This week, the Ether Game Brain Trust explores those times when composers looked beyond their home country for inspiration. Here are some of our favorite pieces of world-music-inspired classical compositions!
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Violin Concerto No. 5, “Turkish”: In the middle of the finale of Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto in A major, the delightful minuet suddenly changes character: we move from 3 beats to the measure to 2; it switches to A minor, the parallel minor; and the music sounds a little more grotesque and militaristic by the wood of the bow on the strings. It’s a reference to the music of the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey), and it’s what gave this piece its nickname, the “Turkish” Violin Concerto. You may have noticed that Mozart’s famous piano sonata movement “Rondo Alla Turca” has many of these same musical elements. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Austria was involved in a number of wars with the Turkish people, which exposed them to the music of the East, especially the percussive military music of the Ottoman Turkish Janissary bands. The three big Viennese classical composers—Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven—all made reference to this lively Turkish music.
- Claude Debussy – Estampes: Pagodes: There’s a visual aspect to Debussy’s music: the rising layers of figures in “Pagodes” of 1903 suggest the rising layers of a pagoda roof. But it 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.
- Lou Harrison – Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, with Javanese Gamelan: Debussy was not the only musician transfixed by the music of the Javanese Gamelan. Lou Harrison wrote almost three dozen Gamelan compositions. He was first exposed to the music of the world in 1935, when he took a class in California titled “Music of the Peoples of The World,” taught by composer Henry Cowell. That world music bug laid dormant for about 30 years, until he took a trip to Asia as a delegate to the East-West Music Encounter in Tokyo in 1961. There he studied traditional Asian music, and began to incorporate them into his own compositions. When he returned to the states, he constructed Gamelan ensembles for a few universities, and even designed his own “American” Gamelan, out of re-tuned percussion instruments and found objects like trash cans and oxygen tanks.
- Colin McPhee – Tabuh-Tabuhan: American composer Colin McPhee is yet another composer inspired by the music of Indonesia. However, while Lou Harrison looked to the Indonesian island of Java, McPhee was inspired by the neighboring island of Bali. He first heard recordings Balinese folk music and their version of the Gamelan in the late 1920s, and was inspired to travel to Bali in 1931. He remained there for most of the next decade, and meticulously researched the music of the island while it was still relatively free from outside influences. He wrote a book titled Music in Bali, which remains the principal treatise on the island’s music. McPhee studied the music by travelling around the island and turning his home on the island into a gathering place for local musicians. His first experiment with incorporating Balinese music into an orchestra context was this work in 1936 called Tabuh-Tabuhan, a Balinese term for percussion music.
- Alexander Borodin – Prince Igor: Polovtsian Dances: In 1869, Borodin took on the monumental task of writing an opera based on the Slavic epic The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, which eventually became the opera Prince Igor. Famous for its set of “Polovtsian Dances,” Prince Igor is set during the medieval period in which the growing Russian empire battles the Polovsty, a nomadic Central Asian tribe, and included “Eastern” sounding music, an example of what’s often called by scholars “exoticism” or “orientalism.” Some of these melodies even show up in the 1953 musical Kismet, which was also set in the exotic East.
- Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade: A classic example of “exoticism” in classical music, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade features no authentic Middle Eastern music, but rather, the composer’s attempt to evoke the East. It’s based on the One Thousand And One Arabian Nights, a story about a storyteller Scheherazade, who avoids the wrath of her husband the Sultan by regaling him with fanciful tales night after night.
- Gustav Holst – Japanese Suite: Holst’s Japanese Suite is one of his most rarely recorded works, and it was produced at the request of an immigrant Japanese dancer named Michio Ito, who wanted to dance on the London stage to modern music derived from the folk tunes of his homeland. The story goes that Holst didn’t know any Japanese folk songs, so Ito whistled a couple melodies to him. It is unknown if Ito actually danced to the Japanese Suite, though Holst himself conducted a concert performance of the work in 1919. The performance was met with some controversy. Critics questioned Holst’s commitment to British nationalism through his music. Ironically, the Japanese Suite has since been criticized for its “westernization” of Japanese melodies, many of which were re-harmonized by Holst to fit his style.
- Jean-Philippe Rameau – Les Indes Galantes: Rameau’s 18th-century opera Les Indes galantes or “The Amorous Indes” is one of his most eclectic works, featuring four familiar stories set in what 18th-century France would have considered exotic and far-flung places. Through the opera, the audience travels the world: from an island in the Indian ocean to a Persian flower garden, and from there to the Inca civilization in Peru. Finally the opera concludes in the French colonies of North America, in what would now be Louisiana. Rameau was inspired to compose the work after meeting several Native American chiefs who were sent to the court of Louis XV by French colonists. We’ve since traced these Native American diplomats to the Mitchigamea, a tribe that settled in Illinois and along Lake Michigan.