An arabesque is a type of music which uses melodies to create the atmosphere of Arabic architecture.[1] The term and themes are borrowed from the art term arabesque, rather than stemming from Arabic music. [2][3][4] It is a highly ornamented style.

The name has origins in the middle of the seventeenth century, it is derived from the Italian word 'arabesco' which is translated to 'in Arabic Style', from the noun 'Arabo'.[5] The French translation became 'arabesque', and this term peaked in popularity in the middle of the nineteenth century.[5]

Western interpretations of the Arabic style was characterised by Islamic art, and then implemented in the musical sphere.[6] The art form entails rhythmic linear and intricate geometric patterns to decorate motifs which consists of foliage, fruits or tree leaves. These patterns were found within Islamic architecture, in mosques and palaces.[6] These lines found within nature and Islamic art are mirrored within the melodies of arabesque music, described as "highly ornamental".[7][8]

The arabesque emerged in the West as a part of the Classical Movement in music. The Classical Movement was defined by the return to classical forms of art from Greece and Rome, and in this case, Arab classical culture.[9] It drew on the simplicity of the art and architecture to "avoid extravagant excess" in the music.[9] Despite returns to classical simplicity, the arabesque is a decorative piece with ornamentation.[10]

It uses three compositional devices.[11] The decoration of a theme using counterpoint; the use of 'grupetti' (turns) to decorate themes; and harmonies that rapidly change without rushing the piece forward.[11] These devices create the effect of 'Frozen Music'.[12]

Lots of famous composers who composed pieces in the arabesque style, like Claude Debussy, were influenced by visual arts and culture.[13] Debussy composed his arabesques with French salon culture in mind.[14] The French salon was interested in the 'other' including elements of Arabic culture; the arabesque performed in the salon was a product of this interest.[14] Debussy's circle was heavily influenced by the arabesque in literature and visual arts.[15] The peak of popularity for composing arabesques in the late 1800s demonstrates this. The arabesque, however, was not seen at the time as the most sincere form of musical expression; German poet Friedrich von Schlegel referred to the arabesque as "not a work of high rank".[15]

Notable arabesques

The opening bars of Jean Sibelius's Arabesque (Op.76, No.9).

The most well-known are Claude Debussy's Deux Arabesques, composed in 1888 and 1891, respectively.

Other composers who have written arabesques include:

See also


  1. ^ Çimen, Gül and Nevhiz Ercan. Piyano Albümü. Arkadaş Yayınevi, 2002, p. 27.
  2. ^ Oxford Art Online, "Arabesque", accessed March 25, 2011
  3. ^ What is an... Arabesque?. Classical Music. Retrieved 2023-02-26.
  4. ^ Buja, Maureen (2021-01-27). Fairies and Butterflies in the Salon: Debussy’s Two Arabesques. Interlude. Retrieved 2023-02-26.
  5. ^ a b "Oxford English Dictionary". Oxford Languages. May 1, 2023.
  6. ^ a b "Arabesque: An Iconic Islamic Art". Al Majalla. June 12, 2021. Retrieved April 28, 2023.
  7. ^ "Arabesque in Music". Retrieved 2023-05-09.
  8. ^ "Debussy - Arabesques". Classic FM. Retrieved 2023-05-09.
  9. ^ a b Oxford Dictionary.
  10. ^ Salter, Lionel (1978). The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Classical Music: A Guide to Composers and Recommended Recordings. London: Harmony Books. p. 217. ISBN 0517534762.
  11. ^ a b King, Amy (2019-07-08). "Debussy's Arabesque No. 1: Creating Magic". Girl in Blue Music. Retrieved 2023-05-09.
  12. ^ Brown, Maurice J.E.; Hamilton, Kenneth L. (2001). "Arabesque (i)". Grove Music Online. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.01137. Retrieved 2023-10-20.
  13. ^ Libbey, Theodore (2006). The NPR Listener's Encyclopaedia of Classical Music. New York: Workman Publishing Company Inc. pp. 171–172. ISBN 9780761136422.
  14. ^ a b Buja, Maureen (27 January 2021). "Fairies and Butterflies in the Salon: Debussy's Two Arabesques". Interlude.
  15. ^ a b Cummins, Linda (2006). Debussy and the Fragment (E Book (ed.) ed.). Leiden, Netherlands: Brill. p. 97. ISBN 9789401203340.