WORLD WAR TWO WAS ALMOST OVER BY THE SPRING OF 1945.
I was then a fledgling pianist eleven years old and broadcast for the very first time. That memorable year, on the 9th of March, I made my début (pictured alongside) over VU2ZY – the U.S. Forces Radio Network – and thereby began a series of recitals on the air programmed for the entertainment of American troops in South and Southeast Asia.
Azim Lewis in the U.S. Forces VU2ZY Studio
Located in New Delhi – at the corner of Queensway and Connaught Place in a nondescript “temporary” construction – the American Radio 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 compére as “The Sw-e-e-t-est M-oo-s-ic this S-i-i-de of Heaven” in the Southern drawling diction becoming of a full-blooded Texan.
The tragedy of war-torn Europe had left 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 and is performed here by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
The Polish calamity in particular was, therefore, very much on my mind when I was asked to choose a “signature tune” by the Radio Program Director – an avuncular Brigadier – over a glass of ice-cold Vimto, the colorful, vogue drink among the schoolkids of the Capital.
I unhesitatingly opted for Chopin’s Prelude No. 20 in C minor, Op. 28: I have an old recording of mine that opens with it, followed by other pieces, which form part of this blog. Here is the hotlink to Azim Lewis Recital dating back to “the last century”:
The Prelude itself is a little over a minute in duration; it’s in an elegiac key, yet with a courageous spirit imbuing it that proclaims the will of a proud nation – all but obliterated from the map – to survive through her culture.
Here is a copy of the light classical program of my Spring Music Recital.
You’ll see that the next piece is Arabesque by Schumann. It was that composer who, as a music critic wrote this about Chopin: “Hats off, gentleman, a genius!” He was also the one who wrote, “The works of Chopin are cannons concealed amongst flowers.“ And this: “He plays just like he composes, in other words in his own unique way.”
Robert Schumann (1819-1896)
I must admit that in my early months of broadcasting, the music of the great Polish pianist and composer was very much in evidence in my programs, due partly to my own preference and partly to the insatiable demand of my invisible audience for more and more Chopin, expressed through the fan-mail for listener’s requests. The American Radio, therefore, took recourse to recording in advance a number of my broadcast recitals at one go. Remember that this 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, while playing on an indifferent, portable mini-piano salvaged – more likely than not – from the discards of an early honky tonk instrument favored in the U.K. by Trinidad-born Winifred Atwell!
If you choose, you may listen now to the other six of my early favorites, three by Chopin, that over the past three decades have continued to occupy a very special place in my repertoire. The intervening years have undoubtedly wrought a change in my original conception of them.
Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)
Next is Prelude in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4: One must remember that each of the 24 preludes in Op. 28 is in a different key; most are in a tormented mood, reflecting Chopin’s mental and physical misery on the island of Majorca, where they were written.
In the Nocturne Op. 32 No. 1 in B major that follows I am far more aware now of the magic and mystery of the “prophetic” coda: after a disarmingly simple reverie, one hears the somber sounds akin to a kettle-drum – a passionate recitative – and silence. The effect is pure drama, and the least imaginative listener involuntarily invents for himself a “happening.”
The A flat Etude, first of the Opus 25 set, Schumann imagined as a poem of 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 last three pieces are a mixed bag: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor‘s Demande et Réponse, Akmal‘s Trance Waltz and Dvořak‘s Humoresque. The Waltz was composed by my grandmother Rose Ziadine in Durban, South Africa and dates back to the early 1900’s.
After the cessation of hostilities there was a perceptible change in the content of my broadcast programs. A perusal of my old radio contracts show the appearance of sonatas by Beethoven and Grieg followed by contrasting examples of French music epitomized by Debussy and Ravel. In poetic content, Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata is tragedy as the young feel it with the glamour, urgency, even exaltation, of Romeo and Juliet.
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 was a regular visitor there, for both the afternoon school programs as well as the evening transmission of Western music. I recall flying back to Delhi from the U.K. in December 1951, when I took the opportunity of recording a recital for AIR’s External Service. On my return to London in the New Year, it was beamed to Europe, and you can well 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 radio set.
My love of Liszt’s music came to the fore in the mid-fifties, but gradually – in place of the blood and thunder of his studies and rhapsodies – I introduced his late works over the air in order to familiarize the pubic 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 that proved – if proof were at all necessary – the indebtedness of the Hungarian composer Bartok to Liszt.
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 called) is, I think, a sine qua non to making the exercise as painless as possible. This 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 stringent 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, C.P.E. Bach and Couperin.
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, 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 his Fantasiestücke, Faschingsschwank, Fantasia and so on.
In the past three decades on the air I have mainly broadcast direct from the studios of All-India Radio around the country, be they in Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay or Madras – and on one occasion from Colombo, Ceylon. But there was a golden period in the mid-sixties when – with the Calcutta Radio Station and the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra (CSO) 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 over several years. Indeed my concerto début over the air took place with Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto in C minor under the baton of Bernard Jacob and with Stanley Gomes as leader of the CSO. In the decade that followed, my AIR broadcasts included performances among others, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in E flat major and concertos by Liszt and Rachmaninoff in presentations that, I feel, were an essentially rewarding combination. Speaking for myself, Liszt’s E flat Major Piano Concerto was a particularly happy musical experience.
In sum, I have a treasured recollection of my thirty years of broadcasting in India, although there may have been the rare and unexpected experience like the dhoti-clad man – with a brolly in one hand, a refreshing cuppa hot tea in the other, and a perky whistle on his lips – who walked in with a flourish into a recording session of mine in spite of the red warning light above the studio door.
Afterword: A word to the wise. Unbeknownst to me, and only after I had seen a medical expert in such matters in South Jersey, USA, 10 years ago, did I learn that I’d been suffering from the early stages of Dupuytren’s contracture in my right hand. As the doctor explained to me: It is a localized formation of scar tissue around the tendons that flex the fingers beneath the skin of the palm of the hand. What followed were two separate surgeries by him of my valuable right hand that led to – as it eventually turned out – only a temporary relief of that contracture. Months and months later and after daily exercises I have had to adjust my piano repertoire with re-fingering of certain works (some of them dating back to my childhood!) that enable me to continue my essential quality time at the instrument despite certain inevitable setbacks.
References: My Diary; Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen.
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