WORLD WAR II WAS JUST ABOUT OVER, when as a fledgling pianist, eleven years old, I broadcast for the very first time. To wit, it was on March 9, 1945 that I made my debut on VU2ZY – the U.S. Radio Network – and thereby began a series of regular recitals on the air that were programmed to entertain American troops serving in South and Southeast Asia.
Photo of Azim Lewis (stage name) at 11
[You may click on the accompanying picture here and those below to enlarge them.]
Located in New Delhi – at the corner of Queensway and Connaught Place in a nondescript “temporary” construction – the American Radio Station offered few of the creature comforts associated nowadays with the romance of broadcasting. But what it lacked in the way of luxuriously appointed air-conditioned studios it made up in the excellence of its round-the-clock music programs – both recorded and live. Indeed, one of the most popular was dubbed by the compère as “The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven” and announced in the drawliest diction of a full-blooded Texan.
The tragedy of war-torn Europe had made a deep impress on my youthful imagination reinforced by the currency in Delhi of a stirring recording of the Warsaw Concerto composed three years earlier by the British composer Richard Addinsel for the film Dangerous Moonlight. The Polish calamity in particular was, therefore, very much on my mind when I was asked to choose a ‘signature tune’ by the Program Director – an avuncular Brigadier – over a glass of ice-cold Vimto. the colorful, vogue drink popular among school kids of the Capital. I unhesitatingly opted for Chopin’s Prelude No. 20 in C minor, Op. 28: a little over a minute in duration, it is in an elegiac key, yet with a courageous spirit imbuing it that proclaims the resilient will of a proud nation – all but obliterated from the map – to survive at all cost through her culture.
I must admit that in the early months of broadcasting, the music of the great Polish pianist and composer was very much in evidence in my programming due partly to my own preference and partly to the insatiable demand of my invisible audience for more and more Chopin, expressed through the fanmail for listeners’ requests. The American Radio, therefore, took recourse to prerecording a number of my broadcast recitals at one go. Remember that his was before the advent of the now ubiquitous tape recorder, so that the would-be recording artist, cooped up in a stuffy studio, had to spend many sweltering hours ‘cutting’ shiny discs of friable black glass, all the while playing on an indifferent, portable mini-piano.
Four early favorites of mine are all by Chopin and, over the three decades I’m covering here, they – with the exception of the Polonaise in A major mentioned below – continued to occupy a very special place in my repertoire. The intervening years have undoubtedly wrought a change in my original conception of them.
- That remarkable effusion of pure charm, the Valse in D flat major, Op. 4, No. 1 – the so-called Minute Waltz – I no longer attempt to perform in one minute!
- In the Nocturne in B major, Op.32, No. 1, I am far more aware now of the magic and mystery of the “prophetic” coda: here, after a disarmingly simple reverie, are heard the somber sounds akin to a kettle-drum – a passionate recitative – and, then, silence. The effect is pure drama, and the least imaginative listener involuntarily invents for himself a “happening.”
- The Etude in A flat major, Op. 25, No. 1, Schumann imagined as a poem for an Aeolian harp. Yet, as a child, I was more familiar with the sobriquet “Shepherd Boy” so that even today I am torn between a radiant Grecian and a simple pastoral image when playing it.
- The momentous time I heard the Polonaise in A major, Op. 40, No. 1, was on the grounds of Chopin’s birthplace at Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw in 1970. Despite the beautiful setting and the excellence of the soloist, the experience confirmed my earlier impression that this work begins to pall after a while. But in the dark days of the mid-forties it seemed to me curiously relevant, and you will grant that the 3/4 time notwithstanding, it is nothing if not military in character!
After the cessation of hostilities there was a perceptible change in the content of my broadcast programs. A perusal of my old radio contracts shows the appearance of sonatas by Beethoven and the sole one by Grieg followed by contrasting examples of French music epitomized by Debussy and Ravel. In that regard, I recall with affection,
- Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata: In poetic content it is tragedy as the young feel it with the glamour, urgency, even exaltation, of Romeo and Juliet. It has been said that few love-scenes could be more softly glowing than the titanic master’s slow movement Adagio cantabile with its almost unbelievable melodic loveliness and velvety tone.
- Debussy’s First Arabesque, which is full of youthful charm.
- And then there’s Ravel’s timeless Sonatine, which I’m guilty of playing at a moment’s notice, much to the delight of my abiding aficionados.
With the return of the American Forces to their homeland and the consequent winding up of VU2ZY, I started broadcasting from the studios of All-India Radio (AIR) on Parliament Street, New Delhi, and from 1946 onward till my studies abroad in London I was a regular visitor there, for both the afternoon school programs as well as the evening transmissions of Western music.
I recall flying back from London to Delhi in December 1951, when I took the opportunity of recording a recital for the AIR External Service. On my return to the UK in the New Year, my performance was beamed to Europe, and you can imagine the thrill of other-worldliness as I tuned in to listen to myself over 5,000 miles away, closeted in my “digs” with college friends and a shortwave set.
My love of Liszt’s music came to the fore in the mid-1950’s, but gradually – in place of the blood and thunder of his studies and rhapsodies – I introduced his late works over the air so as to familiarize the public with these remarkable forerunners of modern music.
One source of this inspiration was a month’s sojourn in Budapest and its environs in September 1956 which proved – if proof were at all necessary – the indebtedness of Bartok to Liszt. The Concert Study, Waldersrauschen, and the somber, austere and desolate La lugubre gondola underline the remarkable harmonic difference between the early and late piano pieces of the great Hungarian composer. it is, indeed, incredible that the same man could have written both.
In drawing up radio programs over the years I have come to realize and appreciate the importance of sugaring the bitter pill, as it were. Audiences everywhere are found to have one common trait – conservatism in musical taste and style – and the injection of new, unfamiliar works must necessarily be done with a certain degree of circumspection. Not that I believe in playing solely to the gallery, but a ‘balanced’ program (as it is so called) is, I think, a sine qua non for making the exercise as painless as possible.
That is true even among the comparatively avant garde musical public in the States, as I discovered for myself during a month spent there in December 1961. In fact, this stimulating visit helped me, on my return, to incorporate the sometimes astringent sonatas and other works of Kabalevsky, Barber and Bartok in my broadcasts within a traditional framework of compositions by more popular masters. Paradoxically, I also developed an abiding interest in the works of early composers, such as Scarlatti, Bach and Couperin. Here, for example, is a favorite of mine – Siciliano by Bach:
This is not to deny a continuing courtship with my first loves, Chopin and Liszt, joined in the early 1960’s by that other great Romantic composer, Schumann. Admittedly, he was there in previous years , but then his appearances were quiet and unobtrusive of the Arabesque kind. Now he blossomed forth, occupying whole segments on the air with my playing his Fantasiestucke, Faschingsschwank, Fantasia and so on, ad infinitum.
Over the three decades, 1945-75, I have mainly broadcast direct from the studios of AIR around the subcontinent, be they in Delhi, Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (now Mumbai) or Madras (now Chennai). But there was a golden period in the 1960’s when – with the Calcutta Radio Station and the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra working closely together – it became possible to give armchair listeners the thrill of immediacy, so to speak, the awareness of being present in the concert hall itself.
Thus, as a soloist, I had the privilege of participating actively in the Annual Winter Concert Series at the Empire Theatre over several years. Indeed, my concerto debut over the air took place with Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in C minor under the baton of Bernard “Bunny” Jacob and with Stanley Gomes as leader of the orchestra, and in the decade that followed, AIR broadcast, among others, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in E flat major and concertos by Liszt (No.1 in E flat major, Op. 22) and Rachmaninoff (No.2 in C minor, Op. 18) presented by, I feel, an essentially rewarding combination. The latter composer began to be my favorite source of romanticism, especially his preludes: here’s one of his best-loved pieces among them – Prelude in E flat major, Op. 23, No. 6.
Speaking for myself, Liszt’s work was a particularly happy musical experience. Alongside is the top half of the concert program of February 1966 that began with Malcolm Arnold’s two Little Suites followed by Liszt’s Piano Concerto with “Bunny” conducting and myself as soloist under my stage name of Azim Lewis.
In sum, I have a treasured recollection of my thirty years of broadcasting in India, although there may have been that rare and unexpected experience, when in spite of a warning ‘on air’ red light, a studio factotum with an umbrella in one hand and a perky whistle on his lips walked in with a flourish into a recording session clutching in his spare hand a steaming cuppa tea!
Postscript: Actually a short piano solo, My Prayer, which I composed in 1945 and which I occasionally played after the finale of a concerto in response to cries of “encore.” Here’s a brief video of me at the family piano in the living room:
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