This post is a really a continuation of yesterday’s.
A few weeks ago a friend asked:
“Are you also blogging as Murat Iyigün?”
Murat Iyigün’s May 13 post, under the heading Donizetti Pașa, read:
“Gaetano Donizetti is the well-known, early-19th century Italian opera composer. His older brother, Giuseppe Donizetti might have established a lesser reputation in the Occident, but he surely made his mark in the Orient.
“How he did is an interesting parable on the Ottoman Empire’s efforts to westernize, at a time when the European economic takeoff was becoming undeniable and the decaying empire was at the grip of an ecclesiastical [ecclesiastical?] identity crisis.
“While the European Industrial Revolution did not begin in full swing until the mid-[surely late-]18th century, the relative decline of the Ottomans and the rise of its western neighbors had begun to yield ubiquitous signs as early as the late-16th century. There is no doubt that the economic awakening of the West and the relative stagnation of the once-mighty Ottomans was a source of cognitive dissonance for the Ottomans. This explains why the prototype reformist Ottoman sultans, such as Osman II and Murad IV, primarily acted upon the premise of western inferiority and their instincts typically involved a stronger emphasis on the Muslim-Ottoman fundamentals.
“As western advances continued unabated and the Ottoman stagnation became undeniable, the distinction between ‘modernization’ and ‘westernization’ started to blur for Ottoman rulers. This is the setting in which Mahmud II begun his ambitious reform plan in the early-19th century, covering all facets of Ottoman life, but primarily focused on the military, political and economic spheres. With the belief in the superiority of all things Ottoman and Islamic long gone, Mahmud’s reform attempts now reflected the ‘dominance of all things western.’ Thus, when his attention turned to revamping the Ottoman military, Mahmud decided that western style military uniforms and a military band would help. This is when the empire tapped a Sicilian named Giuseppe Donizetti.
“Giuseppe Donizetti played a significant role in the introduction of European music to the Ottoman military. Apart from overseeing the training of the European-style military bands of Mahmud’s army, he taught music at the palace to the members of the Ottoman royal family, the princes and the ladies of the harem, is believed to have composed the first national anthem of the Ottoman Empire, supported the annual Italian opera season in Pera (a quaint district of Istanbul), organized concerts and operatic performances at court, and played host to a number of eminent virtuosi who visited Istanbul at the time, such as Franz Liszt, Parish Alvars and Leopold de Meyer.
“By the time he passed away in 1856, Donizetti had attained the Ottoman rank of paşa and he is now buried in the vaults of the St. Esprit Cathedral, near Beyoğlu, Istanbul.”
The friend who sent me this should have said that it sounds like Toynbee. Toynbee would have written it more precisely. (He was probably referring to my ability to drag composers at will into strange contexts.)
Toynbee was interested in the fact that non-Western societies “modernised” themselves along quasi-Western lines in response to the challenge of the “West”. But Murat Iyigün’s post reminded me of Bernard Lewis. I got home and picked up What Went Wrong? There, over three not very dense or piquant pages, was that story of Donizetti frère.
Lewis doesn’t mention that the first opera ever staged in Turkey was Gaetano Donizetti’s Belisario, in 1840.
Or that, later, Paul Hindemith was enlisted by the Turks in the cause of modernisation. He made several visits to Ankara in the 1930s, in the service of Atatürk, to advise on musical education at the State Conservatory.
Giuseppe Donizetti’s presence in Constantinople is presented as evidence of a decline. “When a foreign influence appears in something as central to a culture as an imperial foundation and a cathedral-mosque, there is clearly some faltering of cultural self-confidence.”
Why is Bernard Lewis’s lucidly-written book troubling? What is the dreariness that hangs over it? Something feels not right even before one disagrees in detail. Is it only that one has absorbed the propaganda of the anti-Lewisites? It was patronisingly and provocatively titled. It was published in 2002, post-9/11, but pre-Iraq. It was written pre-9/11, but not “long” before, as Said claims.
Lewis was originally British, and Jewish, but lives in the US. He is the Cleveland E Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton. At 92, he may be the world’s oldest somewhat active historian. Toynbee’s biographer William McNeill is 90. So is Robert Conquest. Eric Hobsbawm is 91 today.
No doubt Lewis’s essentially Ottoman, rather than Arab, specialisation made him into more of a historian of decline than he would have been if he had been a true Arabist. He has been called “the neocon’s historian”. Who was his most eloquent critic? Edward Said. Said was attacking Lewis as early as 1978, in Orientalism. At a roundtable in Egypt in 2003 reported by Al Ahram Weekly, the English weekly edition of Al Ahram, a few months before he died, Said said: “Bernard Lewis hasn’t set foot in the Middle East, in the Arab world, for at least 40 years. He knows something about Turkey, I’m told, but he knows nothing about the Arab world.” Though he does speak Turkish and Arabic.
Lewis has attacked the ideas in Orientalism. A grand attack came only last year, with Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West, which I mentioned in the last post. This is, in the end, polemic. Said and Scruton also offer polemic. So does Lewis. But Scruton is at least a trained philosopher, unlike Warraq. The problem with Warraq is that, learned as he sometimes appears to be, he gets carried away. It is beyond ridiculous to call Gérôme – the man who, with Bouguereau, brought French academic painting to a climax in the nineteenth century – as he does in the final paragraph, one of “the great Western artists”: anyone who reads that first would be immediately excused for reading no further. (There is a website – Art Renewal – which tries to make points like this. One of so many US sites and foundations which hijack old European things to make them serve narrow agendas.)
Here is an article by Warraq in the journal I called slightly-suspect in the last post, when linking to something by Scruton in it. And here is an attack by Bernard Lewis on Saidian Orientalism in The New York Review of Books (but you need to buy it).
If you want a sense of Said versus Lewis and don’t want to struggle with Orientalism, have a look at his review of What Went Wrong? in Harper’s, July 2002. It also reviews, with faint praise, Karen Armstrong’s Islam, A Short History. Unlike Lewis, Armstrong has quite a good reputation in the Arab world. Her book had appeared in 2000. It was reprinted in 2002, to cash in on post-9/11.
Said touches on music.
“When Lewis’s book was reviewed in the New York Times by no less an intellectual luminary than Yale’s Paul Kennedy, there was only uncritical praise, as if to suggest that the canons of historical evidence should be suspended where ‘Islam’ is the subject. Kennedy was particularly impressed with Lewis’s assertion, in an almost totally irrelevant chapter on ‘Aspects of Cultural Change,’ [that’s the one that mentions Donizetti frère] that alone of all the cultures of the world Islam has taken no interest in Western music. Quite without any justification at all, Kennedy then lurched on to lament the fact that Middle Easterners had deprived themselves even of Mozart! For that indeed is what Lewis suggests (though he doesn’t mention Mozart). Except for Turkey and Israel, ‘Western art music,’ he categorically states, ‘falls on deaf ears’ in the Islamic world.
“Now, as it happens, this is something I know quite a bit about, but it would take some direct experience or a moment or two of actual life in the Muslim world to realize that what Lewis says is a total falsehood, betraying the fact that he hasn’t set foot in or spent any significant time in Arab countries. Several major Arab capitals have very good conservatories of Western music: Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Tunis, Rabat, Amman – even Ramallah on the West Bank. These have produced literally thousands of excellent Western-style musicians who have staffed the numerous symphony orchestras and opera companies that play to sold-out auditoriums all over the Arab world. There are numerous festivals of Western music there, too, and in the case of Cairo (where I spent a great deal of my early life more than fifty years ago) they are excellent places to learn about, listen to, and see Western instrumental and vocal music performed at quite high levels of skill. The Cairo Opera House has pioneered the performance of opera in Arabic, and in fact I own a commercial CD of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro sung most competently in Arabic. I am a decent pianist and have played, studied, written about, and practiced that wonderful instrument all of my life; the significant part of my musical education was received in Cairo from Arab teachers, who first inspired a love and knowledge of Western music (and, yes, of Mozart) that has never left me. In addition, I should also mention that for the past three years I have been associated with Daniel Barenboim in sponsoring a group of young Arab and Israeli musicians to come together for three weeks in the summer to perform orchestral and chamber music under Barenboim (and in 1999 with Yo-Yo Ma) at an elevated, international level. All of the young Arabs received their training in Arab conservatories. How could Barenboim and I have staffed the West-Östlicher Diwan workshop, as it is called, if Western music had fallen on such deaf Muslim ears? Besides, why should Lewis and Kennedy use the supposed absence of Western music as a club to beat ‘Islam’ with anyway? Isn’t there an enormously rich panoply of Islamic musics to take account of instead of indulging in this ludicrous browbeating?”
I can vouch for the sold-out performances at the Cairo Opera House. That house (1988, Japanese architect) is the successor of the Khedivial Opera House, where Aida had its first performance in 1871 and which burned down in 1971. There are people in Cairo who never miss a chance to hear Western music. They are a very small minority, but are part of the scene, and often young.
Opera, and Western art generally, in the UAE is another subject. It now gets huge investment, far more than any subsidy in Europe, but it’s pretty hard to discern any underlying interest. It seems more a case of buying in, in a very UAE way, more Western luxury goods.
Warraq has a section on Mozart. He doesn’t mention (there would have been no point to be made in doing so) his unfinished opera buffa, L’oca del Cairo, The Goose of Cairo – which sounds like a kind of dry run for Figaro.
Edward Said had a commercial CD of Figaro sung in Arabic. I have a 3-CD box of Cosí fan tutte, also “most competently” sung – but I won’t claim that Arabic ideally suits the music. Opera in the Middle East tends to be in Italian.
In the ’80s I saw a Turkish opera at the Turkish State Opera at the Atatürk Cultural Centre in Istanbul: a nationalist affair. In the early ’90s, an American friend of mine spent several months conducting there.
On May 27 2006 I managed to attend the 250th-birthday concert of Mozart at the Cairo Opera House, played by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. 70% or more of the players were Egyptian.