Ralph P. Locke. "Cutthroats and Casbah Dancers, Muezzins and Timeless Sands: Musical Images of the Middle East." 19th-Century Music, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Summer, 1998), pp. 20-53
Locke provides a theoretical basis for understanding and discussing musical exoticism. Specifically, he asks five questions: (1) how much do works claim to reflect the ‘real’ Orient? (2) How much do works construct a fantasy of the Orient? (3) How are these reflections/fantasies carried out, musically and extra musically? (4) If “Oriental” devices are present, how do they differ from Hungarian-Gypsy or Native American devices? (5) Do these musical devices relate to any lived “real” Oriental music?
Alongside these guiding questions, Locke argues that as much as they may claim to represent the ‘Orient,’ they are also fictitious and intended to be enjoyable entertainments of aesthetic diversions. This very fictions nature of music has detrimental effects, because it allows people to get away with prejudicial portrayals of other peoples and places. Even if those images were more or less accurate reflections of Middle Easterners, they still might serve imperialist ends.
But as Edward Said has noted, the cultural work the arts of the West carry out to invoke other cultures is not necessarily repressive or regrettable. In fact, a given work, such as Léo Deliber’s Lakme (1883), which depicts English attempt to rule India as neither heroic nor admirable nor utterly vile, might communicate both acceptance and anxiety over the ramifications of imperial policies.
Locke traces the beginnings of Oriental evocations to the Alla Turca of the late 18th and early 19th centuries which was intended to mimic Turkish janissary marches, although later evocations of and representations of the Middle East in Boieldiu’s Le Calife de Bagdad (1800), Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri (1813), and Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon (1825-1826), differed and were multifaceted – not simply representations of cruel and boorish tyrants.
The 1830s and 1840s saw a sudden burst in production and reception of compositions portraying the Middle East seriously and imaginatively, partially as a result of early ethnomusicology efforts but also increased travel by composers and Europeans such as Félicien David (and later Saint-Saens), who would compose “travelogues” like Le Désert (1844) (essentially a precursor to Bacchanale and Carmen). This was the moment when Middle Eastern music became marked as female, focusing on “Le Harem,” and Arabic female dancers, which it would remain well past the end of the century.
Thanks to growing amateur pianism, a number of these portrayals of the Middle East spread more. However, the reduction of Arab maqamat to the Aeolian mode of many of the arab aires of the mid-century stripped the Orient of its subtle variety. Piano repertoire grew into parlor music, championed by Saint-Saens’s (La Nuit Persane, 1891) and Maurice Ravel’s Shéhérazade (1903). But what was true of song was also true of opera, most notably Verdi’s Aida (1871), where, on the operatic stage the female became even more the object of focused detailed and obsessive attention. At the same time, operas like Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine (1865), tended to reserve exotic music to the “background” of numbers without singing, and as a sort of “exotic colorism.”
Locke does not always see this “local color” as a negative quality. These numbers, even if marginal, were successful and appealing to audiences. And many times they were not even marginal, such as Saint-Saen’s Dalila character, whose whole exotic danger only has to be stated once before the implications become very clear throughout the rest of the opera.
Saint-Saens continued the lineage of David’s travelogues and composed some particularly successful evocations of the Middle East, not only in Samson and Delila, but notably his Suite algérienne (1880) for orchestra which is set in one of Algier’s many cafés and represents Moors engaged in dances that are unrestrained to the sounds of flutes, foke fiddles, and hand drums. His movements themselves maintain relatively static mode, but between movements, he shifts modes from dorian to mixolydian to ionian in an effort to replicate the variety of Middle Eastern performance practices.
The Twentieth century represented a shift in how to address the orient. They were wondering, if the exotic represented such a thrilling appeal to audiences, why seal it off to only a few choruses, dance numbers, and orchestral interludes? Locke attributes the rise of symbolism to helping composers enter a realm of magic, otherworldly mysticism, and sensual gratification. At the same time, colonialism had turned Cairo and Algiers into cities that represented Europe, less the Middle East, so composers had to imagine the Orient as an idea as opposed to a reality. Modal structures, ornamental melisma (“arabesque”) abounded in the music of Ravel and Debussy (which Locke argues they may have copped from Rimsky Korsakov’s depictions of Persia, among others).
Once Oriental music moved from the parlor into the “popular,” a host of composers like Boulez ran away. Exoticism no longer was incorporated into the style of a composer, like Debussy and Messiaen, but by the mid-20th century had become its own artistry for its own sake.