de Haan-Eccentric, godless, musical genius
By Amaradasa Fernando
Whatever view one might have of the survival
of the soul, the restless spirit of Elmer de Haan, like John Brown,
from a restless grave, goes marching along. On June 19, it was 25
years since my friend Elmer de Haan passed away. As the poet said
he's dead but would not lie down. Those who knew him, friend or
foe alike, cannot just get him out of their system. At his graveside,
the late Justice Percy Collin Thome, said "Elmer was like durian,
you either liked it very much or just hated it."
came to know Elmer through another illustrious Burgher, Trevor Drieberg,
an influential member of the LSSP. Those were the heady days, in
1940, in World War II, during the underground days of the Party,
when as young romantic revolutionaries, several of us would go for
study classes in Sinsappa Lane in Wellawatte to Elmer's, to listen
to Trevor, Doric de Souza and Susan de Silva. Elmer was no sympathizer
of the LSSP nor Marxism, but since we were a hunted lot by the Colonial
C.I.D., Elmer's house, where we were supposed to go to listen to
and for the appreciation of Western Classical music, was a place
which was the least suspect.
of Dutch -German ancestry in 1906, he took pride in his family escutcheon:
there was an Admiral of the Dutch East India Company and a Dutch
Cardinal both surnamed De Haan. In fact he had two pictures of these
two individuals which he proudly displayed in his sitting room.
Haan was a prodigy. At two and half he was given music lessons by
his mother, an accomplished and well-known piano teacher. He had
an independent mind which made him rebel against bourgeois respectability
and religious orthodoxy, much to the distress and despair of his
mother. His father had died earlier. He seems to have had a love-hate
relationship with his mother, who had great character and self-will.
His sister had committed suicide because her mother had objected
to a love affair she had outside her community. This left an indelible
mark on him, he used to say.
His mother was a devout churchgoer, which he was not and
even from his young days he had to be reluctantly taken to church
by his mother. He used to like the church music and the hymns but
hated to listen to the sermons, which he said he found boring. He
used to giggle at the sight of the pot bellied preacher, whom he
had named Friar Tuck. At eleven, he finally revolted, breaking the
apron strings from his imperious mother. He said that he had become
a rationalist! He turned his back on the Christian faith and was
to remain so till his death.
he went he was a thorn in the side of his superiors. At Royal, he
incurred the wrath of Principal Reed, a English clergyman, because
he did not stand for the British National Anthem, "God Save
the King". He said that he did not like the music! He was caned
for his insolence. At University College, he infuriated Prof. Marrs,
the Principal, by selling him a Suriya mal flower on Remembrance
Day, Nov. 11 for disabled British soldiers instead of a poppy. De
Haan had strolled into the Principal's office and had told him that
he had come to sell him a "remembrance flower". Marrs
was happy that at last De Haan had reformed himself and parted with
Haan had quietly left behind a Suriya mal flower instead of the
poppy, which was then sold as a symbol of anti-imperialism organized
by the LSSP. When Marrs found that he had been diddled, he was furious
and went looking for De Haan, found him in the tuck shop and requested
the return of his ten rupees. De Haan sheepishly replied that he
had entertained himself and a friend!
After he left the University before his degree, he took
to practising the piano, which he did as he said, for the most part
of his waking hours. His only relaxation was swimming and cycling.
became an accomplished pianist and gave piano lessons for a living.
He chose whom he should teach. After a few weeks of practice, if
he thought that a student did not have the inborn capacity to be
a good pianist he would ask the parents to take the child away and
not waste money.
one who was self taught and not having a training in a conservatory,
his musical output was amazing and so was his quality. At 60 he
taught himself the art of musical composition in all its branches.
His compositions included an oboe quartet, the output, any would-be
master would have been proud of. What was amazing was that he had
all the musical scores in his mind, as a Chess Master would, and
when he played any move he knew the counter moves.
The only other known composer who had this ability was
Beethoven, who in later years became deaf, and had to have the score
in his mind. In his memoirs he wrote: "I had written two string
quartets but had not the opportunity to have them played even badly
in Ceylon. I had no way of assessing their quality. There was no
one to go for advice or criticism. Even the great masters had friends,
all distinguished, to go for help when necessary. Where would Brahms
have been without Schumann or Joachim. I had to be my own teacher,
critic and judge. Under the circumstances it is not unnatural that
I should labour that this or that phrase would have been written
more felicitously or that such and such phrase should have been
cut. As a result I was continuously chopping and changing these
first two works, never fully satisfied with the results. Meanwhile
I have commenced my Third Quartet in D Major".
Haan had tried through personal approaches and friends, unsuccessfully
to get his works played in the U.K., U.S.A. and Holland. He was
caught up in a vicious circle: neither he nor his works were known.
To become known his works had to be played. "Capitalism proved
an unworthy successor to struggling artists like me". He quotes
Padreweski who said, "The arts are being driven to the wilderness".
However by a stroke of luck, a friend and admirer, the
late Fred de Silva, a former Editor of the Daily News, who was attending
the annual Lenin Celebrations (1969) had brought to the attention
of the Union of Soviet Composers the case of De Haan and his compositions.
The Secretary of the Union wrote to De Haan requesting him to send
all his works for criticism and possible performance. On May 10,
1970 both his works, the First and Second String Quartets in C Minor
and C Major were selected for performance by a committee, which
included Shostakovich, Kahachaturian and David Oistrach. De Haan
had the signal honour of having his works played at Lenin's 50th
anniversary celebrations in 1971.
Russians also presented him with a set of tape recordings of his
works. Shostokavich sent him a letter of congratulations and a set
of the full scores and records of his String Quartets.
Besides his musical genius, De Haan was in his time, and
may be even today, Ceylon's greatest music critic. He never would
pass charlatanry. At musical concerts one could see Elmer seated
with the musical score with a magnifying glass going over the scripts
of the artist and would give a loud guffaw if a blunder was made
by the performer. In his reviews he would literally pounce on a
would frown on him for his devastating criticism, pleading that
it was good by Ceylon standards. For him there were no double standards.
It was either good or bad. Lake House became the forum of many a
verbal battle between his enemies, who never came out into the open,
using non de plumes.
died as he lived, eccentric and unique. In his last testament, (the
writer carried out his will) he was buried in a banian and pyjamas.
No flowers, no sermons, no prayers. He wanted only tracts from literature
of the great writers. One on the ephemerality of Man by Irving Washington's
"Visit to Westminster Abbey, a poem "Lament for the dead"
by himself, a tract from the 5th century B.C., and four lines from
Tennyson': "Oh for the touch of a
And the voice of
That is still.....
But the tender grace of a
day that is dead,
Will never come to
said that "these are the only lines that evoke in me the memories
of the poignancy and tragic despair of the adagio in Schubert's
great C Major Quintet."
His erudition, wit and bitter sarcasm are reminiscent of Bernard
Shaw, who himself was a great music critic. But Shaw was neither
an artist nor composer. It must be said that Elmer was not a critic
for the mere sake of criticizing. He was able to discover Malinie
Jayasinghe Pieris and Rohan de Saram when they were young and unknown.
They were spared his barbs because of their quality even at a tender
As an eccentric it was hard to find his equal. Like Salvador
Dali the great master, who used to sport a scorpion on his coat
lapel, he would cycle the busy streets of Colombo with a monkey
on his shoulder, tied to his waist, much to the bewilderment and
amusement of passers by.... His eccentricity was sometimes seen
when others thought the occasion called for grief. Typical of these
were when he sent his condolences to a friend.
I am sorry to read in the newspapers the death of your
father-in-law. I feel that in this instance the Good Lord has erred
grievously. The wrong "in law " has been taken. Please
accept my sympathies. Through some quirk the female of the species
continues in excellent fettle and voice to mar and imperil your
conjugal repose in this matter. But you have only yourself to blame.
Your present unhappy lot has been of your perverse seeking, deliberately
and cold bloodedly your own doing. You sought the hazards of marriage
in preference to the varied and wide pleasures of bachelorhood,
a short while he tried his hand as a customs official. But before
long his eccentricity played up. The Principal Collector, Woodeman
had his increment cut and finally threw him out for insubordination.
Woodeman had called his staff for suggestions for the coming carnival
"Harbour Lights”. De Haan, still a junior, stood up and
said that they should have the theme song which all should stand
up and sing called, "See the robbers passing by"! For
his cheek he was transferred to Kalpitiya, as punishment. He resigned
and got back to his music.
His Testament read by a good friend, Fr. Justin Perera,
at his graveside said... "I die as I have lived - an unbeliever
unrepentant. I have never worshipped at the gods, of myth and legend
created by the Graeco-Jewish priesthood. I want it emphatically
stated that since my eleventh year, I have followed the reasoning
and arguments of rationalist teaching. I die godless".
Justin Perera, embarrassed, with tears streaming down his cheeks
who had to perform this unenviable task made it explicitly clear
that he was only carrying out the last wishes of a dear friend.
(Only a genial man like Fr. Justin would have consented to such
an agonizing ordeal and death wish). At the end he was seen making
the sign of the cross and muttering under his breath, "Forgive
was De Haan's final exhibition of eccentricity before his body was
lowered six feet under.
His death removed not just another music critic, pianist and composer,
but an institution, a stalwart in an age of mediocrities.
I would like to end this appreciation to this unique man, 'a prophet
without honour'-a man who was both loved and hated, quoting from
one of his own poems....
"Lament for the Dead"
"Gone is the joy of the
sun in the morning,
Gone is the bliss of the
Moon at the full.
Never again shall world ring with laughter,
Silent he lies in his tomb".