Alexander the Great

In our current age we cry out for heroes, put them on a pedestal, forget them in three days and discover in their absence a hunger for true leaders. Alexander the Great, in our memory, remains the largest military figure and explorer of all time. His deeds, both real and legendary, inspired bardic poetry and song across the known world – both East and West. It is around this literary figure of Alexander that we have built this concert. The music tonight offers illustrations of moments chosen from his fabled history, as it has been told to us through many sources.

In French language, the larger-than-life mythical figure of Alexander the Great originates with 12 th century medieval literature. However, Alexander had become a literary hero long before, through the biography of Pseudo-Callisthenes, written in Alexandria in the 3 rd century. “This text,” writes the scholar Harf-Lancner, “which combines both historic sources and Greek and Egyptian legendary tales, had a wider circulation rate than the Bible in the Middle Ages. It is the founding text of the myth of Alexander the Great for the entire world.” From this Greek biography developed several legendary traditions: Latin, Byzantine, Arabic and Persian. The excerpts that we present here are drawn from these different families of sources which share among themselves poetic myths common to the Mediterranean basin and beyond.

Several continental medieval sources emerged and were assembled and presented around 1180 by Alexandre de Paris. He created a new narrative style with 12 syllables lines. This manner is now called alexandrine verse. Thomas of Kent, an Anglo-Norman of whom we know little, wrote a similar compilation, which in turn served as a base for other teller of tales. In the eyes of these authors, Alexander was a valiant king whose mythical exploits concerned not only military conquest, but also discovery and exploration of what were to Europeans, new, 'Oriental' worlds. The nearly super-human range of Alexander’s feats fascinated the medieval imagination, as did the punishment that followed his deeds – his young death – which served as a lesson in itself.

Contrary to what one would think, the medieval Alexander was not the amorous hero many imagine him to be. His “courtliness” was limited to his education, which was extensive and supervised by the wisest of the time (Aristotle, among others), as well as his magnanimity and generosity repeatedly demonstrated both in combat and among friends. If he indulged in a relationship with Queen Candace, it was a political pairing in the context of love; and Roxane, his wife, appears only slightly more than briefly. The masculine companion seemed to be Alexander’s preference, and it is this excess of ambition that separates him from other courtly heroes such as Arthur, Tristan and others.

Neither was the medieval Alexander a spiritual leader. He was an active personality – constantly pushing and fighting the limits of his known world. Even though he conversed with sages and drew inspiration from their thoughts, he was, above all, a warrior. In this he is different from Iskender or Zulkarneyn (Iskender and Zulkarneyn are Alexander’s two popular names used in a number of Middle Eastern traditions). Zulkarneyn is in fact a person mentioned in the Holy Koran who for many centuries (by the majority of Islamic scholars) was considered a prophet and identified as Alexander. Even though this was at times debated certainly the Ottoman/Turkish tradition for a number of centuries accepted Alexander as a prophet of God. This was best represented in Ahmedi’s Iskendername . This particular work written in 11 syllables is not only an extension of the earlier Persian traditions but also a wonderful representative of early Ottoman/Turkish tradition.

The obvious challenge encountered in this program is setting these epic tales to music, as no musical manuscript survives directly related to the literary sources. However, what we do have available is a panoply of bardic storytelling techniques, shared (with slight differences and nuances) among Mediterranean cultures. In this tradition, the storyteller narrates excerpts of well-known historic feats for his audience. Chanting, recitation and musical instruments accompaniment and commentary in turn support and respond to the storyteller. The precise musical elements that we have brought to this narrative of Alexander’s exploits are borrowed or derived from ancient Greek, Hebrew, Byzantine and Gregorian chants, as well as from trouvères and troubadours, classical Ottoman/Turkish music, Turkish Sufi music, Koranic chanting and newly composed melodies that draw from these sources as inspiration. We therefore present tonight a new narrative – composed of ancient fragments and evoking through music the timeless, allegorical and archetypal figure of Alexander the Great.

Anne Azéma (Translated by Meghan Getz)
Mehmet Sanlikol
April 2010