kishore Chatterjee
Published on Sat, Oct 24, 2009 at 10:47 Valentines Day 2009

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You have often talked about the enduring love affair that a person could have with Beethoven’s music, when did you fall in love?  How was the initial journey?

My love affair with Beethoven and western Classical music goes back to my childhood. At thirteen I was in a boarding school and I heard western Classical music. The impact was like a slap on the face. I was dazed. I had heard nothing like that before. I was hooked and have spent the rest of my life chasing that sound in its various manifestations – Classical, Baroque, Romantic, Renaissance.


Tell us something about your association with Satyajit Ray.

I first met Ray when I was working in Clarion Advertising in 1966. Ray was very close to Clarion. I was already deep into Classical music and had started collecting records whatever was available in Calcutta. One day my colleague, the poet Subhas Mukhopadhaya ( who was a Bengali translator in Clarion ) told me that I must meet Manik, as he called him. I was quite thrilled and one Sunday morning we went to Ray’s flat near the lakes off Southern Avenue. Ray was very sweet and impressed when I told him that I had read Donald Francis Tovey, Bernard Shaw and Neville Cardus on music; authors he was always recommending. He told me to listen to Mozart’s Chamber music. He felt that that’s where Mozart’s soul lives. He advised me not to get too fussy about the sound quality, music was more important than the sound. He had a small Dye Black Box set, I noticed. There were records and books all over the room. After the first meetup we often met at concerts and at Adi Ganga’s at home listening sessions. Then at the time of the Sukumar Ray Centenary ( 1988 ) I produced a calendar on Fantasy writers and asked Ray to launch and release it. I was then working in Tribeni Tissues whose office was close to Ray’s flat at Bishop Lefroy Road. So we met often and discussed music. I interviewed him for an article on Prokofiev during his birth centenary year in 1991. Ray was a great admirer of  Prokofiev’s music. Then Ray asked me to do the humming in  ‘Sakha Prasakha’ which had the Beethoven crazy character Prasanto played by Soumitro Chatterjee.


Beethoven is central to your book, the title suggests a clubbing of all other music maestros into the single pronoun of “Friends”. But you have written it like a history of western music, why did you put Beethoven in the center of the universe ?  Are the other great names associated only peripheral to this main movement?

Beethoven is a watershed in western Classical music. Before him was Renaissance, Baroque and Classical age. After him came the Romantics. Beethoven turned the stream of music, he is all past, present and future. His late Spring Quartets are music that is mysteriously modern. Beethoven also is a very popular, top of the mind recall name in India. Just as Shakespeare is not all literature, Beethoven is not all music – but they are both flagship names in their own disciplines. The book is a collection of essays that appeared in a newspaper column that I have written since 1997. Therefore it can be read from anywhere, though it makes sense to read it from beginning and move to the end. Also the book is written for people coming new to Classical music and starting a collection. In Classical music the first handshake is always Beethoven and hence he comes at the beginning. Then Mozart, Hayden, the Baroque masters and the Romantics. Finally I think Beethoven on the cover will make the readers identify the book immediately with its subject. The title is always the flagship holder. Ofcourse there was a toss up between Mozart and Beethoven but here my personal preference did the casting vote.


The Romantic Age was like the annus mirabilis of the Arts both visual and music. Great name shave been associated with the age. Given that these great masters have lived and worked in the period thereby making their contribution to what later came to be known as the Romantic Age, my question to you is: Is the age are superior to the names that are listed under them ?

The Romantic Age was one of the most unique in the history of creativity. It was like a meeting point of three streams, a reservoir of knowledge and activity built through the interaction of literature, art ( Fine Arts ) and music. There was also architecture. Music was only one aspect of the age. It was a time when artists, composers, writers interacted and became friends. For instance the painter Ingres was very fond of music and close to the composer Berlioz. There was Byron who inspired the composer Berlioz and so many of the composer’s works would never have been born without the Byronic spirit. There was also Chopin who was very close to Delacroix the great painter who drew portraits of Chopin and Paganini the ace violinist –composer. There was Victor Hugo who was a novelist and painter who interacted with composers. Chateaubriand, a political thinker was interested in both literature and music. Schumann fore instance was very close to Heine and Jean Paul both from literature. Schubert whose main expression were his songs knew poetry of Goethe, Heine and Muller. There was Franz Liszt who represents the Romantic Age with his intent in literature, painting and travel. With him traveling became a source of music as it did with Mendelssohn. The Romantic Age continued into the 20th century with the creation of films, which brought together all the arts. Therefore the age was certainly greater than the individual.


This book must be a labour of love: fusing the ardour for music with the matter of factishness of history, how did you balance the two ?

The book we must not forget is based on a column Classical Gas and Strings attached which I have been writing every fortnight since 1997. The column is an expression of my love for western Classical music and is immensely varied. Everytime I write it I have a dialogue with the comparers. To keep a newspaper column alive you must make it interesting and forever fresh. When I began to get requests for turning it into a book I knew that I had achieved my goal of making the column a reference material on the subject. I know many readers who cut out the column and kept in a scrapbook. The book is a miscellany based on the column. I had no trouble in keeping the balance, because I concentrated on these aspects which had permanent value in terms of information and cut out all that merely had local colour. That’s why while the book has articles like the one on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, it also has almost a detective story in miniature such as the saga of Hayden’s missing skull.


In your opinion, where does the preservation and marketing of classical music stand today? Would you rate it as an item of vintage value or as one for massmarket consumption?

Research on Classical music of the western world is constantly updated. It is more than just finding lost music of the masters. At the time of Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, the only music people heard were the contemporary music. Let us not forget that aided by the discovery of the gramophone we are living at a time when interest in music of the past is a major industry. To keep alive this interest in music is the job of the people involved in the Classical music industry. One of the most outstanding result of this began in the Seventies of the last century which was the interest in original and period instruments. How did the music of Bach sound to Bach? How did the music of Mozart sound to Mozart’s contemporaries?  To answer this researchers resurrected old instruments and changed the sound of the orchestra. Today there are conductors and orchestras who champion this and produce recordings on period instruments; Beethoven, Mozart and the lot. The sound is more transparent with more pronounced woodwinds and not as streamlined as the Philharmonic sound. Don’t forget that an orchestra in Hayden or Mozart’s times was a lot smaller than the orchestra of Wagner or Mahler. Keeping this interest alive for enthusiasts are the music periodicals like Gramophone, The Magazine that was founded in 1923 by Sir Compton Mackenzie. There are magazines like American Record Review and Fanfare in USA. These magazines cater to the people who are seriously interested in western Classical music, which needs to be nurtured through constant information inputs. The word and concept of “Mass” does not apply to Classical music. All over the world Classical music caters to a small audience, those who are already hooked and those who are interested but hesitating on the fringe. My book, like all music inputs caters to both. Now the written word is also supplemented by the interest or the word in air as it were. There are also DVDs and films. Today more than ever before there is information on Classical music for those who want to know. I can feel the change as when I began my journey in 1960 there was no such information bank. I really had to search and hunt. Today’s listeners are much more lucky.

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Vaughan Williams: The Illustrated Lives Of Great Composers

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A lot of unscrupulous businessmen are using these musical treasures to corrupt ends. Take for eg. the unethical exploitation of popularity of the classical masters and their works for endorsing merchandise, the rampant abundance of pirated music ...  Your views on this subject.

I don’t see anything wrong in using Classical music for selling goods and services. Though I am against turning Mozart into a calling bell, which has happened because people using that service are not aware of the genius behind it. I have found that many young people and first time listeners come through the commercial listening. They like the music and they try to find out more. Example Carmina Burana of the Carl Orff in the Old Spice commercial, Schumann’s Trannerie ( Dreams ) for Raymond Suiting. Mozart’s little and minor symphony in Titan commercials. Some years ago there was a detective serial around Inspector Morse who was very interested in Classical music. I used to see the short films as much for the story as for the music. Today’s Bengali serials are using a lot of Classical music and I imagine it shows greater awareness. The music directors obviously nurture their music banks with Classical inputs. As for pirating, that is a legal matter. I do not know enough on the subject. But I should imagine that serious informed, collectors avoid pirated stuff for their uncertainty.


Do you listen to today’s instrumental music? Any favourites?

I am afraid that the world of Classical music is so vast and deep that I don’t have any time left for any other form of music. I don’t include Rabindrasangeet and Indian Classical music both of which are very close to my heart.


Kolkata is known for its music lovers, publishing the book in this city … did you have a target readership in mind?

Yes. Those who are interested in Bach, Beethoven and Mozart but don’t know where to go, what to listen and how to build a collection.


Finally the book has a royal feel to it, it is like a collector’s edition. How was your experience with your publisher?

For the publisher this was a new subject. The rich visual heritage of Classical music attracted them. We interacted well and the planning, designing etc. took more than three years. For me this was a new experience.

Author Profile

Calcutta-based Kishore Chatterjee is a painter, cartoonist, short story writer, filmmaker, and a grand passioné of Western classical music. Since 1970, he has given talks and anchored programmes on Western classical
Kishore Chatterjee

music , including a series on Wagner, Bach, Beethoven, opera and well-known music critics, and another light-hearted one titled ‘Who is afraid of the Bach tribe?’ over All India Radio. During a visit to London and Europe on a music scholarship, he also lectured on record collecting over the BBC. He is regularly invited to speak on Western classical music at Max Muller Bhavan, British Council, Jadavpur University, Calcutta University and many other cultural and academic institutions.

Since 1997, he has been a regular columnist on Western classical music, contributing two milestone series: ‘Classical Gas’ and ‘Strings Attached.’ The

grandson of Sunayani Devi, sister of Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore, and the first modern Indian woman artist, his mission in life is to win friends over for Western classical music and communicate its enjoyment through the written word, lectures, films, drama and painting.


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Interviewed by Swagata Pal Designed by Subhadip Mukherjee