Fanfare for ancient Sri Lankan Kings

American composer. Stephen Allen hears a contemporary message in The Mahavamsa and sets it to music

By R. Stephen Prins, Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

The American composer Stephen Allen has to climb 94 steps to get to his secluded hilltop home in the forests of Kandy. It is the only way up to his house. It is a steep climb, and to be attempted only by the fit, which Mr. Allen is. One imagines that when he reaches the summit, and pauses to take in the panoramic view of mountains and valleys and hazy distances surrounding his lofty fastness, he must feel rather privileged, commanding as he does a view fit for a king – one of those ancient Sinhala monarchs he spends so much of his creative life thinking and “writing” about.

Mr. Allen is a passionate student of Sri Lanka history, and has been ever since he decided to make this country his home, several years back. His knows the Mahavamsa probably as well as any scholar of local history.

Stephen Allen: Putting his passion for local history into music.

For quite some time now, Mr. Allen has been drawing inspiration for writing music from what has been written about medieval Sri Lanka. Striking images and stirring events from chapters of the country’s past, including legend and recorded history, stay with him, and eventually get transmuted into music.
“Several years ago, I made the decision to use the images or texts from the great epic legends contained in the Mahavamsa as creative springboards for the purpose of writing musical compositions,” he says. “That is, for all pieces that I am now writing in Sri Lanka.”

Mr. Allen’s tone poems – pieces of orchestral music that “illustrate” a narrative or theme – capture and encapsulate significant moments in local history, and some of these “ancient” moments happen to have an uncannily modern ring specific to this country.

“I find the ancient history and legends of Sri Lanka very rich and resonant to the human condition, and congruent to contemporary events,” he says. “I have used the story of King Kasyapa and Sigiriya as the basis of a solo cello piece. Vihara Maha Devi's journey to the sea became the inspiration for an orchestral piece, which I composed as a kind of threnody, a lament in memory of the victims of the 2004 tsunami, and it is also an echo of the 2nd-century BC tsunami incident mentioned in the Mahavamsa.”
Mr. Allen’s most recent composition, “The Dawn of Kandula”, which will be heard at two classical chamber music concerts to be presented in Colombo tonight and tomorrow night, recall a pivotal moment in the life of King Dutugemunu, who reigned from 161 BC to 137 BC.

“This work is a part of a set of pieces revolving around King Dutugemunu. Kandula was the heroic elephant that led the battle against King Elara and the invaders who had taken over Anuradhapura. The success of this battle, or series of battles, became the basis for the first unification of the country. In a way, it reflects the current political situation and the struggle for Sri Lankan unification.”

Clearly, King Dutugemenu and the elephant Kandula have left a deep impression in the mind of the American composer. “The Mahavamsa describes Kandula in mythic proportions. The story goes that on the day Dutugemunu was born, a baby elephant belonging to the six-tusked family of elephants was left behind by its mother on the seashore. A fisherman named Kandula spotted the animal and sent word to the king. The king had the animal brought in and reared and trained.

Prince Gamini’s elephant Kandula was enormous, distinguished in strength, features and form, and it combined the qualities of majesty and speed.”“The Dawn of Kandula” is an evocative, descriptive and deeply poignant work.

The titlet page of the music score for Kandula

“The piece begins with the sounds of dawn on the historic day of the final battle between King Dutugemunu and Elara. Kandula wakes up and goes for a stroll. He hears the conch shell calling everyone to battle. The conch echoes throughout the countryside and develops into a fanfare.

“The battle begins, and this is evoked by heavy scoring for the strings. Discordant sounds evoke the agony and death of the noble, very just and highly respected King Elara. For a moment, the spirit or essence of Elara hovers over the scene, and then ascends into the great void of karmic creation. Finally, our hero Kandula takes his evening stroll, to the sounds of victorious trumpeting.”

The Chamber Music Society of Colombo, which commissioned the “The Dawn of Kandula”, has been rehearsing the work almost daily for the past few weeks. Being a completely new and original composition, the work presents a novel challenge to the members of the orchestra. Now that they have familiarised themselves with their individual instrumental parts, they are poised to fit the parts together. Only in the last few days has the work begun to make musical sense to them, after several sessions of rehearsing.

Mr. Allen picks up the baton and the score of “The Dawn of Kandula” and takes the orchestra through the work once, and then again. He stops to focus on separate parts. He seems happy with the long, deeply moving violin solo that threads its way through much of the score. He is particularly keen that the conch shell battle call comes through sharp and clear.

The sound of the conch shell is recreated by the French horn, and the sound being produced is thrilling. Mr. Allen seems happy with that too.

Naturally, both composer and musicians are a tad anxious. They share a responsibility in bringing into the world something completely new, with tonight’s world premiere of “The Dawn of Kandula”.

At this point, the composer must feel a great sense of job satisfaction. His work is almost complete. Like that legendary baby elephant left on a seashore that was tended lovingly, and then permitted to move on, Mr. Allen’s “The Dawn of Kandula” is ready to go.

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