What is an... Arabesque?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is an... Arabesque?
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Among piano-playing readers of this column, quite a few of you will surely have tackled at least one of Debussy’s delightful Deux Arabesques.

If you have, did you ever find yourself wondering what it is that’s particularly ‘Arab-esque’ about these pieces? They don’t recall any kind of familiar Arabic music: florid, modally flavoursome courtly songs or folk dances, or the free-floating ecstasy of a chanting Muezzin.


Debussy's Deux Arabesques 

Almost certainly, Debussy was thinking, like the artist Edgar Degas, of classical ballet, and in particular the exquisitely fragile (or at least fragile-looking) ballerinas who performed the movement called the ‘arabesque’.

The dancer stands on one leg, perhaps en pointe, with the other leg turned out and extended way behind the body. Arms, similarly held straight, enhance the elegant, impossible geometry of it all. 

That word ‘geometry’ is a clue to the origins of the term. Much Islamic art famously eschewed figurative representation. Only abstract, decorative patterns were permitted. But as so often when creative freedom is restricted, the imagination blossoms within the limited ground it is allowed.

Europeans were often simultaneously appalled (such ruthless stricture!) and impressed (such intricate beauty!), and they tried to imitate it – with mixed results. One consequence was the balletic arabesque; another was the romantic notion of ‘arabesque’ as something wild and crazily florid.

Schumann’s Arabeske, Op.18, takes the term to mean something explosive, semi-fragmentary, volatile – which couldn’t be much further from the mathematical-theological aesthetic of much medieval Islamic art.

But by one of those strange twists of artistic fate, Debussy’s quasi-balletic arabesques fed back into something much closer to the ‘real thing’.

Allied to his fascination with Arabic-influenced Spanish folk music, Debussy’s own decorative genius helped create the exquisitely patterned and perfumed sound-world of his orchestral Ibèria, which in turn showed Spanish composers like Manuel de Falla how to draw on both their European and Arabic heritage to create a potent, highly evocative national style.

The intensely poetic arabesques of Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain partly draw on something genuine, partly on a creative response to a creative misunderstanding. But isn’t that how many of the best ideas in art come about?

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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