Savage Song

RameauRecently I’ve been taken by the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau, a French Baroque composer and Enlightenment-era music theorist. Rameau was a divisive figure in his day because he broke from the supremely elegant and nuanced style that had made the court of Louis XIV the center of late-17th-century musical life in Europe. This excerpt from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1676 opera Atys gives a sense of the sensitivity and sophistication of 17th-c. French music. Compared to Lully, Rameau’s music was daring and experimental. He turned the orchestra into a powerful beast and wrote music that more dense, more harmonically adventuresome, and more aggressive. He was Frank Sinatra to Lully’s Bing Crosby, the Rolling Stones to Herman’s Hermits, N.W.A. to De La Soul; etc. (making analogies is curiously addictive).

I’ve had Rameau on my mind because I recently re-read Olivia Bloechl’s fantastic book about the impact of Native American song on French and English music in the early modern period. For anyone interested in learning more about how colonial encounters with North American Indians reverberated in French Baroque music, I can’t recommend Bloechl’s book highly enough. She notes that Rameau’s detractors called his music “savage,” a charged word that tapped into broader questions about human nature and human history. As descriptions and transcriptions of Native American songs rolled into Paris, writers like Rousseau wondered whether this was the music of l’homme naturel. Did Indians’ “savage” music represent a pure, primitive stage of human development, or had colonial encounter tainted that purity? In this context, the word “savage” was quite slippery and unstable, but when applied to Rameau, “savage” it seemed to imply he was a frontiersman, breaking new musical ground (whether breaking new ground was good or bad was a matter of heated debate in 18th-century music circles).

Rameau was himself interested in the “savage” music of the New World. He attended the performance of two Indians who visited Paris in 1725 (whom the Mercure de France opaquely identified as being from “Louisiana”). Rameau’s ballet-opera hybrid Les Indes galantes (1735) includes a vignette titled “Les Sauvages” that was inspired by Native American music. In particular, Rameau claimed to have based one of the dance-chorus numbers titled “Danse du grand calumet de la paix” on the dances he witnessed in 1725. (Technically Rameau wrote a keyboard piece based on the dances first, then orchestrated it and added a choral part for Les Indes galantes.)

We don’t know what the visiting Indians’ dance consisted of, but Rameau’s “characterization” (his word) is alluring because it suggests what musical features stood out the most to him, and tells us something about how Indians were perceived in cosmopolitan Paris. (I include link to the dance in the next paragraph.) The musical element that Rameau emphasized is rhythm: the entire dance presents a strong, steady pulse that is reinforced both by a beating drum and by the stark, angular melody. The thump of the drum seems to suggest the stomping of feet. Rameau tempers the strength of this vigorous dance by setting it in the key of G minor, which was associated with the exotic and feminine in the 18th century. What he delivers is a remarkably concise depiction of the fascination and ambivalence provoked by Native American music.

This little analysis shows how rewarding it can be to dig into musical works, yet it isn’t the music alone that makes Rameau’s work compelling; I’ve been particularly haunted by a recent production of Les Indes galantes by William Christie. This performance of “Danse du grand calumet de la paix” is strikingly exoticist. The Indian characters are presented nearly as caricatures. The dancers are in animalistic costumes, and the singing characters wear with head feathers, face paint, leather dresses with tassels, and pipes hanging out of their mouths. If the music tells us something about 18th-century stereotypes, the costumes in Christie’s production delivers the kind of exoticism scholars have become attuned to in the 20th and 21st centuries. What I don’t know how to interpret is the choreography, with its wing-flapping and sashaying. I’m no dance scholar, but I know enough about French Baroque conventions to know these dances are modern inventions.

This strikes me as piece that could be effective for teaching, since it illustrates wonderfully how information from the New World was incorporated into European metropolitan centers through the medium of music. No less interesting is how the language used to discuss colonial encounter was also adopted by those concerned with the aesthetics and theory of music. But I wonder if this performance would be too inflammatory for the classroom? The artistic integrity of everything Christie does is impeccable, and I believe this production is meant to be nuanced and provocative rather than offend. But it certainly takes the stereotypes about Indians from the comfortably historicized 17th- and 18th-century French sources and brings them into the 21st century.

6 responses

  1. I enjoyed this, Glenda. The references to savagery are without a doubt related to the epistemology of monstrosity in early modern French thought, something I find myself writing about in considerable detail lately, particularly as it figures in perceptions of operatic genre. An opéra-ballet like Les Indes galantes would surely have struck commentators and audiences as an entirely different venture than a tragédie en musique. The idea of Rameau breaking new ground is one thing; on the other hand, even early in his career the genre of opéra-ballet was not new. It signaled a kind of threat to the continued viability of lyric tragedy and at the same time confirmed the decline of the older, more solemn genre. In light of the ideology of genre, Rameau is a symptom rather than an illness, one of a number of agents in this savage move away from tragedy rather than its singular cause.

    • Thanks for your thoughts about French audiences, Gina. One thing I’ve wondered with Les Indes is whether the depictions of Turks, Native Americans, etc. would have struck audiences as silly or absurd. Do you think that fits with the general attitude toward opéra-ballet as a genre?

      • That is a little more difficult to say, since there was an element of perceived absurdity in opera to begin with, owing to the fact that the livret was sung and at times obscured by its musical accompaniments. Comments on opéra-ballet pick up steam into the middle of the century, but even then a number of people — connoisseurs or academics, I should say: it’s harder to locate comments from the average day laborer in the parterre — spoke of opéra-ballet as insubstantial or frivolous, even laughable. Its plots lacked the depth and solemnity of lyric tragedy and a lot of the actual recitative that drove the action in tragic works. The one thing many people seemed to agree on was that the keyword for the opéra-ballet was variété. I think the sense is pejorative: entrée after entrée, there were piquant musical numbers, but poetry often suffered and plots rarely focused on anything more significant than love and amusement.

  2. This is fascinating and intriguing. Thank you for such an interesting post and set of questions. I am curious also about Christie’s choreography. I am no musicologist, but to me it made sense with the music as well as what were the word of mouth (or handwritten) descriptions of Indigenous dances seen by colonials. It struck me as truthful both as a reflection of how a 17th c French composer and audience may have understood Indigenous people and dance, as well as how to them they may looked both outlandish and exotic. I was not surprised to see the characaturization of Indians — that also strikes me as probably pretty accurate. I would, like you Glenda, like to know if Christie just restaged the dance originally choreographed for Rameau, or if he created it. I also loved the lyrics which give valuable insight into the ills and anxieties of 17th c France — the desire for peace and a refuge.

    I would definitely use this in my colonial history class. And yes it is and would be provocative, but it would also probably instigate a great conversation about the wash-back of Indigenous America into the metropole and how this may have or may not have influenced colonial policies and actions.

    I would note also the power of this encounter today which I saw in your first paragraph — when you described Rameau and his music you said he was a “beast” and that is music was “adventuresome” and aggressive.” These tropes reminded me that we are all products of colonialism and that the shock and mystery of these encounters still resonate today.

    Thanks again, and I will be reeadinbg that book.

  3. Pingback: De cómo me encontré con los “salvajes” en París | sephatrad


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