Expanding the French Musical Palette

By Jann Pasler

Written for the concert Orientalism in France, performed on Feb 10, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

Expressing the complexity of French attitudes toward its Oriental “Other,” both imagined and real, Orientalism has appeared in myriad forms in French music. With aggressive marches representing imperialist desire, veiled dancing girls seductive and mysterious, and passionate love duets defying irreconcilable differences, the conventions of Western dreaming in music took shape in a wide variety of styles and genres, with an ever-growing array of cultural referents, sometimes with limited success. Eclectic by nature, the aesthetic has been useful to both romantics and modernists: to stimulate dreaming and escape, to assert French superiority, and to expand the French musical palette. From Camille Saint-Saëns to Maurice Delage, the scales, rhythms, and timbres of music from far away infused French music with a distinction integral to French notions of progress.

In Orient et Occident, Saint-Saëns plays with musical stereotypes of the East and West. Composed after the 1867 Universal Exhibition when Parisians heard music from North Africa to China, the march was written for large wind band (27 to 32 instruments), expanded for orchestra in 1909. Whereas the 1869 score starts with a loud brass tutti, in the 1909 version the strings present the opening theme, as if the string quartet is the quintessential Western ensemble. Articulating a French ideology of Western superiority, its ABA’ form suggests the way that stereotypes about progress often work. The A sections, with their melodic development and timbral variety coded as Western, serve as the framework for understanding, containing, and dominating the B section, with its undulating melismas and unpitched percussion instruments coded as Eastern. In ways far more complex than the typical military march, Saint-Saëns does not merely juxtapose their differences, but instead deploys an arsenal of compositional and formal devices to make his point, including a five-part fugue. By the end of this march, however, the juxtaposition and binary opposition of East and West seem an illusion, perhaps a comment on the assimilationist process and its implicit moral values.

In 1872, when Saint-Saëns’s La Princesse jaune, with its early use of pentatonicism, premiered at the Opéra-Comique, so did Bizet’s one-act Djamileh. Set in Egypt, it opens with a march and crescendos, but when introducing the two tenors, closed-mouth singing by the chorus (later also used in Delibes’s Lakmé) invites the listener to dream. As night falls and phantoms seem to arise from the smoke, not only do the two men dream of love, so does the veiled slave girl, Djamileh, hovering in the shadows. Compared with the sultry passivity of the males, this mezzo’s desire to “conquer” one of them with her “Arab song,” albeit of indecisive tonality, raises the question of who French audiences were meant to identify with, the men or the woman, after their humiliating defeat to the Prussians. As in Samson et Dalila and with descending chromaticism reminiscent of Dalila’s seductive air, Haroun and Djamelih echo one another’s lines and, as they come into unison, surrender to ecstasy. Unfortunately, after ten performances, the work did not return to the Opéra-Comique until 1938.

For all their differences, few today would pair Saint-Saëns with Franck. However, the two shared a taste for virtuoso works for piano and orchestra and Franck’s rarely performed symphonic poem, Les Djinns, with its ominous tone alternating with lyrical moments, its ending in pianistic virtuosity, may have influenced these same aspects of Saint-Saëns’s Africa (1891). Franck’s first theme is a march in the violins, marcato. But its structure is based on a poem by Victor Hugo. Mirroring the imagined arrival and then departure of the djinns—invisible, supernatural creatures, capable of good and evil, and, before Islam, considered muses of poets—Hugo begins with very short verses of three syllables each [Dans la plaine/nait un bruit]. This builds gradually to 12-syllable lines [Cris de l’enfer, voix qui hurle, et qui pleure], and then reverses the pattern to three- and two-syllable verses [l’espace/efface/le bruit]. Franck’s music echoes this formal shape, more or less, with three-measure phrases that start quietly and grow to six measures in the piano, 12, then 28, and 36 measures in the orchestra, fff and multo espressivo, before reversing the pattern. Yet, the tonal movement from F-sharp minor to F-sharp major remains troubling, like the effect of the djinns on humans.

Ravel’s too is an idealized Orient, with djinns, dancing girls in a harem, and barbarian excess. However, his musical predecessor is neither Saint-Saëns nor Franck, but Rimsky-Korsakov. While still a student, Ravel conceived his Overture to Shéhérazade, inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, as introduction to an opera. If the work remained unpublished until 1975, it was perhaps due to strong criticism at its only performance in 1899. Willy called it “a clumsy plagiarism of the Russian school, Rimsky faked by a Debussyian who is anxious to equal Erik Satie.” D’Indy called it, “Chère razade.” Pierre Lalo found its succession of short fragments sharing the same incoherence as in Grieg or Balakirev, but admitted that the orchestration was full of ingenious timbral effects. Certainly Ravel and his friends were fascinated with Russian music. But listen also to the brass that prefigures Debussy’s La Mer. More stereotypically Orientalist is the oboe arabesque that begins the work—a possible reference to the North African raita, a second theme inspired by a Persian melody, and whole tone scales that Ravel later admitted he had enough of here to last him a lifetime. Some motives went into his song cycle Shéhérazade (1903), a work d’Indy judged as one of his best.

Ravel only made it to the “Orient” in 1935—Marrakech—but a good friend and composition student, Delage, accompanied his parents in 1912 to visit their shoe polish factories in India. The music he heard there and the recordings he brought back had a profound influence on his Four Hindu Poems for voice and chamber ensemble. The first and last of the set, which open similarly, are conventionally Orientalist in that the text likens India to a beautiful woman and the music breaks into a Western-style climax, as if in response to her. However, the middle two songs are based on two sides of the same recording I located in Varanasi. The second, “Lahore,” which invites the listener into reverie, includes Delage’s transcription for cello of a Jaunpuri Alap on the surbahar by Imdad Kahn. Moreover, the vocal part includes a long melisma for closed-mouth singing, perhaps the first use of this technique for soloists in western music. “Trying to find those Hindu sounds that send chills up my spine,” as he wrote to Stravinsky, Delage incorporated the sound of Indian music—new to his contemporaries. Challenging them to think about music differently, he did not go unrewarded. At its premiere in 1914, “Lahore” stole the show, upstaging Ravel and Stravinsky’s music. Since then the Hindu Poems have been recorded numerous times (by Janet Baker, Felicity Lott, Dawn Upshaw, and others), ironically more than other works on this program, and yet by the least known of these composers.

Dr. Pasler is a musicologist, pianist, documentary filmmaker, and Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego. Her essays on music, culture, and politics can be found at writingthroughmusic.com.