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Beethoven in India

Pianist Shani Diluka on her visionary music project »Cosmos«.

Not many people can claim that the legendary Grace Kelly helped get their career off to a good start. As a six-year-old, Shani Diluka was selected by Princess Grace to take part in a special programme for musically talented children. What then followed was – initially – the normal path taken by most talented pianists: conservatory, awards, critically acclaimed debut album and successful follow-up albums. However, around ten years ago Shani did something different: she brought together music from worlds that were thought to have little in common – classical Indian and Western European music.

Lux aeterna

Shani Diluka is performing as part of »Lux aeterna«, the »music festival for the soul«, whose warming sounds help audiences forget the dreary Hamburg weather from 3 to 27 February.

Browse the programme

Classical Indian music and Beethovian music are – from a philosophical point of view – incredibly similar.

Shani Diluka

Shani Diluka will also be bringing together music from different worlds as part of the »Lux aeterna« festival. Together with two excellent Indian musicians – Sahana Banerjee on the sitar and Prabhu Edouard on the tabla drums – she has developed the »Cosmos« programme, which features sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven alongside ragas, a form of classical Indian music.

Briefly explained

  • What are Indian ragas?

    Classical Indian music is based on »ragas«. Each raga has its own musical scale and a melodic structure based on that, as well as a specific rhythm (tala). This provides a framework for improvisations. There are ragas for every time of day and night, and for every season and emotion.

Finding a connection to oneself, the rest of the audience and the universe

Shani Diluka

Interview with Shani Diluka

How did the »Cosmos« project come about?

It is well known that Beethoven searched tirelessly for the meaning of life. He was interested in astronomy, philosophy, politics and history. In the literature about his notes I came across nineteenth-century academic studies by Alexander Wheelock Thayer, who documents a manuscript that is now lost in which Beethoven quotes from the Upanishads, a collection of Hindu philosophical writings.

Beethoven mentions Brahma, one of the main gods in Hinduism: »He, the powerful one, is present in every corner of the universe.« I was pretty gobsmacked that no one had engaged with this topic musically before. In one of his quotations, Thayer writes, Beethoven had underlined certain words: sun, man, cosmos. I knew immediately that I wanted to develop something from that.

»Cosmos« Project: Beethoven Meets Indian Ragas

Sahana Banerjee

Beethoven searched tirelessly for the meaning of life. His notes include quotations from the Upanishads, philosophical Indian texts.

Shani Diluka

At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much linking Indian and European classical music. Are there overlaps?

Yes! I would even say that they have more in common than they do differences. In art you have the concept of the Golden Ratio. You find this kind of ratio both in Indian ragas and in Beethoven’s sonatas. And Beethoven used the pedal in a way no other composer has done before or after him. The pedal is sometimes pressed down continuously for long passages. That makes a number of notes sound out at the same time, and you achieve vibrations that are fairly similar to the quarter tones on a sitar. In addition, he uses motifs that develop throughout an entire piece. For example, in the »Moonlight Sonata« it is the fourth and the third at the beginning of the first movement. And ragas also use short motifs in order to develop improvisations from them.

Of course, the Indian and European tonal languages are different. In Indian music there are microtones that do not occur at all in tempered classical music. But these are just small details when you look at the big picture.

Using the depressed pedal, Beethoven achieved musical vibrations that are very similar to the quarter tones on the Indian sitar.

Shani Diluka

In your »Cosmos« programme you contrast Indian ragas with two sonatas by Beethoven: the »Moonlight Sonata« and the »Appassionata«. Why those two specifically?

In this project I wanted to explore the big questions that puzzle humanity. What I love about the »Moonlight Sonata« is the connection with nature, and to the passage of time. And for me, the »Appassionata« is one of Beethoven’s most important works. It is the last sonata before he plunged into very different spheres with his later sonatas. Shortly before composing that work, he wrote to his brothers in the document known as the »Heiligenstadt Testament« about his despair over his increasing deafness. And I believe you can hear this distress in the sonata. It sounds like a conversation with God, with Beethoven looking up to the heavens asking how he is supposed to go on.

Briefly explained

  • The »Moonlight Sonata«

    It was the poet Ludwig Rellstab, not Beethoven, who gave the »Moonlight Sonata« its poetic sobriquet. The sonata reminded him of a night-time boat trip on Lake Lucerne. Beethoven had something quite different in mind. With the work, he was subverting what he saw as the outdated sonata tradition. Instead of a fast first movement, he composed a slow one; and Beethoven also made free use of themes and ignored the customary sonata movement form. The style experiment was a success and the sonata has become a firm favourite – both within the classical world and beyond.

Shani Diluka
Shani Diluka © Balazs Borocz

And what are the characteristics of the ragas with which the two sonatas are juxtaposed?

Sahana and Prabhu played various different ragas to me – they know their way around the enormous repertoire much better than I do. They kept an ear out for similar keys, because they are always important in Beethoven. For the »Moonlight Sonata« we chose a raga that was closely connected with night, time and nature. And the »Appassionata« was given a raga that suited the restless sound of the sonata perfectly simply because of the special rhythm. In the second half of the concert we all play together – that is very intense.

With this project I wanted to explore the big questions that puzzle humanity.

Shani Diluka

You have already presented the project in India and Bangladesh. How was it received there? And what kind of response are you expecting in Hamburg?

Here? To be completely honest I have no idea! I can only say that in India, there were people in the audience who had never heard a work by Beethoven before. And yet they immediately understood the music. I think that it could well be the same for the audience here in Hamburg, but the other way around with the ragas.

The best post-concert compliment would be if someone said that they had experienced a spiritual journey during the concert. That they found a connection to themselves, the audience and the universe. That would be wonderful!

Interview: Renske Steen

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