Aidan Soder, UMKC Conservatory Associate Professor of Voice, teaches Western classical music.
My dear girl, this is going to be life-changing.”
Not what most musicians are accustomed to hearing, especially before they’ve sung a note, given a talk or taught a class. But here was the Conservatory’s Aidan Soder, barely 36 hours in West Bengal, greeted with those words by an excited, enthusiastic Bengali gentleman.
Soder was still recovering from her long flight and the anxiety that accompanies immersion into the life of a developing nation. Now she was being told that she was about to rewrite decades of accepted knowledge about West Bengal’s favorite son and revered musician, Rabindranath Tagore. She was going to demonstrate that Tagore’s poems and writings could be interpreted in many languages, and still be treated respectfully and faithfully. And some Bengalis, like this gentleman, couldn’t wait.
It began years before, when Soder was preparing for a premiere of art songs, Tagore’s poems set to music.
“I remember thinking, ‘Do the Bengalis have any idea how much Tagore has influenced Western culture?’ He was an Indian national treasure, a poet, mystic, composer and performer,” Soder said. “He even wrote the Indian national anthem! He would be the cultural equivalent of Shakespeare, but worshiped almost like a divinity. Did they know about his esteem outside of India?”
Tagore might have labored in obscurity, except for his book, Gitanjali. This collection of Tagore poems, translated from Bengali to English by Tagore himself, captured the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 and won him worldwide acclaim. The Western world admired his writing and lyricism, and saw possibilities for adapting his well-turned phrases into songs.
Coupled with Tagore’s growing reputation was an emerging hunger for all things “Eastern.” Beginning in the mid-1880s and continuing until WWII, increasing contact with Asia had sparked an interest among creative types. Travel was faster and easier, and tastemakers enjoyed the exotic look and feel of “Orientalism.” Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was all the rage.
During a chance conversation with a Conservatory faculty friend, Soder became aware of the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, teaching and research grants available to American faculty or experienced professionals in many fields. With the help of UMKC’s International Academic Programs office, Soder secured one of the coveted spots.
Next, Soder began to look for a good match with her background, research and teaching interests. Coincidentally, a West Bengal university in Kolkata was offering a degree in Western classical music. This was a perfect match.
“I would teach an Intro to Western Music, and, at the same time, visit the Tagore landmarks to learn just how much the Bengali people knew of Tagore’s impact on Western music,” Soder said.
So why was the Bengali gentleman so ecstatic?
“The adoration of Tagore and his music permeates the entire culture,” Soder said. “Bengalis adhere to a rigid purity for Tagore’s works. So I would be revealing to the Bengalis perhaps the only thing they didn’t know about Tagore—just how much others loved him.”
There are three main reasons why Bengalis were so surprised at Western usage of Tagore’s material: first, Western classical composers use Tagore’s lyrics but not his melodies. Bengalis can’t imagine Tagore’s lyrics sung with another melody.
Next, Western classical composers write voice and piano notations for performance. Tagore’s Bengali songs have only a melodic line for voice, a melody inextricably wed to specific poetry.
Finally, Bengalis feel passionately about Tagore being poorly translated into other languages. Even Tagore’s self-translations are considered very poor. Bengalis find that they sacrifice the lyricism, cadence and meaning of the originals; and Tagore’s beautiful poetry becomes ‘lost in translation.’
Soder had a six-month window of opportunity to convince Bengalis otherwise. So she gave several concerts of Tagore’s art songs in Tagore’s home, Jorasanko Thakurbari, from the same stage where he performed. She sang in English and several other languages.
As Tagore himself once said, “Music fills the infinite between two souls.” Did Soder and the West Bengalis come to an understanding through music?
“Bengalis now know that Tagore reached a demographic that they never anticipated. For me, the trip itself was life-changing in all the ways that it should be—culturally, socially, educationally and professionally.”
If Soder has another travel-abroad opportunity, she has already lined up one Herculean task: attempting her Western songs in the original Bengali.
“I love the Bengali people, so I want to use better translations, or sing in Bengali. I know how important language is to them, and this would be a show of respect.”
She and Tagore will have come full-circle.