MORE than half-a-century ago, I noticed that people returning from Europe had developed a liking for orchestra. They would tune in on their radios to the BBC or the Voice of America to listen to programmes broadcasting symphonies. The listeners would close their eyes to enjoy themselves and did not like being disturbed. They would move their hands and arms to the sound of music as if they themselves were conducting the orchestra. After the programme they would appear happy and relaxed as if emerging from meditation.

There are about a dozen composers of symphonies, mostly belonging to the 18th and 19th centuries. The more popular are Beethoven (1770-1827), Bach (1685-1750) and Mozart (1756-1791). However, unlike the ragas of the subcontinent, western classical music is written and the large orchestras performing would produce precisely the same sounds as envisaged by their master composers. Our ragas, on the other hand, are not written and are passed from generation to generation through the oral tradition. Hence, there can be differences in the notations sung by Tansen (1506-1586) and those rendered by the existing classical singers.

Why is the western world not producing giants of the calibre of the maestros mentioned above? The fact is that symphonies are still being written and performed. It is just that money is not being diverted to these endeavours. The problem is that symphonies are one of the most expensive musical forms. Symphonic compositions are still being made, but are created as background scores for movies and videogames.

To quote a modern-day musicologist, a whole symphony “can be produced through a synthesiser on a computer sitting at home, so why bother going through the effort and spend a colossal sum of money for conducting a symphony”.

I have a different view. The emotions of listeners are best catered to by the sound of real instruments in an orchestra and not through mechanical sounds produced through a synthesiser.

Parvez Rahim


Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2020