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Arab and Ottoman themes in European music
“Aida, constantly alluding to its ambience in harmony and instrumentation, is the one Verdi opera that could not conceivably be transported to another geographical location.” (From Roger Parker)
The 18th-century European mania for all things “Turkish” extended to music, but only in the form of non-specific inspiration in the work of composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn. Neither 18th- nor 19th-century musicians were familiar with the instruments and modes of Arab‒Ottoman music, but freely set their operas in Egypt (Verdi’s Aïda, 1871) or Turkey (Folies Turques, 1875) and produced sounds that seemed exotic and “Oriental” to European ears.

One of the most popular composers of the 19th century, Gioachino Rossini, based several of his operas on Arab and Ottoman themes. Widely staged in Europe, these include L’Italiana in Algeri (1813), Il Turco in Italia (1814), Mosé in Egitto (1819), Maometto II (1820), Semiramide (1823) and Moïse et Pharaon (1827).

Composers also borrowed from folk and gypsy music for operettas such as the Folies Rambuteau. Later composers, Maurice Ravel, Camille Saint-Saëns and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, for example, continued to work in an Orientalist vein with references to Arabian Nights in works such as Sheherazade and Samson and Delilah. As with the visual arts, these works express the sensuality of the “East” in an idealised, though often beautiful, way. The fact that none of these composers had visited a harem did not deter them from representing Ottoman or Arab concubines in their music.
Portrait of Paul Draneht

Paul Draneht (1815–1894), the Superintendent of the Cairo Opera who commissioned Aida from Giuseppe Verdi

1880s–90s

Alexis Zervudachi Collection, Italy

Paul Troubetzkoy

Paul Draneht (1815‒94), an émigré from Cyprus to Egypt, became prominent in the government of the Khedive, Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha. As superintendant of the Egyptian Opera theatre, he commissioned from Verdi Aïda. Complications prevented the producers from opening the opera house in 1869 with Aïda, but it later debuted in Cairo in 1871.

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