In 1817 the Irish writer Thomas Moore published his bestselling epic book: Lalla Rookh. Hundred years later George L’Estrange —a now totally forgotten composer— wrote a sentimental and unremarkable waltz of the same name. This L’Estrange was not the first who got inspired by Moore’s Oriental romance. From the start Lalla Rookh roused the romantic imaginations of several artists.
Moore’s tale narrates how the beautiful Lalla Rookh, daughter of the Mughal Emperor, travels from Delhi to meet —for the first time— her fiancé, the king of Bukhara (in what is now Uzbekistan). She is accompanied by Fadladeen, a self-righteous, obnoxious chamberlain and also by the handsome minstrel Feramorz, who distracts her from the long journey by telling her charming stories. Predictably, the princess falls in love with the young poet and dreads the moment she will have to face her royal betrothed. In the end the amiable storyteller appears to be none other than the king who had wanted to know if Lalla Rookh would love him for his own merit rather than for his wealth. All’s well that ends well.
It was Lord Byron who had advised his very good friend and literary rival Thomas Moore to try Orientalism. He in turn was tipped off by Madame de Staël, a French-Swiss writer and influencer avant la lettre. Byron wrote to Moore in 1813: “Stick to the East. The oracle, Staël, told me it was the only poetic policy. The North, South, and West have all been exhausted…”.
Moore had never travelled to the East and thus spent six years of extensive research to come up with his armchair traveller’s view of the Orient. But it was time well spent —and sound advice from Byron— that earned Moore a princely sum of money.
Byron also had orientalist ambitions and had by then already travelled to the east. In 1810, while in Greece, Byron wrote the poem Maid of Athens, which has been set to music by numerous composers. On the cover above we recognise Byron and Theresa Makri, the daughter of his landlord in Athens. Theresa was twelve years old when Byron (he was twenty-two at the time) fell head over heels in love with her. Reportedly he offered £500 for her hand in marriage. The offer was rejected. Byron wrote the girl a poem, and set to his new destination, Constantinople.
Félicien David, a French pioneer of musical Orientalism, was another composer excited by Lalla Rookh‘s fairy-tale plot. In his opéra comique Lalla Roukh the heroin kept her phonetic name, but the poet/king Feramorz became Noureddin. Lalla-Roukh is also accompanied by her servant Mirza and by Baskir (Fadladeen in Moore’s version), the pompous, critical and conniving chamberlain.
Contrary to Thomas Moore, Félicien David did travel to the Orient. He even had a specially reinforced piano built to withstand the heat and long journeys. With this small piano that could almost be slung over the shoulder, he travelled to the Middle-East, Algeria and Egypt. He stayed for two years in Cairo where he gave music lessons and explored the desert. These years were decisive for the Orientalist character of his musical work.
David returned to France where his Lalla Roukh was first performed to huge acclaim in 1862 and would remain popular till the end of the century. It was the catalyst for an explosion of operas set in the ‘Exotic East’.
David’s Lalla Roukh was almost forgotten, but was revived in 2014 by Opera Lafayette in Washington DC. Enjoy an excerpt of their production with a classical Indian dance.
The story of Lalla Rookh also found its way in popular culture. Kate Vaughan, allegedly the first woman to flash her petticoats, also inventor of the skirt dance, had a vaudeville act as Lalla Rookh in the London Novelty Theatre during the 1880s.
In the United States showman Adam Forepaugh presented in 1880 a street pageant Lalla Rookh’s departure from Delhi. Atop of an elephant sat the most beautiful woman in the world, for which title she had been awarded ten thousand dollars. Curiously, it was not the beauty queen who was named Lalla Rookh but the elephant.