Category Archives: Motifs

Working with a musical motif 02: In a Persian Market

“The camel drivers gradually approach the market. The cries of beggars for “buksheesh” are heard amid the bustle. The beautiful princess enters carried by her servants. [In the original orchestration, she is represented by a languorous theme, given at first to clarinet and cello, then repeated by full orchestra.] She stays to watch the jugglers and snake charmer. The Caliph passes through the market and interrupts the entertainment. The beggars are heard again. The princess prepares to depart and the caravan resumes its journey. The themes of the princess and the camel drivers are heard faintly in the distance and the market-place becomes deserted.”

Source: Program notes from Ketelbey, Albert W. 1929. In a Persian Market: Intermezzo Scene (arranged for piano duet by the composer). London: Bosworth & Company.

Albert Ketelbey (1875 – 1959) was an English pianist, conductor and composer. In a Persian Market is a well-regarded example of his ‘program music’. With a narrative offered in program notes, (such as that in the example above) this is a type of art music that renders musically a story that goes beyond the musical composition itself.

The term ‘program music’ tends to be exclusively used within a European classical music tradition, and usually in reference to the ‘romantic music’ of the 19th Century during which the concept was popularized. Nineteenth Century Europe was a time not long after the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). A tentative peace had been negotiated, and as a consequence of war, the importance of nation states and (their) armies emerged. Nationalism became important. Along with nationalism, came an interest in folk tales and folklore as these could serve as a kind of unifying language.

Within this rise of European-wide nationalism-s, A.Ketelbey drew on folkloric themes for his own Anglo-centric compositions. Although he rarely travelled to the destinations he invoked in his music, he nevertheless reproduced ‘exotic’ ideas and circulated them replete with illustrations (of an Orientalist view) of ‘a Persian market.’

On the cover of the sheet music in question, there are drawn (in black on white) palm trees, and camels, and ‘Persian’ women carrying large baskets and jugs of water on their heads. There are small groups of men sitting around with their goods and seemingly negotiating trade. And of course, there are the obedient servant-boys minding docile camels, (although in my travels across Mongolia, I have yet to encounter even one such docile member of the Camelidae family.) The turbaned boys are ready-in-waiting and stare vacantly out into space. Surely this projected image (of passivity and servility) was modelled on the waiters and other domestic attendees of the British upper class in England at the time?

Edward W Said (1979) drew our attention to some of the implications of such romanticisation of the folkloric traditions and history of central Asian cultures by European artisans. In the push for modernity and nationalism, artisans in European countries used elements of their own vision of the ‘exotic’ ‘oriental’ in their depiction of the exotic (Middle) East. [Refer to: Said, E. W. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books]. Within such a historical landscape and the socio-politically situated Orientalist movement of the time, a popular market for exoticised program music (through the provision of additional narrative) may not only have been auspiced by the politically powerful, commissioned that is,  but through subsequent showcasing, its popularity would have been almost guaranteed.

How is all this connected to Mongolia? Well, the connection is personal rather than historical, although I do not dismiss the considerable power of narrative around big historicised events such as the rise of nation states, revolution and so forth. I was born and grew up in Australia. My perceptions, wherever I happen to be, will  in some ways always be through Australian eyes.

A.Ketelbey’s piano arrangement for four hands of the Intermezzo of In a Persian Market is one of my favourite works. I first came across it as a child when the sheet music, something of a luxury item in itself at the time, was given to me as an object of study and performance by my pianoforte teacher of many years, the wonderful Margriet Pendavingh (LRSM, Dip. Mus, ACMM (Amsterdam), MIMT). One of the highly-esteemed (and also intimidating) Australian and New Zealand Cultural Arts pianoforte examiners, she taught in one of the tiny studios at The Melba Conservatorium of Music at the old Albert Street premises in Melbourne. [Founded in 1901, the teaching of musical performance at the Melba Conservatorium only ceased recently. That was in 2008.]

The ‘Vienna Down-under’ era in Australia’s classical musical history had arrived (ABC broadcast: 8 January 2014). Like many cosmopolitan European foreigners who were migrating to Australia at the time, she chain-smoked cigarettes. She was Dutch. In her studio, there were lots of little decorative plates and packs of imported ginger cookies for her students. Generously proportioned, her uniform at “the Con.” was always the same: a tight-fitting luxurious cashmere sweater and slacks, decorated with a piece or two of expensive jewellery.

In her cramped, cluttered and very cosy little studio, there was one very small window. High up above the piano on the western wall, it allowed a glimmer of natural light to filter into the room. This was one of many such tutorial rooms on the ground floor of the Con’s Albert Street building.

Upstairs was reserved for monthly concerts, and the rooms of The Artists Society. In this one building, high art and its society, musicians and painters, were for many years co-located. And whilst the act of painting and talking about it is a relatively quiet affair, the making of music is not. To keep the noise of our musical imperfections contained and quarantined from merging into an un-civilised cacophony, every window on the ground floor of  this building was always kept closed.

The haze of my piano teacher’s cigarette smoke would hang in the air and inevitably waft through the many piles of manuscripts and out into the foyer through the small gap under her door. Other teachers also smoked. It was the 1960s and ‘tailor-made’ not hand-rolled cigarettes were fashionable.

In the well-appointed entrance foyer, with its grand chandeliers, ornate vases and paintings by up-and-coming Australian artists, I would sit on the bench waiting. I was not alone. It was Saturday morning. Whilst other children were outside playing, here I was, along with three or four other students, similarly pondering the implications of having, or not having done our piano (or violin, or singing) practice for the past week—and the consequences of our accumulation of merit (or otherwise) once we were behind the closed door of our own particular little room. Youngsters though we were, this was a very serious business indeed, given that parents and guardians were paying an absolute fortune for us to have private music lessons here. But I digress.

Returning to the subject of receiving the Intermezzo, I was thrilled. Not only was it to be my first duet to be performed with another student ‘upstairs’ in the performance hall of the Con, it would also be, through its pictures and exotic written narrative, my first visual (albeit imagined) encounter with another culture that was neither ‘European’ nor ‘white’.  It was 1968 in Australia, an era at the crest of what would become successive waves of migration to our, then seemingly, very distant shores. And so, working on a daily basis with the Intermezzo would be my first personal and tactile engagement with sonorous motifs, albeit imaged, of the wondrous East.

At the heart of this story are notions of childhood and children, and at times the unknowingly profound influence that we, as adults, can have on a child’s development. And so, on You Tube I offer an extemporisation for piano around one of the beautiful musical motifs in A.Ketelbey’s Intermezzo—The Princess Approaches. Although my words are purposeful, such extemporisation on a musical instrument requires a degree of spontaneity. Unlike blogging, this kind of playing  is ‘in the moment.’ There is no time to tinker!

Working with musical motif 02 – YOU TUBE video

Bactrian camels taking shelter from the blustery Gobi wind  behind some dilapidated socialist era storage sheds in late summer. Delgertsoght Sum, Dundgovi Aimag, Mongolia 4 September 2004. Photo: C.Pleteshner

© 2013-2018 CP in Mongolia. This post is licensed under the  Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Documents linked from this page may be subject to other restrictions.  Posted: 6 January 2014. Last updated: 29 October 2017.