A Broader View on Musical Exoticism

Ralph P. Locke


Most previous writings on musical exoticism reflect the unspoken assumption that a work is perceived by the listener as exotic only if it incorporates distinctively foreign or otherwise highly unusual elements of musical style. This “Exotic Style Only” Paradigm often proves revelatory, especially for purely instrumental works. In operas and other musicodramatic works set in exotic locales, by contrast, music is heard within a narrative “frame” that shapes the listener’s response. Yet the existing literature on “the exotic in music” tends to restrict its attention to those few scenes or passages (in such works ) that “sound non-Western.” It also tends to leave unmentioned the many Baroque-era operas and dramatic oratorios that focus on despicable Eastern tyrants.
The present article proposes an “All the Music in Full Context” Paradigm to help make sense of a variety of exotic portrayals that are strikingly diverse in message and means: 1) Les Indes galantes (Rameau’s application of standard musico-rhetorical devices to manipulative and anti-colonialist speeches by the Peruvian leader Huascar); 2) Belshazzar (Handel’s vivid musical setting of the passage in which the cruel, cowardly Eastern despot seeks oblivion in drink); 3) Bizet’s Carmen (the Card Scene, which is notably free of Hispanic or other local color yet, through rigidly recurring devices in voice and orchestra, indelibly limns Carmen’s Gypsy fatalism); and 4) three prominent dramatic moments, two of them rarely discussed, in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. In each case, the full range of artistic components–including musical devices that lie within or outside the traditional exotic vocabulary–enriches our understanding of how diversely, powerfully, sometimes disturbingly the exoticizing process can function in genres that combine music with dramatic representation.

Keywords: Carmen (Bizet), Belhazzar (Handel), exoticism, Les Indes galantes (Rameau), Madama Butterfly (Puccini)

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