East Meets West
For as long as travel and communication have made it possible for Western composers to come into contact with Eastern cultures, they have been trying to absorb and emulate the myriad musical styles, instruments and techniques developed by those civilisations. The results range from 'exotic' sounds painted in broad brush strokes, to much more precise evocations of Eastern techniques. Meanwhile, in the 20th century especially, Eastern composers who have studied Western classical techniques have created fascinating fusions of sounds originating from quite different sources.Read more…
The exchange of cultural ideas, transcending borders and beliefs, is a natural and wonderful process for any artist, enriching the scope of their own musical language. For Western composers, whole new worlds of melody, harmony and sonority have opened up as they have explored other cultures, often adding to their music a new sense of spirituality or sensuality.
This process is not without its problems, however: in the 21st century we are increasingly aware of the implications of "cultural appropriation" and the lack of respect that can suggest. Certainly, the Western world has been guilty of plundering the riches of anything regarded as "other", and has sometimes done so with a lack of care or attention to detail which today would be considered offensive. Generalised terms such as Turquerie, Chinoiserie and Orientalism suggest an absence of in-depth understanding of the wealth of cultures found under those umbrella terms. With greater travel and technology comes greater knowledge, and by the 20th century composers were exploring in more detail the instrumental sonorities and rhythmic and melodic devices used in an array of non-Western contexts.
Our playlist begins with a number of works which reflect the 18th-century trend for mimicking Turkish styles, a fashion which developed in response to the political machinations of the Ottoman Empire. Turkish culture, fermenting in the Ottoman melting pot where East meets West, represented all that was exotic – even vulgar – to parochial Western ears. The musical responses can be a little stereotypical in their depictions of Turkish style, but with an undeniable energy and raucousness that feels refreshing in the context of Baroque and Classical formality. Vivaldi's opera 'Bazajet' (a topic also chosen by Handel in his opera, 'Tamerlano') was about an Ottoman Sultan. Mozart famously drew upon Turkish culture in his opera, 'The Escape from the Seraglio', and in his 'Rondo alla Turca' – a type of piece also composed by Hummel. Beethoven, too, enjoyed the trend, using Turkish music in his Ninth Symphony and, heard here, in his incidental music to the play 'The Ruins of Athens'.
In the 19th century, horizons broadened. Arabic styles were emulated in music by the Russian Five (we hear from Borodin and Balakirev) and by the likes of Elgar. In the 20th century, Ravel (like Rimsky Korsakov before him) was inspired by the tale of Sheherazade and the Arabian Nights.
Javanese gamelan had an electrifying effect on Debussy when he first heard it at the Paris Exposition of 1889, and 'Pagodes' is just one of his musical responses to that unique sonority. Britten was similarly struck by Balinese gamelan, which is evoked in his ballet, 'The Prince of the Pagodas'. Britten was also inspired by Japanese 'noh' theatre when writing his chamber operas; we hear from two Japanese composers, Tōru Takemitsu (who felt empowered by John Cage’s adoption of Eastern styles to embrace his own Japanese roots) and contemporary composer Takashi Yoshimatsu. Chinese culture has had a wide-ranging impact on many of the composers featured on this playlist, and proved particularly inspirational to Puccini when he wrote 'Turandot', a story with Persian roots but set in ancient China, blending elements of Chinese musical styles with Puccini's own.
Indian culture captivated Holst, who set texts from the Sanskrit Rig Veda for female chorus. Messiaen, too, was deeply indebted to Indian rhythmic organisation, adopting it into his own 'additive rhythms' in many of his works, such as the Hindu rhythms used in 'Cantéyodjayâ'. The great sitar master Ravi Shankar composed numerous pieces which would bring the sitar into the Western concert hall, while John Cage was deeply influenced by the philosophy and music of numerous Eastern cultures; his Sonatas and Interludes were written after he was introduced to Indian philosophy. John Tavener also embraced an array of non-Western cultures; 'Dhyāna', dating from 2007, comes from the Sanskrit word for "meditation".