Started in 1993, with members already involved with the film industry, the Madras String Quartet (V.S. Narasimhan and Hemanthraj Muliyil, violins; B.J. Chandran, viola, and R. Sekar, cello) seeks to establish itself as the finest string quartet in India.

East and West found harmony in The Madras String Quartet’s presentation.

The String Quartet is one of Western music’s most revered vehicles for the performance of classical forms. Some of the greatest composers, including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and distinguished composers of our own day, have used the string quartet as one of the chief means through which they may demonstrate their skill and depth. Apparently, the String Quartet as a form was born accidentally when the 18-year old Franz Josef Haydn was asked to compose music for four amateur musicians who happened to be staying at a stately home near Vienna. Haydn agreed, and became fascinated with this combination, and went on to write 68 string quartets in his career.

Other composers of his day and ever since have followed. The term ‘String Quartet’ refers both to the combination of instruments playing, and to a particular form of musical composition played by the combination of two violins, one viola and one cello.

The violin has been a staple of south Indian music since it was introduced by Baluswami Dikshitar, brother of Muthuswamy Dikshitar, in the 1820s, and soon became a respected solo instrument in the Carnatic tradition, and the great south Indian violinists are as respected as those who perform on any traditional Indian instrument. But other members of the string family have not had such a prominent voice in South Indian music. But the Madras String quartet seeks to redress that in some measure.

Started in 1993, with members already involved with the film industry, the Madras String Quartet (V.S. Narasimhan and Hemanthraj Muliyil, violins; B.J. Chandran, viola, and R. Sekar, cello) seeks to establish itself as the finest string quartet in India. The group explores new frontiers in Chamber Music, the relationship between the western string quartet tradition, and the tradition of string playing that has developed independently here in the past two centuries. This quartet was invited by the Association of British Scholars to offer a concert at the Music Academy’s Mini-Hall on September 1. The concert was presented as a concluding event to the Madras Week celebrations.

In five sections

The concert was thoughtfully planned in five sections. Part One, the ‘Introduction to the Concert’, opened with a piece by Henry Purcell who also wrote for combinations of strings. In 1680, when he was 18 years old, Purcell wrote a set of Fantasias for viols, an older western family of stringed instruments. This piece was included to show us the ancestry of the quartet. While the sound of a modern string quartet is foreign to this older music, it was good to hear these poignant harmonies and contrasting counterpoint, which eventually led to music for the string quartet as we now know it.

W A. Mozart, a younger contemporary of Haydn, is noted for his 23-string quartets of depth and intimacy. One of his earliest essays in the form written when he was 16 is the Quartet in G, K. 156, in three movements. For us, this piece was what we know best as the sound of a string quartet —musical ideas shared more or less equally among the four instruments in contrasting sections played that evening with great intimacy.

The late 19th century composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is known for large scale ballets, symphonies, and opera. But we heard the ‘Valse’ from his Serenade for Strings, a lilting waltz. Usually played by a large group of strings, it was pleasant and enlightening to hear the work played by just four instruments, where the interchange of melodies among the players was delightful and easy to follow.

The concert then moved on to what was for this audience, if not for this reviewer, more familiar ground. ‘Classical Music of South India—the Context’ was the next section of the concert, and the context was demonstrated by the music of Dikshitar: His ‘Vathapi’ in Hamsadhwani, in Adi Tala was the pieces we heard. Dikshitar was working around the same time as the Viennese classical composers in the West, and it was fascinating to hear this music written by their revered Indian contemporary.

All the Carnatic pieces on the programme were arranged by V.S. Narasimhan specifically for the quartet, and revealed both differences and similarities between western and eastern musical thinking. Narasimhan was certainly the solo voice, accompanied by the other three members of the quartet, with sometimes haunting harmony and countermelodies appearing in the accompaniment all with a strong and sometimes surprising harmonic foundation provided by the ‘cello.

Centre of culture

Because Madras was a centre of culture throughout the nineteenth century it naturally drew the major musical figures of the day to its sabhas and salons. In the third part of the concert, “The Music Scene of Madras: The Concert Format,” Tyagaraja’s ‘Gnaana Mosagaraadha’ in the raga Purvikalyani, in Rupaka tala, was arranged with ingenuity by Narasimhan. Papanasam Sivan’s ‘Eesane’ rounded off this section’s items. The music, full of delightful, almost jaunty melody, was harmonised by Narasimhan with often pensive harmony reminiscent to this listener of Bartok. Throughout, Narasimhan’s playing was never showy, but always intimate and striving towards an inner vision of perfection.

Although part four was called “Influence of Western Music on Carnatic Composers” Narasimhan’s arrangements showed that one could hear all the Carnatic music we experienced that night in terms of western influence, by the very fact of harmonising it. But specifically, he chose Patnam Subramanya Iyer’s ‘Raghuvamsasudha’ and Tyagaraja’s ‘Sarasara Samare.’ It would have been interesting to hear this music played not as solo and accompaniment but rather with all the players sharing more equally in the way that Goethe described the string quartet: Four rational individuals having a conversation. This is where the difference between western and eastern musical thinking came across most clearly. India has a solo musical tradition, based on elaboration of melody, whereas in the West, melodic invention while important gives way to harmonic elaboration. Most of the Carnatic music arrangements on the programme could be imagined as three rational individuals agreeing with one forceful if charming and humble personality.

The contemporary Indian piece that opened the fifth and concluding part of the programme was by Lalgudi Jayaraman. This was his Thillana with an alap beautifully played on the cello, preceding the piece, in which the four members of the quartet shared more equally in the conversation than in any other of the Carnatic pieces on the programme. The evening ended with a Medley which included snippets from famous western classical pieces as well as Indian popular melodies. Its intention was clearly to give the audience a delightful “sweet” on the way out the door, and in this it succeeded admirably.

The whole evening was narrated for us by Dr. S. Venkataraman of UNESCO with concise, informative and engaging explanations of each section as it unfolded. His explanations as the concert unfolded were welcomed additions to the evening.