Verdi's Ancient Egypt-set opera couldn't be more appropriate for the Warsaw International Opera to stage in Oman. We look at the historical influences of Middle Eastern music and instruments on western classical music.
March back in time with Aida at the Royal Opera House Muscat
Is the Royal Opera House Muscat trying to prove single-handedly that classical music is connected to the Middle East? If so, it’s certainly going about it the right way. The Omani culture palace has made efforts to mix western classical music with Arab and Asian styles since its creation last year, a trend that is stepped up further in the forthcoming autumn season. As a statement of intent, this month kicks off with three performances by the Warsaw National Opera of perhaps the most fitting season opener a Middle Eastern venue could choose: Aida.
A tale of love and betrayal in Ancient Egypt, Verdi’s opera of 1871 was actually commissioned partly for a Middle Eastern audience, as its premiere was staged at Cairo’s Khedive Opera House. With the blend of majestic music, high drama and grand spectacle that the adjective “operatic” was coined to describe, it’s both an impressive few hours of singing and a demonstration that the world of classical music has always been international. For, while it’s often treated as an island unto itself, European classical music is, in fact, profoundly indebted to and connected with the culture of the Islamic world.
Look back into the past and you’ll find, for example, that many of the instruments in a western classical orchestra have Middle Eastern roots. The violin, the cornerstone of any orchestra, has as its ancestor the Middle Eastern rabab: the stringed, long-necked instrument played with a bow still common across the Muslim world. Introduced to Europe via Moorish Spain during the Middle Ages, the Arabic rabab developed into the European rebec, a larger bowled instrument played on the lap that predominated in medieval and early Renaissance string music. It was a synthesis of the rebec with a European adaptation of the Arabic oud, or lute, that ultimately led to the development of the violin.
The oboe and the kettle drum also developed from Middle Eastern prototypes (the zurna and the naker respectively) that European crusaders had seen used by Saracen army bands to rally their troops and scare the enemy. By importing both this tradition and its instruments, the Crusaders imported the blueprint for the brass bands of today, which ultimately gave up oboes for brass and became so embedded in western culture that their eastern origins are largely forgotten. Later on, it’s believed the Ottomans introduced the side-blown flute to western music (as opposed to the recorder-like instruments that preceded them) during the 17th century, when they conquered large stretches of south-eastern Europe.
The influence doesn’t stop at instruments alone, however. While the harmonic systems that classical Arabic and classical western music are based on differ greatly, music from the eastern Mediterranean and beyond has still helped to shape the character of the western repertoire. Perhaps the greatest impact came from Ottoman Mehter bands, military musical ensembles that followed the Turkish sultan’s crack Jannisary corps into battle. As relations thawed between Turkey and the Austrians in the 18th century, Europeans came into contact with these bands (which not uncommonly accompanied diplomatic missions) right at the time when classical orchestral music was flowering. Many composers, including Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, were then inspired to write pieces in what they called a Turkish style, influenced in Mozart’s case directly by Ottoman bands he had heard perform in Vienna.
There’s little to the modern ear that is either Turkish or Arabic-sounding in such examples of this trend as Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A “alla turca” or Beethoven’s Turkish March from The Ruins of Athens. At the time, however, their abrupt key shifts, tight knots of arpeggios and brisk, percussive rhythm would have sounded boldly new and exotic to contemporary European ears. Such thumpingly rhythmic music became so popular that around 1800, piano manufacturers added what was known as a “Turkish Stop” to their instruments, a pedal which allowed players to punctuate their music by hitting a supposedly eastern-sounding bell or drum housed inside the piano’s frame. The Turkish Stop has long since disappeared, while European music’s Middle Eastern influences are so totally incorporated that the untrained ear can scarcely trace them. It’s still worthwhile reminding ourselves of these roots; that great culture springs up not in isolation, but through interaction and dialogue.
Aida wasn’t Verdi’s only opera set in the Middle East. His Nabucco, which scored the composer his first real hit, also went back to the region’s early history to follow the struggles of Hebrew slaves in Old Babylon. Verdi was just one of many composers who turned to Middle Eastern stories, both as a way to titillate their audiences with a dose of exoticism and to mask any social critique with a distant setting. Anyone turning to operas such as Mozart’s Escape from the Seraglio and Rossini’s An Italian in Algiers, however, shouldn’t expect much more than light-headed Orientalist fantasies filled with harems and lusty pashas. Some more sober recent efforts have shown that opera can explore Middle Eastern themes with dignity. The popular US composer John Adams’s masterful The Death of Klinghoffer of 1991 explored both the plight of Palestine and the terrorist hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro with remarkable even-handedness and some beauty.
Man behind the music
Critics love him, audiences flock to see his works and the average person in the street can often hum his tunes – in some ways, Giuseppe Verdi was an extremely lucky composer. Certainly, Verdi’s life contained some real tragedies (his wife and two children had already died by the time he was 27) but as someone whose music gained love and respect both in his lifetime and thereafter, he hardly fits the template of the frustrated artist misunderstood by the world. More than a century after his death, Verdi’s music is almost as popular as ever, his works remaining a trusted staple for opera houses that want to guarantee a full house. If you’ve not seen his music live, the Warsaw National Opera’s performances of Aida at the Royal Opera House Muscat tomorrow, Thursday and Friday this week, are a great place to start. In the meantime, here’s a quick introduction to why Verdi is so loved and respected.
If you think you don’t know any Verdi melodies, you’re probably wrong – the composer’s tunes are so effortlessly catchy and memorable that they turn up constantly in soundtracks, parodies and advertising. Look up songs such as Libiamo ne’Lieti Calici (Drink From This Joyful Cup) and La Donna è Mobile (The Lady Is Fickle) on YouTube, and you’ll likely both recognise the pieces straight away and understand immediately why Verdi is still so popular.
While he’s perhaps best known for his unforgettable melodies, Verdi was also a musical trailblazer who changed the rules of opera. Before his career, operas were split up into arias (songs) and recitatives (sung dialogue), with a sometimes jerky movement between the two. With his Otello of 1887, Verdi broke down this barrier, composing music that ran in one seamless sweep across his acts, a bold move only really matched by Verdi’s great competitor, Richard Wagner.
That Verdi’s operas work so well is often partly because of their gripping storylines. With his Macbeth and Otello, Verdi wisely chose Shakespeare as his inspiration, but even potentially pulpy material such as La Traviata (the story of a courtesan who shuns her young lover to save his reputation) turns to gold in his hands. Not all of Verdi’s storylines provided such a brilliant backdrop, it should be admitted. While his Il Trovatore’s music is impressive, its storyline is impossibly complicated and comes close to making no sense at all.
Most of Verdi’s operas were written when Italy was struggling for independence and unification. As a result, they were often seen as coded messages supporting Italian nationalism. Many of his operas thus struggled with censors. Rigoletto was severely cut to soften its portrayal of corrupt royalty, while the action of Un Ballo in Maschera (Masked Ball) was moved to colonial Boston so the storyline’s references to recent European politics were masked. At one point, being a Verdi fan was even a way of supporting Italian unification, as the slogan “Viva Verdi” was used as an acronymic code meaning “Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia” (“Viva Victor Emmanuel King of Italy”), in support of Italy’s future king.
Verdi’s Aida will be performed at the Royal Opera House Muscat tomorrow, Thursday and Friday. For details, visit www.rohmuscat.org.om. Check out page al03 tomorrow for a guide to the Royal Opera House Muscat’s forthcoming season