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Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart
01 Mar 2016

Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart

In Musical Exoticism (Cambridge 2011) Ralph P. Locke undertook an extensive appraisal of the portrayal of the ‘Other’ in works dating from 1700 to the present day, an enquiry that embraced a wide range of genres from Baroque opera to Algerian rap, and which was at once musical, cultural, historical, political and ethical.

Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart

By Ralph P. Locke

Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-107-01237-0

$80.29  Click to buy

Now Locke has written a ‘prequel’, Music and the Exotic: from the Renaissance to Mozart, which elucidates the ways in which ‘otherness’ as represented in European culture during the years 1500 to 1800 was as much a means of understanding the western condition as it was a way of defining and controlling the foreign.

Music and the Exotic is divided into four Parts. Part 1 establishes the rational, methodology and organising principles of the book and tackles the knotty term ‘exotic’ (exoticism arises from relationships, and does not reside in ‘things’), identifying some of the techniques by which it can be depicted in music. The second Part provides us with cultural background and context through discussion of prose and visual imagery from the Greek, Roman and early Christian eras, set alongside similar accounts and images that arose during the first colonial explorations of the New World. The final two Parts explore representations. First, the words of popular songs and the musical styles of dances and instrumental music are examined; finally, in the lengthy concluding Part, Locke turns to the presentation of the ‘exotic’ in works which assimilate musical and other artistic forms of expression, in the theatre, church and concert hall.

Locke examines musical works and practices alongside cultural events and developments, such as conflicts between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, geographical exploration, the dissemination of ancient Greek and Roman writing about ‘the East’ and its peoples. Each chapter of Parts 3 and 4 chronologically explores a particular genre in the context of political and social issues of the day. The result is that we can see how evolving conceptions about kingship, religious authority, gender and the supernatural were crucial to formulations of identity — of both ‘Us’ and ‘Them’.

Locke notes the instability of extant scores and documents from the years 1500-1800, and he is concerned not just with documents but with performances also. In performance, subconscious decisions about accent, tempo may emphasise ‘Otherness’ or diminish it: as when the young Neapolitans in Jonathan Miller’s most recent production of Così fan tutte disguise themselves not as Albanians, but as bandana-ed bikers. In such instances, Locke argues, the deliberate avoidance of cultural stereotyping — or, simply, imaginative reinterpretation — may result in the removal of ‘questions of cross-cultural fear and attraction that are surely as valid today as they were in Mozart’s day’.

The text is supplemented by visual illustration, and such images are particularly engaging in Part 2, ‘The West and its Others’, which elucidates the historical, philosophical and religious trends that underpin the musical endeavours discussed subsequently. Contemporary drawings, engravings, paintings and maps enable us to appreciate how stereotypical qualities that characterised the ‘exotic’ — ‘unfettered passion’, cruelty, sensuous self-indulgence, superstition — came to be formed. These contemporary ‘images of Elsewhere’ — engravings by Théodore de Rey of ‘Sultan Soleiman Chan’ (Khan Suleiman I), Girolamo Benzoni’s scenes of life in the just-discovered ‘New World’, Erasmus Grasser’s wooden sculptures of moresca dancers, illustrations from Gregorio Lambranzi’s dance treatise of the stylised gestures of ‘Turks’ (with padded bellies, stiff legs, and puffy turbans) — guide the reader to appreciate the complexity of the West’s interaction with the ‘East’, an engagement which combined admiration and adulation with competition and conflict, fear and rejection with praise and appropriation.

The images also bring cultural events and musical performances to life, as when we enjoy an engraving by Étienne Duran of the 1617 French court ballet, Le deliverance de Renaud, in which the sorceress Armide, performed by a male dancer in a riskily revealing costume, is surrounded by her ministers disguised as outsize creatures risen from the ocean floor, who mock her impotence in the face of the challenge by the Christian knight Renaud. Or, when we witness the extravagance of the 1626 ballet, Dowager of Disorder, in which the ‘Entry of the Cachique and his Attendants’ was supplemented by a mock-elephant and blacked-up musicians wearing the leg-bells of the moresca and playing Ottoman pipes and kettledrums.

In this way, the groundwork is securely laid in Parts 1 to 3 for the extensive illustrations of the final section, ‘Exotic portrayals on stage, in concert and in church’. Locke takes us on a tour through high culture — courtly ballets, Venetian intermedi, oratorio, opera — as well as reflecting upon popular art forms — street entertainments, improvised theatre, the Paris fairs, and London ballad opera. I had previously paid little attention to Polly Peachum’s avowal, in Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, that so deep is her love for Macheath she wouldn’t mind being a Caribbean plantation slave if only Macheath could be there with her! Locke speculates, with characteristic and persuasive impartiality, that the light-hearted allusion to a topical debate might have eased theatregoers’ concerns about slavery; or, equally, may have discomforted them with a reminder that their wealth was founded on unsavoury practices.

Through copious exemplars, Locke is keen to show us how the West’s approach to the ‘Other’ has evidenced both stereotype and sympathy. Thus, Handel’s ‘playful vividness’ in his depiction of the buzzing locusts which God inflicts upon the Egyptians ( Israel in Egypt, 1739) is placed alongside Alessandro Scarlatti’s Agar et Ismaele esiliati (Hagar and Ishmael Sent into Exile) of 1683, in which the title characters — biblical, but not ‘Us’ — are made ‘distinctly more sympathetic than their persecutors Abraham and Sarah’. We see, too, how cultural works sometimes employed anachronistic borrowing to comment on modern-day events, as in the case of Vivaldi’s Latin-language oratorio Judith triumphans (1716), a depiction of the Hebrew maiden Judith’s heroic slaying of the Assyrian leader Holofernes which is subtitled ‘sacred military oratorio in these times of war’ — a startlingly explicit allusion to Venice’s armed conflict with the Ottomans.

Locke visits both the unfamiliar and the well-known, and re-examines the latter with a fresh eye revealing contemporary contexts and associations. The musical devices which J.S. Bach uses to depict the Jews in his two Passions are, suggests Locke, designed to ‘frighten and disturb’. In Handel’s oratorios the implied identification of Old Testament kings with the ruling monarch, George II, is countered by the composer’s presentation of Israel’s enemies — the Canaanites, the Amalekites — as representatives of the enemies of England’s monarchy and Church, namely Catholic states and pretenders to the throne. Thus, in Charles Jennens’ libretto the eponymous Belshazzar ‘stands as a barely disguised example of specific complaints that Non-Jurors [who held that the Stuarts and Hanoverians were not legitimate rulers] had about the Hanoverian court’. In this way, the biblical ‘Other’ in familiar oratorios is shown to resonate various cultural and political messages relating to threats from outside the Christian community. Locke explores all possible, and often contradictory, interpretations. So, the Philistine warrior Harapha in Handel’s Samson may be ‘a New-Testament Jew reviling a Christ-like figure’ or ‘a stand-in for various Ottoman sultans’; both views are shown to be consistent with the attitudes of the day.

In the chapters exploring early operatic representations of ‘Elsewhere’, we travel across Europe, from Venice — where the fascination with the exotic (often female) ‘Other’ is exemplified by works such as Cavalli’s Giasone — to France, where the ‘Turkish scene’ in the Act 4 intermède of Lully and Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme — ‘at once hilarious, potentially disturbing, and, for its day, unusually self-conscious’ — is seen to have profound and lasting cultural influence. In England, Henry Purcell concludes The Fairy Queen (with its roots in Shakespeare) with a celebratory masque in which Chinese dancers perform a chaconne, while The Indian Queen is set entirely on exotic terrain. Indeed, the French opera-ballet might consist of what Locke describes as a ‘series of culturesque-éntrees one after another in the manner of a travelogue’: André Campra’s L’Europe galante of 1697 takes us on such a tour of France, Spain, Italy and ‘Turkey’.

Discussing opera seria by Lully and Handel, Locke asks, ‘What makes a serious opera exotic?’, and answers the question by considering musical style and practice, generic traits and traditions, the locales and subjects of Metastasian libretti, and the influence of myth, history and contemporary context. For example, did the commercial interests of investor’s in Handel’s London opera company explain the predominance of ‘the East’ in the composer’s works? Locke is always concerned to consider the way that exotic elements interact with other forces and factors, and his discussions and arguments are thus both diverse and balanced.

Similarly, ‘serious’ engagement with the ‘not Us’ is shown to have been complemented by more comedic — often fanastical, magical or just downright ‘silly’ — cultural commentary on ‘exotic peoples’ as in the commedia and buffa representations of the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Because comic forms presented not distant lands and the mythical or historical past, but were understood to be located in the ‘here and now’, they enacted the social life of the day; and thus could ‘work out anxieties regarding such matters as gender, class … and — crucially — the exoticness of various peoples. Moreover, Locke suggests that, ironically, a tone of levity could be conducive to allusion to sensitive issues. They also allowed a wider range of contemporary peoples to be represented on stage, and a recurring object of fascination, across Europe, were Native Americans as evident in operas such as Inkle and Yarico by Samuel Arnold (1787), Andre Grétry’s Le Huron (The Man from the Huron Tribe, based on Voltaire’s L’ingénu, 1768) and Nicolas Dalayrac’s Azémia; ou, le nouveau Robinson (Azémia, or The New Robinson [Crusoe]; 1786). Locke takes us succinctly and swiftly through many such little-known and rarely performed works, making his points persuasively.

Eventually we reach Gluck and Mozart, but even when we are on familiar ground Locke draws our eye to the unusual or overlooked. Gluck’s Cinesi, composed in 1754 for performance in the presence of Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Empress, and set in the ‘present’, is a good example of how the exotic could be conjured through both the concrete (the overture makes use of an imaginative array of percussion) and the inferred. Locke suggests that beyond the artifice of the visual chinoiserie, the opera, by depicting Chinese courtiers as being no different from their Western counterparts, may have encouraged its audience to reflect upon the Other in a more positive way.

Locke uncovers manifold manifestations of cultural representation of the exotic which highlight both the ubiquity and diversity of such depictions. The journey through Elsewhere leads ultimately to Mozart, but it is not the more obvious candidates, the Pasha and Osmin of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, to whom most attention is given, but rather the ‘scharzer Stummer(mute man who is black) who is introduced in Act 3, and whose hand-signs inform Osmin of the Europeans’ escape. He is a character who reminds us of stereotypes such as the mute assassin, enslaved by Turkish rulers, whose dumbness protected his master from betrayal, and he also embodies the long tradition of portraying exotic foreigners through dance or mime. In Die Zauberflöte we have a quasi-Egyptian locale and priest, a princely hero who wears a Javanese cloak, and a Moorish henchman, Monostasos, whose exoticism is made apparent both by his black skin and alla turca style.

Locke’s research has been both meticulous and exhaustive; the notes and bibliography run to almost 120 pages, and the latter includes online resources and audio- and video-recordings. His prose is lucid and despite the density of information presented, it’s a fluent read. Moreover, handily for students perhaps, in the opening Parts, boxes are occasionally inserted into the text in order to highlight principal ideas, establishing threads. What might seem rather ‘dry’ and didactic is in fact extremely helpful.

Musical terminology is kept to a minimum and analytical observations are unfussy. Every theory or observation is supported by specific reference; the musical features of the alla turca style are exemplified by reference to two choruses from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail; the way text can colour music is exemplified by the conjunction of the familiar (and ethnicity-neutral) descending tetrachord of the Baroque with the Egyptian Hagar’s complaint that the blazing desert sun is causing her son to grow faint. Such examples illuminate convincingly.

This is a fascinating study which argues compellingly that exoticism — a troublesome term! — resides in relationships, which are formed within and between cultural contexts and practices. Locke identifies and evaluates the fruits of such cultural transferences during the years 1500-1800, which were based variously upon ignorance, assumption, knowledge, caricature, indifference, curiosity and admiration — and often a mix of many such perspectives. And, as he has previously shown in his companion work, Musical Exoticism, images of Otherness have been continually revived and developed in the years since — images of ‘Them’ which can help us to understand ‘Us’.

Claire Seymour

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