Elmer 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."

I 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.

Born 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.

De 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.

Oedipus complex
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.

Everywhere 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 ten rupees.

De 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!

Self taught
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.

He 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.

For 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.

Only Beethoven
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".

De 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".
Bolshoi Symphony

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.

The 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.

Music critic
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 bad performance.

Some 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.

He 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
vanished hand,
And the voice of
That is still.....
But the tender grace of a
day that is dead,
Will never come to

He 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 age.

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.

My dear...
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, like me.!”

For 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".

Fr. 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 me Father!"

This 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".

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