Sunday, May 11, 2014

Book, opera, Bollywood: The strange journey of Lalla Rookh

Part 1 - The book: Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh

Thomas Moore was a 19th-century Irish balladeer and poet. Over the course of a long and colorful life he failed as an actor, playwright and impresario, but found success writing lyric poems as a self-styled modern-day Anacreon (he even became known as "Anacreon Moore"). Moore challenged Byron to a duel, later became his friend and literary executor, and then betrayed him by burning Byron's memoirs after his death because his surviving family considered them too shocking. Moore was an Irish patriot who was patronized by the British aristocracy, and later met (and performed for) George IV and Queen Victoria.

In 1817 Moore published Lalla Rookh, which was subtitled "An Oriental Romance" and set in Mughal India. Moore had never been to India; his wife was the daughter of an officer of the East India Company, but she was born and raised in England, and her father died when she was a child. More direct inspirations for Moore's poem were likely Byron's four Turkish Tales, published between 1813 and 1815; Moore's book contains four lengthy narrative poems set in India and Persia.

But Lalla Rookh is not, or not just, an Orientalist fantasy about the exotic East. For one thing, Moore included footnotes throughout the text and nearly 50 pages of scholarly notes at the end; he was clearly desirous of faithfully representing Indian, Persian, Central Asian and Arabic cultures. For another, perhaps seeing in India a fellow victim of British imperialism, he encoded commentary on the British suppression of Irish Catholic nationalism throughout Lalla Rookh.

Lalla Rookh ("Tulip-Cheek" in Persian, according to Moore's footnote), daughter of the Mughal Emperor Aurungzebe (whom we know as Aurangzeb), is pledged in marriage to Aliris, King of Bucharia (Bukhara, in what is now southern Uzbekistan; at the time in which the poem is set, the late 17th century, Bukhara was on the borders of both the Mughal Empire and the Persian Safavid Empire). The King sends a number of attendants to accompany Lalla Rookh's palanquin on the journey from Dehli to Cashmere (our Kashmir), where he will meet her and they will be married. Among the retinue is a young troubadour, Feramorz:
He was a youth about LALLA ROOKH's own age, and graceful as that idol of women, Crishna [Moore's footnote: "The Indian Apollo"],—such as he appears to their young imaginations, heroic, beautiful, breathing music from his very eyes, and exalting the religion of his worshippers into love. [1]
Feramorz beguiles the time (and the princess) with four songs, the texts of which are interspersed with the narrative of Lalla Rookh. It's in these song-poems that parallels arise to the situation of the Irish. In "The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan," the banner which once linked religion and political liberation becomes "the rallying sign of fraud and anarchy" [2]. In "Paradise and the Peri," the winged spirit of the title brings as a gift to heaven the last drop of blood shed by a hero resisting the invaders of his country, and is told by the angel guarding the gates of paradise that "Sweet is our welcome of the Brave / who die thus for their native Land" [3]. In "The Fire-Worshippers," Feramorz praises "the brave struggles of the Fire-Worshippers of Persia"--followers of "the old religion"--"against their Arab masters" [4]. "The old religion" was a term applied in England to Catholicism.

But despite the political commentary, Moore's book isn't subtitled "An Oriental Romance" for nothing. In the final poem, "The Light of the Haram," we turn from political and religious strife to "the reconcilement of a sort of lover's quarrel, which took place between [the Sultana Nourmahal] and the Emperor [Selim] during a Feast of Roses at Cashmere." [5] The lovers' quarrel is ended when Nourmahal performs a love song for Selim while veiled: "'Twas not the air, 'twas not the words, / But that deep magic in the chords / And in the lips that gave such power / As music knew not till that hour." [6]

The princess feels the same power drawing her love irrevocably towards Feramorz. But the end of her journey, and her marriage to the King, are approaching fast, and "...LALLA ROOKH saw no more of FERAMORZ. She now felt that her short dream of happiness was over, and that she had nothing but the recollection of its few blissful hours, like the one draught of sweet water that serves the camel across the wilderness, to be her heart's refreshment during the dreary waste of life that was before her." [7]

But in a dramatic reversal of the story of the Emperor Selim and the Sultana Nourmahal, when Lalla Rookh is brought to meet Aliris, she feels a shock of recognition: "It was FERAMORZ, himself, who stood before her! —FERAMORZ, was, himself, the Sovereign of Bucharia, who in this disguise had accompanied his young bride from Delhi, and having won her love as an humble minstrel, now amply deserved to enjoy it as a King." [8]

Moore's book was wildly popular, going through multiple editions in the space of a year, and continuing to be reprinted for decades afterward. (I own a miniature "Brilliant Edition" published by George Leavitt in New York, dated 1869 in pencil on one of the endpapers; it was recently purchased for $5 at Moe's Books.) Perhaps not surprisingly, given that many of Moore's poems were explicitly intended to be set to music, composers took inspiration from the story. But as the 19th century wore on, later interpreters tended to de-emphasize Moore's implicit criticisms of imperialism.

Robert Schumann created an oratorio from his own German translation of "Paradise and the Peri"; Gaspare Spontini and Anton Rubenstein also adapted the story. But the focus of the next part of this post will be the opera Lalla-Roukh by Félicien David (1862), which had been unperformed in its entirety for more than a century—until last year.

Next time: Part 2 - The opera: Félicien David's Lalla Roukh.

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