Editorial / Permanent red
Mozart myths
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to Editor

The colour incarnadine in ideology seldom, if ever, runs. Even for a political party like the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal, trying valiantly to woo capitalists under a new chief minister, the red flag flutters in the most unexpected quarters. With Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee gung-ho about building a new West Bengal and about instilling confidence among reluctant investors, it was not unfair to expect that his finance minister, Mr Asim Dasgupta, would jettison ideology and his rhetoric about an alternative to liberalization in his budget for 2001-02 and put West Bengal on the track of an industrial revival. Such expectations remain unfulfilled. Mr Dasgupta, despite his MIT academic antecedents, is too much of a partyman to abandon the antique drum. Thus his budget speech plays out, one more time, the familiar anti-liberalization themes; it repeats the hackneyed attack on the policies of the Centre; it resurrects, shamelessly, the possibility of an alternative economic policy, the non-viability of which is the hallmark of Mr Dasgupta’s failure as finance minister. The red chariot thus trundles along even though its destination is non-existent, as the teleology embedded in Marxist theory has been mocked at by history.

A major part of Mr Dasgupta’s critique of the liberalization policies of the Central government is directed at the removal of quantitative restrictions which, according to the finance minister, has permitted indiscriminate imports damaging to the prospects of domestic producers. As part of West Bengal’s crusade against the removal of QRs, Mr Dasgupta has announced a luxury tax of 20 per cent on some consumable items manufactured outside India and sold in India. The items range from cars to cycles with things like soaps, umbrellas and shoes thrown in between. This tax shows how far removed Mr Dasgupta is from the prevailing reality. It would be difficult to persuade anybody, even a die-hard communist who knows of nothing beyond the gospel according to St Lenin, that the rich in West Bengal use cycles and umbrellas. What Mr Dasgupta has done is to put cheap and better cycles and umbrellas outside the purchasing power of those who need these things most. It needs to be remembered that Mr Dasgupta’s luxury might be another man’s necessity. Moreover, in a society moving towards affluence, despite the Left Front’s best efforts, the notion of luxury is becoming extremely fluid. Yesterday’s luxury is today’s necessity. Mr Dasgupta has perhaps aborted a consumer boom by this tax. He has also successfully isolated West Bengal from emerging national and global economic trends. Little West Bengal is the chosen turf of West Bengal’s little men. Having first let investment and industry languish and die, he has now added another corpse to his name. West Bengal’s economy never had a better undertaker.

Supply, to slightly alter Say’s law, finds its own demand. The cheap imported consumer items, which Mr Dasgupta wants to discourage, will inevitably find their way into households. Mr Dasgupta has indirectly encouraged smuggling and the grey market. It will add to the tasks of an overworked, because incompetent, police force. He will perhaps now start directing anti-smuggling raids just as he once took on the job of a traffic sergeant.

The finance minister’s personal idiosyncrasies apart, his policy prescriptions have profound ideological dimensions. His Weltanschauung is informed by a naive faith in the state as the prime mover of the economy. Thus a reduction of the state’s activities in the realms of the economy is not something that Mr Dasgupta is willing to accept as a precept. Even the newfound enthusiasm of the chief minister for private capital will, no doubt, be subject to close state monitoring and regulation. This might be one reason why capital retains its shyness towards West Bengal. A complement to this faith in the state is to see the latter as the recipient of tribute from its citizens. The luxury tax, stripped of all its trappings, is a new form of collecting tribute for the state. In spite of the chief minister’s dreams and the expectations of Calcutta’s ever hopeful industrialists, West Bengal remains in the red.


“How come Mozart died a pauper?” is a curiosity-question nearly as interesting as “Why was Beethoven always frowning?” The short answer to the first question is “He didn’t” and to the second “He wasn’t”.

Mozart died in Vienna — where he had settled for a decade to escape his suffocating father in Salzburg — at 12.55 am on Monday, December 5, 1791, two months before he turned 36 and a little before he could finish his last composition, the Requiem. Elaborate myths were woven, partly by gossip and partly by the contradictory recollections of his widow, Constanze, that he had been slow-poisoned by Salieri, that a diabolical messenger had visited him over his last days demanding he write a composition commemorating his own death, and that he had been bundled into a common grave with twenty other corpses on a stormy night.

The etiology of these myths is interesting. The minute the great man died, tall stories about him began to accumulate. Relatives and neighbours became accomplices in the storytelling, sometimes for money. In Beethoven’s case, the first people off the mark were his Bonn neighbours, the Fischer family. In Mozart’s case his widow, though not as entirely down-and-out as seems the case from the stories of her husband’s funeral, did need financial (and no doubt emotional) support and soon married a Danish diplomat called Georg Nikolaus Nissen. This Nissen, though neither a writer nor a scholar, was interested in tapping her memory to put together the first large biography of Mozart. He made a hotchpotch of 600 pages, to which Constanze added an appendix of 220 pages, which appeared in 1828.

One of the recollections in this cut-and-paste story book is that of a local innkeeper called Joseph Deiner who said: “The night of Mozart’s death was dark and stormy; at the funeral too it began to rage and storm. Rain and snow fell at the same time, as if Nature wanted to show her anger with the great composer’s contemporaries, who had turned out extremely sparsely for his burial.”

Curiously, it turns out that Nature was feeling the same way on 26 March 1827, when Beethoven died. According to the eyewitness account of Anselm Huttenbrenner (a student of Salieri, a friend of Schubert and a worshipper of Beethoven), who said he was present by his deathbed: “After Beethoven had lain unconscious…there came a flash of lightning accompanied by a violent clap of thunder which garishly illuminated the death chamber. After this unexpected phenomenon of Nature, which startled me greatly, Beethoven opened his eyes, lifted his right hand and looked up for several seconds with his fist clenched and a very serious, threatening expression as if he wanted to say, ‘Inimical powers, I defy you’.” [Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, vol. II.]

Literary critics call such participation by Nature “pathetic fallacy”, a device used in its most exemplary form by Milton’s “Lycidas”, where a recently dead man is wept for as much by his friends as by Nature in the shape of weeping willows, disturbed streams and those sorts of far-fetched Wordsworthian weep-easies. I’m not sure of the precise origins of this term for Nature bemoaning dead greatness; perhaps it has some unintended element of poetic truth. Even if they convey the pathos of how magnificence usually ends, such descriptions are rather dryly proved fallacious by the weather bureau.

Alexander Wheelock Thayer, who began collecting data on Beethoven’s life around the time the Mutiny was breaking out in India, started his monumental enterprise because he found that the only available accounts of Beethoven even thirty years after the composer’s death were entirely unreliable. Hagiography and casual memory in the Fischer manuscript colluded with the self-aggrandizing account of Beethoven’s unreliable amanuensis, Anton Schindler, who is the biographical analogue of Mozart’s widow and her second husband. Schindler was with the composer only over the last five years of his life, yet claimed he was there for seven or more, and the Thayer biography had to sift a haystack of lies and nonsense in order to find the needle of truth.

Dry, unromantic, empirical information which flatly contradicts pleasant fabrications is the biggest spoke in the wheel of myth-making. We know for a fact that the weather in Vienna was perfectly calm on December 6, 1791, the day that Mozart was supposed to have been buried — it was in fact “still and mild”. There is then the possibility that Mozart was not buried on December 6, but on the following day, when there was a storm: but in that case the cemetery’s burial register carries a mistake, which, knowing the manic perfectionism of Teutons, does not seem so likely.

We know also that the Requiem was merely commissioned by a music patron, Count Walsegg, in memory of his dead wife. As for the Salieri story, given credence by Pushkin and dramatized by Peter Shaffer in Amadeus, scholars have established that there is no information to contradict Salieri’s frank discussion with the pianist, Moscheles, during what he thought (wrongly) was his final illness in 1823: “I assure you in good faith that there is no truth in the rumour; you know what I mean — that I poisoned Mozart. But no, dear Moscheles, tell the world it is malice, pure malice; old Salieri, who will soon be dead, has told you this.”

Three kinds of funeral ceremonies were available to citizens of the town during this period, each at a different price. A first class funeral was meant for aristocrats, more or less exclusively. The aristocracy was very jealous of its special privileges, and not even Beethoven, who had the same stature as his contemporary, Goethe, could enter its fold. Several Beethoven biographers, including Maynard Solomon, have pointed out that during the legal battle to secure guardianship of his nephew, Karl, Beethoven tried arguing with frustrating unsuccess that he was really a “von” Beethoven rather than a “van” Beethoven. The former indicated Germanic noble lineage, the latter a Flemish ancestry.

If Beethoven could have established genetic or familial nobility for himself, his guardianship case would have been heard by a higher court, reserved for the nobility. Here his chances of success would have been much higher, for Beethoven was fighting a mere commoner (his sister-in-law, Karl’s mother) whose claims to be Karl’s rightful guardian would have been rejected on the grounds of Beethoven’s social superiority! Unfortunately for Beethoven, his disingenuousness in trying to upgrade and elide the correct “van” into the false “von” was all too transparent. Reverence for Beethoven’s musicianship, he was told by the court trying the case, did not mean he possessed social pedigree. This was made clear to the composer even in death: for all his stature, he was given a second class funeral. He had sufficient cause to frown.

But hero-worship is manipulative: it reworks and refashions the lives of its subjects to make them properly worthy of reverence. The famous Beethoven frown has a whole essay devoted to it: Allessandra Commini’s “The Visual Beethoven: Whence, Why and Whither the Scowl?”, which shows the frown was neither natural nor always present. Rather, it was “invented” by image-makers, including the arch Beethoven-worshipper, Richard Wagner, in order to reinforce their notion of stormy superiority as a physical attribute of the composer.

And as for Mozart’s funeral, the final evidence punctures the myth and gives short shrift to our satisfyingly melancholic image of a great man thrown into a pauper’s grave: “By 1791, most bodies were buried not in a mass grave but in a shaft grave containing five or six coffins…The limited amount of cemetery space made this essential. In order to save space, headstones were not permitted…Mozart’s unceremonious burial was normal for that rationalist time. By the standards of his day, his obsequies were not neglected, and he was not ‘buried like a dog’.” [William Stafford, Mozart Myths.]

Truth can be so much sadder than fiction.



Spirited performance

Not a very enriching soup. The health minister in the SM Krishna cabinet in Karnataka, Nafisa Fazal, would agree — now that she is in it. The Congress president is supposed to be extremely upset by reports of her alleged misconduct at the party hosted by Ganesh Gundu Rao, son of former Karnataka CM, Gundu Rao. Sonia has reportedly been informed that Fazal, inspired by a couple of drinks, had grown a sudden dislike for her clothes. Nafisa was promptly summoned to her majesty’s durbar for her version of the story and between sobs (presumably?) she told madam that her political rivals were only exaggerating. Sonia however is not quite convinced. She has apparently asked CWC member, Ambika Soni, to warn the girl to practise some self-control where the bottle is concerned. But wasn’t there a party code which debarred members from consuming alcohol? Ahem. Go back to the 1969 special AICC session on prohibition in Goa where party members, according to VN Gadgil, who often recounted the story, had discussed the merits of prohibition throughout the day. When the resolution came for the vote in the evening, more than half the house was missing. Congresswallahs had more important business to attend to at the roadside pubs. A spirited Fazal means madam’s party is hale and hearty. Shouldn’t we drink to its health?

Division of labour

A party which seems to be going to the dogs. The recent allocation of work by the BJP chief, Jana Krishnamurthi, have eyebrows reaching the head. Om Prakash Kohli, former BJP chief of Delhi, has been put in charge of the key seven states, while a more experienced Madan Lal Khurana, has been left holding two states. The worst case scenario is in UP. Former BJP chief, Kushabhau Thakre, who was denied a second term at the helm on health grounds, has been given charge of UP and Delhi. Thakre, it is felt, lacks the moral and physical strength to keep BJP leaders in UP from clawing at each other. Which means all that glitters isn’t old.

Keep the host happy

No doubt that Sonia Gandhi has a Pawarful adversary in Maharashtra. But that couldn’t be the only reason she is hesitant about a judicial probe into the Enron deal. The grapevine has it that it is more about upsetting the Bush administration that Sonia is concerned about. The Enron chief is alleged to have been a big fundraiser for George W. Bush. Possible. You can’t expect to anger the host and have a gala time in Washington, can you?

Come back and soon

Adult terrible. The Trinamooli didi nevertheless seems determined to bring Ajit Panja back on track. She is reported to have approached one-time mentor and Calcutta mayor, Subrata Mukherjee, to broker peace. Ranjit Panja, brother of the rebel leader, says that the party is trying to settle the score with Ajit before Parliament session begins next month. Mukherjee is said to have taken the job seriously and is planning to throw a dinner at his south Calcutta residence where both Mamata and Panja will be invited. This apart, he reportedly has also lined up a rally which will have both the leaders addressing the gathering. Enthusiastic Trinamoolis who are desperately looking for some job nowadays seem to have already taken up designing banners and posters which recount how didi and Ajitda floated the party together three years ago. All very well. What if dada continues to play the oddball?

A gift to please

Flying high. The Chhattisgarh CM, Ajit Jogi, is apparently planning to buy himself another aircraft. Money is not the matter for Jogi, although Raisina Hills doesn’t seem to have taken very kindly to his fancy. The aircraft from Central funds will officially fight the Naxalite menace in the state for the CM. Alternately, it will ferry him to the Delhi durbar every week. It will also come in handy for the UP assembly polls for which Jogi has been given the charge of Varanasi, Azamgarh, Bhadoi, Jaunpur and Ambedkarnagar. Meanwhile, Jogi’s counterpart in Madhya Pradesh, Diggy Raja, is also reported to be on the lookout for an aircraft. He is tired of travelling by train. Digvijay is also in charge of the UP polls, but is evidently not as high flying as Jogi.

No contest here

Bollywood stars might be pitching in for the UP polls, but they seem averse to the idea of picking up a fight with Priyanka in Amethi. Looks like its going to be once again a job for dear old Sushma Swaraj.

Footnote/ Small party for him

No takers for George Fernandes? That evidently seemed to be the case when the NDA convenor and Samata Party chief landed in Calcutta the other day. Unlike previous occasions, there was no crowd of party workers for him at the airport, except for the solitary figure of Sampa Das, the president of the Samata Party’s Bengal unit. When a worried Fernandes inquired about the turnout, Sampa told him that the party had hardly any presence in the communist-infested state. Crestfallen, Fernandes is reported to have spent the entire day at Das’s residence, going through newsreports and trying to figure out the party’s prospects in Bengal. The former defence minister seemingly was also expecting a friendly call from the Trinamooli didi, who had only days back gone all the way to his New Delhi residence to discuss her possible return to the NDA fold. Tough luck here as well. Neither Mamata nor her close aide and party MP, Sudip Bandopadhyay, called to say hello. Trinamool sources say didi had apparently made it a point not to call or meet Fernandes despite his presence in the city. Would that have made her look too greedy?    

Sir — American ignorance is legendary. It is only fitting that the American president himself should be displaying it to the world (“Frog-in the-well crisis stares at superpower”, June 22). What was most entertaining about George W. Bush addressing British students as “young Americans” was the little riddle it offered readers. Do Americans think that Britain was created after it broke away from the United States, thus getting history a bit mixed up, or is it their ethnic vocabulary that is limited? No doubt the training in American schools should be improved. But an insular attitude cannot be changed so easily. After all, any syllabus would reflect the American penchant for shutting out the rest of the world.
Yours faithfully,
Nandita Bhattacharya, via email

Militant stand

Sir — In the last few years, militants have taken refuge in mosques on more than one occasion, posing a problem for security forces which have been faced with the dilemma of how to deal with them (“Iron fist crushes shrine fugitives”, June 13). The government of India has finally adopted a tough stand against militants using places of worship as refuge. The operation, carried out by the national security guards commandos and resulting in the killing of the six militants, could help discourage militants from using places of worship as hideouts.
Yours faithfully,
A.K. Srivastava, Salbani

Sir — This is not the first time that militants have taken refuge in mosques or places of worship. However, the storming of religious shrines by security forces has been a sensitive issue since Operation Bluestar. In their desire to avoid any political controversy, successive governments have avoided taking action against militants. As a result, their activities have continued unabated.

The P.V. Narasimha Rao government had invited criticism from political rivals by granting safe passage to the militants who occupied the Hazratbal mosque in 1993. It is high time the militants realized that the government will have no choice but to take action against them if they continue to misuse religious places.

Yours faithfully,
Tapan Kanti Nandy, Barasat

Sir — In the last one and a half months, the government of India has given safe passage to Kashmiri militants on one occasion and flushed them out on the other. In the first incident, the militants who had been surrounded by the armed forces were allowed to escape. Both the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Farooq Abdullah, and K.C. Pant agreed that this was the best course of action.

But the second incident ended with the death of all six militants. Amazingly, despite the fact that India has been waging a losing battle against terrorism for the last decade, it does not have a foolproof strategy to deal with such situations. An unwillingness to learn from past mistakes has made matters worse.

Yours faithfully,
Nita Singh, via email

Dangling system

Sir — That a passenger could be ferried, dangling, from one station to another with his arms stuck between the doors of a tube train indicates the poor level of maintenance. Given that such incidents are usually followed by an elaborate cover-up, one wonders if the authorities will conduct an investigation. The lives of thousands of commuters could be at stake here.
Yours faithfully,
S.N. Mukherjee, Calcutta

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