Exoticism And Orientalism In Classical Music
There is a long tradition of classical composers writing music evoking the exotic non-western world , and many operas and other works attempt to depict the exotic and the oriental .
For example , the great French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau , a close contemporary of Bach and Handel, wrote an opera called "Les Indes Galantes", which takes place in both Asia and South America , and in which he made an 18th century attempt to portray exoticism in music . In Mozart's day, there was considerable interest in Turkish culture , as the Ottoman army had been defeated some time in the past from conquering the Austro-Hungarian empire .
The so-called Janissary music, or Turkish marching bands with exotic percussion instruments captured the imagination of Austrians, and Mozart wrote the famous opera "The Abduction From the Seraglio, " set to a libretto in German, which takes place in Turkey . In the opera, a Turkish Pasha has captured a young Spanish noblewoman and her maid, and wants to make her part of his Harem . But her betrothed, whom she loves, has come to Turkey to try to rescue her . Everything ends happily when the Pasha magnanimously allows the two to be united and to leave Turkey .
There is the comical character of the Pasha's grumpy and bombastic servant who guards the Harem and wants the servant girl for himself . Mozart uses percussion in the opera to imitate the exotic Janissary music . It's a delightful comic opera with spoken dialogue in between the musical numbers .
Giuseppe Verdi's famous opera "Aida", which takes place in ancient Egypt, was comissioned by the Khedive of Egypt to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal in the early 1870s , and was actually premiered at the opera house in Cairo . Verdi used exotic scales to evoke ancient Egypt in parts of the opera, even though we have no real idea of what ancient Egyptian music was like . But the music certainly sounds convincing .
Likewise, great 19th century Russian composers such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov , Alexander Borodin and others wrote music inspired by the orient and the exotic, non-russian parts of the Russian empire . Rimsky's famous orchestral suite "Scheherezade", is a vivid and colorful evocation of the Arabian Nights , Borodin's "Polovetzian Dances" from his opera "Prince Igor" evokes the world of the Turko-Tatar warriors of the ancient Russian steppes .
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the great French composer Claude Debussy (1962 -1918) was became fascinated with the orient when he heard the exotic music of the Indonesian Gamelan in Paris and other Asian musics at Parisian expositians . Some of his piano works are inspired by these Asian influences , and a number of people from China have actually stated that Debussy is their favorite Western composer because his music reminds them so much of Chinese music ! There are similar exotic influences in some of the music of his younger contemporary Maurice Ravel (1875 -1937 ), famous for his Bolero .
The less well-known but wonderful French composer Albert Roussel, who was their contemporary , actually spent time travelling in India and what is now Cambodia and Vietnam , and this inspired some fascinating works, such as the exotic opera "Padmavati", which deals with the Moghul invasion of India in the middle ages , and the "Evocations" for orchestra, which evokes the great temples of Indochina, such as Angkor Wat, which he visited .
!9th century French composers such as Leo Delibes and Georges Bizet of Carmen fame wrote operas such as "Lakne", the story of the daughter of a Brahman priest in India and her doomed love affair with a handsome young English soldier, and Bizet wrote " The Pearl Fishers, which takes place on what in now called Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon . These operas, though entertaining, are ot really very authentic at all, unlike Roussel's Padmavati , the product of an actual visit to India .
More recently, a number of American composers have studied the exotic Gamelan music of Indonesia , such as Lou Harrison (1917 -2003 ), who was very interested in Asian music, and the Canadian composer Colin McPhee wrote an orchestral piece called "Tabuh-Tabuhan ", inspired by Indonesian music, which he studied there . Philip Glass, the most famous minimalist composer, has also written operas inspired by exotic subjects, such as "Satyagraha, " based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, and "Akhenaten", which takes place in ancient Egypt .
And contemporary Asian composers such as Chinese-born, New Yorked based Tan Dun (1957-) and Japan's Toru Takemitsu and others written music which is a kind of fusion between east and west .
Yes, exotic elements have been a fruitful source of inspiration for many Western composers , and there's much more to explore than the music of the composers mentioned here .