Culture as Ornamentation: Orientalism in Impressionist Music


Hi! I’m Ariel Wang ’21, and I’ve been a musician since I was about three years old. I have studied countless pieces of music since then, but only as I grew older have I recognized the cultural appropriation hidden in many of them. Since denouncing these pieces would mean uprooting their contributions to classical music history as well as much of classical music culture, I hope to do my part in fostering equitable and inclusive representation in classical music in this column, by re-examining these pieces within the context of this conversation and raising awareness to this cause. 

The Impressionist era of classical music has always been my favorite. Like the work from its contemporary artists—Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, etc.—Impressionist music focuses on evoking emotions, colors, and moods rather than telling a story, marking a departure (even further than Romantic music) from the strict structures and predictable harmonies of the Baroque and Classical eras. The music tends to be dreamy by employing textures, imagery, and harmony to paint a picture rather than drive the music. The “blurry” result sounds like a translation of art, like Monet’s hazy “Impression, Sunrise,” which the movement was named after.

A hallmark of Impressionism was the growing craze over Orientalism after the Japan exhibition in the Paris World Exposition of 1889. Monet’s “La Japonaise,” or the renamed “Camille Monet in Japanese Costume,” depicts Monet’s wife, in a blonde wig emphasizing her whiteness, wearing an embroidered red kimono and surrounded by fans. The piece visually exemplifies the “exoticism” so common in Impressionism by using a semblance of Japanese culture as a decoration while maintaining white power and privilege. Its musical counterpart was the use of “exotic scales”—modal, whole tone, and pentatonic, to list a few examples. 

The pentatonic (five-note) scale, specifically, became a trademark signifier of Asia in music (though it is far from unique to Asian music). Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Giacomo Puccini frequently used the scale to conjure up “exotic” scenes and images of the “Orient.” For instance, Puccini is an Italian opera composer whose work has traces of Impressionism. His most famous work, the opera “Madama Butterfly,” is about a Japanese girl, usually played by a white woman, hopelessly in love with a white American soldier. The woman’s story ends in tragedy when the soldier does not return her fidelity—another illustration of the “white gaze” of Japanese and Asian representation in music and art of that time.

Another example of this stereotyping for “ornamentation” and entertainment is the use of non-Western traditional instruments. The Chinese gong cymbal holds ceremonial significance in Chinese culture but is appropriated for its loud, jarring sound in Western orchestral music by composers such as Hector Berlioz and Olivier Messiaen. It is separated from its cultural significance and used simply to seem “exotic” in European music the same way “exotic scales” do.

When I learned about all of this in my music history classes as a child, I was proud that my Asian heritage was represented in the music I played. I did not realize how this practice does not truly represent us. Especially since Impressionist music and art is not detailed in their descriptions, and rather evoke a hazy representation, the monolithic “Asia” that audiences hear in those pentatonic scales are just a white-imagined construction of Asia—it exploits the idea of Asia as an “exotic” motif simply for entertainment for its European audiences, usually without respect or even acknowledgment of the traditional music and stories of the many diverse cultures in Asia.

What is the path forward? It is difficult to say that we should denounce this music. Debussy, Ravel, and the like are not only incredibly influential figures in classical music but integral to its development in the eras afterward. The boundaries between cultural appreciation and appropriation are also blurry, especially in music without text—overly guarding culture against exchange also could promote a stagnancy in its development. The least we can do is, while enjoying this music, explicitly ask ourselves what Debussy and his contemporaries evokes for us when they use exoticism in their pieces—then, it is important that we recognize that it is a skewed version of Asia and its diverse music, viewed through white eyes or Westernized perspectives.