Western Europe has never been comfortable with its debt to the Orient, and especially to the Muslim world. In view of over a thousand years of religious conflict, commercial rivalry, racial prejudice, and mutual incomprehension, this is hardly surprising. But perhaps the real reason is simply that the debt was too huge to be acknowledged. For the simple fact is that, until about six hundred years ago, the European peninsula was little more than a cultural colony of Asia.
The colonization came in two waves. The first, lasting very roughly from 600 BC to AD 400, imposed on Western Europe an essentially east Mediterranean culture, including of course a Semitic alphabet and a Semitic religion. The second, which began, equally roughly, about 800, came from the then much more advanced Islamic world, and affected every aspect of European life, until it at last subsided about the time of the Italian Renaissance. There was, however, at least one art on which Near Eastern culture continued to impinge for several more centuries, and this was music.
'It is a very singular species of music, as wild in modulation, and as different from that of all the rest of Europe as the Scots, and is, perhaps, as ancient, being among the common people merely traditional.' That is Charles Burney on the Neapolitan street singing of 1770.1 He is clearly describing the near-Arab idiom current till well into the twentieth century over most of southern Italy. Yet Naples was also one of the great centres of Italian opera, and Burney further remarks that in the operative style of singing 'there is an energy and fire, not to be met with perhaps elsewhere in the whole universe: it is so ardent as to border upon fury…'.2 He might be talking about Spanish flamenco singing.
Nor was Naples the only eighteenth-century city where cultivated Western music flourished against a background of semi-Oriental popular music. Among the others were Venice (the second centre of Italian opera), Madrid (where Domenico Scarlatti settled), and, most important of all, Vienna.
1Dr Burney's Musical Tours in Europe, i: An Eighteenth-Century Musical Tour in France and Italy, 254.
2 Ibid. 285.