Salman Rushdie’s recent novel “The Enchantress of Florence” juxtaposes the opulent Mughal darbar of Emperor Akbar “the Great” in Fatehpur Sikri with the splendid court of the Medici dynasty in Florence, Italy. Much of its allure, unravelled in Rushdie’s inimitable style, derives from the seemingly unlikely frisson between East and West.
A manuscript of a flute concerto (nicknamed Il Gran Mogol) written by Vivaldi
was unearthed in Scotland earlier this year, bringing the links between these two parts of the world back into focus.
When Antonio Vivaldi was born, in 1678, the Mughals had held sway over the exotic land of India, or Hindustan, for over a century. A hundred and fifty-two years, to be exact, if one starts the clock of the Mughal dynasty from the First battle of Panipat in 1526, in which Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur (better known just as Babur) overthrew the last of the Delhi Sultans, Ibrahim Shah Lodi. Incidentally, Babur claimed (truthfully) descent from both, Genghis Khan and Timur the Lame (Tamerlane). So perhaps it is not surprising that he should follow the “family business” of war and conquest, to put it very mildly.
The very term Mughal is a corruption of “Mongol”, indicating their original homeland in the steppes of central Asia.
Back to Vivaldi: in Vivaldi’s lifetime, the Mughal throne was occupied by Aurangzeb, who achieved the paradox of stretching the boundaries of the Mughal empire to its greatest extent, the very fact that would lead to unwieldiness in its administration and its eventual decay and ruin. By the year of Vivaldi’s death in 1741, a series (no less than eight) of weak successors to Aurangzeb had reigned over the crumbling empire, while the British star in India was in the ascendant.
So why on earth would Vivaldi title one of his flute concertos ‘Il gran Mogol’, ostensibly in homage to one of the great Mughal emperors that ruled an empire half a world away, perhaps before his own lifetime?
Well, it is believed that Vivaldi wrote it in honour of a Venetian merchant with connections to the Mughal court. Was it a contemporary merchant, from Vivaldi’s own time? If so, the only Emperor befitting the title Il Gran Mogul would have to be Aurangzeb. We do know that a violin concerto in D major (RV 208) written by Vivaldi in the 1720s was nicknamed Il Grosso Mogul, and was allegedly inspired by Akbar’s reign. J. S. Bach later arranged this work for organ.
The title could just have more to do with slick marketing, capitalising on the exoticism of the Orient, and the grandiose rumours of unsurpassed wealth and splendour that trickled across the Silk Route and the high seas.
This newly-discovered flute concerto, a set of four ‘national’ concertos (the others being La Franca, La Spagna and L’ Inghilterro) had been long considered lost. It is referred to in the sale catalogue of an 18th-century Dutch bookseller. Hopefully the other concertos will surface soon enough, just like this one.
The story of Il Gran Mogol’s discovery is an interesting one. It was found by researcher Andrew Woolley among papers in the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh.
How did it get there? It is thought that it could have been the property of Scottish nobleman Lord Robert Kerr, flautist, who must have acquired it on a Grand Tour of continental Europe in the early 1700s. Lord Kerr was killed in the battle of Culloden in 1746.
It is possible that during his Grand Tour, Lord Kerr actually attended a concert at the Ospedale Della Pietà, a foundation for orphaned and illegitimate girls in Venice, where Vivaldi taught. Performances at the Pietà by the impressive orchestra (who played behind grilles to protect the modesty of the girls) were a major draw for foreign visitors to the city.
Male visitors particularly seemed to relish the “forbidden fruit” aspect of the whole experience, allowing their imagination to run riot. Rousseau is believed to have said: ‘I can think of nothing as voluptuous or as moving as this music. What grieved me were those accursed grilles, which allowed only tones to come through and concealed the angels of loveliness of whom they were worthy.’
Perhaps a similar experience prompted Lord Kerr to purchase this manuscript. Was it an impulsive tourist souvenir buy, or was he a more discerning customer, given that he was a flautist, and wished to study and perform it himself?
The world “premiere” of the work will be performed in Perth Concert Hall, Scotland, on 26 January 2010, featuring Katy Bircher as soloist and La Serenissima will be led by Southampton research fellow and violinist Adrian Chandler.