x. MUSICAL WORKS BASED ON THE RUBAIYAT
The enduring popularity of the verses that make up the Rubaiyat (robāʾiyāt) of Omar Khayyam (ʿOmar Ḵayyām), both in the original Persian and in translation, is reflected in the substantial number of musical works that have been inspired by this work. Many other poets have also stimulated the creation of musical compositions: Shakespeare has been a perennial favorite for composers in the West, and other poets, including many nineteenth century poets such as Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92) have been frequently set to music (Gooch and Thatcher 1979, pp. 509-629; 1982, pp. 43-177). But given the comparative brevity of the Rubaiyat , no more than 110 verses in the longest version by Edward FitzGerald (1809-83), it is remarkable that well over 150 composers have used this single work as their source of inspiration (Martin and Mason, 2007b).
The variety of music that has been created in response to the Rubaiyat is considerable. The works include modern popular music, as well as classical music from the late 19th century onwards. Most compositions involve either the setting of words from the Rubaiyat , frequently in English and from one of FitzGerald’s versions, or a parallel narration of the verses. But there are also film scores, orchestral works and simple piano pieces, as well as jazz suites and pop records (Coumans, pp. 2-4; Garrard, pp. 224-28). Although much of the music originates in the West, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States, there are works by a number of composers from Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East, including Iran.
In Iran, there is a long established tradition of declaiming or singing verses from major poets with musical accompaniment (During et al, pp. 153-61; Yarshater, pp. 59-78). The ghazals of Hafez, Sa ʿdi and Rumi have been perennial favorites in this respect. As far as the Rubaiyat are concerned, we do not know of any specific artists or performances whose music for the Rubaiyat was scored or recorded in earlier decades of the 20th century. There is, however, a well-known recording from the 1970’s, still available from the Mahoor Institute, of the original Persian text with music by Fereydun Šahbāziān, recitations by Aḥmad Šāmlu (Shamlu) and vocals by Moḥammad-Reżā Šajariān (Shajarian, FIGURE 1). Verses from the Rubaiyat have also been included, together with works of other major Iranian poets, in ‘Ascension,’ a composition by Dr. Kāmbiz Rošan-Ravān, issued on CD by Technoor in 2002.
The impact of FitzGerald’s translation. Western interest in music for the Rubaiyat dates from the late 19th century when FitzGerald’s translation (first published in 1859) began to gain in popularity (Martin and Mason, 2007a, pp. 7-8). The earliest known setting of a selection of these verses, and one that became very popular in the early part of the 20th century, was by the celebrated English singer and composer Liza Lehmann (1862-1918). In 1896 she created a song cycle, ‘In a Persian garden,’ for four soloists and piano (FIGURE 2), using thirty-one quatrains from FitzGerald’s versions of the Rubaiyat (Garrard, pp. 224-25). Some of the songs in this work became very well known, notably the one entitled ‘Ah, moon of my delight!’ which was sung by the American tenor Mario Lanza (1921-1959) among others. The whole work has also been recorded, most recently by the Cantabile Vocal Quartet, on a CD issued by Quattro Voci Records in 2000.
Lehmann’s setting of verses from FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat was followed by a steady flow of works by other composers. Almost every year from 1900 to 1940, some work or other based on the Rubaiyat was produced in the United States or Europe (Martin and Mason, 2007b). Many compositions were straightforward settings of one or more verses for voice(s), with accompaniment from piano or a chamber ensemble. Some of these works fall into the category of popular or drawing-room ballads, which were much in demand in the early years of the 20th century. Others are more in the nature of the ‘art song’ (Northcote, pp. 96-97). They include works by composers such as Roger Quilter (1877-1953), who wrote a setting of verses from the Rubaiyat for unaccompanied voices in 1902. Vivian Ellis (1904-1996), an English composer of musicals, set three songs from the Rubaiyat for voice and piano in 1921. Some musicians from the rest of Europe were also active in the field; for example, a French composer, Jean Cras (1879-1932), composed a setting of five quatrains for voice and piano in 1925, while, in the Netherlands around 1916, the musician Willem Smalt made a setting for ‘a cappella’ choir of some quatrains in the Dutch translation by P. C. Boutens.
Not all the works based on the Rubaiyat in the first half of the 20th century were small-scale pieces. Probably the best-known large-scale work of this period is Sir Granville Bantock’s composition ‘Omar Khayyam’ for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Bantock (1868-1946) was an English composer and conductor, most of whose works were substantial compositions, and his ‘Omar Khayyam’ is no exception. It is a three-part work, setting all the 101 quatrains from FitzGerald’s fifth edition, and it lasts nearly 3 hours in performance (FIGURE 3). Bantock composed the ‘oratorio’ in the period 1906-09, and it was first performed in this period in separate parts with the composer conducting (Foreman, pp. 10-11). The complete work has been broadcast and recorded a number of times in Britain; the most recent recording is from 2007 by Chandos with the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley.
A limited number of other composers produced orchestral works based on the Rubaiyat in the years before the Second World War. The American Arthur Foote (1853-1937) created an orchestral suite, ‘Four Character Pieces after the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ in 1912, based on an earlier work for voice and piano. Charles Cadman (1881-1946), another American, was commissioned to create a musical score for a silent film about Omar Khayyam, finally issued as ‘A Lover’s Oath’ in 1925. Cadman’s music for orchestra was published as ‘Oriental Rhapsody’ in 1921. In 1917, Henry Houseley (1851-1925) published a cantata for soloists, chorus and orchestra, entitled ‘Omar Khayyam’. A little later, in 1924, the Swiss composer, Robert Blum (1900-1994), gave his first symphony, with baritone soloist, the appellation ‘Omar Khayyam’. Most of these works seem now to have vanished from the performing repertoire. But the Arthur Foote suite was included in a record issued by the US Library of Congress in the 1980’s.
World-wide interest in the modern period . Rubaiyat based compositions from countries other than the UK or the USA were relatively few in number before the first world war. They increased gradually in the inter-war years, and more especially in the second half of the 20th century (Martin and Mason, 2007b). This period has seen the creation of song settings from Rubaiyat verses in languages ranging from Dutch to Russian and from Finnish to Portuguese. An Uzbek musician, Firus Bachor (b. 1942), composed an opera on the Omar Khayyam theme in the 1990’s. There has also been a regular flow of compositions using verses by FitzGerald in English. Quite a number of pop musicians from different countries have found inspiration from the Rubaiyat , while Khayyam and FitzGerald have been an influence both in the emerging sectors of world music, and in music used in Western explorations of mysticism based on Eastern thought.
The more classical formats of song settings have remained the most common forms of composition. Some of the major names among modern composers have put words from the Rubaiyat to music. Alan Hovhannes (1911-2000) created a major work, ‘The Rubaiyat , A Musical Setting’ for narrator and orchestra in 1975, which has been twice recorded. The 1945 setting by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) of two quatrains in English for ‘a cappella’ of voices was included in a recording in 1998. In 1959, a verse from the Rubaiyat in its Persian original was included in the composition, ‘Strophes’, by Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933). This too has been recorded subsequently. A Dutch composer, Lex van Delden (1919-1988), won the music prize of the City of Amsterdam in 1948 for his Rubaiyat cantata, a setting for solo voices, chorus, two pianos and percussion.
Two further films about Omar Khayyam have had original musical scores. The music for the first of these films, ‘The Life, Loves and Adventures of Omar Khayyam,’ which starred Cornel Wilde and appeared in 1957, was the last film score to be created by the American composer Victor Young (1899-1956). The film including its music was recorded on video. More recently, the film ‘The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam,’ was released in 2005 with music mainly by Elton (Farrokh) Ahi. The complete work is available on DVD.
The influence of the Rubaiyat is also to be seen in a range of modern pop music, including jazz, folk, soul and rock and roll. Key names that have been documented by Coumans (pp. 3-4) are: the jazz musician, Dorothy Ashby; the American folk singer, Woody Guthrie; soul musicians, Allan Toussaint and Willie Harper. The rock and roll singer, Van Morrison included a mention of Omar Khayyam in one of his recorded lyrics (Rave on John Donne). More recently, texts from the Rubaiyat have been identified in works by pop artists such as Coldcut, In the Nursery, and David Olney, while the Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby was reissued on CD by Dusty Groove America in 2007 (FIGURE 4). Looking further afield, the Egyptian singer Om Kolthoum (1904-75, Omm Kolṯum) both performed and recorded songs in Arabic based on the Rubaiyat (Garrard, p. 227). In the field of world music, an Italian group Milagro Acustico, and a French one led by Abed Azrie, have each combined Rubaiyat texts in various languages with Eastern and Western instrumentation. The American-Iranian group, Axiom of Choice produced, in 2002, a vocal-instrumental recording subtitled ‘A Trans-Global Exploration of Omar Khayyam’s Mystical Vision’. This followed the production in the middle 1990’s of two compact discs by Clarity Sound and Light, with instrumental music by J. Donald Walters that was inspired by the Rubaiyat ; one recording is described as ‘a Persian fantasy for sitar and tabla’, the other is ‘a musical journey into the inner world of Omar Khayyam’s mystical love-poem’.
It is clear that the name of Omar Khayyam and his Rubaiyat lives on into the 21st century through these musical forms, as well as in the continued publication of the poem in book form (Martin and Mason, 2007a, pp. 29-30). Some of the musical interpretations, from earlier periods as well as modern times, may not resonate very closely with the original Persian verses, or their original worldview. But the existence of Rubaiyat -based music, and particularly the recording and distribution of such music on a world-wide basis, has brought awareness of the medieval Persian poet and his Victorian English interpreter to a much wider audience than might otherwise have been the case.
J. Coumans, “Omar Khayyam: master of the show,” (the article itself is in Dutch) in Omariana, Bulletin van het Nederlands Omar Khayyam Genootschap 4/1, Voorjaar 2001, also available online (search on: Coumans).
J. During et al., The Art of Persian Music , Washington, D.C., 1991.
L. Foreman, Bantock, “Omar Khayyam,” in “Vernon Handley conducts Bantock’s Omar Khayyam,” Chandos 2007, Booklet accompanying compact discs CHSA 5051(3).
G. Garrard, A Book of Verse: The Biography of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam , Stroud, U.K., 2007.
B. N. S. Gooch and D. S. Thatcher, Musical Settings of Early and Mid-Victorian Literature: A Catalogue , New York and London, 1979.
B. N. S. Gooch and D. S. Thatcher, Musical Settings of British Romantic Literature: A Catalogue , 2 vols., New York and London, 1982.
W. H. Martin and S. Mason, The Art of Omar Khayyam: Illustrating FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat , London, 2007a.
W. H. Martin and S. Mason, The music of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam , unpublished database, 2007b.
S. Northcote, Byrd to Britten: A Survey of English Song , London, 1966.
S. Sadie and J Tyrrell, eds., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians , 2nd ed., London, 2001; accessible on the internet (by subscription) at Grove Music Online, www.grovemusic.com.
E. Yarshater, “Affinities between Persian Poetry and Music,” in P. Chelkowski, ed., Studies in Art and Literature of the Near East in honor of Richard Ettinghausen , New York, 1974, pp. 59-78.
July 1, 2009
(William H. Martin and Sandra Mason)
Originally Published: July 15, 2009
Last Updated: July 15, 2009