A new suite for string quartet weds Western and Arabic music with intelligence, integrity, and feeling.
Mathias Énard’s novel Compass, which won the 2015 Prix Goncourt, has been hailed for its elegiac, meandering portrait of Western scholars of the Islamic world. Few critics have noticed that it’s also a novel about European musicians and composers enchanted by the sounds of the Middle East and North Africa. The narrator, Franz Ritter, is an Austrian musicologist, or, in his words, “a poor unsuccessful academic with a revolutionary thesis no one cares about.” His thesis, which Énard obviously cares about, is that modern European concert music “owed everything to the Orient”:
All over Europe the wind of alterity blows, all these great men use what comes to them from the Orient to modify the self, to bastardize it, for genius wants bastardy, the use of external procedures to undermine the dictatorship of church chant and harmony.
Ritter’s compass invariably points east, and delirious exaggeration is his rhetorical signature, but the novel offers a suggestive account of Western music’s encounter with its Eastern other. Beethoven, Mozart, and Liszt all wrote Turkish-style marches; Debussy, Bartók, and Hindemith were fascinated by Arabic and Asian scales. The Polish composer Karol Szymanowski was so besotted by North Africa that he wrote “Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin,” whose lyrics at one point cry out “Allah Akbar!” Some Western musicians reinvented themselves as Arabic musicians, notably the late Swiss qanun master (and Muslim convert) Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss. Music, Énard suggests, has proven a uniquely fertile ground for cross-cultural dialogue and exchange, “a world of shared ecstasy, of a possibility for change, of participation in alterity.” It has rejected the “violence of imposed identities” in favor of “the dual, the ambiguous.” Read More