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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 7 Self and Other
Richard Taruskin

The view of oriental “difference” as something sinister, and its transference to “ethnic” characters of all kinds, but especially sexy women, was one of the most significant artistic symptoms of the issues at stake in later nineteenth-century cultural politics. The most familiar bearer of orientalist tropes in the standard operatic repertoire, the title character of Bizet's Carmen (1875), is not even an “oriental” by the usual definition. As a Spanish Gypsy, however, she is a member of an ethnic minority (one, be it noted, with origins that can be traced to South Asia). For Prosper Mérimée, the author on whose story the opera was based, Carmen's exotic heritage made her an outsider to “mainstream” society and a threat to its denizens and their values. Bizet made this even clearer by casting every one of Carmen's solo numbers in an explicitly designated Spanish or Latin American dance form (habanera, seguidilla, etc.)—exotic, that is, not so much within the opera's stage world as in the world of its French audience.

The judgment of ethnic difference as alluring peril is embodied not only in the music but also in the plot, in which a good soldier, Don José, is (like Borodin's Vladimir) brought to moral ruin and vocational impotence by contact with the ethnic other and her irresistible charms. The story became a veritable archetype in later nineteenth and early twentieth-century opera, wryly summarized by the music historian Ralph P. Locke, who notes the omnipresence of a “young, tolerant, brave, possibly naive, white-European tenor-hero” (Borodin's Vladimir, Bizet's Don José, Meyerbeer's Vasco da Gama, and many later counterparts) who “intrudes,” in pursuit of love or sex, “into mysterious dark-skinned, colonised territory” and is punished for it, usually along with the sex-object that lured him.50

Otherness, in this view, and especially female otherness, is likened to an addiction or a disease, against which Europeans need protection or inoculation. In a way we have come round again to Chopin, whose foreignness and whose diseased condition worked in tandem to mark him in the eyes of Parisians and Londoners both as a fascinating genius and as a toxic presence, the two aspects of his allure inextricably linked (and often read as effeminacy).

The progress of the view can be measured by Carmen’s dénouement, in which Don José ruins himself with a “crime of passion,” killing his exotic temptress in the throes of jealousy. Although he is the criminal and she the victim, it is he, not she, who is marked by the music as the object of the audience's sympathy. Indeed, Susan McClary has gone so far as to suggest that “the urgency of Bizet's music invites us to desire Carmen's death.”51 The urgency to which McClary refers is the ordinary urgency of “tonal” music for thematic and harmonic closure. If her remark rings true, then, it must follow that along with the uplift and rapture that it affords, music can also serve (even simultaneously) as a dehumanizing influence, dehumanizing both the exotic victim and the momentarily depraved witnesses in the theater—yes, us.

But McClary also reminds us that Carmen's stage death does not end her disquieting hold on our imaginations. “We leave the theater humming her infectious tunes [like Ex. 7-20], and the closure that had seemed so indisputable opens up again.”52 The “other” is irrevocably a part of everyone's consciousness in the ethnically commingled world we now inhabit, and operas like Carmen were a part of the process through which Europeans (and lately Euro-Americans, too) came to terms with that new reality—the presence of the other within the self.

As suggested earlier, Russians were conscious of this presence sooner than most. A case in point is Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky (1840–93), one of the earliest conservatory-trained Russian composers, who held aloof from Balakirev and his Davidsbund, preferring to work within established institutions and media, becoming (as we shall see) one of the great late nineteenth-century symphonists. He was far less inclined than were the “Mighty Five” to emphasize his “otherness” from Western European culture, less inclined to present himself as an exotic. Apart from a single character in a single opera (Iolanta, his last) and a single “Arabian Dance” in a single ballet (The Nutcracker, his last and most popular), Chaikovsky never showed the slightest interest in musical portrayals of “the East.”

But that does not mean that Chaikovsky did not employ orientalist tropes in his music—far from it. He made extremely telling and effective use of them quite early in his career in a work that seems, on the face of it, quite unrelated in its thematic content to anything oriental: a concert overture (or “Overture-Fantasia,” as Chaikovsky called it) on the subject of Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet (1869; revised 1870, 1880), a work that has long been in the standard orchestral repertory.

Like most concert overtures, it roughly follows sonata form in its sequence of events: slow introduction, bithematic exposition, development, recapitulation, coda. And each of these parts seems to be correlated with a character or plot component in the drama: the slow introduction, in ecclesiastical style, with Friar Laurence; the turbulent first thematic group with the feuding families; the lyrical second thematic group with the balcony scene, and so on.

The frank sensual iconicity of the balcony music is often remarked. One conspicuous reason for that impression is a throbbing, panting countermelody in the horn (see the end of Ex. 7-24b) that unmistakably evokes the physical manifestations of passion. But the love themes evoke nega just as surely by means of the orientalist trope we have already observed in Prince Igor, namely the strongly marked chromatic pass between the fifth and sixth degrees; and the first love theme (generally associated, though on no particular authority, with Romeo) features, on its first appearance, the equally marked English horn timbre (Ex. 7-24a).

Juliet responds to Romeo's advance with a theme of her own, mirroring his descending chromatic pass with an ascending one that is then maintained as an oscillation (or perhaps an osculation—a prolonged kiss), while Romeo's ecstatic reentry is prepared by reversing the pass once more by way of a transporting augmented-sixth progression (Ex. 7-24b). At the climax, delayed until the recapitulation, Chaikovsky enhances carnality by adding one more chromatic pass at the very zenith of intensity to introduce the last full statement from which the love music will then gradually subside (Ex. 7-24c). This music is easily as steamy as the love duet from Prince Igor, and the source of the steam in both, despite their differing subjects and settings, is the same.

The Other in the Self

ex. 7-24a Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet (“Overture-Fantasia”), main love theme (Romeo?)

The Other in the Self

ex. 7-24b Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet (“Overture-Fantasia”), subsidiary love theme (Juliet?)

The Other in the Self

ex. 7-24c Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky Romeo and Juliet (“Overture-Fantasia”), climax

For this we have corroboration from the best of witnesses. In a marvelously cruel letter to Chaikovsky, Balakirev, the peerless connoisseur of musical orientalism, reacted to the main themes of the work, which Chaikovsky had sent him for comment while composition was still in progress. To understand what he had to say about the big love theme one must know what Balakirev knew: that Chaikovsky was just then getting over an infatuation with the soprano Désirée Artôt, the one woman known to have aroused the otherwise homosexually inclined Chaikovsky's romantic interest, who had disappointed him by marrying the Spanish baritone Mariano Padilla y Ramos. Balakirev wrote to Chaikovsky that the theme given in Ex. 7-24a was

simply enchanting. I often play it and have a great wish to kiss you for it. It has everything: nega, and love's sweetness, and all the rest. It appears to me that you are lying all naked in the bath and that Artôt-Padilla herself is rubbing your tummy with hot scented suds. I have just one thing to say against this theme: there is little in it of inner spiritual love, only the physical, passionate torment (colored just a wee bit Italian). Really now, Romeo and Juliet are not Persian lovers, but European. I'll try to clarify this by example. I'll cite the first theme that comes to mind in which, in my opinion, love is expressed more inwardly: the second, A♭-major, theme in Schumann's overture The Bride of Messina.53

Indeed, Schumann's long wet noodle of a love theme (Ex. 7-25), which reaches no climax, does seem as if by design to moderate the orientalism of Chaikovsky's, diluting the chromatic passes and replacing the lascivious English horn with a chaste (or, to use the German buzzword as Balakirev did, an “inward”) clarinet.

The Other in the SelfThe Other in the Self

ex. 7-25 Robert Schumann, The Bride of Messina Overture, second theme

Balakirev's letter confirms the impression that Chaikovsky used the orientalist trope metonymically, to conjure up not the East as such but rather its exotic sex appeal. The little tease about Artôt is provocative indeed, precisely because it is so plausible. If, as Balakirev seems to suggest, Chaikovsky had cast himself as Romeo to Artôt's Juliet, then the theme becomes a self-portrait. And if so, then it is a remarkable instance of that phenomenon, noticeable first in Russian music, whereby the eastward gaze is simultaneously a look in the mirror.


(50) Ralph P. Locke, “Constructing the Oriental ‘Other’: Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila,” Cambridge Opera Journal III (1991): 263.

(51) Susan McClary, George Bizet: Carmen (Cambridge Opera Handbooks; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 110.

(52) Ibid.

(53) Miliy Balakirev to Pyotr Chaikovsky (13 December 1869), in Perepiska M. A. Balakirevas P. I. Chaikovskim, ed. Sergey Lyapunov (St. Petersburg: Zimmerman, 1912), pp. 49–50.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007016.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 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007016.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 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-007016.xml