The year was 1948. Europe was limping back to normalcy after seven terrible years of a world war. Richard Strauss had managed to escape his shattered homeland in the last year of the war and had settled in neutral Switzerland. It was here that the ailing 84-year-old composer wrote his farewell to the world through Four Last Songs, which included Frühling (Spring), September, Beim Schlafengehen (When Falling Asleep) and the haunting Im Abendrot (At Sunset). He was never to hear them performed, but he expressed the desire to have them sung by the reigning Wagnerian soprano, Kirsten Flagstad, writing to her in 1949: “…I have the pleasure to provide to you my Four Last Songs with orchestra, which are currently in print in London; to give their premier performance in an orchestral concert with a first class conductor and orchestra…” He died soon after; his wish unfulfilled.
Half a world away, similar turmoil, bloodshed and destruction had touched the lives of those living in the Indian subcontinent. In 1947, a newly-formed nation had emerged into independence from British rule, and one of the first princely states to accede to the Dominion of India was Mysore. Its last ruler was the youthful Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar. That a 31-year-old Indian maharaja should be instrumental in carrying out the last wish of a legendary German composer is not as surprising as it may seem. Wadiyar was not only a musician of exceptional brilliance, but a patron of European classical music.
The premiere of Four Last Songs was sponsored by Wadiyar, who offered some $5,000 at the time, which not only guaranteed the performance but paid for the cost of making a live recording of the work. This historic recording was added to his personal collection, which exceeded 20,000 records. The conductor at Royal Albert Hall, on May 22, 1950, was none other than Wilhelm Furtwängler who conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the soprano was indeed, as Strauss had desired, Flagstad. And thereby hangs not just a tale, but a veritable saga.
Wadiyar had ascended the throne in 1940, at the age of 21 after the death of his natural father Kanteerava Narasimharaja Wadiyar and his uncle Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, Maharaja of Mysore. His sister Vijaya Devi has reminisced, “Had my brother not been heir apparent, I expect he would have gone seriously into studying the piano.” The cultural atmosphere of the palace where the young prince and his sisters grew up, had, she said, a “profound influence on us… I do not remember any function, formal or informal, of which music did not form an integral part.”
Though the young royals grew up with Carnatic music and dance, their earliest music studies commenced with piano lessons for the young prince with the “very good” but strict teacher, Sister Ignatius from the Good Shepherd Convent in Mysore. The young Wadiyar’s talent was evident at a very early stage. His sister recalled that at a piano examination, after he had finished playing, the examiner Dr Adolf Mann went to the piano and played Handel’s rousing song See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes! as an affectionate acknowledgment of the child’s incredible performance. The young boy, according to his sister, “was thrilled to bits.” Western classical music thus became an early passion with him and though unable to attend live concerts, he acquired a huge record collection which helped him develop his powers of appreciation and discrimination to an advanced degree.
Devi herself went on to become a proficient pianist, gaining, like her brother, qualifications from Trinity College London and later continuing her piano studies under the eminent musician and professor Edward Steuermann of the Juilliard School of Music in New York. In 1974, at the suggestion of her brother, she founded the International Music & Arts Society in Bengaluru. This institution continues to function under the active engagement and guidance of her daughter, Urmila Devi.
Service to music
Both children grew up under the supportive gaze of a father who was a jazz aficionado. He would introduce the young Wadiyar and his sister to guests as “my two highbrow children”. The young maharaja acquired a Licentiateship in Piano Performance from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and was granted an honorary Fellowship of Trinity College London in 1945. Shortly before his coronation, he visited Sergei Rachmaninoff in Switzerland looking to being accepted by the legendary pianist and composer as a student. It was perhaps during this European tour that he had occasion to listen to works by the Russian composer Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951).
Though the two never met, Wadiyar financed a series of recordings for HMV, a debt that was repaid by Medtner dedicating his Third Piano Concerto to him. Writing in Gramophone (1948), critic Fred Smith described the recording as “one of the greatest romances in the history of the gramophone”. For the reclusive composer living a quiet life in London, it was, Smith said, “wonderful that destiny should have brought Medtner’s genius within the spheres of vision and great musical appreciation of the H.H. The Maharaja of Mysore...I shall not forget the look of wonder in Medtner’s countenance as Captain Binstead, the Maharaja of Mysore’s Commissioner, in my presence, put the proposal to him. What a service has been rendered to music…” The recordings were made with an expert team, and the albums went a long way in, as Smith poetically put it, giving Medtner due recognition “in the autumn of his life”.
Wadiyar was so appreciative of his music that, in 1949, he formed The Medtner Society and continued being instrumental in spreading awareness about this little-known composer’s work throughout his life.
This first appeared in ON Stage, the official monthly magazine of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.