Measure by Measure

Air From the East

From Rousseau to Weber to Hindemith

By Sudip Bose | December 20, 2018
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778) by Allan Ramsay (1766) (Wikimedia Commons)

On this day in 1764, Jean-Jacques Rousseau completed his Dictionary of Music. Though rarely mentioned in the same breath with the philosopher’s Confessions or Social Contract, the reference work was a significant achievement, even if Rousseau himself seemed to disavow it. “This was a purely mechanical work,” he wrote, “which could be done at any time and which had no other purpose than pecuniary profit.” And yet, Rousseau’s exhaustive treatment of music history, theory, style, and nomenclature displayed a remarkable breadth and understanding of his subject. For him, music, alone among the arts, had the power to express the ineffable. “It is one of the great advantages of the musician,” he wrote, “to be able to paint things that cannot be heard, whereas it is impossible for the painter to paint what cannot be seen.”

Born in Geneva, Rousseau became engaged in all manner of musical activity upon settling for a time in Paris. He contributed most of the articles on music theory and history to the Encyclopédie, that massive work of Enlightenment erudition co-edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. His job as a music copyist provided a consistent, reliable source of income, and he was a successful composer, as well, his 1752 one-act opera Le Devin du village (The Village Soothsayer) becoming a favorite of Louis XV’s. As a polemicist, however, Rousseau earned the wrath of the French public. His 1753 Letter on French Music codified views that had been taking shape in his mind since his teenage years, when a sojourn in Turin awakened him to the rich and lively possibilities of sacred music (so unlike the dreary sounds he’d encountered in Geneva’s churches). A later diplomatic post in Venice, where he was enchanted by the city’s vibrant vernacular music, helped solidify his preference for Italian over French music. He was convinced that when it came to melodic expression, the French language was inferior to Italian and that French music, moreover, was burdened by an excess of florid ornamentation. The Letter was championed by the philosophes (who were also largely enamored of Italian music), but condemned by just about everyone else, including the preeminent French composer and theorist of the 18th century, Jean-Philippe Rameau.

To compile his exhaustive Dictionary of Music, Rousseau expanded and developed his Encyclopédie articles and then added 500 new entries. The work proceeded with the greatest difficulty and endeavor. An inveterate walker, Rousseau would spend his perambulations musing about his various projects—but not, as he wrote in the Confessions, about the Dictionary:

I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs. I had, however, taken the precaution of providing myself with an indoor task also for rainy days. This was my Dictionary of Music, the scattered, mutilated, and shapeless nature of which made it necessary for me to rewrite it almost entirely. I had brought a few books that I needed for that purpose, and had spent two months making extracts from many others. … This was material that I could put together in the house when the weather prevented my going out and I was tired of copying.

After submitting the completed manuscript to his publisher, Nicolas Bonaventure Duchesne, Rousseau waited three years before the book finally appeared in print.

Whatever the philosopher’s thoughts about the book, one page would prove particularly influential. In a kind of proto-ethnomusicological discussion, Rousseau provided a series of musical excerpts purportedly of North American, Swiss, Persian, and Chinese origin. Rousseau had likely encountered the Chinese passage—a so-called air chinois, or Chinese air—sometime in the 1740s, in a book about China by the French Jesuit historian Jean-Baptiste du Halde. Du Halde never journeyed to China, though other French Jesuits did. Moreover, the provenance of the tune cannot be confirmed—something may well have been lost in the transcription. Nevertheless, this simple pentatonic melody would come to the attention of a young Carl Maria von Weber, who, in the early autumn of 1803, had traveled to Vienna to study with Haydn. Due to the aging Haydn’s infirm condition, Weber ended up working with Georg Joseph Vogler—a musician with a deep interest in Eastern music. And after discovering the air chinois in Rousseau’s Dictionary, Weber decided to use it in his incidental music to Carlo Gozzi’s play Turandot, the Princess of China, which had been a great success in the German-speaking world in Friedrich Schiller’s translation.

In those days, composers regularly gazed eastward, eager to incorporate foreign colors in their work. Mozart, for example, had used Turkish motifs in his opera The Abduction From the Seraglio and his Violin Concerto No. 5. Weber’s Turandot, however, which premiered in 1809, may be the first instance of a Western composer’s use of a Chinese tune. The air chinois is heard at the start of the Overture, played by the flute over a rhythmic percussion accompaniment, before the orchestra takes up the theme in charming, lively fashion. It’s all very tuneful and rousing, and the melody does sound Eastern, though the pentatonic melody, comprised of the five notes D, E, G, A, and B, includes one curiosity: an F natural in the third measure. The note sounds exotic and might well have led Weber to characterize the entire melody as “strange” and “bizarre.” It turns out that F natural was a mistake made by the printer of Rousseau’s Dictionary. Whether Weber knew about the error or not, he had no wish to “correct” it. Neither did the next composer to make splendid use of the air chinois, when he encountered it well over a century later.

In 1943, the German composer Paul Hindemith was living in America, having emigrated a few years before. He and his wife were fond of playing some four-hand piano pieces of Weber’s, and he had become interested, as well, in the incidental music to Turandot. These pieces made an appearance in what would turn out to be Hindemith’s most famous work, the Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, a virtuoso orchestral showpiece full of color, driving rhythms, and harmonic invention. Soon after he completed it in August 1943, the work became a staple of symphonic programs. The air chinois appears in the second movement, a scherzo that begins (a la Turandot) with the flute playing the melody; then, the orchestra takes up the theme and puts it through a series of swirling variations. The air must have insinuated itself deep inside Hindemith’s psyche, for the movement sounds almost like a frenetic obsession, wild and propulsive and manic, with the momentum interrupted only by a jazzy brass interlude. The sonorities are seductive, with the glockenspiel prominent, as are the harmonies, which (not surprisingly) go far beyond what Weber could have imagined. Rousseau, too. As the great philosopher sat at his desk on December 20, 1764, putting the last touches on his Dictionary, how could he have possibly dreamed up so wild a spectacle based on that simple Chinese air?


Listen to Lawrence Foster conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the Overture to Weber’s Turandot:

And listen to George Szell lead the Cleveland Orchestra in the scherzo from Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber:

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