In Honor of Prince Cantemir – Lou Harrison

January 12th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

The late Lou Harrison was known for his interest in non-Western musical traditions, but his own music is rather selective in its susceptibility to “exotic” influences: it has very marked predilections and is anything but a bland multicultural hodge-podge. I had not known, however, about this piece, or that his interests extended to Cantemir and Ottoman music. It makes sense, though; he was always a melodist above all, and loved the kinds of elaborate, sinuous, metrically complex, and intonationally subtle melodies characteristic of the whole makam tradition, the kind that some say (he would have said) have been lost or made impossible in Western classical music through its obsession with harmony.

Dimitrie Cantemir (1673-1723) himself was a fascinating figure, bound to appeal to anyone interested in the crossing, or blurring, of cultural boundaries. His father was Prince of Moldavia, a position that he himself briefly held twice during his lifetime. The bulk of it was spent in exile, first at the Ottoman court, which had at the time a certain cultural openness to counterbalance its intolerance of local autonomy (Moldavia was then under Ottoman rule), and later, after taking Peter the Great’s side in the Russo-Turkish war, in Russia.

He was a polymath and knew many languages, Latin and Greek as well as Turkish, Romanian, Russian and a half-dozen others, and wrote books in several. The work for which he was best known in the West was a history of the Ottoman empire, written in Latin. He wrote what is considered the first novel in Romanian. But it is for his musical work that he is mostly remembered in Turkey. He wrote a famous theoretical treatise on music, composed a number of pieces of his own, and invented a notation that preserved not only them, but hundreds of other pieces of Ottoman court music for posterity.

His children were notable figures in Russian history. Maria, his daughter, was a great beauty, courted by Peter the Great himself, by whom she reportedly had a child, and Antioch, his son, who shared his father’s broad education and skill in languages, had an important influence on the development of Russian poetry, both through his verse satires and in his contribution to the understanding and practice of Russian versification. He spent time in London and Paris as a diplomat, and his contacts there no doubt contributed to his father’s fame as a historian.

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