How the East inspired classical music, from the fictional heroine Scheherazade to the sounds and sights of India
Culminating in rich portrayals of Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel, the ‘exotic’ Orient inspired countless composers, says Stephen Johnson
I once introduced a series of concerts in Leighton House, home of the Victorian artist Frederic Leighton, set in a secluded part of Kensington.
In effect it’s a grand artist’s studio, replete with the kind of images and artefacts to set a creative mind working. At its heart is the stunning Arab Hall, filled with textiles, pottery and images Leighton collected during his trips to Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Damascus in the 1860s and ’70s, and furnished with exquisite tiles, mosaics and marbles mostly made in London but closely modelled on the kind of things Leighton had seen during his Middle-Eastern travel.
There’s a contemporary school of thought that says that Western Europeans like me should feel uncomfortable about all this. And I do – a little. Since the publication of Edward Said’s provocative book Orientalism in 1978 there’s been a lot of discussion – some of it pretty rancorous – about how objects like Leighton House allegedly reflect a patronising attitude to the East on the part of greedy, power-intoxicated Western colonial minds.
It doesn’t matter whether Leighton took these objects from the Middle East or had them made: this is what would now be called ‘cultural appropriation’, part of a mindset that could once countenance the actual appropriation of real people.
But sitting in Leighton’s beautiful, strangely peaceful house, that hardly seemed to explain all of it. Has the idea that imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery been entirely superseded? Inevitably thoughts led on to music: to the wealth (that really is the word) of remarkable European art music which, in different ways, has also looked to the East for inspiration and, often, creative liberation.
How the East has inspired classical music
It’s a story that changes over the years. The first stirrings of musical interest in the non-Christian East can be heard in the now faintly risible use of ‘Turkish’ instruments – bass-drum, triangle and cymbals – in works by late-18th- and early-19th-century Viennese composers: in Mozart’s putatively Turkish-set opera The Seraglio (1782) or, more surprisingly perhaps, in the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
It’s easy to dismiss such a clumsy approximation of a foreign nation’s music as condescending or culturally myopic. But it’s easy to forget that in Europe then, and particularly in Vienna, the memory of times when the powerful, Turkey-based Ottoman Empire posed a threat to Europe were still fresh. The city had withstood a massive onslaught by Turkish armies as recently as 1683.
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With that in mind, does Mozart’s pasteboard orientalism in Seraglio look like cultural condescension, or is the opera’s final hymn to Pasha Selim’s magnanimity a genuine recognition that the once-feared enemy could be human too? Weber’s once-popular comic opera Abu Hassan also ends with a display of wisdom and compassion by an Islamic ruler, in this case the Caliph of Bagdad.
And is Beethoven’s use of ‘Turkish’ sounds in the Ode to Joy a threat – one day you will be drawn to Beethoven’s, Schiller’s and by implication the West’s ‘embrace’ – or a recognition that the old enemy also belongs to the text’s proclaimed brotherhood of mankind?
The latter wouldn’t be so very surprising. In Beethoven’s time, serious interest in the intellectual and artistic thought of the Middle and Far East was rising rapidly. Translations of Eastern scriptures were beginning to circulate (Beethoven read and copied extracts from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita), by which time the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer had already begun to immerse himself thoroughly in Hindu and Buddhist thought, with momentous consequences in the second half of the century.
How the Middle-Eastern folk tales, One Thousand and One Nights inspired composers
But still more momentous were the first translations in European languages of the Arabic collection of Middle-Eastern folk tales, One Thousand and One Nights, some of which were around early enough for Mozart to have encountered them.
Central to the One Thousand and One Nights is the figure of Scheherazade, the ingenious woman forced into marriage with the misogynistic Persian King Shahryar, who has vowed to execute a new bride every day. Scheherazade saves herself by spinning out fabulous stories, ending each night on an enthralling cliffhanger. Shahryar goes on sparing her in order to get to the end, only to find that he’s left in suspense all over again. In the end he has to confess that he’s now enthralled by Scheherazade herself, and the murderous vow is forgotten.
The popularity of One Thousand and One Nights was no passing fancy. Like Shahryar himself, Western readers were spellbound. It’s easy to see why: aside from the gripping dramatic premise, the stories themselves are wonderful and they’ve given us figures who’ve endured to the point of becoming archetypes – Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sinbad the Sailor, names English children still encounter each Christmas in pantomime. But it was Scheherazade herself who probably left the deepest impression, not least on composers.
For the composers of the Classical era, and still more for the Romantics who followed on from them, the figure of the inspired story-teller – so inspired that she is able to use her quasi-magical powers to save her own life – could be a kind of leading light. As instrumental and orchestral music grew increasingly independent from words and stage actions, so composers worked to develop music’s story-telling powers – less specific, vaguer than those of words, but for that reason more likely to provide access to the world of the imagination, of dreams.
So it isn’t surprising that one of the most brilliant, atmospheric and enduringly popular 19th-century tone poems should take Scheherazade as its guiding light.
No doubt Russian imperial expansion into the Middle and Far East helped create the climate in which Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov found the subject for his superb ‘symphonic suite’ Scheherazade, and in which it could be so well-received. But the composer’s gorgeous musical storytelling speaks of an almost childlike delight in the subject matter, and his use of an exquisite violin solo, both to portray his heroine and parallel the stories’ ingenious narrative ‘frame’, has cast a long shadow.
As other great and not-so-great European powers began to demand their own imperial ‘place in the sun’, more fascinating and alluring ‘exotic’ discoveries began to leave their mark on creative life in the Western homelands. Britain, of course, was well ahead in the imperial game, but it is only in the 20th century that the East it had colonised and plundered for so long began to stir desires for deeper understanding.
All right, you won’t find a lot of that in Albert Ketèlbey’s smash-hit musical postcard In a Persian Market (call it ‘condescending’ and I won’t argue). But then we have figures like Holst, learning Sanskrit so he could translate Indian scriptures for himself, and achieving a startlingly non-Western, non-developmental attitude to musical time in his Three Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda.
Holst’s contemporary John Foulds eventually went to live in India, helping set up the All-India Radio station in Delhi and attempting a heroic fusion of Indian and European music (and instruments) in his Symphony of East and West – tragically lost.
Also in the early 20th century, Hans Bethge’s poetic recreations of verses from ancient China, India and Persia were to inspire such masterpieces as Mahler’s The Song of the Earth, Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony and Szymanowski’s homoerotic-mystical The Song of the Night (Symphony No. 3). Those three composers, however, seemed content to dream their own kinds of ‘exotic’ music into being.
Some time before that, Paris’s Exposition Universelle of 1889 (which we have to thank for the Eiffel Tower) recreated a street in Cairo and depicted village life (with real human ‘exhibits’) in Senegal, Benin and even Java – this was where the young Debussy first heard a Balinese Gamelan ensemble, and later recreated its sounds and textures spellbindingly in his piano piece Pagodes.
Cultural appropriation? Possibly, but as with the finest kind of fusion cooking, something new and beautiful emerged – something that was eventually to inspire Messiaen to dig deeply into the music of India and the Far East and leave a profound imprint on modernist thinking. And it’s an imprint that’s still very much in evidence today.
Unsurprisingly, the figure of Scheherazade stepped centre stage again, notably in Ravel’s brief but breathtakingly rich orchestral song-cycle Shéhérazade – one of the most revealing things this fastidiously self-protective man ever created. ‘Asie, Asie, Asie’ – the longing opening words say it all: ‘Asia, Asia, Asia, old wonderland of fairy tales, where fantasy sleeps like an empress in her forest filled with mysteries’.
That, it seems, is what appealed above all to the Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni when he wrote instrumental music for, and later an opera based upon, Carlo Gozzi’s play Turandot, derived from the same sources as One Thousand and One Nights – though he also loved the play’s Italian Commedia dell’arte elements. But Busoni’s curiosity was immense: he consulted ethnomusicologists about various kinds of non-Western music, and his discoveries left their mark on his challenging and influential book Sketch for a New Aesthetic of Music.
Going back to the Ravel for a moment, and to the opening invocation of Shéhérazade, one has to ask whether a native of the Middle East would write about his homeland as a ‘wonderland of fairy tales, where fantasy sleeps like an empress in her forest filled with mysteries’ – unless, perhaps, he or she was in exile.
Significantly, Ravel never saw the ‘Asie’ he hymned so voluptuously, nor did Szymanowski get any nearer to the Islamic world of his dreams than a trip to Sicily. (Well, the Arabs had been there.) One may be reminded of Debussy, virtually creating a now-instantly recognisable ‘Spanish’ sound world, despite only flitting in and out of Spain to see a bullfight.
For the ‘wonderland of fairy tales’ to retain its creative potency, it sometimes needs to be protected from incursions of messy, all-too-human reality. Otherwise something very different might emerge, like the remarkable ‘Market in Ispahan’ movement from Nielsen’s Aladdin Suite, made after an immersive Turkish trip, in which the gloriously conflicting sounds and aromas of a Turkish bazaar are represented in a vibrant musical collage. Anything less like the rarefied beauty of Ravel’s Shéhérazade – or indeed In a Persian Market – is hard to imagine.
Finally, let’s take another step back, to where we began, in Leighton House. It’s clear enough to me now that this strange half-Victorian, half-believably Eastern mosque-palace-Turkish bath hybrid was an acutely sensitive, sexually ambiguous, troubled man’s ‘safe space’: a place where he could retreat from the teeming, oppressive reality of a huge 19th-century English city and connect with his own inner voice, a voice that spoke in accents very different from those he might hear in the nearby parks and streets. The ‘wonderland of fairy tales’ is a favourite retreat of those who find the real world hard to endure.
Were Rimsky, Ravel, Szymanowksi and Frederic Leighton guilty of ‘patronising’ the East? Perhaps there was an element of that, but no one I know of has ever disdained a means of escape.
Main image: Engraving of Scheherazade in Arabian Nights 1892 © Getty Images
Stephen Johnson is a critic and writer for BBC Music Magazine, with work also published in The Independent, The Guardian and Gramophone. He is a regular contributor on BBC Radio 3, 4 and the World Service, and has presented programmes and documentaries on Bruckner, Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams.