Bridget Halpe and Peradeniya singers on producing new
The music will go on
When I went to interview Bridget Halpe at 'Varama', the beautiful
tranquil abode of the Halpes, she had just celebrated the fiftieth
anniversary of her marriage to Prof. Ashley Halpe. The house is a
treasure trove of paintings and other artefacts bearing testimony to the
artistic creativity of the Halpe family and tokens of Halpe's deep
involvement in music, with which she has lived from her sixth year.
In the following interview, she speaks of Peradeniya Singers, her
brainchild choral group she continues to direct from 1962, taking over
from its founder, Robin Mayhead.
How did Peradeniya Singers begin?
The group began in 1953, with efforts from Robin Mayhead, a lecturer
of English from the University of Cambridge. He was devoted to classical
music and got together a group of enthusiastic University people at the
university of Ceylon, Peradeniya, where we graduated. When my husband
and I were students, we participated in this small choir group called
the University Group, under Robin Mayhead's guidance. Later, he left the
country. My husband and I went to England for post graduate studies and
returned in 1962. Some singers of the choir were any way Christians who
went to church services and sang. We had what was called the Newman
Society, a Catholic group, which used to sing very complicated music,
even in church services. We had a fine group of singers. Claver Perera,
the priest, and Ray Forbes, Fred Ludowycke, Monica Ludowycke, Bernie
Marcelline, Rene Malawana, my husband and myself.
Ashley and Bridget Halpe
We did not do any public concerts, nor did Robin Mayhead. It was like
an extra curricular activity. In 1962, I thought I will continue the
University Singers doing serious and complicated music, with the
experience I had in England from 1959 to 1962. I received my licentiate
of the Royal Academy of Music (LRAM) in pianoforte performance which was
a coveted diploma and met world standards. I also did the B. Mus course
at the University of Bristol. Singing in many concerts and very specific
choirs like the Paragon Choir and another select choir in the Bristol
University, I gathered music. I thought why cannot our people sing that
music. Sri Lankans are very talented. It is simply that some of them
lack the focus because they are so desperate to make ends meet. They
feel that music is a subject of leisure and do not realize its value. On
a personal, psychological and community level, what you sing is not for
yourself. It is a musical message to be shared by listeners and you, the
singer. There is a famous saying, He who sings, prays twice over The
spirituality of singing is being twice blessed. Choral music is a very
Do Peradeniya Singers sing only choral music?
Yes. After Robin Mayhead left, I continued. It was attended very
keenly, but gradually, through the years, the students who came to the
University found that singing took time away from their business of
cramming. They quietly dropped out. Perhaps my move to a distant place
like this (Kandy), made it difficult for students to come. Singing was a
vital part of their personality development, but they wanted to be
focused only on cramming, studying and passing their exams. They do not
see the wider picture of being a wholesome human being. I have been
directing the choir. My daughter in Colombo, Haasini Halpe Andree,
performs as an Assistant Director. She trains the members in Colombo. I
train the bulk of the choir in and around Kandy. Once the University
involvement became less I thought the best thing was to rename it
Peradeniya Singers but there is a lot of grumbling from the members
because it is not only Peradeniya.
How many members are there in the group?
Roughly about 40. We sing for the pure love of singing, not for
money. I had a few sad instances where parents refused to send their
children because there was no money in it. What we do, we do
fundamentally to develop the community. Every song we sing is a message,
a theme. It can touch somebody in a special way, if you do it well. That
is why we always sing for charity. That gives us an added happiness or
How often do you sing?
Minimum twice a year. We just finished a concert for the Cuban
Embassy. Whoever invites us, we are willing to sing. Alliance Francaise
gave us sufficient funding to help the deaf and blind. Our concert
projects have been deaf and dumb, deaf and blind, HIV/AIDS, Oxford
University scholarship, cancer and Sadaham Dehena which is a cultural
program for underprivileged children. After our overheads of travel and
feeding the crowds are covered, we have this extra money, which is not
given to the students. They have to learn to give.
Do you sing only serious and complicated music?
Yes. God has given me some talent through which I received exposure
from England, America, Australia and Germany. I have been to these
countries and sung in their choirs. In our last concert, we sang music
from a Pharsee called Dravidian Dithyramb, a song of praise. What better
time than today, when we are not thinking of a conquest of Tamils but a
conquest of terrorism, to give this tribute to the Dravidian people. It
is a song where you use the drum beats in words, nana nana thinthak,
thana nana thinthak. It is accompanied by thabla, and we sing just that.
What are the upcoming events of Peradeniya Singers?
The next is the Christmas concert, which too will be for some
Who are the members of Peradeniya Singers?
A variety of people. Prof. Ashley Halpe is the oldest University
member. There are other professors, people who have been abroad and
expats who love to sing in the choir. I do not sing soul or gospel
music. I leave that to people like Soundari David. Some sing pop like
Ruvini Seimon. Revelations too, are doing a very good job. But their
music is not of the same musically demanding level like ours. We take
very challenging works of advanced choral repertoire. There are tricky
dissonances and timings. A very famous examiner of the Royal School of
Music attended our Jubilee concert in 2003. She was full of high praise.
Who are your audiences?
In a way you can say, the elite. I try to put in a little pop to my
music to dilute it but that is why I have a very limited audience. They
are people who know the seriousness and the challenges of the music I
do. A lot of my music students have 'voice' as one of their subjects. I
encourage most of my students go into choir singing because singing is a
discipline of listening first and foremost. You listen and give your
contribution both simultaneously. That is the vital difference of choral
singing in this kind of music. We are reading from a score, seriously
printed music by the composers. I try to do some Sinhala and Tamil items
during Christmas time particularly, and have my own harmonies and
What is the Sri Lankan response to good classical music?
It is a bit of a hybrid situation in the sense that we have the
serious elite that think of Western classics which I would say is the
smallest coterie. At the other end, pop is the most popular and they get
audiences and money. I feel that kind of music is big today and gone
tomorrow. It does not last like the classics and the great masterpieces.
We have just sung Verdi's Requiem which is a huge undertaking and
required a classical music understanding.
Is it only a select crowd that comes to your concerts?
People have asked me why I do not bring my music down to the level of
common people. There are others who can do it. Why should I? I have my
little talent and that is to educate people in the new genres of good
classical choral singing. I mean classical in the broader sense, not in
that narrow sense that denotes a period but classical as opposed to pop.
There are lots of other choral groups that sing a variety of items from
pop to classical.
Is this field competitive?
No. I have taught my kids to sing with me. If it does not clash with
my program, I say, go and sing in anyone's group. But I am afraid a lot
of other choristers and choir trainers feel competitive.
What are your plans for the future?
I have obtained from an Austrian Professor of music some new choral
Christmas items and want to try my hand at them. My choristers can sing
German, French, Italian, Sinhala and Tamil. In the United States, I was
introduced to the beautiful choral works of Joshua Jacobson, from the
Sephardic Jewish community that dispersed with the attacks on them.