The Well-Tempered Ear

In protests and peace, Western classical music has links to Egypt — but can you help me find which pieces? | January 31, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Like so many others these days, I find my thoughts turning to the turmoil in Egypt.

It takes a lot of courage to stand up to such powerful and longstanding authority.

I don’t know where all the turmoil in Egypt is going to lead, though I have my suspicions that some kind of democratic success will be achieved.

I just hope it isn’t replaced by some extremist or fundamentalist Islamist regime. But if that is what the people want, then that is probably what they will get. And we will have to deal with it from there.

So what music would I dedicate to those people trying to find a way to self-determination?

Were I to play music for all those citizens putting themselves on the line for democracy, I would probably choose something by Beethoven – that most of democratic of composers. My guess is probably the “Eroica” Symphony would be the piece.

Another work that comes to mind is Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, in which he makes the case for musicians to be treated fairly as workers at the Esterhazy court – and wins.

But I am interested to hear what other pieces readers would dedicate to the Egyptian protesters – and protesters in other countries, especially Arab countries, right now.

So, the Hot Line is open: Let me know what pieces of Western classical music would you dedicate to inspire such action and events?

Along similar lines, I got to thinking about all the times that Western classical music has turned to Egypt for inspiration.

There is the hauntingly lovely and dramatic Piano Concerto No. 5 (“The Egyption”) by Camille Saint-Saens (below) as well Verdi’s opera “Aida” (bottom).

There is Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt” and Johann Strauss’ “The Egyptian March.” Both Ottorino Respighi and John Harbison composed “The Flight Into Egypt.”

I keep thinking Debussy did something about Egypt but I can’t recall what.

So readers, please fill me on various pieces of Western classical music inspired by Egypt and provide links to YouTube performances, if you can.

Now seems the right time.

And The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. ballinnnnnnn’

    Comment by chad wardenn — November 14, 2017 @ 4:22 am

  2. Jake: For the quiet hours of the early-morning shift among the public protesters in Egypt, may I suggest Vaughan Williams’ piece “The Lark Ascending,” based on a poem by George Meredith.

    The poem (easily found on the Web) is a very tedious and over-long Victorian text, but it does contain some relevant lines to the situation in Egypt; e.g., the following one about the single lark’s piercing song capturing the upward yearnings of humankind (consider the parallel to a gospel song sung by Mahalia Jackson) —

    “The voice of one for millions,
    In whom the millions rejoice
    For giving their one spirit voice.”

    ~ Fred

    Comment by Fred Meyer — January 31, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

    • Hi Fred,
      Another interesting and unusual but fitting choice. I like the piece a lot.
      But I especially love that you think of the early-morning shift of the protesters — a time of the day and in a struggle when hope, like the lark, can soar — or be grounded and dashed.
      As always, thanks for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 31, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

  3. For me, the numerous setting of A. E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad” add poignancy to any event where young people are killed and the loss of their potential, energy and accomplishments seem, in the long run, unnecessary and unfathomable.

    Originally written as a response to the British involvement in the Boer War in the 1890s, Housman’s England was in a very similar situation to the one in which we Americans find ourselves. Leaders of an aging empire which is slowly losing power and sacrificing its young people in battle in a futile attempt to maintain what may be an already lost world prominence. There are too many parallels to even mention in this kind of format but they include massive changes in population, communication and environment along with shifts in the centers of economic and manufacturing power.

    Settings from this short book of poems are many and include composers John Duke, John Ireland, George Butterworth, Ivor Gurney, Arthur Somervelle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and many, many others.

    Comment by Paul Rowe — January 31, 2011 @ 10:20 am

    • Hi Paul,
      You offer another great and unexpected choice but quite a good one, judging by your comments and astute analysis.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 31, 2011 @ 11:39 am

  4. I certainly like these choices here–you can’t go wrong with the “Farewell” Symphony and “Eroica”. Though I don’t believe in meddling in foreign affairs much, I do hope that the people of Egypt, (and the whole of the Middle East, I suppose), find peace soon.

    With that, I would say Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei” would be an appropriate addition to the list. Musically, it begins slow and thoughtful, almost sad and hollow, but turns in to something hopeful in the end. But beyond that, it is a Hebrew prayer said on the eve of Yom Kippur.

    Whatever the case, our thoughts are with the Middle East!

    Comment by Hannah J. — January 31, 2011 @ 6:22 am

    • Hi Hannah,
      What a terrific and unusual or unexpected choice.
      But it is perfectly in keeping with a Muslim Arab country that is the only one to have signed a peace treaty with Israel — and that a deserves a peace of its own with its own citizens..
      Let’s see what others think.
      Thanks for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 31, 2011 @ 8:30 am

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