The year before I Lombardi, Glinka had shown his fellow-Russians how to portray the mysterious East. Slowly his example was to filter through into the rest of Europe; and by the time of Aida the East was comfortably within Verdi's reach - but not yet. There is little to distinguish the idiom of Asians from that of the Crusaders apart from choppy rhythms, tonic pedals and an emphasis on the Neapolitan sixth - devices which, typically, recur in Aida as 'orientalisms', though of course enhanced by a far more subtle and sophisticated technique.1
TO EXPOSE THE ABSENCE of oriental colour in Verdi's I lombardi, Julian Budden invokes the foil of Ruslan and Lyudmila. What Budden means to say, perhaps, is that Glinka showed his fellow Russians how to portray 'the mysterious East' in a novel way, for they had long been familiar with Franco-German approaches to the topic. The first opeéra comique had been staged in St Petersburg in 1764, and one imagines that Boïeldieu's eight-year sojourn in that city would have popularised the 'janissarity' of Le Calife de Bagdad, a sub-idiom known in any case from Mozart's Piano Sonata K.331 and Die Entfürung aus dem Serail. So the 'mysterious East', rather less mysterious for being a part of the larger Russian west, both topographical and cultural, was in some respects a known quantity in 1842 - as known a quantity as the musical heritage that had blown into the country when Peter the Great flung wide its west-facing windows. In those early days, no doubt, such 'occidentalisms' as rigaudons and minuets, not to mention keys with sharpened leading notes (Tchaikovsky decried the fact that the folk songs Tolstoy gave him had been Procrustified into D major) - such things would no doubt have seemed as piquant to Russian ears as janissary tinklings to European.
But when the early composers of art music east of the Neva began to fashion themselves in the image of the west, they specifically chose the image of Italy - or so one can argue from Bortyansky's decision to serve his apprenticeship in that country. Thereby hangs a tale, perhaps, for the Italians were, for a century and a half, largely indifferent to the issue of regionalism (under which are included melodic habits of the Arabian 'east', whether mysterious or not). There is a marked the lack of Scottish colour in Lucia di Lammermoor, whereas even a minor Dane such as Lovenskjold could lace his Sylfiden with reels and strathspeys, and Boieldieu at least tried, in his pale Gallic way, to Caledonise the melodies of La Dame blanche. Budden is right on the money when he suggests that the Verdi's zingaresco functioned as an all-purpose signifier of the other, whether the Muslims in I lombardi or the native Americans in Alzira:
But in general the Orientals of I Lombardi are merely the conventional operatic gypsies, while the incursion of the banda at the word 'Giuriam' with a motif recalling the men's narrative in Act I brings them firmly back to the piazza of Busseto.2
That allusion to Verdi's home piazza will also remind us that the dominance of opera stifled a viable concert tradition, causing its academic music to seek out the salon, where it was rendered light and bloodless by politesse; while at the other extreme, the blaring municipal band became a powerhouse of the popolaresco (that distinguishing 'note' of the primo ottocento).
A rather different situation obtained to the north of the Alps, however, and had obtained there for decades: three distinct layers to choose from in the chocolate box of style. Beethoven, while he developed sonata form in directions that nobody before or since has been able to match, could also splash on the Turkish colour in The ruins of Athens and, situated on the further side of Neva, use the Razumovsky quartets to showcase a different strain of folksiness from the Ländler and Styrienne of his native 'Germania'. So too Haydn before him, an accomplished symphonist, but partial at the same time to the Verbunkos of the Hungarian steppe, and so too Mozart, symphonic master, author of Die Entfürung aus dem Serail, and purveyor of German and country dances - all three. …