Vintage Tune: Homi Dastoor

Author at 91, Homi Dastoor wants you to get to know Chopin’s mistress to truly appreciate his nocturnes

On the Friday evening we meet him at his Pali Naka apartment, Homi Dastoor, 91, has a request. “Speak up. My hearing is suffering.“

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Article By Yolande D’Mello | Mumbai Mirror

It’s only half the truth. His daughter, writer Meher Marfatia, who has dropped in for a visit, reveals that his hearing aid is especially designed to filter three frequencies: recorded music, one-on-one conversations and telephonic chats. But Dastoor won’t shuttle between settings; his music comes first.

His preoccupation with tunes is evident. A defunct 70-year-old Grundig record player sits in the living room.

Most of his collection, he has gifted to visitors who showed an interest. “In any case, I now hear compositions on the computer,“ he says. With his music books though, he isn’t as benevolent. They are stacked in a cupboard behind him, including copies of Gramophone magazine which he swears is the most authentic source of information for both, novice and aficionado.

01_06_2014_006_006_011 Waiting to be added to the rows is his own book, Musical Journeys: A Personal Introduction to Western Classical Composers scheduled to release on June 20 (49/50 Books; Rs 1,000). A comprehensive beginner’s guide to Western classical music, it discusses 34 composers and their lives spanning 600 years (1525-1971).

Accompanying their short biographies are their major compositions, their place in music history and notes of select works.

It’s the result of research spanning nearly 75 years. It all began in 1942, when Dastoor, an 18-year-old commerce student at Sydenham College watched Hollywood musical They Shall Have Music, starring violinist Jascha Heifetz. The halls at Byculla’s Palace Cinema were running packed. He’d been catching the morning show, five days straight. He was hooked, and had to know more.

Slipping away from class after roll-call, he’d pore over books at J N Petit Institute Library in Fort, understanding concepts, composers and contributions. He coupled theory with visits to James and Co., a Flora Fountain shop that stocked vinyl records. “Sometimes, they’d take surprise afternoon attendance,“ he recalls. “I’d be on the defaulter list the following day. They’d fine me Re 1; a big dent on his allowance of Rs 25 a month.“

While his parents were supportive of his new hobby, they insisted he learn the value of money. Dastoor would save up pocket money for months before he could afford a record. His first purchase was Mozart’s Violin Converto in A Major, K 219 played by Heifetz. In 1949, his first job in the sales department of Tata earned him Rs 90, a handsome sum that let him indulge on books and records, including his first book, The Victor Book of the Symphony.

01_06_2014_006_006_013 Once he retired at 75, Dastoor decided he’d learn the violin. He took lessons from a 25-year-old tutor. “Even at 25, you are already too old to learn an instrument. Mozart was three when he took to the piano,“ he says.

All the while, the self-taught aficionado jotted notes in a journal he’d carry along. What he didn’t know, back then was that 70 years later, the yellowed pages of brown paper covered books would serve as the first reference point for Musical Maestros.

Marfatia and her brother Phiroze felt the labour deserved a creative resting place. And so, the title with a foreword by Zubin Mehta, is a meticulously planned reference for readers. Dastoor’s zany story-telling ensures that no matter how uninformed, you are rarely bored. Halfway through the book, he writes about Austrian genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who at seven was the darling of the courts, touring Europe. In France, he played for Princess Marie Antionette. When he fell headlong over the sword that was part of his costume and began to weep, she kissed away his tears. Grateful, he promptly promised to marry her.

 

MOZART, THE BAD MONEY MANAGER

Whenever the Austrian composer was hard pressed for money, he’d hand a sheaf of his compositions to publishers and accept whatever they gave him… Mozart’s financial condition kept worsening. There was never enough money to pay for his growing family. Constanze (Weber, Mozart’s wife) had borne him six children in nine years. Besides, she loved to spend money. One winter morning, a friend visited Mozart and found him and his wife dancing most energetically in their parlour. To his surprised friend Mozart offered the following simple explanation. He said, “You see, we have no money in the house to buy firewood, so Constanze and I were dancing just to keep warm.“

On December 4, 1791 Mozart lost consciousness. He died the following day. He died so poor that his body was placed in a pauper’s grave. No one cared to note the exact spot where he was buried. And so today, the fine marble monument at St Marx cemetery in Vienna which commemorates the memory of this genius, once feted and admired by the musical world, stands over an empty grave.

 

It’s important that a music lover follow a composer’s life just as closely as deciphering what his music means, Dastoor believes. And he kicks off the list with Palestrina (1525-1594), the Italian Renaissance composer. But he admits his favourite is Beethoven (1770-1827) “because he deserves it“. “The contemporaries of the great masters were also talented but lacked that spark of genius,“ he says. Beethoven falls in that category. And just as well since it helped others forgive his boorish personality.

Beethoven was lucky, Dastoor says, that the Prince of Vienna took a liking to him. “Beethoven loved the common man, and was forward thinking but he had his flaws.“ He decided to dedicate his Third Symphony to French leader Napoleon Bonaparte, who Beethoven believed embodied the philosophy of the French Revolution. But when he declared himself Emperor in 1804, Beethoven tore the title page in a rage.

His genius, and 32 piano sonatas help smoothen the rough edges, so history only recalls Beethoven for the musical storm he left behind.