Sidebar Pieces

 Sidebar Program Note (Various word lengths)
~A Sidebar is information relevant to the concert program, but not the “notes,” per se.  They’re often set into the margin, but can be, such as this example below (written for a production of Äida) used as a 2-page insert.~

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Egyptomania, Äida and Trumpets

Sometimes creative genius presages scientific discovery.  Such, indeed, was the case for one of Verdi’s most remarkable musical inventions in Äida.

When Napoleon and his armies invaded Egyptin 1798, preoccupation with all things Egyptescalated into a near obsession throughout Europe and the Americas.  By the middle of the 19th Century, Egyptomania was further inspired by some extraordinary discoveries by the French Egyptologist and archaeologist, Edouard Mariette, including theTemple ofSerapis and the tombs of the Apis Bulls atMemphis.

It was Mariette’s story of Äida that Verdi set in his famous opera for the Cairo Opera House, and it was Mariette who created the historically accurate sets and costumes for theCairoproduction (which remain famous in the annals of opera).  And it was Mariette, in part, who advised Verdi on ancient Egyptian music.  Verdi himself was committed to the historical integrity of this antiquarian story and the results of his research clearly give the opera an exotic sound.  He wrote several passages in modal, or ancient, key signatures and scored them for harps and “ancient sounding” flutes.  The most identifiable example of this is the Sacred Dance in Act II (which mingles with the Triumphal March), where two of the usual scalar pitches are flattened, giving the melody a burnished, archaic quality.   Verdi also scored comparable scenes of sacred chant for chorus using similar melodic devices, where brass and strings drone below voices which chant exotically high above (Act I, Scene 2, for example).

The most notorious of his musical history inventions is Verdi’s design of authentic herald trumpets for the beloved Triumphal March in Act II.  Two sets of straight, one-valved trumpets lead this exquisite march as Radames returns victorious from Ethiopia, one set pitched in A-flat, and the second pitched in B for the powerful modulation to come.  The composer created the instruments and imagined their sound based on Mariette’s suggestions, but as Verdi had earlier declared, while copying reality was good (such that anyone could of ancient Egypt), inventing a reality was even better.  Ultimately, Verdi’s musical depiction of Äida’s ancient music was his own “Egyptian sound.”

A delicious coincidence regarding Verdi’s invented “Egyptian sound” occurred, however, decades later when the British archaeologist Howard Carter unearthed the undisturbed tomb of the boy-Pharaoh Tutankhuman.  Two ceremonial trumpets were discovered there which were pitched in roughly the same keys, and produced the same unique overtones, as Verdi’s Äida trumpets.  That Life imitates opera would have pleased Verdi to no end.