Cantemir: Western Mind, Eastern Music

CantemirDimitrie Cantemir was born in Moldavia in 1673, just twelve years before Bach was born in Germany. At the age of 15, the young Moldavian prince was hustled off to Istanbul, where he spent 22 years as a “guest” of the Ottoman Sultan. This was a euphemism. Cantemir was an elegantly appointed diplomatic hostage, flesh-and-blood assurance that his home province, now a part of Romania, wouldn’t undertake plans for independence.

He used his time wisely. In Romania, he is known as a polymath, a linguist who mastered Latin, Turkish and Arabic, and an historian who was amazingly accomplished, prolific and erudite. Cantemir’s History of the Growth and Decay of the Ottoman Empire is seen as a source and perhaps inspiration for Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Among his talents was music. Cantemir learned the court music style of the Ottomans, how to play the long-necked lute known as the tanbur, and the intricacies of the modal and rhythmic patterns that defined their improvisatory musical style. He also developed his own notation system for Turkish music, a system that remained in use well into the 19th century. He used it to document hundreds of musical works, and to set down his own original compositions in the Turkish style.

It was a natural to program music of Cantemir as part of the public programs inspired by the Freer and Sackler Galleries exhibition, “The Tsars and the East.” After mastering all things Ottoman, Cantemir went home in 1710 and proceeded to do exactly what the Sultan feared: he took up arms (in alliance with the Russians) against the Turks. Things went badly and Cantemir was obliged to flee to Russia, where he was welcomed and eventually became an advisor to Peter the Great. And so the axis of Cantemir’s life is perfect for this exhibition: A thick slice through the heart of the contested, vibrant, trade-rich region that connects European Russia with the Black Sea and Balkans.

What does the music sound like? The Smithsonian brought in a mixed ensemble of Western baroque players and Turkish instrumentalists to explore Cantemir’s legacy on June 11. The concert, titled “Composer between Worlds: Dimitrie Cantemir,” seemed to promise some kind of fusion of Eastern and Western styles (Cantemir’s daughter became proficient on the harpsichord while her father cooled his heels in Russia). The instrumentalists on the roster certainly suggested interesting possibilities: Harpsichord, baroque violin, viol and flute, tanbur, guitar, percussion and kemenche (a nasal fiddle held in the lap and played with an almost vocal vibrato and voluptuous sliding tones and trills).

I suppose I was imagining there would be ground bass lines with Turkish melodies atop, but no. The music was Turkish through and through, with the Western instruments providing static harmonic grounding, or playing in parallel with the Eastern ones. Not surprisingly, the Eastern instruments were better at specifically Eastern musical gestures, including microtonal hints and distinctive ornamentation.

Why was it so disappointing? In part, it was because the players were uneven, and the ensemble wasn’t tight. But mostly, the concert failed to deliver on the “between worlds” promise. Cantemir certainly lived between worlds, and without his determination to apply a Cartesian sensibility to Eastern music we’d lack a fascinating record of what Turkish music in the late 17th century may have sounded like. But this music is not between worlds. It is Turkish music haphazardly re-orchestrated to include some Western instruments.

The promise of cultural fusion is infinitely enticing. It’s almost utopian to imagine that two very different forms of music could reach a productive amalgamation during an era when there was no particular fetish for crossing cultural boundaries. Even the few examples of Western music with “Eastern” flavor included on the program (“Turkish” pieces by Lully, Marais and lesser figures) demonstrate the deeply superficial hearing of Eastern music in the Western world. It is fashionable and comforting to talk about the universalizing aspects of music, its cross cultural language, its ability to bring people together. But true musical fusion, music that doesn’t simply co-opt the “other” within a dominant style, is extraordinarily rare. Cantemir was a fascinating man, but throwing a few baroque players into the mix doesn’t make his music cross cultural.

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