Tuesday, March 01, 2016

When classical music danced to the rhythms of Mother India

Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Kaikhosru Sorabji and John Foulds may seem unlikely bedfellows. Elgar and Holst have achieved global recognition if not acclaim, Sorabji has a small but select cult following, but Foulds lingers in the twilight zone between cultism and global acclaim. However, as recounted in an earlier post, the four composers are brought together in Nalini Ghuman's recently published Resonances of the Raj: India in the English Musical Imagination,1897-1947, because they share the cultural influence of colonial India. The accompanying photos capture the exotic and esoteric mysticism of a sacred tantric ritual in northern India, and the culture of pre-partition India permeated the English musical imagination via Theosophy, an esoteric philosophy that made this kind of exotic Eastern mysticism fashionable for Western dilettantes long before the Beatles visited Rishikesh.

Among those attracted by Theosophy were John Foulds (1880-1939) and his wife the violinist Maud MacCarthy. Foulds had his fifteen minutes of social media fame in 2007 when his theosophically-tinged World Requiem had an Armistice Day outing. It was an unfortunate choice, prompted more by spin potential than musical merit, because as Andrew Clement explained in the Guardian: "Most of the unwieldy and sometimes banal score lacks even the moments of originality that make some of Foulds's orchestral music intriguing". Coincidentally, another composer who dabbled in Theosophy, Edmund Rubbra, has been victim of opportunist programming - aka audience whoring - when his potboiler Ode to the Queen was programmed at the Proms in the royal jubilee year of 2013 in preference to any of his magnificent and virtually unknown symphonies. Another English composer, Sir Malcolm Arnold, has suffered the same fate: his music has become a regular Last Night of the Proms novelty, and his Peterloo Overture was 'improved' by adding specially commissioned lyrics from - I joke not - Tim Rice, with the full approval of royalty conscious Faber Music and Arnold estate. Meanwhile, Sir Malcolm's masterly symphonies, one of which addresses the rampant jingoism seen at the Last Night, continue to suffer death by Mahler.

However, John Foulds has fared rather better despite the over-hyping of his World Requiem, and his more original and intriguing music has been championed in a more balanced fashion by, among others, Sakari Oramo. For those who want to know more, a double CD of Foulds' music from Sakari Oramo and the City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on Warner's super-budget Apex label is recommended. This includes his Indian influenced Three Mantras from Avatara, which are orchestral extractions from his enigmatic and abandoned Sanskrit opera, Avatara.

At the core of Theosophy as espoused by H.P. (Madame) Blavatsky in Victorian times were telepathic instructions received by her from Himalayan Mahatmas - esoteric masters who dwelt in the Himalayas. Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947), who collaborated with Igor Stravinsky on the creation of the ballet The Rite of Spring, was a prominent Theosophist, and in 1925 Roerich's search for the legendary Himalayan Mahatmas took him to Hemis monastery in the disputed Ladakh region of India. The accompanying photos were taken by me during the sacred dance festival at Hemis. Located at an altitude of 11,800 feet in the Himalayas, Hemis is one of the most inaccessible Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and its remote location meant it was the only monastery in Ladakh to escape plundering by Mongol invaders in the 17th century. Roerich may not have visited the monastery until twelve years after the infamous premiere of Stravinsky's ballet; but perhaps the Himalayan Mahatmas invoked the Law of Reversal to help him create its scenario. The Rite of Spring celebrates a pagan ritual, and Central Asian Shamanism influenced both Russian and Tibetan culture. Vajrayana Buddhism as practiced in Ladakh still contains elements of Tibet's indigenous shamanistic Bönpo religion, and it is surely not too fanciful to suggest that the masks and costumes seen in my photos could have come from a contemporary production of The Rite.

Masked dance rituals are a core practice in the Buddhist tantric Vajrayana tradition. Like the Kalachakra empowerment, these ritual dances are a form of divine blessing that is said to benefit both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. The Hemis monastery's official guide to the Festival says that among the auspicious benefits to those attending is that: "Their power will increase and local gods of the land will assist them". When I attended in 2014, the Hemis Tsechu Festival with its sacred masked dances took place on 7/8th July. The start is fixed as the 10th lunar day in the 5th Monkey lunar month of the Tibetan calendar, and the Festival celebrates Guru Padmasambhava, who was born on that day twelve years after the Buddha died. All the celebrants in the sacred festival come from the monastery's community of five hundred monks. The dancers, who represent protective and meditative protective deities, perform their solemn choreography accompanied by drums, cymbals and wind-instruments. The masks and silk costumes use visual cues originating from the 18th century Buddhist master artist Zopa Pale, and the origin of the dances goes back to 811 CE when Guru Padmasambhava performed the black hat tantric dance to banish evil spirits from the region. In my photo above, the sacred thangka that is displayed during the sacred dances, can be seen on the monastery wall.

The tantric masked dances at Hemis are a glorious expression of folk Buddhism, and I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to follow in Nicholas Roerich's footsteps to the kingdom of the Himalayan Masters, complete with John Foulds' Three Mantras on my iPod. Just as Tibetan Buddhism can be seen as folk Buddhism, so Sufism, which also practices sacred dance and, in some interpretations, incorporates Shamanistic elements, can be seen as folk Islam. While writing about the pursuit of esoteric knowledge, the 10th century Sufi Abu Said ibn Abi'l-Khayr, wisely observed that: "The first step in this affair is the breaking of ink pots and the tearing up of books and the forgetting of all kinds of wisdom". 

Reblogged with minor changes from Sept 2014. No review samples involved in this post. My self-funded travel in India and attendance at the Hemis Festival was arranged by Jane Rasch of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery Trust. All photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2014. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Pliable said...

The texts of two pre-concert talks by John Foulds' biographer Malcom Macdonald are well worth reading - http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/Mar04/Foulds_Macdonald.htm

Halldor said...

Poor Malcolm - very much missed, both as a brilliant and kind person, and as an indefatigable champion of forgotten composers. No-one ever came closer to convincing me of the genius of Havergal Brian.

I'm proud to have commissioned those two talks from him: still the best introductions to Foulds's musical universe. Can still hear the gentle burr of his Scottish accent as he read them out at Symphony Hall.

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

What wonderful photos!

Pliable said...

Lyle, the photos were taken with my modest Canon SX150IS pocket camera. I prefer this compact model to more sophisticated SLRs because it is easy to carry and attracts less attention. The centre photo showing the courtyard of Hemis was taken from the same vantage point as all the others, the close-ups all used maximum zoom. There were only a few Westerners at the Tsechu Festival, and we given excellent seats on the roof of the monastery from which all the photos were taken. The expression 'once in a lifetime'is overused, but that day was genuinely a once in a lifetime experience.

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

Your explanation of the situation really helps - I've seen lots of photos of those masked dances, and maybe these are so good because of the deep history of the place and the making of the masks - but as I've said before - you've got a great eye for taking photos.