Sunday, October 18, 2015

Exotic Reflections

by Ralph Locke

I have long been intrigued by the problem of how music relates to what is widely called “the exotic.” By “the exotic” I mean the various qualities that people in a given locale associate with some faraway place and the people who live there.

Until very recently, the discussion of how the exotic manifests itself in musical works (e.g., operas and symphonic poems) has often been hasty and mired in unspoken assumptions. There has been even less attention to how the exotic shows up in cultural products that—though we may not immediately think of them when we hear the phrase “musical works”—do make substantial use of music. In the latter category I might mention the French popular song “Petite Tonkinoise” (famous from recordings and at least one video by Josephine Baker); Aphra Behn’s play Abdelazer, whose title character is a vicious prince from Morocco (Henry Purcell provided incidental music for a 1695 revival); and the prize-winning Hollywood film The Good Earth, whose film score (composed by Herbert Stothart and Edward Ward) is dramatically effective but—to my ear, at least—relies on a very limited set of pseudo-Chinese musical features, including some taken directly from Puccini’s opera Turandot.


Throughout much of the twentieth century, the topic of exoticism was largely ignored in serious writings on music. There was, for example, no entry on it (nor on a related concept: Orientalism) in any music encyclopedia until the short ones that I wrote for the 2001 New Grove.  The lack of discussion no doubt derived in part from longstanding habits of music critics, musicologists, and music theorists. We have tended to take non-programmatic instrumental music as the norm—as the basis upon which we construct our analytical approaches and aesthetic values. In most instrumental works, the relationship between the notes (pitches, rhythms, etc.) and broad and important concepts—such as gender, nation, and, yes, the exotic—is inherently harder to define than in works in which musical elements are combined with non-musical elements such as a descriptive title (in, say, a symphonic poem) or sung words, visual images, plot, and gesture (as in an opera).

I have now completed and published—six years apart—what is, in effect, a big book in two volumes, each of which bears its own title. Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections deals mostly with works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (plus a few from the eighteenth); it was released by Cambridge University Press in 2009 (paperback, 2011). Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart is—as its title suggests—a prequel to the 2009 book. It looks at instances of exotic portrayal in a variety of genres from the years 1500-1800; Cambridge released the prequel in June 2015, both as a hardback and as an e-book.

Taken together, the two books set out some principles for grappling with the complex question of how attitudes toward foreign Others—and also toward ethnic, religious, or “racial” Others—are conveyed in musical works (and, as I said, in compound cultural products—films, modern-dance compositions, etc.—that are not, strictly speaking, “musical works”). The instances that are studied range from Baroque-era court ballets (such as a sumptuous one performed at the French royal court, in 1617, about the fabled Syrian sorceress Armide) to solo keyboard pieces (such as “Pagodes,” from Debussy’s Estampes) and popular songs (such as “Under the Bamboo Tree,” by Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, and Vincent Scotto’s aforementioned “Petite Tonkinoise”).

The two books give frequent attention to the varied world of the musical stage. Between them, they re-examine a number of standard-repertory operas—e.g., Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (which re-enacts Western stereotypes about Turkish harems) and Verdi’s Il trovatore (with its vivid portrayal of the vengeful “Gypsy” Azucena)—as well as operas that are performed less often, such as Rameau’s Les Indes galantes (which concludes with an evocation of life among North American “savages”).  The 2009 book also focuses on some major Broadway musicals, such as Desert Song, The King and I, and West Side Story. (Puerto Rican immigrants in 1950s New York City were widely seen by somewhat longer-established residents, including the show’s Jets, as colorful but also threatening.)

How exactly has Western culture portrayed these various cultural Others . . . and why did (and does) it do so? The remainder of the present post briefly summarizes some answers that the two books offer to that big double question.

* * *

Many musical works (and other cultural products using music, such as films) attempt to represent or evoke a place, people, or culture that was understood by the composer—as well as by the original audience—as being somehow exotic. Some exotic-invoking works are for instruments alone and identify the intended portrayal by verbal markers. For example, various passages in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade for orchestra make concrete reference—as we are informed by the titles of the four movements and by the composer’s memoirs—to images from the Thousand and One Nights (e.g., mvt.4: Festival at Baghdad; The Sea; The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze [Statue of a] Horseman—the shipwreck scene refers to a famous episode in The Third Dervish’s Tale).

Other works (such as the aforementioned operas by Mozart, et al.) create portrayals much more concretely and continuously, by allying themselves with sung words; visual images; dramatic characters; dance and gesture; and a wide range of literary traditions, archetypes, and cultural/ethnic/gender stereotypes. Also, at times, such works have recourse to one or another musical style that carried specific ethnic or exotic associations for listeners. Within the Western classical tradition, perhaps the best-known musical marker of an exotic land is the alla turca or “Janissary” style, familiar today from Mozart’s Rondo “alla turca,” the last movement of his Sonata in A, K. 331.

The creators of the exotic works discussed in my two books often give the impression that they have directly encountered a very different part of the world and are now conveying their impressions of it to us. (By “creators” I mean the composers and also their collaborators: notably librettists but also stage designers, performers, and so on.) But they tend to fall into three relatively distinct categories, as regards the culture they are evoking:

  1. A privileged few creators (composers, et al.) of exotic works visited the foreign land in question, or encountered its culture in some other way. Saint-Saëns spent numerous long winter vacations in Egypt and Algeria, and transcribed music that he heard there and wrote about it. (In fact, he was in Algiers, on one of those vacations, when he died.) Debussy attended performances by a Javanese gamelan at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair.
  2. More typical are creators who are influenced, to a greater or lesser degree, by descriptions—accurate or not—that they have read concerning the place or people in question, such as in travel accounts and history books; and/or by representational details that they have encountered in previous exotic works of music, literature, or art. A transcribed Chinese tune, after having been included in several seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books (including the famous music dictionary by philosopher and amateur composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau), was treated imaginatively by Carl Maria von Weber in his incidental music for Schiller’s 1809 adaptation of Gozzi’s play Turandot. A century later, Paul Hindemith made the same tune the basis of the second movement—entitled Scherzo (Turandot)—of his widely performed Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.
  3. Finally, there are those creators—perhaps the largest group—who do no research at all but recirculate stereotypical musical traits long associated—rightly or wrongly—with the foreign region (or else invent style traits meant to sound intriguingly odd to their intended audience). Many composers who used the alla turca style, for example, may never have heard a Janissary band, much less visited the Middle East or done any extensive reading about the region. Certain Renaissance- and Baroque-era dances likewise evoke a distant land through stylistic features associated with the land or people in question. The moresca, notably, was often performed by dancers with darkened skin and wearing bells around their legs, in apparent imitation of darkish-skinned North Africans (“Moors”).
Many of the exotic-evoking pieces that resulted—regardless of which of the three above-mentioned categories their composer fits into—display certain traits that may seem a little surprising or counter-intuitive. First, an exotic work often conveyed (at the time) obsessions, yearnings, and fears that were prevalent within the home culture at the time, but made these feelings more acceptable (amusing, etc.) by clothing them in an outer semblance of Otherness. Richard Rodgers—a composer of the third type in the list above—made the conscious decision not to listen to any music from Thailand before beginning to compose The King and I. 

Instead, he preferred (as he stated in a short essay at the time) to marshal various stylistic devices that he knew would evoke—however inaccurately—a generalized “Asian” sound for his listeners yet not prove an aural puzzlement. As a result, The King and I evokes for many listeners a much wider range of cultural meanings than merely the surface-level one of Britain vs. Thailand. In the famous number “Shall We Dance?” the King of Siam does the polka with his children’s British-born tutor Anna Leonowens. Eventually, he lets go of one of her hands so he can move his hand to her waist (and pointedly mentions that he is doing so). The effect, at least when the show was new (1951), was to challenge longstanding American prejudices about—and, in many states, equally longstanding legal restrictions on—what was often termed “miscegenation” (i.e., interracial sexual relations and marriage).


Second, a work can express exoticizing attitudes without making the slightest gesture toward “sounding foreign.” This is utterly normal in many operas and musicals, and in much film music. The non-musical elements in an opera (for example) tell us where the plot is taking place, what ethnic group the characters represent, and how these characters—understood as more or less “typical” of their group—behave and react. All of this then gets reinforced by music in a wide variety of ways. One of the most frequent ways is for the composer to tap music’s well-developed ability to create mood and to characterize. Thus, in the moment at which Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, makes her initial entrance, climbing up the hill with the female chorus of friends and cousins, the music makes no effort at sounding Japanese. Instead, Puccini seizes the occasion to create an aural effect of exquisite, feather-light loveliness, to captivate the American officer Pinkerton and, at the same time, the opera-house audience.

Baroque operas on exotic subjects operate almost entirely in this manner: that is, they do not try to “sound foreign.” In Handel’s Giulio Cesare, the nasty Egyptian ruler Tolomeo (Ptolemy, brother of the famous Cleopatra) is characterized as preening and vicious. This is indicated by his actions: for example, he has the Roman general Pompey’s head cut off in a misguided attempt at forming an alliance with Julius Caesar, then accosts Pompey’s widow Cornelia and locks her up in his harem. But the message is also powerfully reinforced by Handel’s music, such as Tolomeo’s hyperventilating aria “L’empio, sleale, indegno,” in which this willful, self-absorbed character describes Caesar with disparaging adjectives more appropriate to himself (“the worthless one . . . I shall trample upon his haughty head”). Handel, to make the Egyptian leader’s threats even more unseemly, repeatedly uses what I hear as a laughing figure: two notes sung quickly in succession on the same pitch and vowel (without consonants), thus sounding very much like “ha-ha.” All of this contrasts with the relative self-control manifested, in this opera, by Julius Caesar and, in other operas of the period, by Alexander the Great and other Western monarchs and military leaders.

Indeed, two of the instances I’ve presented earlier in this essay work very much in this manner, namely without any use of sonic clues pointing to the exotic land in question. The music of “Petite Tonkinoise” is a dance-hall polka, not an imitation of pentatonic Vietnamese traditional music. As for “Shall We Dance?”, the music is, well, yes, another polka because that’s the kind of Western dance that Anna is teaching the king how to do. The show’s exoticist attitudes are vividly expressed in other ways: through the king’s initially halting attempts, the mistakes in his sung English, and—after he and Anna have finished the dance—his shift toward making what seems momentarily like a sexual threat against her.

Third and finally, a multi-sensory work such as an opera can use all the basic devices of Western musical art to hold our attention, thus permitting us to enjoy—and perhaps be unconsciously influenced by—the images of Otherness on display. Vocal coloratura (well performed, of course), shimmering orchestration, fascinating harmonies, catchy melodies, impressive motivic development, imaginative formal design—all of these and more can contribute to the evocation of Otherness. In fact, such devices may work on the listener all the more powerfully because they do not in themselves signal ethnic (etc.) “difference.” This third point is perhaps the most counter-intuitive of all the underlying ideas in my two books. I don’t ask anybody to take it on faith but rather to read one or another of my longer work-discussions: for example, about “The Incas of Peru” (the first entrée in Rameau’s Les Indes galantes), whose music contains little or nothing that sounds non-European yet (or thereby) helps us swallow the rather stereotyped images of “pagan”; or Purcell’s aforementioned incidental score to Abdelazer, which entertained the theatergoers before the curtain rose and thereby (I argue) softened them up to accept the garish excesses of the play’s central character (a Muslim tyrant—invented by the playwright—whose name nowadays might be transliterated as Abd el-Azhar); or the “Card Aria” in Bizet’s Carmen, which avoids any features normally associated with Spain or its “Gypsies” yet—in a good performance—cajoles us into accepting the libretto’s portrayal of the title character as both an ethnic outsider to the opera’s “Us” and a superstitious believer in the power of fate.

* * *

In short, the creators of exotic works often reflect attitudes of their own day about what a distant and different region and its people were often imagined as being (on the basis of necessarily incomplete and highly selective information, misinformation, fears, unspoken desires...). With nothing before them but blank sheets of paper (or, today, a blank computer screen), these creators construct aural (or aural-plus-visual, etc.) images that—by turns—tantalize or startle, hint at menace or overflow with delight. These creators transfer those mental images—their own reflections on the exotic (which, as I said, may also resonate with issues Here at Home)—to the blank page so that others can perform them for the rest of us to experience.

I hope that readers will hop aboard one or another of my books—dipping into a chapter or more—in order to explore these works and to reflect further upon the often substantial impact that exoticizing attitudes have made upon Western culture.



I. A first-rate guide to writings about music and the exotic....
II. Some additional writings on general issues or specific repertoires:
  • Bellman, Jonathan. The style hongrois in the Music of Western Europe. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993.
  • __________. “Musical Voyages and Their Baggage: Orientalism in Music and Critical Musicology.” Musical Quarterly 94 (2011): 417-38.
  • Bellman, Jonathan, ed. The Exotic in Western Music. Boston: Northeastern University Press (now University Press of New England), 1998. Includes important chapters by Mary Hunter, Richard Taruskin, the late Gunther Schuller, and others.
  • Bloechl, Olivia A. Native American Song at the Frontiers of Early Modern Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. “Early Modern” in the title refers primarily to the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries.
  • Buch, David J. Representations of Jews in the Musical Theater of the Habsburg Empire (1788-1807). Jerusalem: Jewish Music Research Centre, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012.
  • Cooke, Mervyn. Britten and the Far East: Asian Influences in the Music of Benjamin Britten. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2001.
  • Everett, Yayoi Uno, and Frederick Lau, eds. Locating East Asia in Western Art Music. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2004. 
  • Harris, Ellen T. “With Eyes on the East and Ears in the West: Handel’s Orientalist Operas.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36 (2006): 419-43.
  • Head, Matthew. “Haydn’s Exoticisms: ‘Difference’ and the Enlightenment.” In Caryl Clark, ed., Cambridge Companion to Haydn, 77-92. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Locke, Ralph P. “Doing the Impossible: On the Musically Exotic.” Journal of Musicological Research 27 (2008): 334-58.
  • __________. “On Exoticism, Western Art Music, and the Words We Use.” Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 69 (2012), no. 4: 318-28. 
  • Parakilas, James. “The Soldier and the Exotic: Operatic Variations on a Theme of Racial Encounter.” Opera Quarterly 10 (1994), no. 2: 33-56 and no. 3: 43-69.
  • Pisani, Michael V. Imagining Native America in Music. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Sheppard, W. Anthony. “Exoticism.” In Helen Greenwald, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Opera, 795-816. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Taylor, Timothy D. Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. See also review by John Morgan O’Connell, Twentieth-Century Music 4 (2007): 261-65.
  • Ward, Adrienne. Pagodas in Play: China on the Eighteenth-Century Italian Opera Stage. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2010.
Ralph Locke is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester.

1 comment:

  1. On Nov. 16, a month after posting this essay, I inserted an additional paragraph, in order to link some of my points a little more explicitly. The new paragraph begins "Indeed, two of the instances I’ve presented earlier in this essay..." The two instances that I discuss further in it--instances already discussed in earlier paragraphs and viewable through hotlinks--are the French cabaret song "Petite Tonkinoise" and, from the Broadway show _The King and I_, the fascinating duet for Anna Leonowens and the king of Siam: "Shall We Dance."
    On a separate note: I would encourage readers of this and other essays/posts on Musicology Now to share their thoughts and reactions through the Comment function. (In fact, I'll see if I can offer a Comment or two myself, on other people's posts here!)