From the Vedas to Wagner: Short Reviews

Samavedic Chant

by Wayne Howard
Yale University Press, 732 pp., $30.00

Wagner's "Rienzi": A Reappraisal Based on a Study of Sketches and Drafts

by John Deathridge
Oxford University Press, 192 pp., $29.00

Bruckner Box 327, Totowa, New Jersey 07511)

by Derek Watson
Dent (London), 240 pp., $7.95 (available from Biblio Distribution Centre, 81 Adams Drive, PO

The Harmonic Organization of "The Rite of Spring"

by Allen Forte
Yale University Press, 151 pp., $15.00

Jean-Baptiste Lully: The Founder of French Opera

by R.H.F. Scott
Taplinger, 135 pp., $6.95


by Michael Talbot
Dent (London), 275 pp., $11.50 (available from Biblio Distribution centre)


by John Warrack
Hamish Hamilton, 287 pp., £8.95

Tchaikovsky: The Early Years, 1840-1874

by David Brown
Norton, 348 pp., $20.00

Anyone interested in Brahmanic religious philosophy and Vedic verse meters, as well as in ancient music, should read this book. Another, incidental, subject is that of international drug culture, for Samavedic chanting, in its ritualistic form, takes place uniquely during sacrificial ceremonies in which libations of the juice of the soma plant are offered to the deities.

In the 1960s, Western audiences became more aware of Indian music, thanks in large measure to such virtuoso sitarists as Ravi Shankar, who influenced the Beatles and jazz figures like John Coltrane, and, in small measure, to the discovery of a parallel in the strictness of note-order between some ragas and twelve-tone series. Instrumental improvisation is simpler to appreciate, however, at least on one level, than a species of chanting that cannot even be exported from one jungle village to another. Furthermore, correspondences exist between ragas and Western music, both functionally, in the seasons and times of day at which a piece is performed (the church’s canonical hours), and in structure and content: one raga scale is identical with a Western mode, and ragas are harmonic in that the solo instrument forms two-note chords with the accompanying drone part (tala).

None of this is to suggest that a true comprehension of this infinitely subtle art form is imminent in the West, but merely to say that, compared to Samavedic chant, the raga is as close to us as Tchaikovsky. Yet in spite of the remoteness of thirty centuries, a vestige of the power of this venerable singing, and of the presence of the past—the Kauthuma notational numerals are believed to relate to the cries of animals—can be felt by wholly uninstructed listeners.

Some readers may wonder why Mr. Howard has devoted more than a third of his book to transcriptions, since the chants have come down to us by oral tradition. The Rgveda, for instance, the oldest of the Vedic collections, containing over 10,000 verses in more than 1,000 hymns, has been preserved practically unchanged for more than 3,000 years—written texts are about 900 years old—a scarcely believable phenomenon to the Hebrew, Christian, and Moslem who lives by his Book. The answer is that the music can be studied only through transcriptions, even though these are transposed (to facilitate legibility), merely approximate even in relative pitch, and convey nothing of the qualities of sound. In Mr. Howard’s book the transcriptions are in a far from calligraphic, not to say shaky, hand, and the notation of rhythmic values is unnecessarily dense: since long notes are rare, they could have been represented by halves, instead of quarters, thereby reducing the beams from four, the most common kind, to three.

At whatever the increase in the price of this already expensive book (“Thank you Paine Webber”), audio-visual cassettes should have been packaged with it, especially since the Vedic priests employ hand and finger positions (mudra) while intoning the ritual chants (sotras). One hopes that Mr. Howard’s tape recordings will soon be made available commercially. Besides…

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