Recently 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.