Verdi – Egyptomania, Aida and Trumpets [sidepiece article]

by Max Derrickson

Egyptomania, Aida and Trumpets 

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

When Napoleon and his armies invaded Egyptian 1798, preoccupation with all things Egypt escalated 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 the Temple of Serapis and the tombs of the Apis Bulls at Memphis.

It was Mariette’s story of Aida 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 the Cairo production (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
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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 fromEthiopia, one set pitched in A-flat, and the second pitched in B for the powerful modulation to come.  The composer created the instruments
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Ultimately, Verdi’s musical depiction of Aida’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
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That Life imitates opera would have pleased Verdi to no end.