So we can, I think, ignore Mendelssohn. But for those who may be taken with the theory and wish to investigate (and lest my sleuthing go waste!) I recap it as given to and checked by me, with my results and my thoughts, mostly from an email sent my friend before I found the texts [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Anyone can do anything to music and lyrics of Danno Budunge

Continuing U.S’s analysis from last week

So we can, I think, ignore Mendelssohn. But for those who may be taken with the theory and wish to investigate (and lest my sleuthing go waste!) I recap it as given to and checked by me, with my results and my thoughts, mostly from an email sent my friend before I found the texts by Sarachchandra and D.S.S.

In 1829, when Ceylon was a British colony, Alexander Johnston, its ex-Chief Justice, asks Mendelssohn to compose music to given lyrics to mark legal changes in Ceylon including the abolition of “slavery”. Mendelssohn does so. Johnston is impressed by the piece and says it can reform the Empire. In 1832 Mendelssohn. composes #38-6. A sequence of notes at the start (of its first “voice”) is identical to that at the start of the Western version of Danno Budunge. Ergo, maybe he had written the same beginning for the Johnston piece, it was sung here, the melody survived, reached nurti, and Lavji altered it a bit.

- Searching the internet brings up two versions of verses by the Scottish poet which Johnston has given Mendelssohn for this piece. Their metre is the same, but cannot reasonably be made to fit the metre of Danno Budunge. One is given as the lyrics of the Choral “The sun is dancing…” (MWV F3). The Mendelssohn Museum in Germany, for a colleague of my friend, confirmed the Johnston story, but could not find the music. One could now ask them if the score for the above is known. If so, and clearly different, it will prove that there’s no connection.

- A great-granddaughter of Mendelssohn in the UK has some of his original material.

- Johnston was a voluminous private writer. There are collections of his writings at museums/libraries at Kew UK, New York USA, and other locations. There’s a pretty good chance the Mendelssohn score is in one of those. A relative of mine (another) has many of his letters but I couldn’t find anything of this in a recent search.

- Ceylon media: There were no newspapers at the time, but some journals with a small circulation, and they can be found. However, it’s highly unlikely the piece was sung here. Johnston in general tended to be a bit over-enthusiastic. What was abolished here he called slavery but was not that at all; he was I’d think inspired by the movement in Europe at the time against real slavery by Europeans and European Americans. His delight at the piece, too, is not shared by Mendelssohn who seems to have been merely amused by it.

- Services (requiring payment) which undertake to look for obscure sheet music of the 19thC. Searching on the internet will bring up at least one, possibly several.

Let us now look into two possibilities that Lavji got the melody, or something close to it, from a Western source. In what follows where I refer to the melody I mean both Eastern and Westernised, and in regard to the source also the possibility of something close.

It is said to “sound Western”. Does that really imply Western origin? The melodies of much of folk, pop or even “art song” music of the Indian Subcontinent are indistinguish­able from Western. Consider Rabindra Sangit and many of Amaradeva’s more popular pieces–the core melodies, before the embellishing, by alankara or otherwise.

Both the opening 4-note sequences of Danno Budunge, A-C-D-E and G-C-D-E, transposed 4 tones up in most Westernised versions, are two of countless patterns that will occur naturally and easily to most people who set out to create a simple melody in either Eastern or Western music. Personally I don’t  find it difficult to extend this assertion even to the first nine notes in comparing with the Mendelssohn piece. He uses the first four notes in another piece of that series, #19-4 (MWV U78).

Actually, 3 notes down vs 4 at the start is a significant difference. There are many others: e.g. the very next or fifth note of the melody is rendered by many Eastern singers as a kanswar or grace note but separate in the Western version.

Secondly, as in Algama’s history of the the Indian plays, what if the melody had entered those from a European source? He mentions only military melodies, but there may also have been hymns, and although he cites hymns set to Eastern music, it’s possible the melody was in some Western hymn.

But the popular Christian hymns in India throughout the 19thC are well docu­mented, e.g. by H. A. Popley. The Danno Budunge melody is very catchy (hence all this!) and had it been played there it would I reckon be well known today among those. Sarachchandra had looked extensively into this aspect of music for Sinhala drama. But even something similar is yet to be identified.

Here’s a bonus fact for naysayers. The first run of ‘Sirisangabo’ did not include Danno Budunge. This and two more songs were added in the second or third “edition”, to provide more time for changes of sets. Maybe in this situation Lavji was not that finicky about their origin? (In opera, for this purpose, rarely, a producer added a piece by a lesser-known composer!)

Once I myself had a hunch that the melody may have come from a Christian hymn sung in India or Jaffna, e.g. from the melodies of the Sastriar family. Even if there was some such input we now see, as above, Lavji’s approach, and that the melody he presented to us is raga-based. That it was then turned again into a Christian hymn strains my notions of probability.

Good luck to the seekers, if I’m wrong.

A recent vocal rendition of Danno Budunge has evoked a flood of comment. I might take this chance to record here the various changes to the original that I have found, and offer my own ideas on these. I proceed from the position that the Lavji version is the first. Much of what follows is personal and subjective. I am a Sinhalese, and culturally a Buddhist, though a non-believer.

A simple melody creates feeling in us by the lyrics. If there are none, then it is by associating the melody with our memories of hearing it, and/or with the title. These feelings can differ in each of us, even those created by lyrics, as we imagine differently what they convey. Pure music by itself does not create a particular feeling universally, except perhaps at the level used for cartoons.

I associate the music of Danno Budunge with my idea of what its lyrics describe, which also matched the setting of the song in the play ‘Sirisangabo’ at the Tower Hall revival when I saw it later: the scene with the three princes, the rather minimalist backdrop.

The feeling is one of calm. I think of the old Buddhist kingdom idealised, in a dry-zone setting of green and blue, expanses of water, with lotuses and lilies, distant floating birds, a well laid out city behind, a few white dagabas. (The reader was warned with that “personal”!) I ignore the squadrons of arahats. I go along with the makeshift Sinhala.

When I hear Danno Budunge I also remember that, in its day, beside the rising Independence movement (against British colonial rule), of which John de Silva was a prominent member, it was intended to inspire nationalist emotions, and bound strongly with the Buddhist Sinhalese identity.

Surprisingly to me, this mood is retained in some Westernised versions. This occurs when the music is kept simple, with the chords either all basic or else carefully chosen; or if it is sung in Sinhala and the style of singing is close to the traditional, “natural” Sinhalese manner. Conversely, the feeling is not conveyed (to me) by several of the Eastern versions.

The first change, as we see above, was by Devar Surya Sena. Actually, I find he has been rather naughty. He did difficult and invaluable work in documenting Sinhalese folk music, but he was an intolerant Christian missionary. (For this matter I read his autobiography.) This clearly Buddhist song he diverts to that purpose.

Senior, too, was very much so–in contrast to the great Protestant educators of Sri Lanka, including his head at Trinity, Fraser. This taints even his well-known love of the physical aspects of Sri Lanka. E.g., in reading up for this matter, I find that a part of a poem by him I had found deeply evocative of the beauty of our hills is set in a context that scorns Buddhism. Elsewhere he calls it the “profoundest challenger of the risen and living Christ,” but when affected by the physical presence of an ancient statue–and with his usual caveats!

The lyrics of ‘The Hymn for Ceylon’, for which Danno Budunge was musically first Westernised, entirely promote the conversion of the country to Christianity. At the last verse Senior steps this up to a point which clearly is not Politically Correct today. In a recent version sung by a girls’ choir the music moves up a tone here (see below) dramatically in the “truck driver’s shift” (as musicians call it), and then come the words, “To Him our land shall listen/ To Him our land shall kneel/”.

I regret it if I over-react, but on hearing that, what comes instantly to my mind are videos on the internet of little girls in Arabic countries declaring the glory of Islam and violence to unbelievers. Here is the stark old message of the Bible, “Compel them to come in,” unmitigated by the humanism of modern Christianity. Violent Buddhist activism in Sri Lanka looks for such precedent to react against.

At St John’s College, Jaffna, Senior’s hymn was sung once a year at the prize giving. In 1999 the lyrics were replaced with a school hymn, gentle and proper, written by another clergyman and educator, A.J.C. Selvaratnam. This is sung more often, and in its publications the school states, on his information, that the melody is by Lavji, and arrangement by Devar Surya Sena.

The popularity of the piece in Westernised form spread in Sri Lanka, and it was often played by bands, as an instrumental. It became more widely known after being adopted as the anthem of the UNP government of 1977.

Meanwhile, the music of the Westernised version was subject to varied renditions. As noted above, some cause hardly any change to the mood of the original version. There is not very much in them musically to separate them from one another, being mostly played with the basic three or four chords of a simple major-key melody.

One which has stood out is attributed to Joy Ferdinando, the male musician of that name. The harmony for the descending notes of the last line changes to the submediant and reverts naturally to the tonic in a skilful and dramatic modulation. However, to me, this is beautiful only within a relatively short part of the piece. It disturbs the calm of the whole.

An Eastern version of the melody is sung by Kapila Pugalaarachchi and Nelu Adikari with Western instrumental harmony. At the descent of the highest line another off-key major, the leading, adds the right bit of lustre, and there are no more marked deviations from the simple chord pattern. I have read of an arrangement by Stanley Peiris, who was skilful at adding such harmonies in the melodies of popular Sinhala songs.

Also introduced, at some time, was raising the key by a tone for the last verse. This goes well with the mood of the original, except as noted above, when linked to disturbing lyrics.

For CHOGM in 2014 was created an orchestral version, by an anonymous musician, conducted by a Briton. The video on YouTube is of poor audio quality, but one can hear enough, I believe, to justify commenting to this extent.

I am told that the idea is to evoke the glory of Anuradhapura without relating that to Buddhism. It is no doubt carefully orchestrated. But I fail to make sense of the idea, and the music does not work for me at all. E.g., its triple notes in ½+¼+¼ timing and exuberant single-note tattoos by wind instruments remind me of nothing so much as Colombo’s Big Match bands! It uses the devices described previously; the triple notes, too, are precedented.

Before moving on it may bear repeating that, to me, many of the purer Eastern versions, without vocal or instrumental harmony, also deviate from the simplicity and the mood of the original. I remember hearing one or more renditions that I liked but cannot find them on the internet, nor can I specify them.

Finally, we come to the vocal renditions by those trained in the Western classical manner, from Hubert Rajepakse to Kishani Jayasinghe.

Sarachchandra’s thoughts on this are much the same as mine. I translate from the book cited above, rendering katahanda as [singing voice], rasaya as [mood], gitaya as [piece], and correcting the title of Heber’s hymn.

The style of singing widespread in a particular country appears to be connected with the pronunciation of the language of that country. Within the Indian Subcontinent are areas whose cultures differ in certain ways. While the music of these areas is based on the overall tradition of Indian music the music of each differs in endemic features. In the styles of singing, too, are seen similar differences. The Bengali style of singing is different from the Hindi style of singing. It can be said that this is related to the difference in the pronunciation of Bengali and Hindi. The style of singing heard in South India is different from both of these. The reason would be the difference in pronunciation of the Dravidian and the North Indian (Indo-Aryan) languages.

I am not aware how many have heard Hubert Rajepakse sing the song ‘Danno Budunge’ (live or on disc). With a [singing voice] (of the tenor type) developed in Europe, he sings it in an entirely Western style. Can it, therefore, be said that no harm has been done to the [mood] of this song, which was composed in the pahadi raga (or some say the maad raga)? The [piece] has been so distorted by him that it is now heard as a European song sung in Sinhala. In it, Sinhala pronunciation too has been considerably distorted. The note patterns of the original melody have been modifed for the purposes of harmony.

The melody of the song ‘Danno Budunge’ thus revised was used several years ago (I do not know the situation now) to sing the poem ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains’ by Bishop Heber in Christian churches. In churches it is sung to organ accompaniment. The fate that has befallen [What a fate to befall] a song inspiring Buddhist faith!

Devar Surya Sena was trained in Western classical singing, he rendered Sinhala songs in that manner, and this was ill received in Sri Lanka 3/4 century ago. He responded that he sang these songs correctly while the Sinhalese didn’t! Later he relented, and rehearsed singing them the Sinhalese way. He then presented, at a public event, his singing of both Western and Sinhala songs. But now he did not succeed in either, according to the respective critics.

The subject of the recent controversy I see in this way, avoiding the matter of how this came to be.

National Day organisers in Germany will not request a German trained in Indian classical singing to sing a German patriotic song in Indian classical style. There really is no point, and it may be taken as an affront to both cultures.

Western classical singers usually don’t sing the kind of popular material sung at our event even in a Western language except for fun. (The comparison does not apply to current Sinhalese culture, where many popular singers were classically trained but have diverted for a living.) That is stranger still to do in an Eastern language. Conversely, I would not ask Amaradeva to do Sinatra at a public event–even though I know he does it well!

Nationalism and religion being associated with a piece add to the likelihoood of giving offence.

The music and the lyrics of Danno Budunge are not under copyright, and anyone can do anything with them. But–more caution on all fronts!


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