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Badly produced – the frontispiece (or ‘color front piece’ as it calls itself) is inserted with its back to the title page, instead of facing it; the binding is amateurish; the print throughout is tiny and quite faint, with wide spaces between lines – and with a hefty price tag, this book has a lot stacked against it. The title is not accurate (the annotated list in the Appendix of ‘Landmarks of musical orientalism’ runs chronologically from 1842 to 1932) and the book’s subtitle – ‘The Hypnotic Spell of the Exotic on Music of the Romantic Period’ – compounds the offence.

Nevertheless, the subject is an intriguing one, and Little has a good stab at it, beginning in the preface with an important definition of what 19th-century Europeans regarded as ‘the Orient’, ie anywhere from Morocco to Japan. Many historical causes are brought in to explain the arousal of interest in things oriental, ranging from Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, and the imperialist drive generally, to accounts by explorers and archaeologists, and the introduction of some of the classics of eastern literature, most importantly, of course, the 1001 Nights, first translated into French in 1717, and soon after in other languages. Little defines this collection of tales, Thomas Moore’s narrative poem Lalla Rookh, and the Bible as the three main sources of European fascination with the Orient. Novels, such as Flaubert’s Salammbô, and other narrative poems, Byron’s in particular, also inspired musical settings. The usual operatic suspects are dealt with, in greater or lesser detail, such as Nabucco, Aida, Turandot, Salome, and others less well known.

Little doesn’t quite grasp the nettle of what it was that made the Orient so attractive for 19th-century Europeans, though hinting at, for example, the idea of the desert, and the Bedouins in particular, as embodying a concept of freedom and romance for an increasingly straitlaced society, and the salacious hint of naughty delights with voluptuous houris – or indeed masterful sheikhs on horseback.

There are 48 badly produced black and white plates, and 32 in colour, usefully annotated. But the staggering price remains an Oriental mystery in itself.

DELLA COULING Read the full review on Agora Classica


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