Companionship Through Music

Parsi Times brings you our monthly column on Western Classical Music by one of its leading connoisseurs – the eminent Khushroo Suntook, Chairman of the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), to re-acquaint you to the joys of this unparalleled form of music. Having kicked off this column last month with ‘Why Great Music Matters’ – which became an instant hit with our readers – this time Mr. Suntook shares the profound delight of forming special, lifelong bonds of friendship with ‘Companionship Through Music’…

Last month I spoke about how joy of music, when shared with likeminded companions, heightens its enjoyment, just as a gourmet meal eaten by yourself is not half as enjoyable as when imbibed with sympathetic gourmands. Some of the oldest friendships, that I was privileged to share, were with record collectors and music loving friends. We spent hours arguing, and eventually asking better informed listeners to explain why a particular artiste or record was, in any way superior or inferior to the ones we heard earlier.  Believe me, it is a lot of fun.

When I was young I was surrounded by music, both played at home and listened to on the inevitable HMV radiogram, often on Sunday mornings, and very often after dinner.

Surprisingly, while everybody talks about politics and current events, we spoke about Caruso, Kreisler and Beethoven. From this background grew a bunch of collectors who were not only avid in their desire to possess certain pieces of music by celebrated artistes, but would go to any length to collect one or the other record which they passionately desired.

On the positive side, I wrote a letter, at the age of 16, to John Freestone who was writing in The Gramophone, a column called ‘Collectors’ Corner’.  He responded so warmly that I went to see him when I next went to London. He then came to India twice, lectured at a packed Patkar Hall, and at the age of 50, I was happy to attend his 95th birthday in Brighton, filled with his old friends and companions, amidst much bonhomie and affection.  Out of this bond, especially two dear friends, Vivian Liff and George Stuart, became very close and, on the death of George, the entire collection of LPs and books was most generously presented to the NCPA by Vivian.

George Stuart and Vivian Liff

So how do you go about record collecting?  I believe you should first establish which area of music you are interested in, whether it is vocal, symphonic, chamber music, oratories etc.  Once you establish your affinity, start reading books which are available on the subject or alternatively come to the Stuart Liff Library at the NCPA – this is a sincere recommendation. The fine librarian would recommend what you should read over here.

In the days before cinema, TV and online music was available, the only source of listening was either at a concert or with the old, single-sided -and after 1908, double-sided, 78 rpm records. These were dreadfully expensive, in the sense that a record by the great diva Adelina Patti would cost a guinea for one song, whereas  a night at the Ritz cost as much. Today, no doubt, in a reproduced form, you can buy all the Pattis for a few pounds on a CD, while the Ritz may set you back by £600! I am just trying to establish the expense a new collector had to incur to buy records off the shelf.  Inevitably, after these major collectors died, their families started to sell their collections and this is where the flourishing second-hand market is growing. The art of collecting entails knowing when a particular collection was up for sale.

There’s an amusing story of a very avid collector who would drive from the toe of Italy all the way to Milan and every time he saw a grand Italian home which seemed to have records, his car was trained to cough and stutter and he would go up to the house, introduce himself and say ‘Madam, have you any old records’ and over the years built a major collection from this technique! The story about record collectors is legend and many more can be told but I am just trying to describe the joy of acquiring a collection of records, sharing it with friends, sometimes boastfully, and having the immense satisfaction of disseminating interpretations of music which may be emanating from a rare source.

The latest auction of the collection of oil millionaire, Paul Getty, a couple of years ago, showed that many treasures went at comparatively low prices.  This was a great occasion to learn the value of records as well as the interpretation of many artistes through the last over hundred years of interpretations.  Many great composers were captured by Gramophone and Columbia record companies, and the authenticity of Rachmaninov playing his concerto is as precious as Beethoven playing his own concerto. These priceless documents, autobiographies by great musicians, are not only a joy to read and play, but also a subject of great discussions and contrary opinions. It results in a bonding of a very special kind and we have often, even in the old days of expensive telephones, put on a rare record and made a collector abroad listen to it through the croaking old mouthpiece!

I suggest that you meet music lovers, try and see if you enjoy recordings, and later start going to concerts, because it is possible you may find concerts too long to endure in the beginning of your music appreciation days.

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