Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Albert W.Ketelbey, In a Persian Market

Albert W. Ketèlbey is a name unknown to most readers, but in 1929 he was probably Britain's best-known and wealthiest composer and said to be its first millionaire composer.

He wrote popular, light pieces, many with titles linked to foreign lands. Note In a Chinese Temple Garden (1925), By the Blue Hawaiian Waters (1927), Italian Twilight (1931), With the Romanian Gipsies, Jungle Drums (Patrol), From a Japanese Screen, Algerian Scene, In the Camp of the Ancient Britons, Silver Cloud: An Indian Maiden's Song, The Vision of Fuji-San and In the Mystic Land of Egypt (1931). 

One of his most enduring songs, and one which most of you...well, many of you, at least, if you're of a certain age...will recognize, is In a Persian Market, from 1920. 

None of these songs, it goes almost without saying, has any real connection to its exotic setting (exotic to Britons, that is). This is orientalism and exoticism as expressed in early-middle twentieth century mood music for silent films, dinner parties, military bands, vaudeville, and the concert hall.

A very comprehensive article about Ketèlbey is found here.

Recording covers display various notions of what the music connotes:

This one sticks to genuine Persian imagery, but the band on the cover is not playing Ketèlbey:

The tribal people in the photo below would not recognize the music in the recording:
And here is In a Persian Market:

Monday, October 13, 2014

Rameau, Les Indes Galantes

Today's post is about one of the earlier examples of Persia in Western classical music. Jean-Philippe Rameau premiered Les Indes Galantes in 1735 in Paris. It's in the form of an opera-ballet—a prologue and four loosely connected acts—which was then popular, but which soon fell out of favor. As the name of the form suggests, dance abounds in these entertainments.

Jean-Philippe Rameau

The third act is a story about Persia in which a prince is in love with his best friend Ali's slave girl, while the prince's own slave girl is in love with Ali. True love finds a way after some twists and turns, and all ends in happy singing and dancing. 

In Les fleurs—fête Persane (The Flowers 
—Persian Festival), Prince Tacmas, though 
engaged to Fatima, is really in love with 
Zaïre, a slave of his trusted advisor Ali. 
Ali, in turn, is in love with Fatima. As the 
entrée begins, Tacmas appears disguised 
as a merchant woman to spy on Zaïre 
during the Festival of the Flowers, to see 
if she returns his affection. Unknowingly, 
she reveals that she does. Fatima, in turn, 
appears disguised as a man to spy on 
Ali, the man she loves. The two couples 
sort themselves out, sing a beautiful love 
quartet, and celebrate the Festival of 
the Flowers with song and dance.

The story, of course, has nothing to do with the reality of Persia. Neither does the music. Persia was just a convenient way for European composers and librettists to signal 'exotic,' and opera was enamored of the strategy.

Anyone unfamiliar with modern European treatments of early operas might be surprised to see just how modern the productions can be. Here is a photo from a hit version of Les Indes Galantes which was presented in Bordeaux in the summer of 2014:

A thorough review is here.

Anyone in doubt as to whether Rameau would approve should have a close look at his operas such as Les Boreades, Les Paladins, and, of course, Les Indes Galantes. Even though he was almost 50 when he began to compose opera, and very old for his time, almost 80, when he completed his last opera, his work is suffused with a radical longing for love and light and freedom.

Here's a video of part of the Persian act of Les Indes Galantes:


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Othmar Schoeck, Ach, wie schön ist Nacht und Dämmerschein

In 1919 Othmar Schoeck (Swiss, 1886-1957) composed the lied, or song, Ach, wie schön ist Nacht und Dämmerschein [O, how beautiful is night and the glimmer of candlelight], which is today's topic, using lyrics by Hafez, the great poet of Shiraz. Schoeck is best-known today for his lieder, or art songs, though he composed in many genres, including opera, chamber music, and orchestral music. He used as his source for today's song a book, Hafis—Eine Sammlung persische Gedichte [Hafez—a collection of Persian poems], by Georg Friedrich Daumer from 1846. 

Daumer's book of poems, title page.

The poem, from Daumer's book, pp. 137-8.

An image of the poem in fraktur type from Daumer's original book is reproduced above. Daumer's German text can also be found here, along with other valuable informationBelow are only the verses used by Schoeck in the song:

Ach, wie schön ist Nacht und Dämmerschein!

Ach, wie traulich unser Trinkverein!

Höret den musikisch bellen Ton! Was verkünden Flöten und Schalmein? 

"Lasset den Mysterien der lust ein verständig Ohr geöffnet sein! 

Rettet eure Seele, werfet ab des Betruges ekle Mummerein! 

Aller andern Bande ledig, schlingt euch in Lockenbande lieblich ein! 

Sollte wohl in diesem Kreise wer unbelebt vom Hauch der Liebe sein? 

Grabgebete betet über ihn, segnet ihn als Toten ein! 

Windet euren Arm um silberne Hüften her in einem Bad von Wein! 

Alles andre, predigt Schemseddin, ist verlorne Mühe, Qual und Pein."

O, how beautiful is night and the glimmer of candlelight!
O, how cozy our drinking club!

Hear the tones musically ringing! What do the flutes and shawms announce?
"Let your sensible ear be open to the mysteries of delight!

Save your soul, throw off the loathsome mask of deceit!
Free of all other bonds, entwine yourself in lovely ringlets!

Who in this circle should be unanimated by the breath of Love?
Say a graveside prayer over him; confirm him dead!

Wind your arm around silver hips in a bath of wine!
All else, preaches Shams al-Din, is forlorn toil, torment, and pain."

[my translation]

It has been speculated that Daumer's Hafez poems might actually have been written by Daumer himself in the style of Hafez. According to a dissertation by Amir Irani-Tehrani, "Persian Figures in German Letters," New York University (2008), this practice was common in that era in Germany when Hafez was extremely popular. Irani-Tehrani could not locate the book and could not determine whether Daumer's 'translations' were real or ersatz. A relevant portion of thdissertation is reproduced below:

Irani-Tehrani dissertation, pp. 348-9

Now Daumer's book is freely available on Google Books, as seen in the pages reproduced above. I cannot judge whether his verses are genuine translations of Hafez, nor can I determine whether Daumer knew any Persian or not. Whatever the answer to that question, it is remarkable that Schoeck and many other Western composers were inspired by the verses of Hafez—or at least by translations, versions, and imitations of his verses—hundreds of years after his death. Daumer's interest was not just poetic. 

"From an orthodox Protestant he gradually became a bitter enemy of Christianity, which he attacked in a number of writings and for which he strove to substitute a new religion "of love and peace", formulated in his work Religion des neuen Weltalters (Hamburg, 1850)." [Wikipedia]

Daumer apparently saw in Hafez the "love and peace" that he was looking for. 

Here is a wonderful version of the song, performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone, and Margrit Weber, piano:


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Wagner's Tristan und Isolde

Tristan und Isolde, an opera by Richard Wagner, has been closely examined since its tumultuous premier in 1865. Yet few know that the story of Tristan and Isolde may be based on a Persian romance, Vis o Ramin [Vis and Ramin] by Asad Gorgani.
Richard Wagner

"There are many theories present about the origins of Tristanian legend, but historians disagree over which is the most accurate. Some scholars suggest that the 11th century Persian story Vis u Ramin must have been the model for the Tristan legend because the similarities are too great to be coincidental.[2][3] The evidence for the Persian origin of Tristan and Iseult is very circumstantial[4] and different theories have been suggested how this Persian story reached the West, some suggesting story-telling exchanges during the crusades in Syrian court[3] and through minstrels who had free access to both Crusader and Saracen camps in the Holy Land.[5]" [From Wikipedia, link here.] Here is another article about the issue.

Vis and Ramin

I have read Vis and Ramin in Persian and I am very familiar with Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. In my opinion their similarities are too great to be coincidental, but I suspect we will never learn exactly how this story made its way through the world many hundreds of years ago.

Here is a complete performance of Tristan und Isolde:

Tristan and Isolde  Source

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Handel's Serse

One of the most popular arias in operatic history comes from an
Handel at the keyboard

opera about an Achaemenid Persian monarch, known to the Greeks as Xerxes, son of Darius—and known to the world of Italian opera as Serse. George Frideric Handel, who wrote Serse in 1738 for the London stage, was a German composer who studied in Italy, became an English citizen, and wrote some of the most popular Italian-language operas of the early eighteenth century

Those who have never seen the opera might be shocked to learn that the aforementioned aria, Ombra mai fu, is sung by the title character as a love song—to a tree. He extols the virtues of his beloved plane tree. (Note that the character Serse was written for a castrato and is now sung by a female mezzo-soprano, as in the clip below, or a male countertenor.) Link to clip here.

Neither the plot of the opera or its music have much of a genuine connection to the reality of Persia, but the public must have gained many of its impressions of Persia from works of art such as this. 

From a recent Serse production in Berlin. Source.

All inaccuracies aside—and opera never invests in historical accuracy—Serse is a wonderful entertainment. An excellent DVD of the entire production (from which the clip above is taken) is available here.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Koechlin's Les Heures persanes

Today we'll present one of the most subtle and beautiful of all instrumental works inspired by Persia, Les Heures persanes [The Persian Hours], by Charles Koechlin, composed from 1913-1919.
Charles Koechlin
Even though it is purely instrumental (in versions for piano and also for orchestra), the work and its sixteen movement titles are based on 
Vers Ispahan (1904), a novel by Pierre Loti, a highly regarded French author of the late 19th and early 20th century. Today, at least in the United States, neither the composer nor the author is well-known, to say the least. Listening to Les Heures persanes, however, offers a sound world that can envelop you in a rare way. The music is not truly Persian, by any
Pierre Loti
means, but Koechlin must have felt that labeling his work 'Persian' gave him license to write music that would otherwise have sounded exceedingly strange to his colleagues and his audience.
In spite of his German-sounding last name, he was French. Highly eccentric and talented, said to be a 'nature-mystic,' Koechlin and his music are well worth getting to know. Koechlin is discussed here.

More details about the piece can be found at this link.

Here are part 1, part 2, and part 3 of a YouTube offering, which presents the entirety of the orchestral version of the piece.

...Nous arrivons par le bazar des selliers, qui est le plus luxueux de la ville et ressemble à une interminable nef d'église.—Il fut construit à l'époque de la dernière splendeur de Chiraz, au milieu duXVIIIe siècle, par un régent de la Perse appelé Kerim-Khan, qui avait établi sa capitale ici même, ramenant le faste et la prospérité d'autrefois dans ces vieux murs.—C'est une longue avenue, tout en briques d'un gris d'ardoise, très haute de plafond et voûtée en série sans fin de petites coupoles; un peu de lumière y descend par des ogives ajourées; un rayon de soleil quelquefois y tombe comme une flèche d'or, tantôt sur un tapis soyeux et rare, tantôt sur une selle merveilleusement brodée, ou bien sur un groupe de femmes,—toujours fantômes noirs au petit masque blanc,—qui marchandent à voix basse des bouquets de roses. [An extract from Vers Ispahan, by Pierre Loti.]

Below is a piano version of the piece. If you start playing clip 1/16 (part one of  sixteen parts), YouTube should automatically load each of the movements in succession. Click on the YouTube logo in the lower right corner to watch the clip directly in YouTube, rather than in this blog. Please note that these clips were posted by someone calling himself 'On the Top of Damavand,' yielding
Mount Damavand
another Persian connection, since Damavand is the very large, Mount Fuji-style mountain to the east of Tehran.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Szymanowski's Love Songs of Hafiz

Greetings! I'm making this blog for those who have an interest in Persian culture and also enjoy Western music. A surprising number of Western classical music pieces have used Persian poetry—mostly Hafez, Rumi, and Khayyam—for lyrics. The plots of many Western operas are based on Persian legend or history, though the Western retellings may be wildly inaccurate or fanciful. A fascination with Persia appears even in purely instrumental music by Western composers. They wrote 'Persian-influenced' music that sounded exotic and 'Oriental' to Western ears, even though very few of these composers had any idea what how Persian music actually sounded.

Karol Szymanowski was a fine composer of the early 20th century, probably Poland's greatest of that era, and his stature has been
Karol Szymanowski
growing in recent years. He wrote much music that sounds exotic and 'Oriental.' One of his major works is a set of songs for tenor with orchestral accompaniment, The Love Songs of Hafiz, which is today's selection.

Here is more about Szymanowski.

Another Wikipedia article, on The Love Songs of Hafiz, provides the German versions of Hafez poems made by Bethge that were set by Szymanowski, as well as an English translation, presumably from the German.

I could not determine from which Hafez poems Bethge made his versions. It would be interesting to trace the varying, and often highly debatable, understandings of Hafez by Bethge, Szymanowski, the English translator, and the author of the article, but that's beyond the scope of this post. It is clear, though, that Bethge knew no Persian (and no Arabic or Chinese, to name two other languages of which he made poetic versions that were enthusiastically used by Western composers):

Bethge konnte kein Chinesisch, kein Arabisch und kein Persisch - keine andere orientalische Sprache. Und doch hat er, ein Reisender in Tat und Geist, den Gehalt der östlichen Dichter wie kaum ein anderer erfaßt und in Ton, Klang und rhythmischer Musikalität zum Ausdruck gebracht. Source: http://www.yinyang-verlag.de/HansBethge.htm

Bethge knew no Chinese, no Arabic, and no Persian—no other Oriental language. And yet, a traveller in deed and spirit, he grasped the spirit of the Eastern poet like scarcely anyone else and brought it into expression through tone, sound, and rhythmic musicality [i.e., the musicality of his verses, since he wrote the words, but did not compose the music]. Translation and comment by the author of this blog.

I found no information about what source Bethge used to make his versions of Hafez; however, there was no shortage of translations and versions—nine between 1800 and 1880!—available in German. The German translations and versions are discussed here.

One of the most influential German translations of Hafez

Link to Part 2 of Rosenzweig-Schwannau's 1863 translation of Hafez (title page shown above), which contained both the original Persian and his German translation.

More about Hafez and music can be found here.

The first and second halves of a version of this work on YouTube are embedded below. The illustrations chosen by the person who posted the music on YouTube are consistent with many Western impressions of Persian poetry, emphasizing worldly 'wine, women, and song,' rather than spiritual and mystical interpretations.

Love Songs of Hafiz, songs for tenor & orchestra, Op. 26, M28 (1914)

Ryszard Minkiewicz, tenor

Polish State Philharmonic Orchestra

Karol Stryja

Szymanowski set his Hafiz love-songs in 1914, very much in the spirit of German neo-romanticism, exemplified, among other things, in the fashionable versions of Hafiz by Hans Bethge, whose second-hand versions of Chinese poems had served Mahler for his Das Lied von der Erde. The words of the songs paraphrase the verses of the 14th century mystical Persian poet. The cycle was first performed in Paris in June 1925.

Art by Mikhail Larionov