Britten & Shankar

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the Birth of Benjamin Britten – a great composer and arguably Britain’s greatest opera composer and a man who had a great love for India, and for the music of Ravi Shankar.

Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his friend and Aldeburgh neighbour the artist Mary Potter during his visit to India with Peter Pears in 1955:

Yesterday we had our first real taste of Indian music, & it was tremendously fascinating. We had the luck to hear one of the best living performers (composer too), & he played in a small room to us alone – which is as it should be, not in concerts. Like everything they do it seemed much more relaxed and spontaneous than what we do. The reactions of the other musicians sitting around was really orgiastic. Wonderful sounds, intellectually complicated & controlled. By Jove, the clever Indian is a brilliant creature – one feels like a bit of a Yorkshire Pudd. in comparison.

(letter to Mary Potter 23rd December 1955)

Ravi Shankar played to Britten and Pears in a studio at All India Radio, where he was Music Director from 1949-1956.

This meeting is also summed up in a fascinating recently discovered document, as reported in the Times of India:

Letter found from Britain’s greatest opera composer’s drawer shows his love for Ravi Shankar

ALDEBURGH (Suffolk): Time had kept it hidden from the world for over six decades.

But this hand written note on the letter head of Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel — dating back to the 1950s, has for the first time brought to light the admiration Britain’s best known musical maestro had for one of India’s greatest musicians.

Curators sifting through thousands of objects belonging to Britain’s musical geniuses — composer Benjamin Britten and opera singer Peter Pears have stumbled upon an ink written page in their private diaries where the duo recalls their experience of having heard Pandit Ravi Shankar perform live.

Britten and Pears had visited India in the early 1950s.

Their diary, which was used to jot down their daily experiences in India calls Shankar “the real thing”.

The letter will be part of a museum in the Red House in Suffolk – where Britten and Pears lived and worked from 1957 until their death.

From 8 June 2013 the site re-opens in Aldeburgh after a £4.7 million redevelopment to commemorate the 100th birth anniversary of Britten — the world’s most performed opera composer born in the 20th century.

The page with observations by Britten and Pears, available with TOI reads “an hour of the real thing. Ravi Shankar, a wonderful virtuoso, played his own Indian music to us at the radio station. Brilliant, fascinating, stimulating, wonderfully played. Unbelievable skill and invention.”

The page also makes observations of Indian life “observing India life, darling parrots green and yellow squawk, kites float, monkeys caper, butterflies soar.”

The funniest entry in the page is their experience in Agra with tipping.

The duo writes on the letterhead saying Taj Bombay “we take a small aeroplane from Delhi, confusion intense at getting off at hotel, paying bill. Tips are a burning problem in India. There is a row of entirely unknown faces, eager, perhaps worthy people who have cleaned one’s shoes, washed clothes, mended them, dusted one’s rooms, brought breakfast, laid the fire, made the bed, lift boys, porters, waiters, all different. But how many does one tip?”

Times of India 12/05/2013

Link to the original article: