Exoticism in opera music
By exoticism is generally understood a cultural phenomenon that exalts and imitates certain forms and suggestions of distant countries. This movement has its roots far back in time, in fact since medieval times and thanks to the influence of the Byzantines a taste for oriental ornamental motifs reigned in Europe. The phenomenon then grew over the centuries, from the age of colonialism through the 1700s to culminate in the Romantic period and beyond, up to the first half of the 20th century. It was thus a cultural movement that was certainly among the most important, and it was reflected not only in music but in the arts in general. It is not difficult to understand why this veritable fashion fascinated our ancestors: the East was at that time still a rather unknown world and that of Eastern civilizations a culture shrouded in the thick fog of mystery. We trace the first exotic influences in music as far back as the 18th century, when the Orient became a source of inspiration for opera buffa, and on the musical plane the vein of Turkishness became increasingly popular. The composer then sought to recreate exotic sounds by using particular harmonies and instruments that had hitherto been little used. Thus augmented and diminished harmonies abounded, and the use of the piccolo, triangle, cymbals and bass drum became widespread. We then find real instruments from the East, such as rattles and various types of drums. In the Enlightenment France of the 18th century, demythicized Turks went on stage, far from how the collective imagination saw them: no longer bloodthirsty barbarians, but men who speak and act funny, dressed to make the audience smile by combining oriental elements with the imagination of stage and costume designers. This was later mixed with the strands of fairy tales and mysticism and with magical and religious elements.
Exoticism in opera composers
One of the examples is Mozart's "The Magic Flute." But what is it in Mozart, and more generally in compositions influenced by the taste for the exotic, that makes the music so "Turkish"? Certainly the ensemble, because in addition to the already mentioned percussion instruments, wind instruments abound, particularly brass instruments: it is likely that the Turks, during their various incursions into Europe, often brought these kinds of instruments with them, resorting to an ensemble that today we would call almost band-like. We also find references to the Turks in the use of particular melodies of a martial and warlike genre to recall the warlike character that was frequently associated with the Turkish population. In the wake of Mozart's work, some of the Pesaro swan's greatest masterpieces, "L'italiana in Algeri" and "Il turco in Italia," would then be born in a spirit that could be described as almost romantic.
Exoticism in Puccini's opera
Later in time we find two more authentic masterpieces inspired by the fashion of the East: we are talking about Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" and "Turandot." In the first case, the Japanese atmosphere revives in the opera thanks to the studies made by the maestro, who questioned Japanese artists, listened to several records fromTokyo and jotted down melodies on the stave, as well as investigated original Japanese songs. The musical themes in the opera, especially in the first act, are authentic and some have already been identified, while the others are the result of Puccini's creative genius, who thus incorporated the oriental elements into his harmonic scheme. If in "Madama Butterfly," East and West are prominently contrasted through the use of two different stylistic manners, we cannot say the same about "Turandot," and the indication in the beginning of the libretto is an indication of this: the action takes place in Beijing at the time of fairy tales. For his last masterpiece Puccini proceeded exactly as he had previously done for "Madama Butterfly," and thus found four melodies that suited him and that recur throughout the composition. It is therefore these melodies that characterize characters such as Ping, Pong and Pang, as well as the procession of masks. To this end, the composer repeatedly used the pentaphonic scale and Gregorian modes, so as to produce an alienating effect on the audience, which instinctively perceives the remoteness of these melodies. Another aspect that contributed to making the opera so "exotic" was the instrumentation: Puccini entrusted the timbre of the instruments with the task of bringing the Orient to the surface among the notes, once again, as we noted earlier, inserting a large number of percussion instruments and idiophones, such as Chinese gongs, glockenspiel and xylophone. We find, among other things, a large group of instruments to be played on stage to make some moments particularly striking. Puccini then made use of chains of bichords and parallel chords, as well as harmonic procedures and practices typical of oriental music. Over the centuries, exoticism became a real fashion, which strongly influenced musical production until not so long ago and gave rise to true masterpieces, indelible marks on the staff of a rather glorious past for our music history.