Orientalism in France

By Leon Botstein

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

The term Orientalism does not refer to characteristics or ethnicities located in a massive geographical region that spread from northern Africa, through the Middle East all the way to Asia, termed indiscriminately in 19th-century Europe as the “Orient.” Rather, it refers to a European fascination and obsession with distant cultures based on an historic accumulation of preconceptions and stereotypes. These developed in the European imagination before the Crusades. They lasted for centuries, with residues still visible in contemporary European and American representations of Islam and Asia. Their currency was enhanced by the experience of colonial and imperial expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Not all these stereotypes were condescending or hostile. Some seemed benign, such as the colorful stories in One Thousand and One Nights. Others were sublimated European fantasies that expressed criticisms and desires otherwise not easily articulated in European societies. And many were used to justify European superiority. All, however, were products and distortions of European imaginations that actual travels and encounters to the lands in question were not capable of dislodging. Consider the two great Orientalist painters of France: the East portrayed by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), who traveled throughout North Africa, was just as idealized and influenced by European preconceptions as those of Jean August Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) who never traveled further than Rome. When Gustav Mahler sought inspiration in Chinese poetry in Das Lied von der Erde, its German translation and musical adaptation rendered it powerfully European.

A particularly intense locus for Orientalism in the 19th century (but hardly the only one) was France. The French fascination with the non-Western world began in earnest with the triumph of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was he who brought the Rosetta Stone to Europe. Champollion used it to unravel the key to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Napoleon brought the glory of the East to France and made France the modern equivalent of ancient Rome, with all the grandeur, glory, and arrogance of that conceit.

Napoleon centralized and modernized France and strengthened Paris’s status as the cosmopolitan crossroads of Europe and the arbiter of international taste and style. The world was judged and characterized in the Parisian press. Fashions were set for the rest of Europe. Individual European nations were not exempt during the 19th century from the imposition of stereotypes any more than Eastern cultures (though the difference between Europeans was pale in comparison to the difference between the European and non-European). The French, for example, considered the English to be cold and calculating, too steeped in the Old Testament, and thoroughly unmusical. They thought the Germans turgid and given to abstruse abstractions. German philosophers, according to the French, were schoolmasters and either rigid idealists or materialists. The German people were considered aggressive and unrefined. But the French celebrated themselves for their quick intelligence, their wit, elegance, and graceful style.

But although France experienced industrialization and urbanization in the 19th century, the dominance of a pre-modern rural ideal was never shattered. It was the countryside and the provincial life that helped sustain a national self-identity tied to nature and landscape in a manner quite different from the English experience. In the 19th century, France uniquely experienced a population decline. There was, by the end of the 19th century, a fear that France was deteriorating and that its greatest days were in the past. This insecurity was inspired first by the Napoleonic defeat in 1815 and then reinforced in 1870 when the Prussians vanquished the French with astonishing speed. France found itself in an odd position, in which its increasing powerlessness both economically and politically was compensated by its conceit as home—in Paris—to a culture emblematic of the highest aristocratic and bourgeois refinement and sophisticated mores. At the same time, under Napoleon III and the Third Republic, France pursued its colonial and imperial ambitions, sustaining and fueling the symbiosis between Orientalism and the French conceits of aesthetic clarity, elegance, and taste.

Therefore, beneath the mask of French cultural smugness lay a profound insecurity. In terms of 19th-century musical culture, one response to that insecurity was to grab hold of the German classical and romantic musical traditions of Beethoven, Schumann, and most significantly Wagner, and make them instruments of a French national cultural revival. To this unexpected form of cultural appropriation we owe the achievements of Chausson, Chabrier, D’Indy, and ultimately Debussy. The role played by César Franck can be linked to the impetus provided by Wagnerism. The goal, after 1870, was to create a new and distinct French musical tradition.

A parallel response, evident already at mid-century, was to enhance French distinctiveness by instilling music with elements of the exotic and Orientalism. Bizet’s Djamileh can be seen as the musical equivalent of the paintings of Henri Regnault (1843–71), whose Salome and Summary Execution evoke the kind of Orientalist exoticism that became wildly popular at mid-century. The exoticism in French art and music derived from Moorish Spain (North Africa) and the entire Ottoman Empire, as well as Asia (note Debussy’s use of a Japanese print for the publication of La mer) and sub-Saharan Africa. Ultimately, it was the Indian subcontinent and the Middle and Far East that seemed to offer the most fertile ground for French Orientalism. This is because, unlike southern Africa or Polynesia, these areas contained civilizations that could be made as complex or reductive as the European artist required. And furthermore, they were seen as decayed and deteriorated, which meant they appeared not competitive with Europe. Although the “primitive” regions of the Pacific might satisfy a Gauguin who tried to escape occidental civilization, a French artist could easily to turn to the East if he or she wanted to say something important about France. At the core of much of the appropriation of the “oriental” in 19th-century music was the intent to critique and explore all things Western, notably familiar romantic mores regarding sexuality and sensuality.

In the case of music, the appropriation of Orientalist elements commented particularly on the French self-definition and self-image in terms of musical materials, sonorities, and forms. What passed for melody, harmony, and form in music were redefined by the inspirations that appropriated or imagined “oriental” practices provided. They were used to challenge the dominance of German classical rule-makers and form-givers, the patrons of sonata-form, fugues, and traditional four-part harmony in the style of J.S. Bach.

Not surprisingly, though all of the composers on tonight’s program appropriate “oriental” musical elements, only one of these composers actually spent a considerable amount of time outside of France. This was Saint-Saëns, who had a real explorer’s personality. He traveled extensively and adored North Africa. He composed a work entitled Africa, as well as an “Egyptian” Piano Concerto. Yet this Orientalist aspect was integrated into his outspoken allegiance to the task of transcending the perceived differences between the German and the French. His most successful opera, Samson and Delilah (1877), bears witness to how the use of Orientalism permitted him to do this. Orientalist gestures are integrated with perfectly-constructed counterpoint and fugal writing. For all his romance with the non-Western, Saint-Saëns remained an eclectic defender of the traditions of Mozart and Beethoven. Franck, who was arguably the decisive original voice in 19th-century French musical cultural (although a Belgian), also found his particular affinity in Les Djinns (a subject to which Gabriel Faure would later return) with the mysteries in the legends of the Middle East.

Djamileh suggests that Bizet, like Ravel, was captivated by what was perhaps the most influential fictional work of Orientalism in France, One Thousand and One Nights. This collection, still popular today, was originally collated and translated into French in 1717 by Antoine Galland. There is still debate about how much of it was translated from original sources and how much of it was made up by Galland. Ravel was one in a long line of musicians taken by that collection. Alfred de Musset’s story, Namouna, on which Djamileh is based, is in the tradition of Galland. The harem is located in Cairo. Bizet, arguably the most talented composer of the mid-19th century in France, whose death at the age of 37 was a shock to his contemporaries, wrote many of his most successful scores exploiting a self-conscious exoticism, not only derived from nearby Spain (as in Carmen), but elsewhere, as in his early neglected symphonic ode, Vasco da Gama.

The youngest of the composers on this program, Maurice Delage, a student of Ravel, represents a later stage of the French fascination with the non-Western. His near contemporary, the critic, novelist, and activist Romain Rolland, authored a biography of Gandhi and Tagore and was attracted to Vedanta philosophy. India became a key focus for that generation. It is in Delage’s music, however, that we see most clearly the impact on modernism of two centuries of the French and Western effort to define its cultures with and against a construct of the East and the “other.” Indeed, as the Ravel and Delage works suggest, the character of 20th-century music, particularly that portion of it that emerges from France and especially Paris, cannot be fully understood without considering the patterns and legacy of 19th-century orientalism.