We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 7 Self and Other
Richard Taruskin

So far in this chapter we have observed the tensions between the universal and the particular, and between the nationalistic and the exotic, from the perspective of expatriated composers highly conscious of themselves as outsiders, presenting a sense of self that is to a large extent constructed out of a sense of difference. It is unlikely that Chopin would have written so many mazurkas, or Gottschalk his “Louisiana trilogy,” had they stayed at home all their lives. There are, of course, other perspectives. There is the domestic or patriotic national consciousness that we have observed by now in many romantic artists, in which the assertion of national identity serves a different social purpose, emphasizing community rather than peculiarity, sameness rather than difference, social cohesion rather than social division.

And there is yet another perspective, in which members of one community represent an alien or exotic community for their own purposes and their own consumption. This kind of exoticism could be looked upon as a sort of inverse nationalism, since very often the purpose of representing (and, almost invariably, of stereotyping) the other is the bolstering of one's own sense of community by contrast. It is an act not of ecumenism or world fellowship in the spirit of Herder, but one of invidious distinction, of “marking off,” ultimately of exclusion.

The most widespread and time-honored guise that this kind of exoticism has worn in the European musical tradition is that of “orientalism,” the musical representation of non-European (generally Asian) peoples. We have encountered it in Beethoven (Die Ruinen von Athen), in Rossini (L'Italiana in Algeri), and in Weber (Turandot; also Abu Hassan, an 1811 singspiel based on the Arabian Nights). Even by Mozart's time it had a long history. “Turkish” operas—operas making fun of Turks or other Muslims—were a Vienna specialty (in still-conscious reaction to the Ottoman siege of 1683) when Mozart wrote his singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail (“Abduction from the Seraglio”) in 1782. Lully's incidental music to Molière's play Le bourgeois gentilhomme had lampooned the Turks (Europe's most formidable antagonists since the time of the Crusades) even earlier, in 1670; and there are isolated examples going back to the sixteenth century.

European musical representation of the Orient enjoyed an enormous renewed vogue during the nineteenth century, thanks in particular to a historical and economic turnabout whereby the Europeans, rather than the Asians, became the expansionist aggressors. One can almost exactly coordinate manifestations of musical (as well as artistic, literary, and scholarly) orientalism with the movements of colonial and imperialist armies, beginning with Napoleon's Egyptian campaigns of 1798–99—a scholarly bonanza above all owing to the discovery of the Rosetta stone, and the subsequent publication of the twenty-four-volume Description of Egypt by Edme François Jomard, a geographer and antiquarian who had traveled with Napoleon's army between 1809 and 1813.

Together with the sumptuously illustrated album Voyage in Lower and Upper Egypt by Baron Dominique Denon, another member of Napoleon's entourage who later became the chief curator of the Louvre, Jomard's work touched off a French craze for all things “Near Eastern.” The Vicomte de Chateaubriand published a best-selling travel book, the semi-imaginary Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem, in 1811; Victor Hugo's wholly imaginary Les Orientales, a book of exotic poems, followed in 1829. Accordingly, the first place to look for signs of a new romantic wave in musical orientalia is France.

The wave reached an early crest in the work of Félicien David (1810–76), a specialist in the Eastern mode, who made a pilgrimage to Egypt in 1833–35 by way of the Turkish cities of Constantinople (Istanbul) and Smyrna (Izmir). He noted down Arab and Turkish tunes wherever he went, and after first publishing a large series of piano pieces based on them (Mélodies orientales, twenty-two pieces in seven books, 1836), summed up his impressions of the East in a monumental “Ode-Symphony” (a symphony with voices in the manner of Beethoven's Ninth) called Le Désert, which had its deliriously successful premiere in December 1844 and remained a concert staple for a couple of decades thereafter, although like its author it is virtually forgotten today.

The direct influence of Beethoven's Ninth is apparent from the very outset, which evokes the infinite desert expanse (as Beethoven had evoked the cosmos) with a seemingly endless pedal tone on C against which a welter of motives for future development (some seemingly in C, others in F, still others in A♭) alternate with “melodramas” for a speaking narrator, a device borrowed from Lélio, or Returning to Life (Lélio, ou le retour à la vie), the now-forgotten sequel to the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz, who was quick to proclaim his imitator's work a masterpiece.

Stereotyping the Other: “Orientalism”

fig. 7-9 Title page of first edition of Felicien David's Le Désert (Paris, 1845).

Thereafter the work proceeds in three long movements, each comprising several unrelated episodes or scenes (although there is a sort of recapitulation of the opening at the very end), the whole representing a caravan slowly crossing the desert, encountering a sandstorm, passing mosques, offering a prayer to Allah, and so forth. The voices are all male, but the second movement contains a “Danse des almées” (Dance of the “Almahs,” Egyptian belly dancers, regarded by Europeans as prostitutes) that supplies what would prove to be the most durable, indeed indispensable, ingredient in European musical orientalism (Ex. 7-17a). The most famous episode in Le Désert was the call of the muezzin, the crier who, standing in the balcony of a minaret or mosque turret, at stated hours five times daily, intones the call summoning the faithful to prayer (Ex. 7-17b).

Both the dance and the muezzin's cry were based on authentic source material, personally observed by the composer on location; indeed, in the final melisma of the muezzin's call, he seems to have tried to give an impression of microtones. In any case, David received the compliment of recognition from an Arab delegation in native dress, attending the premiere as the guests of the French government, much to the audience's delight.

Stereotyping the Other: “Orientalism”

ex. 7-17a Félicien David, Le Désert, Danse des almées

Stereotyping the Other: “Orientalism”

ex. 7-17b Félicien David, Le Désert, Muezzins call

The vogue for Le Désert came quickly to an end, however; by 1857, Berlioz, who as press critic had acclaimed it, was calling it in private correspondence “a curious specimen of silly music.”43 The reason for its fall from favor may have had to do, at least in part, with its excessive “verisimilitude,” with its being, paradoxically enough, too faithful (and uncritical) a portrait of the East, and too little a story. The main thrust of French musical orientalism quickly turned toward opera rather than song or symphony, where a certain repertoire of archetypal tales emerged to lend moral, social, and political significance to the exercise.

The list of orientalist operas that ensued would include works by almost every French composer of any reputation at all from the middle to the end of the century. By David himself there was Lalla-Roukh (1862), after a story about the love life of an Indian princess by the Irish poet Thomas Moore. By Meyerbeer there was L'Africaine (1865), which (its title notwithstanding) also concerns the love of an Indian princess, in this case for Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer. By Léo Delibes (1836–91) there was Lakmé (1883), yet another tale about the love of an Indian princess (and priest's daughter), this time for an English officer. By Jules Massenet (1842–1912) there was Le roi de Lahore (“The King of Lahore,” 1877), in which the title character dies, spends an act in Hindu heaven, and returns to life in the guise of a beggar to claim a virgin priestess for his bride.

By Georges Bizet (1838–75) there were Les pêcheurs de perles (“The pearl fishers,” 1863), a love triangle—yes, she is a virgin priestess—set in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Djamileh (1872), about a slave girl who wins the heart of an Egyptian caliph. By Ambroise Thomas (1811–96) there was Le Caïd (“The Khayyid,” 1849), about the amorous misadventures of a North African chieftain. Finally, by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) there was Samson et Dalila (1877), on the famous biblical story, which of all these operas retains the securest place in repertory today.

Whether comic or tragic, all of these operas are love stories given an unusually frank and sensual treatment that, set in the “occident,” would have been considered offensive within the mores of the time. The idea of the Orient as sexual playground gave license for the enjoyment of libidinous fantasies, their immorality diminished by the non-Christian (hence morally irredeemable) setting. The exotic sexpot or sex toy was only one of the stereotypes for which the orientalist manner made allowance: others included acts of despotic violence, depraved luxury, picturesque or orgiastic rites and sacrifices, and so on. Under cover of moral censure an otherwise inadmissible voyeurism could be indulged.

What is more, a repertory of recognizably “oriental” musical devices could be deployed semiotically, as signs or tropes to conjure up the qualities associated with orientalist plots and characters: thus a certain kind of oriental music could signify or conjure up sex(iness), another violence, a third barbarous ritual, even without an explicitly oriental setting. For this technique to work, verisimilitude had to be sacrificed to stereotype, the latter often lacking any authentic counterpart in “oriental” reality.

But that is precisely the point. “Orientalism,” as the Arab-American literary critic Edward Said (a leading theorist of the process) has pointed out, “overrode the Orient.”44 Indeed, the very expression “the Orient” is already an example of such overriding, since the East is “the East” only to “the West.” The very act of naming it is already constitutive: the name is what brings the thing into being. And that thing is a thing of metaphor, of imaginary geography and historical fiction: a reduced and “totalized” (omnisciently known) other against which we construct our no less reduced and totalized sense of ourselves.

There is no way of fully disengaging this constructed East from “the real one,” least of all in artistic representations (which are always conventional). Thus an attempt, like David's Le Désert, merely to transcribe the reality of the thing, will quickly pall—will seem artless or naive—next to the really sophisticated fruits of orientalism.

The famous Bacchanale, the ballet sequence from act III of Samson et Dalila, can serve as an example (Ex. 7-18). The Philistines, an ancient people who have left no musical traces to posterity, are seen carousing before the idol of their god, Dagon, right before Samson brings the temple down to end the opera. Without any authentic source to guide him, thus untempted by the possibility of “real verisimilitude,” Saint-Säens opts for a fancifully exotic mode containing not one (as do some Arabian modes) but two “oriental” augmented seconds (B–A♭, F♯–E♭), intervals that in various contexts can evoke Arabs or Jews or Gypsies ad libitum, or symbolize their attributes (here, orgiastic excess). At the same time the drumbeat accompaniment below is dividing the eighth-notes in every pair of measures into groups following the asymmetrical pattern 3 + 3 + 2, a rhythmic cycle found in many kinds of non-European music including Arabian, but also black Caribbean (“Afro-Cuban”) or Latin American.

Stereotyping the Other: “Orientalism”

ex. 7-18 Camille Saint-Saëns, Samson et Dalila, Act III, Bacchanale

The net result is an imaginary or all-purpose orientalist music that nevertheless communicates a very specific image to properly attuned European listeners. (What it would communicate to the modern-day descendants of the Philistines is anybody's guess.) In an orientalist sense it is realer than anything real could be; and if that seems a paradox, an observation by the Russian critic Hermann Laroche may help clarify it. Pondering the “biblical orientalism” in several Russian operas based on Old Testament or Apocryphal subjects, he asked and answered a rhetorical question:

In what does Alexander Serov's masterly characterization of the extinct Assyrians in his opera Judith [1863] consist, or Anton Rubinstein's of the ancient Semites in his “sacred opera” The Tower of Babel [1870]? Obviously in one thing only: the composers have successfully reproduced our subjective idea of the Assyrians and the Semites.45

Which is to say, they successfully catered, by the use of stereotypes, to contemporary prejudice, as memorably encapsulated in Chateaubriand's Itinerary when he wrote of the Turks that they spend their time “ravaging the world or else sleeping on carpets, amidst women and perfumes.”46 Orientalist tropes (figures, turns of phrase) would henceforth pervade the representation of masculine barbarity and feminine voluptuousness alike, and thereby broaden their significance through a process known as metonymy, the representation of a thing by one of its attributes, or vice versa. An orientalist trope could now connote or specify barbarity or voluptuousness in any context.


(43) Berlioz to his sister Adèle, 11 March 1858; quoted in Dorothy Veinus Hagan, Félicien David 1810–1876: A Composer and a Cause (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1985), p. 147.

(44) Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978), p. 196.

(45) Hermann Laroche (German Larosh), “‘Der Thurm zu Babel’ Rubinshteyna,” in Larosh, Muzïkal'no-kriticheskiye stat'I (St. Petersburg: Bessel, 1894), p. 117.

(46) François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand, Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem, et de Jérusalem à Paris (Paris: Le Normant, 1812).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007014.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Self and Other. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 27 Aug. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007014.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 27 Aug. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007014.xml