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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 7 Self and Other
Richard Taruskin

This process can be traced very vividly in the music of Russian composers, who were if anything even more obsessed with the development of orientalist tropes than were the French. The reason for their obsession was twofold. In the first place, Russia was engaged throughout the nineteenth century in imperialistic expansion into Islamic territories, first in the Caucasus (where the indigenous populations were in fact Christian as well as Muslim), later in what the Russians called “Central Asia,” the vast plain or steppe south of Siberia and north of Iran, Afghanistan, and China.

The Caucasian campaigns reached their peak in the immediate post-Napoleonic period and lasted into the 1830s. The Central Asian campaigns were waged from the 1860s to the early 1880s, by which time the entire territory of what would later become the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the world's last surviving multinational empire, was controlled by Russia. In this later phase of its expansion into Islamic Asia, Russia was competing with Great Britain in what Rudyard Kipling, the great poet of British imperialism, called the Great Game47 a protracted war of conquest against a Muslim Holy League led by the khan of Bokhara (now Uzbekistan).

Unlike the British Empire, or any of the other modern Western European empires (French, Spanish, Portuguese), which were formed in the process of colonization (first of the New World, later of Africa and India), the Russian empire, like the Ottoman (Turkish) and the nearly defunct Hapsburg (Austrian) empires, or like the empires of the ancient world, was a contiguous empire, formed by a continual process of aggrandizement into bordering territories. It occupied a single enormous landmass, and its various peoples intermingled (and intermarried) to a much greater degree than in the Western European empires.

This contiguity and (so to speak) intimacy gave impetus to the other reason why Russian composers were such avid orientalists. The orientalist tropes with which they filled their music distinguished them from the composers of Western Europe, and gave them a means of competing with the older, more established traditions of European art music. To accentuate the “oriental” aspect was for Russian composers a way of asserting their individual identity and their claim to respect and attention as independent musical creators at a time when Russia was just joining the European fine art tradition.

Thus when the arts publicist Vladimir Stasov (1824–1906), a wonderfully energetic and effective propagandist for what he called the “New Russian School” of nationalist composers, looked back in 1882 at “Twenty-Five Years of Russian Art” (the title of one of his most famous essays), he listed “the oriental element”48 as one of the four major characteristics that justified its assertion of equal rights. (The others were its skepticism of European tradition, which made it independent; its striving for a unique national character, which made it authentic; and its “extreme inclination toward program music,” which made it progressive.)

But of course this gave orientalist tropes a far more ambiguous place within the Russian stylistic spectrum than within the French. For French composers, orientalism was exclusively a means of marking the other. For Russian composers, depending which way they were facing, orientalism could also be a means of marking the self. Orientalism was thus attended by the same tensions and ironies as nationalism. Where nationalism could mean authenticity at home and exoticism abroad, orientalism could mean exoticism at home and authenticity abroad. For Russian composers, an orientalist trope could be a sort of self-portrait. That greatly multiplied the range of its possible meanings, of course, and its possible ambiguities. It also made the formation and deployment of orientalist tropes a much more significant and artfully sophisticated phenomenon among Russian composers than among any other European national group.

To witness that formation and deployment we can compare three different settings, made over a period of more than sixty years, of a single poem, an untitled lyric by Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) dating from 1828. In literal translation, it goes like this:

  • Sing not in my presence, O beauty,
  • Thy songs of sad Georgia;
  • They remind me
  • Of another life, a distant shore.
  • Alas! they remind me,
  • Thy cruel melodies,
  • Of steppes, of night—and ’neath the moon
  • The features of a poor far-off maid.
  • This lovely, fateful vision
  • I can forget on seeing thee;
  • But you sing—and before me
  • I envision it anew.
  • Sing not, etc.

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ex. 7-19a Ne poy, krasavitsa (Pushkin), Glinka's setting, mm. 1-12

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ex. 7-19b Ne poy, krasavitsa (Pushkin), Miliy Alexeyevich Balakirevs setting, mm. 1–8

The first setting (Ex. 7-19a) is by Glinka, the composer of A Life for the Tsar (see chapter 4), but composed five years before that epoch-making opera made him a nationalist. Subtitled “Georgian Song,” it incorporates only the first two stanzas of the poem. According to the composer's memoirs, the song's strophic melody, which he learned from the poet and playwright Alexander Griboyedov (1795–1829), was an authentic Georgian tune, the very one to which Pushkin reputedly composed the poem. From the music alone there is no way of guessing that. Nothing about the song sounds the least bit exotic. The diatonic melody seems perfectly normal to Western ears, Glinka's harmonization unremarkable, the text setting straightforwardly syllabic. Already we have a warning that musical orientalism is a matter not of authenticity but of conventions—conventions that had not yet been established by 1831.

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ex. 7-19c Ne poy, krasavitsa (Pushkin), Sergei Rachmaninoff's setting, mm. 1–12

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ex. 7-19d Ne poy, krasavitsa (Pushkin), Sergei Rachmaninoff's setting, mm. 39–42

The next setting (Ex. 7-19b) is by Miliy Alexeyevich Balakirev (1837–1910), the founder of what Stasov called the “New Russian School” of avowedly nationalistic composers. (Some reference sources give Balakirev's birth year as 1836, because on the day he was born, Russian calendars read 21 December 1836. Russia was then using the Julian or old style calendar, and would until 1918; in Western Europe and America, where the Gregorian or new style calendar was already in use, the date read 2 January 1837. In this book, with its international purview, all dates are given according to the new style.) The New Russian School consisted of a group of self-taught composers who had gathered around the charismatic Balakirev like a sort of real-life Davidsbund, opposing academic authority on the one hand and philistinism on the other. With the aid of Stasov's propaganda, and abetted by the journalistic activity of César Cui (a member of the group), they gradually achieved recognition under a whimsical nickname Stasov had invented for them: moguchaya kuchka, which means a “mighty little bunch.” The five outstanding members of the circle—Balakirev himself, Cui (1835–1918), Alexander Borodin (1833–87), Modest Musorgsky (1839–81), and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)—are often called the “Mighty Five” in English.

All of them made conspicuous contributions to the orientalist flood tide: Balakirev in an orchestral work called Tamara (1882), based on a poem by Mikhail Lermontov; Cui in an opera, A Prisoner in the Caucasus (1857; revised 1882), based on a poem by Pushkin; Borodin in an opera, Prince Igor (posthumously produced in 1890), and a “musical picture” for orchestra called In Central Asia (1880); Musorgsky in an unfinished opera based on the novel Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert; and Rimsky-Korsakov in many works including two symphonic suites: Antar (1868) and the very popular Sheherazade (1888), based on the Arabian Nights.

Balakirev's setting of Pushkin's verses in Ex. 7-19b, titled “Georgian Song,” was made in 1865, a generation later than Glinka's, and is typical of the orientalism practiced by the Mighty Five. It is as exotic as could be. The melody is full of close little ornaments and melismas like the ones in Félicien David's muezzin's call (see Ex. 7-17b), but also full of telltale augmented seconds like the ones in Saint-Saëns's Bacchanale (Ex. 7-8)—even though the singer (that is, the speaker of Pushkin's lines) is not supposed to be an oriental himself but presumably a Russian. Most conspicuously “oriental” of all is the imitation in the accompaniment of Islamic drumming patterns with two pitched drums—the tar (a big frame drum) and the tabla (a higher cylindrical drum played with the individual fingers and capable of producing rapid tattoos).

All of these stylistic effects have plenty of authentic prototypes—but only in Arabian, Turkish, and Persian music, or in the music of those Caucasian regions (Armenia and Azerbaijan) that absorbed influences from traditional Islamic practices. Georgian folk music uses none of them, and sounds nothing at all like Balakirev's “Georgian Song”. Balakirev, who lived for long periods in the Caucasus, knew that perfectly well, but he wanted his listeners to get the point, and that meant sacrificing real verisimilitude to something more legible. Russians call it khudozhestvennaya pravda: “artistic truth.” It is what Laroche had in mind in his comment on operatic representations of ancient oriental peoples. Orientalism again overrides the Orient.

So far, then, we have had an example (Glinka's) that was authentic but not exotic, and one (Balakirev's) that was exotic but not authentic. It is the latter that counts for orientalists (if not for ethnomusicologists) as verisimilar, hence truly oriental. But now consider a third setting of Pushkin's poem: the most famous one, by Sergey Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), written a generation later than Balakirev's, in 1892, when Rachmaninoff, a piano-playing and composing prodigy of nineteen, had just graduated from the Moscow Conservatory (Ex. 7-19c). It is far less verisimilar than Balakirev's and makes no pretense to authenticity. Yet with hardly an augmented second it speaks the sign language of Russian orientalism in a highly developed form, adding a great deal to our experience of the poem.

Rachmaninoff's setting also has conspicuous melismas: not little decorative authentic-sounding ones like Balakirev's, which sound a little strange in the mouth of the poet-speaker, but great sweeping ones that have a motivic consistency deriving from the opening neighbor note. The neighbor-note motif is usually sounded in pairs or in threes, with ties that connect resolution tones to the next preparation tone. The result is a syncopated undulation that is sounded in conjunction with two other distinctive musical gestures to complete a semiotic cluster (a set of signifiers that work together, deriving their meaning from their association): a drone (or drum) bass such as even Glinka had suggested, and—most important of all—a chromatic accompanying line that in this case steadily descends along with the sequences of undulating melismas.

To anyone familiar with the tradition on which it depends, the song's opening ritornello quite specifically conjures up the beautiful oriental maiden the song is about—not the one singing, but the one remembered. And the ritornello also tells us that she was the poet-singer's erotic partner; for the cluster of signs—undulating melisma, chromatic accompanying line, drone—evokes not just “the East” in general, but specifically its voluptuous allure. The syncopated undulation is iconically erotic; its contour paints a picture of languid limbs, writhing torsos, arching necks. The drum bass and the melismas are an echo of the stereotyped Islamic musical idiom that Balakirev had already evoked, sexuality's necessary ticket of admission (for “Western,” Christian necks do not arch and writhe).

It is the descending chromatic line, possibly a vestige of the old passus duriusculus as mediated through Chopin, that is particularly interesting as an orientalist trope, because it is neither iconically nor stylistically “verisimilar.” That is, it is neither realistic sexual portraiture nor specifically Asiatic in style. But though a purely arbitrary convention, it was a widely accepted one: a badge worn by exotic sexpots all over Europe, including France—or rather Spain (once an Islamic region, after all) seen through French eyes—as its most celebrated manifestation in all of opera reveals (Ex. 7-20).

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ex. 7-20 Georges Bizet, Carmen, Act I, “Habanera,” mm. 1–12

The climax of Rachmaninoff's song (Ex. 7-19d)—undeniably a climax despite the soft dynamic—occurs at the setting of the last two lines, when the chromatic line is suddenly transferred from the middle of the texture to the voice part, at the top. Clearly it is the predominating sign of oriental sensuality, or what the Russians call nega, the bliss of gratified desire (or, more excitingly, the promise of it). Its origin as a musical trope lay in Glinka—not in his “Georgian Song,” but in Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), his second opera, based on a mock-epic by Pushkin that is set partly in fictitious oriental lands. The composer who brought it to its peak of development was Alexander Borodin, one of the most gifted members of Balakirev's doughty “Davidsbund.” Borodin was quite famous during his lifetime, but not as a musician. Like many of Balakirev's associates, he was a Sunday composer. As a chemist with an international reputation, he was one of Russia's leading scientists, and the founder and chief administrator of his country's first women's medical course. He had little spare time for the hobby that won him immortality, which is one reason why his largest work, the opera Prince Igor, was far from finished at the time of his death, although he had been working on it for eighteen years. Based on The Song of Igor's Campaign, a genuine epic of the twelfth century and Russia's first literary masterpiece, the opera was a veritable monument to Russian orientalism composed at a time when its plot—a tale of ill-fated hostilities between a Russian prince and Turkic nomads called Polovtsy whose encampments surrounded his domain—was being virtually played out in real life in the Russian empire's wars of aggression in Central Asia.

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fig. 7-10 Costume for Borodin's opera Prince Igor.

On the way to it, Borodin also composed a number of shorter works with Eastern themes that could be looked upon as sketches toward his fully elaborated orientalist idiom. One of these spin-offs from the opera was a short song for contralto called Arabskaya melodiya (“Arabian melody”), composed in 1881. The tune is an authentic Arab melody, taken from a book. Again, however, the mode of the tune coincides with the familiar diatonic scale and does not give away its exotic origin to the Western ear. What marks Borodin's song as oriental is the snaking chromatic accompanying line, so obviously related to the one in Rachmaninoff's “Georgian Song” (Ex. 7-21), for which it served as model.

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ex. 7-21 Alexander Borodin, Arabskaya melodiya, second strophe, mm. 1–8

Where Rachmaninoff's chromatic line (like Bizet's in Carmen) made a straightforward descent, however, Borodin's (like Glinka's in Ruslan) is serpentine, adding a new dimension of erotically iconic undulation. The point at which the change of direction takes place is very significant. The line descends to the fifth degree, then passes chromatically up to the sixth, then down again through the same interpolated half step, joined now by a middle voice that proceeds to repeat the same double pass twice, not counting a couple of extra undulations between the fifth degree and its chromatic upper neighbor. When the climax is reached—a climax as much sexual as musical—on the words “But even death is sweet to me, the death born of passion for thee,” the rhythm of the undulation is excited into diminution and begins to spread out to neighboring scale degrees, ultimately to complete the chromatic gamut, as in Rachmaninoff.

The reversible chromatic pass between the fifth and sixth degrees is the essential nega undulation—the essential symbol or “marker” of sex à la russe—as a little snatch from the Chorus of Polovtsian Maidens at the beginning of Prince Igor’s second act will prove (Ex. 7-22a). Brief as it is, this little passage deploys the whole orientalist cluster with terrific economy: the text is about creature comfort and gratified desire (in this case the image of nocturnal dew following a sultry day is acting as nega metaphor); the sopranos contribute the melodic undulation, here a sort of pedal; the altos contribute the harmonic undulation, from the fifth degree to the sixth and back through a chromatic passing tone each way; and the orchestral bass instruments supply the drum/drone.

And now we are equipped to get the full message from the most famous music in Prince Igor (Ex. 7-22b). The famous “Polovtsian Dance” (immortalized for Americans as Stranger in Paradise, a pop standard from the Broadway musical Kismet) again displays the whole cluster—melodic undulations tied over the beat, a chromatic pass from the sixth scale degree to the fifth, a throbbing drumbeat in the bass, plus, in its orchestral garb, the sound of the English horn, the closest orchestral counterpart to the “snake-charmer's” pipe and another absolutely indispensable orientalist marker.

All of these features are displayed again in the “oriental” theme that confronts a Russian one directly in the “musical picture” In Central Asia, which celebrates the contemporary Russian military victories in the east quite directly (Ex. 7-22c). Its first statement, naturally enough, is an English horn solo. The one shown in Ex. 7-22c is the climactic one, in which the chromatic inner voice grows to encompass a whole scale, as in Rachmaninoff's later modeling of it, and (also as in Rachmaninoff's song) moves out from an inner voice to a textural extremity, here the bass. It was a telling touch—and again, a typical one—to extend the length of each phrase in the melody to five bars through one extra languorous undulation (“please, just once more …”). What it tells us is why those hedonistic Central Asians were simply no match for the purposefully advancing Russians.

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ex. 7-22a Alexander Borodin, Prince Igor, Chorus of Polovtsian Maidens

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ex. 7-22b Alexander Borodin, Prince Igor, Polovtsian Dance

Nega saturation is maximized in Prince Igor by the use of a subplot, not present in the twelfth-century original, involving the romance of the title character's son Vladimir and Konchakovna, the daughter of their captor, the Polovtsian chieftain Khan Konchak. The pretext for her invention (by Stasov, as it happens, who provided Borodin with the opera's scenario) was a single line in the original in which two Polovtsian khans, Gzak and Konchak, consider “entoiling the falconet by means of a fair maiden,”49 that is, sexually enslaving the young prince.

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ex. 7-22c Alexander Borodin, In Central Asia, mm. 175–92

The result was something unique in the annals of opera: an ingénue (“innocent maiden in love”) role played not by the usual lyric soprano but by the throatiest contralto imaginable. In the act II love duet, Konchakovna's voice coils all around and beneath Vladimir's tenor to startling effect. The falconet is indeed “entoiled by a fair maiden”—fascinated and emasculated. Never had there been such an emphasis on raised fifths, flattened sixths, and chromatic passes in general. They were the means of his enslavement. Passion mounts in two great waves in which the lovers occupy opposite positions; the meno mosso in the middle (Ex. 7-23), cast over the palpably chafing harmony of the dominant minor ninth, is where Konchakovna slides beneath. Her part obsessively applies the flattened sixth scale degree (D♭) to the fifth (C) while Vladimir, having gone through a variety of other chromatic passes, finally adopts hers at the fermata. She then turns around (allegro appassionato) and makes another pass at him, from raised fifth to sixth, while he yelps in response, his phrases narrowed down to the sign of chromatic passing in minimal, most concentrated form. The orchestral bass meanwhile gives out one of those complete chromatic descents that signal nega at full sensual strength.

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ex. 7-23 Alexander Borodin, from Prince Igor, Act II, Love Duet

They reach their first climax on a question (“Will you/I soon call me/you your/my wife?”), supported in the orchestra by a prolonged harmony rooted on the flat sixth—a harmony we have associated with altered, often ecstatic, emotional states since the days of Schubert, but never so patently sexual as here. The flat submediant finally makes its affirmative progress through the dominant to the F major tonic. The change from anxious question to rapt reply itself takes the form, for Vladimir, of a chromatic inflection (the sustained A♭ over ♭VI now trumped at the tonic by a sustained high A-natural). And while they both hold their final notes the orchestra harps repeatedly on the hypnotic undulation of fifth degree and flattened sixth. Vladimir is now thoroughly lost, his manhood negated, rendered impotent with respect to his (and his father's) bellicose mission. Prince Igor leaves him behind to perish, the victim of a sinister oriental charm.


(47) See Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1992).

(48) Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov, “Dvadtsat’ pyat’ let russkogo iskusstvo: Nasha muzïka, Vestnik YEvropï (1882–83), in V. V. Stasov, Izbrannïye sochineniya v tryokh tomakh, Vol. II (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1952), p. 525.

(49) The Song of Igor's Campaign, trans. Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Vintage, 1960), p. 70.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007015.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 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007015.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 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007015.xml