The forgotten story of how Mysore Maharaja fulfilled the last wish of a legendary composer

The year was 1948. Europe was limping back to normalcy after seven terrible years of world war. Richard Strauss the legendary German composer had managed to escape from his shattered homeland in the last year of the war and had settled in neutral Switzerland.

It was here that the ailing 84-year-old composer wrote his farewell to the world through Four Last Songs, which included Frühling (Spring), September, Beim Schlafengehen (When Falling Asleep) and the Im Abendrot (At Sunset).  he had expressed the desire to have them sung by the reigning Wagnerian soprano, Kirsten Flagstad, and he had written to her in 1949. He died soon after; his wish unfulfilled. He used to say,

‘The human voice is the most beautiful instrument of all, but it is the most difficult to play.’

Despite his tragic end, Four Last Songs survived and was premiered exactly as Strauss had imagined. What’s surprising is that his dying wish was fulfilled by a stranger, living literally, a world away from him.

The stranger was Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, the last ruler of Mysore.

Half a world away, similar turmoil, bloodshed and destruction was witnessed in India. In 1947, a newly-formed nation had emerged into independence from British rule, and one of the first princely states to accede to the Dominion of India was Mysore. Its last ruler was the youthful Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar.

This 31-year-old Indian maharaja was instrumental in carrying out the last wish of a legendary German composer. Wadiyar was not only a musician of exceptional brilliance, but a patron of European classical music.

And, it was this passion for music that pushed him to sponsor the premiere of Four Last Songs on May 22, 1950.

The Maharaja offered some of $5,000 at the time, which not only guaranteed the performance but paid for the cost of making a live recording of the work. This historic recording was added to his personal collection, which has more than 20,000 records. The conductor at Royal Albert Hall, on May 22, 1950, was none other than  Wilhelm Furtwängler and the soprano was , as Strauss had desired, Flagstad.

Regarded as a great patron of Western classical music, Maharaja Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar was respected and deeply admired and he was a brilliant musician himself. There are landmark events and institutions that owe much to Wadiyar, who was as knowledgeable as he was generous. the putting up of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London on a stable financial support, and the performance of Richard Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’, exactly in keeping with the composer’s last wish, down to the choice of soprano Kirsten Flagstad, are greatest examples of his love for music and generosity.

Wadiyar and music:

Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar ascended the throne in 1940, at the age of 21 after the death of his father Kanteerava Narasimharaja Wadiyar and his uncle Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, Maharaja of Mysore. The cultural atmosphere of the palace where the young prince and his sisters grew up, had, a profound influence on them. Music was a part of all formal or informal functions at the palace.

Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar had a “very good” but strict piano teacher, Sister Ignatius from the Good Shepherd Convent in Mysore. The young Wadiyar’s talent was evident at a very early stage. at piano examination, after he had finished playing, the examiner Dr Adolf Mann went to the piano and played piano with him as an affectionate acknowledgment of the child’s incredible performance. Western classical music thus became a passion.

he had a huge record collection. His sister Devi also went on to become a proficient pianist, from Trinity College London and later continuing her piano studies under the eminent musician and professor Edward Steuermann of the Juilliard School of Music in New York. In 1974, at the suggestion of her brother, she founded the International Music & Arts Society in Bengaluru. This institution continues to function under the guidance of her daughter, Urmila Devi.

Maharaja Kantirava narasimharaja Wadiyar was a jazz lover. He would introduce the young Wadiyar and his sister to guests as “my two highbrow children”.

The young maharaja acquired a Licentiateship in Piano Performance from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and was granted an honorary Fellowship of Trinity College London in 1945. Shortly before his coronation, he visited Sergei Rachmaninoff in Switzerland looking to being accepted by the legendary pianist and composer as a student. It was during this European tour that he had occasion to listen to works by the Russian composer Nikolai Medtner.

Though the two never met, Wadiyar financed a series of recordings for HMV. This was a gracious debt that was repaid by Medtner dedicating his Third Piano Concerto to him. Which is regarded as  “one of the greatest romances in the history of the gramophone”.

According to the writings of critic Fred Smith, it was a grand play of destiny that Medtner met with the great patron of music H.H. The Maharaja of Mysore. He says he can not forget the look of wonder on Medtner’s face when Captain Binstead, the Maharaja of Mysore’s Commissioner, in his presence, put the proposal to him. It was  a great service that has been rendered to music he says.

The recordings were made with an expert team, and the albums went a long way in, as Smith poetically put it, giving Medtner due recognition “in the autumn of his life”.

Wadiyar was so appreciative of his music that, in 1949, he formed The Medtner Society and continued being instrumental in spreading awareness about this little-known composer’s work throughout his life.

Now, more than six decades has passed since Wadiyar’s reign but the legacy of music shall remain an integral part of their royal lineage.

Though his service to the music has been forgotten in recent years, it remains as a proof for the fact that, music knows no language or boundaries, music can only unite.

This year marks his birth centenary. The royal family of mysore had always been great patrons of art and music. And the charisma of Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar was so, people regarded him and addressed to him as ‘Maharaja’ even if his reign had ended.  Rashtrakavi Kuvempu’s words summarizes his personality,

“Every monarch in history has become king ascending thrones, while he became the greatest king descending one”

Dr Sindhu Prashanth