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  • Graham Abbott

East Meets West

Imagine you’re a young composer out to make a huge impression in a big city. You’ve been given your big chance: a commission for a new opera. You want to be up to date with the latest fashions, and incorporate in your opera exotic sounds which are all the rage right then and there. This is your big break; no more “off broadway” productions for you! One young composer in this very situation - the 26-year old Mozart - came up with music like this. [listen]


Turkish Jannisary music (from the blog of Luis Dias)

The attraction of the exotic, the new, the foreign, the “other”… it’s been a part of art for as long as there has been art. In this post I want to look at Western music which has been influenced by what we might generally call “the east”, or Asia.


It’s not really until the 19th century that the music of Western Europe started to have contact of substance with Asia. Until then even Russia was regarded with some bewilderment, and the fashions in Central and Western Europe in the late 18th century often regarded Turkey as a place of extreme exoticism. Mozart was one of many composers who wrote “Turkish” music. It was all the rage, and even Beethoven succumbed in his music for a play called The Ruins of Athens, with its gawdy Turkish March. Mozart’s opera in Turkish dress was Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Harem), which premiered in Vienna in 1782. [complete opera here]


In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries many operas and ballets were set in Asia – usually India, or China, certainly something recognisable – but it was rare for composers to attempt to make the music sound like music from those countries. For a start, in the days before recording, and before Europeans travelled much to Asia, most people didn’t actually know what Asian music sounded like. Apart from what passed for Turkish music in Mozart, Gluck, Beethoven and their contemporaries, there was virtually no attempt to make music sound Chinese or Indian or whatever. Carl Maria von Weber’s use of an allegedly authentic Chinese melody in his 1809 incidental music to Schiller’s play Turandot (the same play which inspired Puccini’s last opera) was a real exception. [listen]


Bardua: Carl Maria von Weber (1821)

If that tune of Weber’s is familiar, it in turn inspired Paul Hindemith in 1943. In his Symphonic Metamorphoses on themes by Carl Maria von Weber, it's the tune used in the Turandot Scherzo.


Of course as the 19th century progressed, travel increased and information about further-flung parts of the world became more readily available in Europe. Added to this were the various expositions and exhibitions that were held in places like London and Paris in the 19th century. These frequently brought art and culture of Asian countries, including Asian musicians, to the attention of European artists seeking new inspiration, and in music the effects were clearly evident. Not only did the “exotica” of Asia become highly fashionable, but also it was not uncommon for composers to attempt to imitate Asian music in their works.


Composed in Paris in 1883, Leo Delibes’ opera Lakmé is set in India in the mid 19th century. And while the music is in the French romantic style one would expect, there is a famous moment when Lakmé, daughter of a Brahmin priest, sings in what is clearly Delibes’ attempt to evoke, if not actually imitate, Indian religious music. Yes it’s a coloratura aria, but it’s a French composer trying to make a coloratura aria sound as if it comes from India. [listen]


The French were very taken with Asian culture in the late 19th and early 20th century, and composers like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were only two of many who included evocations of Asian music in their own. In fact, they included evocations of Asian architecturein their music, because both wrote works that mention that quintessential Asian building, the pagoda. In describing the pagoda, French composers often mixed their geographical metaphors. For example, in his piano piece called Pagodas, written in 1903, Claude Debussy was inspired by Japanese prints, but in the music evokes an Asian sound-world by imitating the gamelan, a collection of differently tuned gongs which come from the island of Java, in what we now call Indonesia. [listen]


Atelier Nadar: Claude Debussy (1908)

Many composers evoke an Asian ambience by the use of the pentatonic scale. This five-note scale is most easily simulated by playing on just the black notes of the piano (or C-D-E-G-A on the white notes), and this roughly approximates some of the scales used in some Asian musics. In his Mother Goose suite, written in 1910, Maurice Ravel wrote a movement called Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas. This dance utilises fragments of pentatonic scales to create in the western ear an impression of something from the far east.


Maurice Ravel (1912)

Ravel originally wrote the work for piano four-hands, and the same year (1910) it was arranged for piano two-hands by the composer’s friend, Jacques Charlot. In 1911, Ravel orchestrated the existing music and expanded it to create a ballet score. Here are the three versions for you to compare:


Four hands [listen]

Two hands [listen]

Orchestral [listen]


Pagoda of Hōryū-ji, Japan (7th century)

Mentioning pagodas brings me to one of my favourite composers, Benjamin Britten. Britten seems to have made his first acquaintance with Asian music - and in particular the Javanese gamelan - in America in the early 1940s when he met the composer and musicologist Colin McPhee. McPhee’s seminal studies on gamelan influenced a generation of composers (including many from Australia), and he incorporated gamelan sounds into his own works. The French composer Francis Poulenc included gamelan-like episodes in his concerto for two pianos, and in 1945 Poulenc was one of the soloists in a performance of this work. The other soloist was Benjamin Britten.


Gamelan-like sonorities appear in Britten’s first music drama, Paul Bunyan, and even more prominently in his opera The Turn of the Screw, which dates from 1954. Neither of these works has Asian subject matter; it was just that the exotic “otherness” of the gamelan-inspired sounds serves a dramatic purpose in those pieces. In 1955 Britten was at work on a full-length ballet for the Royal Ballet called The Prince of the Pagodas, but this was put aside so that he might undertake an extensive tour from November 1955 to March 1956, and much of this tour was spent in Asia.


Time spent by Britten in Japan was to become evident in the church parables (starting with Curlew River in 1964) but more immediate was the result of time spent in Java and Bali, where he saw and heard performances of both the Javanese and Balinese gamelans in their cultural context. The effect was profound and he returned to England with extensive notes and recordings. Returning to work on the ballet, his time in Bali in particular bore fruit in a passage from the second act (among others) where (in the original scenario, not reflected in the production in the linked video) the princess Belle-Rose (represented by a solo violin) finds herself in Pagoda-land, with pagodas that spin when she touches them. [listen]


Britten wrote that music after an encounter with the music and culture of Bali, and being so close to Australia it would be surprising if our own composers weren’t influenced by Balinese and Javanese cultures as well. The most famous Australian composer to be caught under the spell of the gamelan was Peter Sculthorpe, who turned his attention to Asia, and Bali in particular, in the 1960s. Sculthorpe famously evokes Balinese culture in two of the Sun Musicseries of orchestral works. Sun Music 2 was originally called Ketjak, a word that describes a dance ritual performed by men in Bali. This dance tells the story from the Ramayana epic where a prince is saved by monkeys and in the ritual the men who perform it make noises like a bunch of monkeys. Sun Music 2 contains references to both the percussive rhythms of the dance, and the monkey noises (evoked in the “whooping” noises of the horns). [listen]



In Sun Music 3 Sculthorpe, like Britten before him, captures the world of the gamelan and evokes the warmth of the sun. You’ll also hear bird-like sounds in the background. These are a feature of Sculthorpe’s music that recurs in some of his works in the 70s and 80s, and they’re played by the cellists making rapid slides on their strings at random high pitch.


I’ve said on many occasions that Sun Music 3 is one of the most important pieces of Australian music of the 20th century. Composed in 1967, it marks one of the first times an Australian composer not only looked away from Europe but also looked towards our nearest neighbour for musical inspiration. It also seems to reflect an Australian view of the sun, rather than a European one. This approach was entrenched in Sculthorpe’s world view and artistic ethos decades before it became accepted in mainstream Australian society. [listen]


Another Australian composer for whom I have a great deal of admiration is Peggy Glanville-Hicks. Born in Melbourne in 1912, PGH (as she was usually called by her colleagues) became a major figure in American music in the 40s, 50s and 60s, as a writer and critic, and as an organiser of concerts of new music for a host of composers, as well as being a composer herself. She often looked to non-Western cultures for inspiration, and one of the best examples of this is her opera The Transposed Heads written in 1953. Based on a novella by Thomas Mann, the story is set in India, and this led PGH to study Indian music and incorporate aspects of it in the opera. The Prelude to the opera is a perfect example. Some traditional Indian music is - like European music in the early 17th century and popular music of today - often polarised between a melody and a bassline, with little melodic material if any in between. The prelude to The Transposed Heads is written the same way, with a strong melody and a strong bassline and almost nothing else in the way of pitch. The real complexities of Indian music come in its rhythm, and this provided PGH with all sorts of ideas for an extravagant use of percussion. I remember a performance of this opera at the 1986 Adelaide Festival, with the orchestra in a small pit and the percussion players raised on either side of the pit in full view of the audience. This performance, from a recording of the complete opera made in Perth in 1984, captures these aspects very well. The Prelude comprises the first three minutes. [listen]


Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1952)

Another contemporary composer/performer has taken inspiration from not only the music and culture of India, but has made it part of her personal philosophy. Since taking up the practice of yoga around the birth of her first child, she has written music which included rhythms and words of Sanskrit prayers dating back to the 13th century, sung over ostinato rhythms (that is, rhythms that are repeated) in a largely electronic format. There is also extensive use of drones in the manner of some Indian instrumental music. This work, dating from 1998, could very well be a contemporary reworking of some of Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ ideas, although there are in this piece aspects of Indian popular music as well, such as the fast descending scale on violins just before a new phrase. I suspect PGH would have loved this. [listen]


Madonna (2008)

Yes, Madonna, the material girl, getting spiritual. I think that’s a great example of how contemporary music in the pop and rock fields can find inspiration in the same things as classical composers. And I’ve got to tell you, the longer I’m in this business the more I think that such distinctions - popular, classical - are completely artificial. (I wrote that line in 2003 and believe it today - in 2020 - more than ever.)


Staying with things Indian and Sanskrit, the English composer Gustav Holst also found inspiration in the music of India, as well as other exotic places like North Africa. His attraction to Hindu scriptures (the most important of which is the Rig Veda) started when he was in his 20s (that is, in the 1890s), and he wrote two early operas on subjects drawn from these sources. The period 1908-12 saw Holst produce his major Sanskrit-inspired works, among them the four groups of Choral Songs from the Rig Veda. These are settings of Holst’s own English translations of Sanskrit hymns, and while Holst’s music (completed in 1908) makes no overt references to Indian music, the settings are individual and very beautiful. Considering Elgar was still actively composing at this time, it shows that Holst was moving in a completely different direction, with his own individual voice. [listen]


Gustav Holst

I’m going to finish with a short movement from one of the major works of Gustav Mahler. Come to think of it, pretty well everything Mahler wrote using an orchestra could be called a “major work” but his symphony-cum-song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) is a special work, composed between the 8th and 9th symphonies only a few years before his death. In close succession, Mahler was told he had a terminal heart condition, suffered the death of his elder daughter, was forced out of his post as director of the Vienna Opera. Understandably his mood turned black, something that came very easily to him. He found a collection of poems by Hans Bethge called The Chinese Flute, which claimed to be translations of Chinese poetry but which were actually Bethge’s own poems in an Oriental style, paraphrasing Chinese originals. The pessimism and world-weariness of the poems appealed to Mahler’s mood and they form the texts (with some additions by Mahler himself) for The Song of the Earth.


Gustav Mahler (1909)

Only in the third song - Von der Jugend (Of Youth) - does Mahler hint at actually Chinese music. The woodwind melodies at the start are based on the pentatonic scale I referred to earlier, and the mood is clearly what one might call chinoiserie, a sort of faux-Chinesiness. The text tells of friends drinking in a Chinese pavilion made of green and white porcelain, with a jade bridge arched like a tiger’s back. The young friends are laughing, forgetting the worries of life. Mahler clearly envies them. [listen]


The influence of Asian musics on the music of the so-called west is a subject I think is fascinating. Even just being aware that there’s a whole lot more music out there than the western classical mainstream is a good thing.


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2003.

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