As-salam alaykum Resounding from the Minaret

We cannot say precisely when the musical penetration of East and West began, but one thing is certain: composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and others could not resist the fascination of the Orient. Thus elements of Turkish music, Persian poetry and Arabic storytelling found their way straight to the heart of European culture. By Nadja Kayali

By Nadja Kayali

The very first great opera is like a story from the Thousand and One Nights. The year is 1670, and the Ottoman ambassador has just arrived in Paris, a city basking in the splendour of the reign of Louis XIV. The Turk is proudly shown around the capital. He, however, remains staunchly unimpressed, and comments that there are more jewels adorning his Sultan's horse than are in the crown of the French king.

Anti-Turkish opera, courtesy of the Turks

Louis XIV is fuming. How can I take revenge, he asks himself – and comes up with a plan, which he confides to two of his courtiers: two artists. One is the poet Jean-Baptiste Molière; the other Jean-Baptiste Lully, the composer. They are in the middle of writing their new opera, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, when the king demands that a savagely comic scene be worked into the story. He wants to have a really good laugh at the Turks' expense.

In order to make it believable, however, they need to have a good understanding of the relevant milieu. By happy coincidence, the French traveller Chevalier Laurent d'Arveiux has just returned to Paris after a lengthy sojourn in Turkey. There he was especially impressed by Konya, where, among other experiences, he participated in the Sufi ceremonies of the Mevlevi order. With great enthusiasm he describes to Molière and Lully in detail the dhikrs, the whirling dervishes and their long robes, the calls and the prayers. As he does so he fires Molière's and Lully's imaginations – and thus the 'Cérémonie turque', the first Turkish scene in an opera, comes into existence.

A scene in which characters disguise themselves as Orientals is worked into the narrative and combined with the love story of Lucille and Cléonte. These two want to marry, but Lucille's father dislikes the idea; he would rather have a nobleman for a son-in-law. Cléonte comes up with a cunning plan. He has himself announced as a travelling Ottoman prince, enters with tremendous pomp, and asks for Lucille's hand in marriage, after ennobling her father Jourdain and bestowing upon him the (invented, naturally) honorary title of 'Mamamouchi'.

The most extraordinary feature in Molière and Lully's Turkish scene is the elements of the dhikr, such as repeating a word countless times, a rite intended to send one into a trance. The very first sung entry is the repetition, ten times, in unison, a capella, of the word 'Allah'. This is followed by stylised dialogues between the Mufti and the dervishes that include Turkish and Arabic (or Arabic-sounding) words, such as 'hu' or 'ey walla'.

But parts are also sung in a lingua franca that served as a common language in the Mediterranean region, and which contains elements of very different languages. Thus the Mufti asks whether the Frenchman Jourdain, whom he is about to ennoble, is a good Turk:

'Star bon Turca Giourdina?'
And the dervishes answer:
'Hi valla' (eyvalla).

In one variation the Mufti also asks after Jourdain's faith, and in doing so lists everything from Lutheran, Pagan, Brahmin, Syrian, to each of which the dervishes reply 'yok' (Turkish for 'no'). Finally it is revealed, to the Mufti's satisfaction, that Jourdain is a 'Mahametana', i.e. a Muslim.

Inspired Lully's 'Cérémonie turque', the first Turkish scene in an opera - the Sufi ceremonies of the Mevlevi order in Konya

​​The French spared no expense or trouble in the staging of this scene, manufacturing magnificent costumes, turbans and shoes especially for it in lavish Oriental style. So the king did get his revenge!

Arias à la turque and Oriental instruments

Later, too, operas often contained a so-called 'Turkish scene'. Another example is found in the opera Lo speziale [The Apothecary] by Joseph Haydn. The little aria 'Salamelica', which tells of how people are always singing and dancing in 'Constantinopula', is particularly charming.

The arias are musically embellished in the 'alla turca' style, which in the eighteenth century was the height of fashion, especially in Vienna. When people spoke of so-called 'Turkish music' (meaning the alla turca style in European classical music), they would also always speak of the Janissaries. The Ottomans were no strangers, particularly in Vienna: military confrontations with the neighbouring state were frequent. The Turkish side often sent Janissary bands into the field, which could make a huge racket with their drums, high-pitched flutes and Turkish crescents and must therefore have been tremendously intimidating.

After these battles, the Austrians would sometimes collect instruments that had been left behind, inspect them, and of course make use of them. The inclusion of these instruments in the classical orchestra brought about changes with far-reaching consequences; for the composers of the classical era (the most famous of whom, to name but three, were Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven) were indeed interested in transposing the 'noise' of the battlefield to the concert hall. For this they utilised the drum, the triangle, and the cymbals – all instruments that have one thing in common: they are not tempered, so their pitch cannot be altered. The drum, which also has a tempered counterpart in the orchestra in the form of the timpani, is a particularly good example of this.

The use of percussion instruments was associated with a rise in the volume of the orchestra as a whole, so that precisely these contrasts in volume developed into a characteristic of the alla turca style.

As Leopold Mozart reports in a letter of 1777, this effect was very surprising at first to the contemporary audience. He describes to his son Wolfgang a performance of Voltaire's Zaïre, for which Michael Haydn had written the incidental music:

'Haydn's incidental music is really beautiful. After one act there was an arioso with variations, violoncello, flutes, oboes etc. and, because it was preceded by a piano variation, it turned into something like a variation with Turkish music, which came so abruptly and unexpectedly that all the women in the room took fright and laughter broke out.'

Mozart's Turkish opera

Not long afterwards Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the best-known 'Turkish opera', Die Entführung aus dem Serail [The Abduction from the Seraglio]. For this too he made use of the stylistic element of contrasting volumes taken from 'Turkish music', as he cheerfully wrote to his father in 1781:

'For the overture they only get 14 bars – that's quite short – alternates constantly between forte and piano, and in the forte passages the Turkish music always comes in. Keeps modulating like this through all the notes. And I think it will be impossible to sleep through it, even if you haven't slept a wink all night.'

The Viennese were delighted by this trend. In an era in which practically every Viennese house contained a piano, and compositions such as operas or symphonies were always also available in a piano version that one could play at home, composers were naturally keen to apply the alla turca style to other musical forms. The most outstanding example of this is, again, by Mozart: the third movement of his Sonata KV331. Here he succeeds in imitating on the piano the 'noise' made by percussion instruments. In Mozart's time, when the Viennese were sublimating their fear of the Turks in artistic forms and composers were writing music alla turca, pianos were even manufactured with a so-called 'Janissary stop'. 'Turkish' percussion was thus also to be found in the Viennese drawing room.

Percussion instruments were not always available at this time, so if one wished to compose 'Turkish music' one had to be creative. In his fifth violin concerto, KV 219, Mozart instructs the cellists to strike the strings of the instrument with the bow (the musical terminology for this is 'col legno technique'), by which he imitates the sound of a drum being hit with a brush.

One thing is particularly remarkable with regard to the creation of Mozart's Singspiel The Abduction from the Seraglio, which premièred in Vienna in 1782. Six years earlier, German had been declared the unified language of the Habsburg Empire. The theatre near the castle was consequently renamed the Deutsches Nationaltheater, and one year later the Emperor Joseph II instigated the foundation of a German National Singspiel company. The aim was for opera to be performed for the first time in German, as it was the Emperor's ambition to make theatre accessible to a wider section of the population.

So Mozart was commissioned to write the opening piece for the premiere. And the story he set to music was a Turkish one. The German National Singspiel thus premiered with the performance of a Turkish opera. Would such a thing be possible today?

Allured by the Orient: Christoph Willibald Gluck staged two operas with Oriental themes - 'The Duped Qadi' and ''The Unexpected Encounter or the Pilgrims to Mecca'

​​Incidentally, Mozart was by no means the first to be fascinated by the theme of the Orient. One of the most important precedents for the Entführung was penned by Christoph Willibald Gluck. He staged two operas with Oriental themes – also in Vienna, but at the French theatre: Le cadi dupé [The Duped Qadi] in 1761, and three years later La rencontre imprévue ou les pèlerins de la Mecque [The Unexpected Encounter or the Pilgrims to Mecca].

In this, Prince Ali of Balsora is searching for his betrothed, Rezia, who has been abducted and is now a captive in the harem of the Sultan of Cairo. The two lovers manage to escape from the harem, and bribe a mendicant monk called Calender, who smuggles them into a caravan of Mecca pilgrims; but this Calender is playing a double game, and betrays them to the Sultan. The Sultan, however, pardons them.

As is later the case in Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio, in this piece too we observe the motif of the righteous Muslim ruler who exercises mercy, thereby portraying a model of humanity and the love of justice. It is an attitude that Mozart, as a freemason, chose quite consciously to portray (and which was interpreted as an homage to Emperor Joseph II).

For a play to be interesting, however, as well as a 'good' protagonist there must be a 'bad' one. In this case, it is Calender. His life as a wandering dervish has not made him particularly devout. He abides by no rules; he is out to take the money from people's pockets, and he even has alcohol hidden in his cellar.

His life is a comfortable one; he only pretends to live in poverty. This can be taken as an allusion to the contemporary situation in which, as a result of Emperor Joseph's reforms of the monasteries, the utility of religious orders was coming under scrutiny. The opera is a criticism of Catholic monks in the form of Islamic dervishes.

Dervishes in opera

It is, however, also interesting to observe what knowledge of Islam people had in the eighteenth century. Christoph Willibald Gluck has his dervishes warble a song with the meaningless text 'Castagno, castagna'; but, curiously, he says of it: 'It is an old, secret song of Mahomet, from the Koran.'

In the eighteenth century it was customary for the same libretto to be set to music several times. There is thus also an opera by Joseph Haydn that deals with the same subject matter. Gluck's libretto is in French, but an Italian opera with recitatives was written in Esterháza in which we also encounter the crafty Calender. He is busy making the life of a dervish sound tempting to a young man called Osmin.

"La illaha il Allah": Whether consciously or unconsciously, Joseph Haydn had a character in his opera convert to Islam

​​Osmin is keen to be admitted to the brotherhood of dervishes, as he has seen that if you sing the song 'Castagno, castagna', which sounds so strange to him, people will give you a lot of money in alms. However, before he learns this song he still has to imitate Calender by singing 'Illah, illaha' – which is nothing other than the inaccurate rendering of 'La illaha il Allah': There is no other god but God. This is the beginning of the Islamic profession of faith, by the repetition of which one becomes a Muslim. Thus Haydn – whether consciously or unconsciously – has a character in his opera convert to Islam.

The imitation of Oriental languages constitutes a particular idiosyncrasy of the exoticised opera. One element of this was the development of a so-called 'babbling style', as in imitation of the sound of, for example, Arabic words. Closely allied to this was the swift, almost breathless manner of speaking that Europeans associated with Arabs. A further technique consisted of integrating known words such as 'Allah', 'Mohammed' (usually as 'Mahomet') or 'Kaaba' into the text.

In his incidental music for the play The Ruins of Athens, Ludwig van Beethoven has the choir of dervishes repeatedly shout 'Kaaba'. However, the entire text of this play is also worthy of note, as it alludes to Mohammed's ascension to heaven:

You carried the moon, you cleaved it
in the folds of your sleeve.
Kaaba! Mahomet!
You mounted the radiant Borak
To fly up to the seventh heaven.
Great Prophet! Kaaba!

All in all, however, it must be said that a more profound knowledge of the culture and language had yet to develop, and that techniques of linguistic orientalisation were used rather than proper words and sentences. Nonetheless it should not go unmentioned that the first 'K.K. Orientalische Akademie' [Imperial and Royal Oriental Academy], where one could study Arabic, Persian and Turkish, was founded in Vienna by the Empress Maria Theresa as early as 1754. One of its most prominent alumni was Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall. It was his translation of the Diwan by the Persian poet Hafez that inspired Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to write his West-Eastern Divan.

Hafez and Goethe's West-Eastern Divan

When Goethe read the poems of Hafez in 1814 he fell into a frenzy of creativity and felt compelled to respond to the Persian poet 'productively', as he put it. This production, however, was also inspired by a love story. Goethe fell in love with the Austrian actress Marianne von Willemer, and the two of them sent each other messages of love in code. Often these were simply numbers referring to particular verses of the Hammer-Purgstall edition of Hafez' Diwan. Goethe devoted himself to intensive study of all the available sources, and began to write a divan of his own. Marianne answered. Their love, for which there was no place in the real world, was played out in literary form in the guise of Hatem and Suleika.

It was not long before the first composers set these poems to music. Franz Schubert, for example, achieved incomparable success by giving these poems musical expression. He lets the lover immerse himself in the long hair of his beloved ('Versunken', D715), sends greetings of love on the east and the west winds ('Suleika' I and II, D720 and D717), or sings the praises of the eye of the beloved ('Geheimes', D719).

The list of composers who have felt drawn to the hint of the Orient that suffuses these poems continues right up to the present day. We have Suleika songs by Robert Schumann, by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and his sister, Fanny Hensel, but also, in the twentieth century, by Anton Webern and Luigi Dallapiccola. Whole cycles of lieder from the West-Eastern Divan have been written by, among others, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and Gottfried von Einem.

And it was not only Goethe's Hafez-inspired poems that were a favourite source for composers: Hafez' own verses were set to music by, for example, Johannes Brahms, Otmar Schoeck, or Karol Szymanovsky.

The settings by Brahms boast a particular idiosyncrasy that relates to Georg Friedrich Daumer's adaptation of the text. He has not only translated the content of the poems; he also retained the ghazal form.

Thus we have:

Wie bist du, meine Königin, [Oh my queen, how you are]
Durch sanfte Güte wonnevoll! [In gentle goodness full of delight!]
Du lächle nur, Lenzdüfte wehn [You but smile – spring fragrances
Durch mein Gemüte, wonnevoll! [Through my heart, full of delight!]

Ghazals are rhyming poems (Güte, Gemüte), which also have a further rhyme, a radif (here: wonnevoll). Brahms also takes this into account in his composition, in that he offsets 'wonnevoll' with a short instrumental intermezzo, but emphasises the link by retaining the harmony.

An anomaly with the Persian poet Hafez is that, to this day, oracles are interpreted with reference to his diwan. In 2002 the Austrian composer Andreas Wykydal composed one such Fal-e Hafez, a 'Hafez Oracle for Piano (or Flute) and Soprano'. It would be impossible to set Hafez' entire diwan to music in order then to glean prophecies from it. However, in Iran envelopes with individual verses are sold on the street, and Wykydal has translated this idea into music. He has set a Hafez poem to music in such a way that any one verse could follow any other. The audience picks the order in which they are sung, and we can safely assume that it will be some time before all 5,040 possible variations of the piece have been performed.

The German Lied is therefore permeated with motifs from Persian poetry, and is sometimes even inspired by its form. It is to Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall and Friedrich Rückert, who were both poets (adapters) and scholars in equal measure, that we owe the translation of some exceptional works from the Arabic, Persian and Turkish which were subsequently set to music. An example from the Arabic would be Rückert's translation of Hariri's maqamas, which found musical expression in the four-handed piano pieces Bilder aus Osten [Pictures from the East], Opus 66, by Robert Schumann.

But these were the exception rather than the rule. If we take a look at other genres, we come across some most peculiar things.

In 1831 the French composer Félicien David set off on a journey to the Orient. The remarkable thing about this journey was his luggage: a piano, which travelled with him as he crossed the desert. Later, inspired by this journey, he composed his symphonic ode 'Le désert': it contains the 'Song of the Desert', which is simultaneously a 'glorification of Allah'.

In the course of his lifetime David wrote many orientalised pieces, and in so doing became the leading exponent of exoticism. Among other things he composed an opera, Lalla Roukh. The source text for this, a book by the Irish writer Thomas Moore, was also well-known in Germany, which had also been engulfed by the wave of enthusiasm for all things Oriental. One of those swept away on the tide was Robert Schumann. This novel inspired him to write a secular oratorio, Das Paradies und die Peri [Paradise and the Peri], which includes a choir of houris, the paradisiacal virgins. According to the Koran, they wait in Paradise for pious Muslim men, but Robert Schumann has them decorating the steps of Allah's throne with flowers.

The muezzin also sings

Muezzins have always had a particularly inspirational effect on European composers. As there is no vow of celibacy in Islam and clerics are allowed to marry, it is also possible for the muezzin in question to be in love, as for example in Karol Szymanowsky's Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin. In these the muezzin rhapsodises about his beloved, but is nonetheless sung by a female soprano.

It is characteristic of the call to prayer that the muezzins of different mosques never begin at the same time, but at staggered intervals. This also creates what could be described as an extremely chaotic impression, as they are all singing over one another. However, one hears the muezzins at different volumes depending on how far away each mosque is from wherever one is standing.

In the German opera The Barber of Baghdad by Peter Cornelius there is a muezzin scene, which in this respect is absolutely astonishing. Three muezzins are positioned on and behind the stage, crying – and they do indeed come in at staggered intervals – 'God is great'. However, it is particularly interesting that women's voices come in after this, singing the same cry. In real life that would not be possible.

Composers have sometimes taken it upon themselves to mix things up in the strangest of ways. As they luxuriated in orientalised melodies, certain curiosities found their way into the lyrics. The above-mentioned Félicien David, for example, composed an especially 'polite' muezzin, and had him greet the people from the mosque. As-salaam-u-aleikum, he sings, the cry resounding from the minaret – whereupon he promptly greets himself in reply: Wa-aleikum-us-salam.

Nadja Kayali

© Goethe Institute / Fikrun wa Fann 2013

Nadja Kayali is a composer and music journalist living in Vienna. 2010 saw the premiere in Osnabrück of her opera Neda, which was inspired by the medieval Persian poet Nizami, but also makes reference to the Iranian protest movement.

Translated by Charlotte Collins editor: Lewis Gropp