“Music is the universal language of mankind,” wrote Longfellow as he traveled in Europe in 1835. This observation has become a commonplace of our times, but like most of our commonplaces, it is a wish masquerading as a fact. The mathematical substructures of music are universal. Language is universal. So is the impulse to make patterns in sound. But the ideal of a universal music, of mutual comprehension wherever you go, is aural tourism, the soft wedge of a globalization that exploits the musical exchange rate.

Had Longfellow ventured beyond Spain, France, and Italy—to Greece and the Balkans, to Turkey and the Levant, to the Maghreb—he would have been lost in musical translation. The civilizational borderland between Europe and not-Europe, Christianity and Islam, has a blended musical aspect: the fixed-pitch lute and the fretless al-oud, the lands of counterpoint and chord changes and the lands of ostinato bass and microtones.

It is easier to establish a common musical language when the fire of intercultural antagonism has burnt out.

To identify a common vocabulary, Longfellow could have jumped a century forward, to the modal experiments of European modernism and Miles Davis and the contemporaneous infiltration of Western popular music into Eastern folk styles. Or he could have jumped several centuries backwards, to a time when the languages of European music, rather than Hunting the Snark of tonal harmony, were closer to the languages of non-European music. If Longfellow had listened to European music from the medieval period and the early Renaissance, he would have noticed similarities between the unmetered oud improvisation that introduces an Arabic song and the composed lute solo that introduces a galliard; or the European mode and the Arabic maqam; or the long-necked consanguinity of the double-strung Greek laouto and the Persian saz.

Last week, Jordi Savall, master and impresario of Baroque and early European music, convened the fourteenth “Festival Musique et Historique Pour un Dialogue Interculturel” at Fontfroide Abbey, in the foothills of the Pyrenees near Narbonne. The location possesses both a long-sedimented history and a certain neutrality. This corner of France was ruled by the Romans, Goths, Arabs, Catalans, and French; a section of the Via Domitia, the artery linking Rome to its Gallic and Spanish provinces, is exposed in the city square at Narbonne.

Fontfroide Abbey might be Europe’s oldest arts center. Founded as a Cistercian monastery in 1093, dissolved in the French Revolution, then refounded in 1858 and redissolved in 1903, the abbey was bought in 1908 by the artists Gustave and Madeleine Fayet to prevent its dilapidation by an American collector. The Fayets invited their friends to their shrine, including Odilon Redon, who left some gauzily spiritual murals. The religion of art is a European invention, created from the liberation and decline of the art of religion. It is easier to establish a common musical language when the fire of intercultural antagonism has burnt out.

Jordi Savall, the creator of Orpheus XXI and Hespèrion XXI, plays the fixed-pitch viola da gamba. Photo: Hervé Pouyfourcat.

The opening concerts by Orpheus XXI and Hespèrion XXI were a superb and honest demonstration of commonalities and divergences. On Monday night, the eight-piece of Orpheus XXI—Kurds, Syrians, Persians, an Armenian, and a Bulgarian—played the keening exile music of Les Voix Lontaines (Distant Voices) in the moonlit courtyard of the abbey. On Tuesday night, Savall’s massed consort, Hespèrion XXI, delivered a triumphal sonic biography of Leonardo da Vinci in the abbey’s high-vaulted church. The points of contact were audible but distinct.

Savall created Orpheus XXI in response to Europe’s migrant crisis. Its leaders—the oud-player and singer Waed Bouhassan, and Moslem Rahal, who plays the recorder-like ney—are from what used to be Syria. To begin the evening, a scratching single note on the kanun from the Bulgarian Georgi Dimitrov, then Bouhassan’s warm contralto, and next the Iranian singer Mojtaba Fasihi, born in Isfahan and now living in Germany. Instrument by instrument, the ensemble introduced their coloration: the Kurdish Rusan Filiztek twanging on the saz, the Armenian Hovhannes Karakhanyan on the tremulous, double-reeded duduk (a warmer, bubbling antecedent to the clarinet), and the Iranian Mostafa Taleb bowing the high-pitched, gourd-like kamanche.

Music, when not used to flatter princes or to incite war, may create lines of communication across historically hostile borders, as across contemporarily hostile ones.

Grounded by three traditional songs from Syria and Iran, Orpheus XXI now crisscrossed the musical border between East and West. A modern variation on a medieval Spanish theme, a muwashah, or “embroidery,” by Omar al-Batsh (1885–1950) of Aleppo, led to Michael Praetorius’s “Canarios” (1612); then, the Kurdish Yazidi religious song “Tasnif bahare delneshin”; and finally, “Saltarello,” attributed to the Spanish king Alfonso X el Sabio (1252–84). Only the shifts into and out of major tonality betrayed the crossings and recrossings of musical frontiers—and even those familiar tones were blurred by the vocalists and Rahal, twisting his mouth to extract microtones from his ney. Savall, having listened carefully from the front row, thanked Orpheus XXI for “an extraordinary evening . . . one of the most beautiful concerts I have ever heard,” and joined them for an encore on his fixed-pitch viola da gamba. The ensemble tightened its tonalities accordingly.

The next night, Hespèrion XXI’s tribute to Leonardo was a kind of program music, or the soundtrack to an unmade film, perhaps resembling Rossellini’s punctiliously educativeL’Éta di Cosimo de’ Medici (1973). The selections followed Leonardo from fanfares for Lorenzo de’ Medici in his native Florence (“Palle, palle”) to military engineering for the mercenary Ludovico Sforza of Milan (“Le forze d’Hercole”), to organizing the festivities for the wedding of Giangaleazzo Sforza and the niece of the Spanish king of Naples (“Viva, viva, Rey Ferrando”).

We forgive our hero for seeking the patronage of Cesare Borgia in Rome (“Patres nostri peccaverunt”) and trust in the Lord as the French invade northern Italy (“In te Domini speravi”) and set up court in Milan (“Quand je bois du vin clairet”). Leonardo paints the Battle of Anghiari (Susato’s “La Battaglia”), and then finally gets around to finishing the Mona Lisa to lute accompaniment in Milan. He dies in France and is mourned in Latin (Josquin des Prez’s motet “Requiem aeternum”), with Pierre Hamon’s lute—whose recurring presence has suggested Leonardo’s private creativity—demonstrably silent.

Hespèrion XXI moved through this complex program with their usual stunning agility, borne on a rich bier of strings that echoed down the long nave. Unlike Orpheus XXI, they telegraphed their sole moment of musical translation. For a pastiche “Turkish March,” the percussionist Dimitri Psonis moved to center stage and sat on a cushion to play the santur (the hammered dulcimer). The pretext for this musical diversion was Leonardo’s offer of his services to Sultan Bajazeth II in the early 1500s, to build a bridge between East and West, Constantinople and Galata. The assimilation of Eastern style into Western instrumentation was notably less sophisticated than Orpheus XXI’s assimilation of Western styles into Eastern instrumentation: fixed-pitch instruments, like the ones played by Hespèrion XXI, cannot emulate the elisions and microtones of fretless ones.

The carefully designed engagement of different musical styles at Fontfroide confirms that music, when not used to flatter princes or to incite war, may create lines of communication across historically hostile borders, as across contemporarily hostile ones. These concerts may give ironic confirmation to historical cliché—the Easterners as sinuously adaptive, the Westerners rolling out their cannonades—but then, recognizing the factual basis of clichés is a better foundation for respect and engagement, on stage as off, than pretending towards a universalism which does not admit its imperiousness.

The legend goes that, pausing a crusade for a moment of intercultural dialogue, Richard the Lionheart demonstrated his broadsword by hacking up an iron bar, and Saladin, the Kurd who took Jerusalem, responded by shredding a silk handkerchief with his scimitar. Hespèrion XXI deployed the heavy artillery, but it was another Kurd, Filiztek, who played so beautifully on his saz on Monday night that a nightingale awoke in a tree and started chirping in harmony, as in Keats’s poem or a Persian garden.

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