By Daniel Sheridan
Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) is one of the most enduring and influential works of cultural criticism of the last 45 years. In it, he advances the argument that Western depictions of the Orient, ranging from artistic representations to academic scholarship, have persistently carried an ideological payload: to frame the Near- and Middle East as an object of study, an object of pleasure for the West. The consistent troping of the Orient’s “mysteriousness” and “exoticism” assigns it an “otherness” from an Occidental perspective, but in emphasizing those qualities presents a caricatured image that softens any potential anxieties about that otherness. This form of politicized “Orientalism” serves the ideologies of colonialism and empire, suppressing the East’s agency in representing itself and in turn “colonizing” the Orient by turning it into essentially a commodity for Western consumption. Said’s work, initially highly controversial and still not without detractors, is now a foundational text that has influenced any number of scholars and cultural critics and forced us to rethink how we perceive foreign cultures and to be more critical of caricatured depictions and their accompanying political subtexts.
Music was no stranger to this type of Orientalism. One need only think of Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio and its use of “Turkish” sounds to come to this conclusion. The 19th century was a particularly fruitful period for musical exoticism. Composers such as Bizet, Delibes, Saint-Saëns, Puccini and Verdi among others presented Oriental settings and persons in depictions at various points opulent, sensual, beguiling, a portrait of the East as a sonic and scenic spectacle for Western spectatorship.
Russian composers were major practitioners of musical Orientalism, but the country’s own history lent its excursions into the East a somewhat different undercurrent than those of the Europeans. Like Europe, Russia’s history was one of imperialist expansion. Unlike the European imperial powers, who grew their domains through colonization of far-flung lands, much of the Russian empire was geographically contiguous, continually expanding to absorb adjacent territories (many of those territories becoming the various republics of the eventual Soviet Union). Russia’s foothold extended into the Asian continent, which would make Orientalism a natural fascination for Russian art. Like their European counterparts, Russia “colonized” the East through the use of “Oriental” sounds and imagery. However, musicologist Richard Taruskin suggests a potential distinction: the Orientalism of the European nations served to emphasize the East’s fundamental difference from the West; the geographical proximity of the Asian lands to Russia leads Taruskin to posit that Russian music’s Eastern appropriations is perhaps actually an expression of selfhood. Having absorbed those Asian territories, to adopt those sounds of the Orient is to express the Russian identity.
Although a diverse array of 19th Century Russian composers sought to evoke the Orient in their soundscapes, the popularity of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most enduring works, among them Scheherazade, perhaps affixes the Orientalist tag to him to an even greater degree than someone like Tchaikovsky or even his “Mighty Five” compatriot Mussorgsky. This despite the fact that as Russian music scholar Adalyat Issiyeva points out, Rimsky-Korsakov considered his Eastern stylings inauthentic, borne of a lack of first-hand experience with Asian and Middle-Eastern cultures. Of course, Said might have evaluated this as a potent illustration of his point about Orientalism: Rimsky-Korsakov, by the composer’s own apparent admission, mobilized not the “real” Orient, but a popularized (and stereotypical) imagination of the region that spoke to the prejudices of an imperial power.
Whatever Rimsky-Korsakov’s misgivings might have been, it is the “exoticism” of Scheherazade that continues to bequeath the work its drawing power. The title of course evokes the narrator of the collected stories that make up the Arabian Nights. The collection’s framing device of 1001 executed virgin brides and a monarch beguiled by a woman’s storytelling prowess draws upon a popular Orientalist convention of depicting the East as home to unrestrained sensual delights considered immoral to more conservative societies. By displacing such profligacy onto the exoticized other, audiences could indulge their libidinal fantasies without risk to decorum. Rimsky-Korsakov’s renowned scoring, replete with attractive orchestral colours, does more than a little to play into this notion of the East as a repository of earthly pleasure.
Recurring through each of the suite’s four movements are passages for solo violin accompanied by harp: this is the musical characterization of Scheherazade herself. This leitmotif in its way has the greatest lineage to Eastern music: another “Mighty Five” colleague, Balakirev, transcribed a number of traditional Caucasian tunes in the 1860s. Issiyeva observes that the Scheherazade theme bears a strong resemblance to a tune of possibly Chechen origin that Balakirev sketched out. One might read this as an assimilation of the Arab world into the realm of the Russian empire, placing the other under the Russian yoke. The theme is essentially a musical arabesque; its florid curlicues combined with the beautiful tone of the solo violin is at once seductive, bewitching, pleasing. Its construction frames the Arab narrator of the title as an object of enjoyment. This motif of beguilingly ornamented thematic material is taken up throughout the work’s four movements. Taken in aggregation with Rimsky-Korsakov’s colorful and radiant instrumentation, the suite paints an alluring portrait of the “Arabian nights” as a kaleidoscopic wonderland of decadent sensuality for the enjoyment of Russian and Western audiences. The work is in many ways a working definition of Said’s Orientalism: an imagined East constructed for the express purpose of being an outlet for the West’s fantasies.
The persistent political and cultural tensions surrounding engagement with the Near- and Middle East has ensured that despite increasing cultural sensitivities towards differences there nonetheless remains a Western appetite for Orientalist art. While audiences should not feel guilt over enjoying such works as Scheherazade, it is hoped that the heightened awareness about the politics of colonialism and empire with regards to Western relations with the East will prompt listeners to be more mindful, more critical of what they are deriving their enjoyment from, what their enjoyment might say about their perceptions of and attitudes towards the Orient.