Eric Daniel Helms (1921-2001)
Learning to sing and play the piano was mandatory in the Helms family, remembers Classical Movements’ Founder and President Neeta Helms: “Eric Daniel Helms, my father, was a ‘natural’ musician. He had a splendid ear, taught himself the piano, studied choral scores and could sight-read and transpose anything. Music was a total joy for him, and if he had been born in any European country or the U.S. or Canada, he would have almost certainly become a musician.”
However, studying or being exposed to what was called Western Classical Music was not easy in India, even while Neeta was growing up during the 1960’s and 70’s. When Neeta started taking piano lessons, at age 4, the only piano teachers in Agra, home to the glorious Taj Mahal, were the nuns in the nearby convent or Miss Schroeder, an Austrian lady who struggled to make a living by teaching piano lessons at a local school and in private homes.
Neeta recalls Miss Schroeder arriving at the Helms household on her bicycle: “She used to pedal a long way to give lessons to my sister and me.”
When Eric Helms was born in India in 1921, pianos, organs, sheet music and recordings were hard to come by, but music-lovers somehow acquired these precious objects. Worn but well-mended, they were shared with others, and Eric grew up not only with a love of classical music, but the desire to help make it available to others. In the hours away from his government service day job, he volunteered as a church organist and choir director, in addition to helping every single musical institution he could.
While posted in Bombay, where both of the Helms daughters were born, Eric and his wife, Tara, sang in the celebrated Paranjoti Academy Chorus. Victor Paranjoti (1906-1967) was a brilliant conductor and composer, whose works are still sung by choruses around the world. Victor and Eric were great friends, and they worked together to make it possible for the Paranjoti Chorus to perform two European tours in the 1960’s.
In his later years, when Eric was posted in New Delhi, he served on the board of the Delhi Music Society, Delhi School of Music and Delhi Symphony Orchestra. The School of Music lacked its own building, and Neeta remembers her father’s efforts as chairman of the school’s board. “He played a huge role in raising money to provide the school a home, located right next to the posh American Embassy.”
During the height of the Cold War, India, which had no foreign exchange with which to pay international artists, still received visits from the most extraordinary musicians, orchestras and ensembles from throughout the world. The Soviets sent the Bolshoi and David Oistrakh; the Americans sent Alvin Ailey and Arthur Rubinstein.
Through it all, Eric helped the artists obtain funding and permits, promote their performances and solve their tax problems with the Indian government, which had a love-hate relationship with Western Classical Music. If the Prime Minister attended and the red carpet was rolled out, if it benefited national politics or a favor was needed for the U.K. High Commission or a foreign embassy, the music thrived. If not, there was no money or assistance from the Indian government.
Fortunately, thanks to these political motives (and due to flights that had to make stops on their way to Japan or Hong Kong), India became a regular destination for many of the great musical performers of the 20th century. As a result, the Helms family was able to attend concerts featuring the world’s finest music.
Neeta is thrilled to not only follow in her father’s footsteps, but also honor his memory, through Classical Movements’ new initiative.
“After 15 years of success in performing arts touring and an exciting initial commission in 2005-06, Classical Movements is taking an active role in supporting the musical industry, through the launch of the Eric Daniel Helms New Music Program. The program, which will provide for the creation of new musical works for Classical Movements clients and other worthy projects, will be named after my father, who died in 2001.”
Neeta fondly remembers telling her father that all of the years of piano lessons had paid off. “I told my father, before he died, that despite the fact that I did not practice enough, the lessons gave me a passion and life-long love for classical music. He, in turn, was very proud that his daughter’s company had arranged tours for, among others, the New York Philharmonic, which was especially famed in India for its Indian-born conductor, Zubin Mehta. He was also thrilled that I was working with the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose legendary recordings were those he had listened to as a child, himself.”