Birmingham Egyptology

Egyptian Music? – By Eleanor Simmance

Some of you may know that aside from my love of all things Egyptology, I am also an avid musician, playing piano and viola and singing. Always keen to combine my two main interests, I was especially pleased when a particular concerto was brought to my attention a few years ago – Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No.5 in F major, also known as ‘The Egyptian’. Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) – known for ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ and the ‘Organ’ Symphony, the main theme of which appears in the film Babe – was very well-travelled and spent much time in North Africa; ‘The Egyptian’ was in fact composed in Luxor in winter 1895-6.


I will not get into the technical details of the work, but the composer himself referred to it as a ‘journey to the east, and even, in the F sharp passage, to the Far East’ and musical features over its three movements imitate the croaking of Nile frogs, a ‘Nubian love song’ and the turning of a ship’s propellers. Most notably, the slow(ish) second movement evokes the hot sun, sand and flowing Nile, and has a particularly Middle/Far Eastern feel in the mysterious, transparent harmonies and exotic piano scales. I have just downloaded the sheet music, though I do not expect to make huge progress as I am certainly not a virtuosic concert pianist! The recording I have and would recommend is Steven Hough with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo, but several other versions can be found on the internet – this one is quite good: 1st mov. 0:00; 2nd mov. 9:54; 3rd mov. 20:35.

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