Lawrence Kramer. “Consuming the Exotic: Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe.” Pp. 201-25 in Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1995.
Kramer is interested in the rise of France’s consumer culture at the turn of the century and sees an analogue between the rise of department stores like the Bon Marché, Emile Zola’s description of them in The Ladies Paradise (1883), and the Grand Bazars of the Hotel de Ville with Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1909). He proposes that even when the customer in such a store bought something with no exotic aura, surely the most common occurrence, the sheer number of goods to choose from, many of them of a kind that only the rich could buy before the advent of mass production, endowed the simple act of buying with the aura of colonial adventure.
He links consumerism with Ravel’s treatment of orchestration and melody. Daphnis et Chloes embodies the cultural supremacy by which Europe subsumes and organizes the non-European world. To “contain” yet express the exotic, Ravel’s orchestration technique always sounds as an ensemble, never as a mass, and the standard gradations of melody, countermelody, and accompaniment are disenfranchised.
It also embodies the new turn in European prosperity: the shift from a culture of production to a culture of consumption. One way he placed value on consumption was on his treatment of melody. Kramer looks at a number of thematic recurrences: the main theme with its leap of a fifth, as well as a second theme that undulates a long note with a shorter one a second lower. The movement of a melody is governed neither by Classical techniques of fragmentation and development, nor by Romantic techniques of continuous growth and change, but by techniques of reproduction, iteration, similitude–techniques we might suggest strikingly similar to those by which commodities are identified and distributed, as described by Zola in The Ladies’ Paradise, for example.
He ties this reproduction to not only consumerism of department stores, but also claims that the “reiterative process makes the music unfold cinematically; the mosaic-in-motion is a montage of sonorities. By retiring highly colored musical gestures that, like camera shots, are relatively brief, stable, and independent, ravel invests them with an analogue to the peculiar doubleness that his contemporaries found in cinematic images: a combination of photographic truth with undisguised artifice and falsification.
Ultimately he suggests that both the means and the end of the dream of mass consumption is the acquisition of pleasure in material form. But the pleasure acquired is dematerialized in the very process of acquisition. It is always, and of necessity, purely imaginary. Like the commodity form, Ravel’s music is a simulacrum, divorced from production – a surface offering a vision and plenitude and bless it cannot deliver. It’s a damning critique.