French composer Maurice Delage and American pianist Dr Henry Cowell created musical pieces dedicated to Madras

I wonder how many cities have had musical pieces dedicated to them. Madras probably scores better for it has a part of one piece, a sonata and a full symphony in its honour.

The musical piece in which Madras is a part is Quartre Poemes Hindous, (Four Hindu Poems), the work of French composer Maurice Delage. Delage (1879-1961) was a disciple of the better-known Maurice Ravel and a member of a group of artistes who called themselves Les Apaches. In 1912, Delage travelled to India to collect recordings of Indian music. Among the discs that impressed him were those of Coimbatore Thayi (1872-1917), a well-known devadasi of Madras who lived in George Town. A meeting of the two followed and Delage later declared Thayi the master of the technique of “closed mouth singing” by which he probably meant a variety of tanam.

Delage composed two pieces, both inspired by his stay here. The first was the piece referred to above. Each of its four parts is dedicated to a city in the Indian subcontinent. Madras is one and the other three are Benares, Jaipur and Lahore. The second piece is called Ragamalika and is a faithful copy of Thayi’s rendition of an arutpa of Ramalinga Swamigal, the 19 century mystic who grew up in Madras. In 1956, American composer, pianist and musical theorist Dr Henry Cowell (1897-1965) created the Madras Symphony. This was to commemorate his attending the Music Academy’s annual conference the previous year. Returning home with his mind full of ragas, he created the symphony, which was minus tubas, trumpets and trombones but included tablas and jalatarangam. In its time, it was declared to be the only piece of Western music to be directly influenced by Indian classical music. The original score of the symphony was presented to the Music Academy on 1 January 1959, by the United States Information Service and the symphony was dedicated formally to the city. In March the same year, the Little Orchestra Society of New York performed the symphony at the Music Academy. The event was attended by the who’s who of Madras society.

It was also in 1959 that the Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) travelled to India on a Fulbright scholarship. He learnt how to play the veena and, inspired by a visit to the Nagore dargah, created Nagooran, a piece for Carnatic orchestra. Hovhaness and his then wife (he married six times) attended the Music Academy’s conference in 1959 and rather like Cowell, he too was inspired to compose. The Madras Sonata was the outcome and on 3 January 1960, the Hovhanesses jointly performed it at the Academy.

Perhaps it is time for an opera.

More In: Chennai