his week on the show, we’re turning our compasses East as we look at Asian and other “Eastern Influences” in classical music. Grab your map, and hop on the caravan. It’s a show we’re calling “East Meets West.”
Travel along the Silk Road with this Eastern playlist:
- Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), Sheherazade – Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was just one of many Russian romantic composers who became fascinated with the exoticism of the East. His orchestral tone poem Sheherazade uses one of the most famous collections of Eastern tales, One Thousand And One Arabian Nights, as his inspiration. The framing story is about the distrustful and violent Sultan, who gains a reputation for killing his wives after only one night of marriage. Despite the risk, the maiden Sheherazade marries the sultan and is able to stay alive by telling a story every night to her husband, always stopping just before the story ends. The sultan becomes so enamored by her tales that he continues to spare her life from day to day. After one thousand and one of these tales (and subsequent reprieves), the sultan revokes his decree and bestows his everlasting affection on Sheherazade.
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), The Ruins of Athens: Turkish March – The “East” for Western composers did not always refer to the far east. For the latter part of the 18th century, for instance, the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey) was considered the exotic east, especially for Austro-Hungarian composers. The Turks and the Austrians had been at war, so many Austrian composers like Mozart and Beethoven had mimicked the sound of Turkish military music, known as janissary music, into their works. You can hear it in this Turkish March by Beethoven, with its prominent use of boisterous percussion and loud double reeds. This particular Turkish March was part of some incidental music Beethoven wrote for the play The Ruins Of Athens. The play was performed at the dedication of a new theatre in Pest, Hungary, the part of Budapest on the east bank of the Danube River. Beethoven’s Turkish March has long outlived the play, as well as most of the rest of the music from The Ruins Of Athens.
- Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), Turandot – While collaborating on Puccini’s final opera Turandot, the composer and his librettists worked from an adaptation of the story by Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller. Although Schiller’s play and Puccini’s opera were deadly serious, the play had originally been a satirical farce by late 18th-century Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi, who based his play on a twelfth-century Persian epic called The Seven Beauties. “Turandot” is a Persian word meaning “the daughter of Turan” and was a common word used in Persian poetry to identify Central Asian princesses. That being said, Puccini chose instead to set his opera in China, having received a gift from the Italian ambassador to China during the opera’s composition of a music box that played several Chinese folk songs. These folks songs would eventually appear throughout the music of the opera, along with the Chinese national anthem. Puccini also had a set of thirteen gongs commissioned specifically for the music of the opera.
- Claude Debussy (1862–1918), Estampes: Pagodes – Claude Debussy scored a popular success with the 1902 performance of his opera Pelléas et Mélisande. This led to a number of other projects. He signed a contract with the publisher Durand to create a series of pieces titled Images; this would eventually result in two sets of pieces for solo piano and one for orchestra. His music took on spatial and visual elements as well. The rising layers of figures in “Pagodas” of 1903, which we just heard, suggest the rising layers of a pagoda roof. The piece also features a new influence in Debussy’s style: the incorporation of scales and rhythms found in Javanese music. While attending the Paris World’s Fair in 1889, Debussy became mesmerized by the music of the Indonesian gong orchestra, called the gamelan, that had traveled to the fair to perform. As with “Pagodas,” aspects of asian music would continue to appear in Debussy’s music for the rest of his career.
- Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) and W.S. Gilbert (1836–1911), The Mikado – Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado was part of the popular fascination with Japan that swept Europe in the late nineteenth century. In the 1850s, Japan had begun to welcome foreign visitors after many years of isolation. Trade in arts and crafts, and exhibitions in Europe of Japanese and other Eastern artifacts increased the fascination. That said, Gilbert and Sullivan did not choose to set The Mikado in Japan out of any particular interest in the culture. Gilbert once said that a Japanese setting offered, quote, “a scope for picturesque treatment, scenery and costume.” Perhaps not the most compelling reasons, but the show was a great success and still is. The plot includes the usual marriage and political intrigues that one would expect in operetta. The marriageable woman in question is Yum-Yum, who sings this song as she contemplates her own beauty and prepares for her wedding to the son of the Mikado, the emperor of Japan.
- Robert Schumann (1810–1856), Arabeske in C, Op. 18 – Early in 1839, there was brief period where Robert Schumann moved to Vienna to be with his fiancée Clara. She was starting a career there as a concert pianist. In Vienna, he experienced some setbacks. For one, he was having trouble getting his music journal published. But also, Clara’s father stepped in and essentially ended their engagement. Discouraged, Schumann set to work composing, and wrote among other things the Eastern-themed Arabeske in C. The word “Arabeske” first emerged in the world of architecture, referring to a decoration of intricate, swirling lines that is often found on many Middle Eastern buildings. It’s not hard to see how the architectural concept of swirling lines could be easily applied to the world of music. Besides Schumann, composers like Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and most famously Claude Debussy wrote swirling, musical arabesques.
- Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), L’Orfeo: Act IV Finale (Moresca) – When Monteverdi composed L’Orfeo in 1607 for the Mantua carnival season, opera was still an experimental genre with no standard format, praised more for its entertainment value than its continuity. Because of this, a wide variety of dances, interludes, instrumental sinfonias and songs could appear in an opera, and it didn’t matter much if any of them moved the plot forward. One of the dances that appears in L’Orfeo is the Moresca. This jubilant group dance was appropriated by European courts from the Moors, the large muslim community that migrated from North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages. The Italian version was traditionally done as a pantomime, with the dancers wearing vivid costumes in the Moorish style. The Moresca caught on in France and England as well, and later evolved to become Morris Dancing, a style of costumed folk-dancing that is still performed throughout England and America.
- Chen Yi (b. 1953), Shuo – Chen Yi, born in China in 1953, is a pioneering composer of Chinese classical music. She developed a love of Western classical music at an early age, but that passion was stifled because of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 60s and 70s. Eventually, Chen Yi became the first woman to receive a Master of Arts in composition at the music conservatory in Beijing, and later moved to the U.S. She became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2006. She wrote the string piece Shuo (which means “to initiate”) in the year 2000. In it, she incorporates the sounds of Chinese folk music she heard in her youth, and even imitates certain vocal gestures heard in traditional Chinese folk singing. The prominent use of the pentatonic scale in this work proves that this five-note pattern is nearly universal for composers both in the East and West.
- Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin, West Meets East – Sitarist Ravi Shankar was considered to be the greatest ambassador of Indian classical music in the West. He studied under the legendary music teacher Allauddin Khan and began to tour as a sitar player in the 1950s. In 1952, he was introduced to the Western violinist Yehudi Menuhin while Menuhin was on tour in India, and the two struck up a friendship. On several occasions, Menuhin invited Shankar to demonstrate Indian classical music techniques to audiences in the U.S and Europe. In 1967, Shankar and Menuhin went mainstream when they collaborated on an album called West Meets East, combining their two musical traditions. West Meets East became a Billboard best-seller and won the two a Grammy award. At the same time, Shankar’s Eastern sound caught on with more than just classical musicians when it was adopted by rock bands like The Beatles and The Byrds.