A (very) short history of German military music

janissary 1

East is east and west is west. But the twain have met many times before the current unpleasantness.

The West and Islam go way back.

On the serious side, there were the Crusades, the Moorish conquest of Spain and Charlemagne. On the more trivial side, there was the Dutch craze for Asian tulips in the 17th century.

And one of the more interesting collisions between the West and Islam occurred in Europe in the 18th century with a craze for all things Turkish. It gave us coffee, croissants, Angora sweaters and Mozart’s Rondo “alla Turca.”

It also finally gave us Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers (L’Italiana in Algeri), and its sequel, The Turk in Italy (Il Turco in Italia).

Europe had been under the gun from the Ottoman Empire for centuries, but when the Treaty of Karlowitz was signed in 1699, it ushered in not only an era of peace but a fad in fashion. For the next century and a half, all things Turkish, Moorish and Islamic became the source of the culturally exotic in European minds.

Eugene Delacroix "Women of Algiers" 1834

Eugene Delacroix “Women of Algiers” 1834

It’s really quite stunning to see it all: Turkish cigarettes, Turkish baths, Turkish carpets, harem pants, slippers with upturned toes. There were harem girls painted by Ingres and Delacroix. The turkey named for the color of its wattles, which matched a popular fabric dye of the time, called “Turkey red.”

And one of the most pervasive effects was the popularity of “Turkish music.” Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all wrote versions of Turkish music.

When the Ottoman Turks sent janissary bands — their military bands — to Vienna as a kind of cultural-exchange program, the European ears were perked by the exotic sounds of their drums, cymbals and chimes. It was a clattery music with an insistent rhythmic drive.

You hear the European orchestra expanded with new percussion instruments at just this time, when Haydn wrote his Military Symphony and Mozart his Turkish concerto for violin.

The characteristic rhythm of Turkish music was the march beat of “Left… left … left, right, left,” and you can hear it in Mozart’s Turkish rondo as well as in the concerto.

rondo boom

And Beethoven even included a segment of Turkish music in his sublime Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy,” when the whole thing comes to a momentary halt, interrupted by the burps of a contrabassoon, followed by the Turkish marching music that sounds remarkably like the theme song to Hogan’s Heroes.

In fact, German military music made such pervasive use of the Turkish rhythm that it soon lost all sense of being exotic and became the drumbeat of Germanic militarism: If you watch the Leni Riefenstahl film, Triumph of the Will, about the Nazi Party rallies in Nuremberg before the war, you are nearly oppressed with that “boom … boom … boom-boom-boom” rhythm. Nürnberg, Reichsparteitag, Marsch der Wehrmacht

That is a baleful end to what began as pure fluff. Operas about Turkish pashas and European women were a regular occurrence.

Mozart wrote his Abduction From the Serail, filled with Turkish effects, and Rossini, decades later, imitated that sound — and pretty well stole the plot — from the Mozart, for his Italian Girl in Algiers. In it, a crafty Italian woman outwits a foolish Turkish bey and saves herself and her fiance from a fate worse than Wagner.

It’s a wonderful opera, full of Rossini’s best tunes and imbroglios.

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