Thursday, May 7, 2009

Paris Exposition 1889

"In the year 1889 there was revolution in Paris. No shots were fired, no buildings torched, no palaces looted. But on the Champ de Mars and the Esplanades des Invalides, the past and the future fought a world war of ideas. Iron battled stone, Javanese ritual music defied the siege of German orchestration, electricity triumphed over gas. It was a year to celebrate a revolution's centennial, a time to consolidate one hundred years of industry, art and social ideals that flowed from the great events of 1789."

The above paragraph is from an article written by Arthur Chandler entitled: Revolution The Paris Exposition Universelle, 1889. It captures the energy and ambience of this extraordinary time in history and this event.
Complete article found here.

Now imagine that you're Debussy living in Paris in 1889. A young, brilliant composer determined to avoid the German tradition.

Naturally, you are drawn to music of other cultures. The Paris Exposition of 1889 comes to town. You hear Rimsky-Korakov conduct his Capriccio espagnol" at the Trocadéro Palace.

You go to the Javanese Pavillion, which was a model "Kampon"-- a village, recreating all aspects of communal village life from agricultural practices to religion. You spend hours listening to the gamelan music from this island in the Malay Archipelago.

You use some of the different scales you've heard when you improvise on the piano, and also the sense of floating qualities of the form and rhythym in Javanese music. All these find a way into your formally composed music-- especially for piano. In six years, you will compose "La Mer."

Imagine the excitement of living in Paris when he did. He witnessed the building of the Paris metro system and the Eiffel Tower. (See below.) He lived alongside Monet, Renoir, Gaughin, Rodin, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Proust, Mallarmé, Emile Zola to mention only a few. In a few years, the Dreyfus Affair of 1894 would shake the foundations of the French Third Republic. You would have to choose-- Dreyfusard or anti-Dreyfusard? Not a time to sit on the fence. Fin de siècle Paris-- an important nexus of artistic and social activity. What a time to be alive! The Belle Époque has arrived.

Milagro Vargas, 2009


Built between 1887 and 1889, the Eiffel Tower was contructed as the entrance arch for the Exposition Universelle, the 1889 World's Fair.

Original poster from the 1889 Exposition Universelle

Panorama of the Place de la Concorde at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1889.

Russian House Exhibition at the 1889 Exposition Universelle

Crowd of people along parterre beside illuminated fountains, view toward the Central Dome, Paris 1889 Exposition Universelle

Illustration of the interior of the Galerie des Machines, designed by Ferdinand Dutert,1889 Exposition Universelle

Gallery of various industries,1889 Exposition Universelle

Entrance to the Javanese Pavillion,1889 Exposition Universelle

Female Javanese dancer, seated in costume,1889 Exposition Universelle

Six people posed before Javanese house in Javanese village, 1889 Exposition Universelle

WATCH THIS FILM! It's an excellent compilation of photos with an interesting voice over at about 1:30 that gives a flavor of the times!



  1. Wow! I had never heard Gamelan music before. It's mesmerizing really. I can really hear those textures in some of Debussy's preludes and other orchestral works like the nocturnes. Thank you for posting this!! It would've been so amazing to live in Debussy's time. If I had the choice to go back in time I think I would be born in Paris in 1870 or so. The 1920's would've been great, too!

  2. I can see why Debussy was so influenced by the gamelan music he heard. It really has this dream-like affect, which you can hear in Debussy’s compositions. He must have felt like a kid in a candy store at the 1889 Exposition: he had all these different cultures (and their music) in one spot. To me, Debussy seemed like the kind of person who wanted to use all the tools available to him, and created new ones when he outgrew the old tools. The Exposition was just that- a huge show that exposed the world to new ideas, and took people outside of their own cultures to show them how other people lived and thought. How could anyone NOT be inspired, much less someone as brilliant as Debussy?

    1889 must have been such a good creative year for people like Debussy- Monet and the Impressionists challenging current artistic aesthetics, the Symbolist movement flourishing, and a whole show dedicated to inventions, the arts, and foreign cultures. Basically, the turn of the century was a hotbed for artistic creativity. I’m a little jealous- why can’t we have such a cool explosion of the arts NOW? I could just not be aware of current artistic trends, but does it seem like we haven’t had an artistic revolution of this magnitude in a while? Maybe we are due for one……

  3. It's always interesting to read back on how composers who revolutionized new forms and sounds were treated while they were at the beginning of their careers. Debussy was criticized (as was Chopin) for his "dissonances". It must have taken great courage to not be influenced too much by this and to continue in this new movement of music. We should rememebr to revere Debussy for practically moving forward the musical times (late Beethoven, for ex.). The late works of composers often do this, but for there to be evidence in Debussy's early compositional output of what we know he will end up writing is pretty incredible. For example, Liszt was by no means a compositional prodigy, but by the end of his life (Nuages Gris, Un Reve, Unstern.....) he was handing over the next era to future musicians. (Nuages Gris sounds EXACTLY like a Debussy prelude) Not all composers did this. Late Mozart is very harmonically advanced but he didn't do what Beethoven did in throwing out conventional forms. What's also interesting is from having played Beethoven's op. 1 piano trios, he exhibits these qualities early on, just like Debussy. In the c minor trio op. 1no. 3, Haydn advised Beethoven to not publish it because modulating from c minor to b minor by the strings sustaining G-F# was too weird. I'm always impressed in reading about the turn of the century contributions to music and art and design, but it always leaves me looking even further back!

  4. Here is Liszt's Nuages Gris

  5. Thank you for posting the link for us to watch Gamelan music. This music is full of hollow, resonant, percussive sounds that fit together in a seemingly magical way. Like Jake said, it is "mesmerizing"! There was a certain instrument (I'm not sure what it is called - it looked like a small xylaphone) that played melodic motives which reminded me of Debussy's piano music, especially his arpeggiated chords. It fascinates me how music of such different styles can influence and inspire each other. Being aware of these influences enriches one's experience as a listener.

  6. This time in Paris must have been truly inspiring on so many levels, so much exploration!! A friend of mine once said that in Paris you really live, whereas in Gothenburg (Sweden) you just exist. This can be seen as a silly comment and of course it's a generalization (usually better avoided). However, there's some truth to it. This comment was referred to (living there) today and not in the early 1900s, and I can only imagine that that 'living' was even more intense during Debussy's time. How fascinating to be a part of such amazing and intense living artistry. The 1889 exposition certainly made a lasting deep impression on people. It was interesting to watch the images, but I think I would have preferred to read about the impressions instead of listening to an interpretation of them.
    I have studied a little bit of both Javanese and Balinese Gamelan, and I particularly like the Javanese because it's so mesmerizing as Jake said. It's so much more sparse, slow and less eleborate than Balinese. When you play you get very much into the cyclic time and it seems more like a meditation than anything else. I think you were referring to the 'saron' Sheerya. They are the metallophones (xylophone-like) that play the so called skeletal melody. The central Javanese court gamelan can be grouped into four categories according to their 'musical roles' in the ensemble; skeletal melody, punctuation, elaboration and tempo. You can even go online and practice gamelan. It's so much fun!

  7. Indeed what a fascinating time to have lived. From approximately this time to World War I, I think it's amazing how music (and all of the arts for that matter) evolved and how many different directions it went in. Besides all the French composers (Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Les Six...) there's the Russian composers (Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Prokofiev, the Mighty Handful, Medtner...) not to mention Bartok, Szymanowski, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, etc. and each represents a different musical direction. I think it was at around this time "common practice" or "tonal" music sort of reached its limit, so here is where composers begin to really push the bounds and seek new sources of inspiration (for example, the music of other cultures). What an interesting time!

  8. I found some recordings of Debussy playing his own music on YouTube for those who are interested. He apparently recorded some of his songs with soprano Mary Garden in 1904 (These are acoustic recordings!!). Here are several from Ariettes Oubliées:


    Il pleure dans mon couer:

    L'ombre des arbres:

    Debussy also recorded a number of his piano preludes on piano rolls. Before the advent of acoustical recording, a system was devised to capture performances on rolls of paper with perforations in it (player pianos). As early acoustical recordings were not great in quality, these were often preferred and many composers actually recorded their works on piano rolls. These then have to be "replayed" on a player piano and can be recorded acoustically. Information about note duration, pedaling and dynamics are captured, but it's questionable how accurately every nuance is captured--furthermore the tone quality is liable to suffer, but these can give great insight into the composers manner of playing. Here are several of Debussy's preludes played by him (1913):


    Le vent dans la pleine:

    La Cathedrale Engloutie:

  9. I think the influence of the Gamelan on Debussy is very interesting. I believe it had an influence over him in a harmonic and melodic sense, but also in a very structural and sonic sense. The music of the gamelan does not develop in the same way that Western music develops. The metallaphones create this wonderful composite rhythms which generate a hypnotic atmosphere. The gamelan becomes kind of its own force an and develops gradually to a point where it peaks and then the energy slowly dissipates. I believe Debussy used similar structural ideas in the piano works like his prelude, "Voiles" or "Pagodes" from Estampes. The structural division of sections in a composition become more blurred so the sections flow into one another more fluidly. This could also be related to his idea of music sounding structurally improvised. A composer that I believe illustrated this more literally was Gyorgy Ligeti in his 7th piano etude titled Galamb Borong. It translates to "broken gamelan". This work, sounds to me like the rise and fall of the Gamelan. One interesting thing about it is that each hand plays exclusively in it's own whole tone scale. The use of both whole tone scales frees Ligeti from the limitations of only using one whole tone scale (you can hear this limitation in "Voiles").

  10. In the video link about the exposition I found it interesting how the letter writer contemplated what the lives of the Javanese dancers might have been like in their own countries. With L'Exposition Universelle we start to see cultural elements of non Western ways of life take on a more legitimate identity in the minds of Westerners. This person to person contact actually got people thinking of humans from the other side of the world as real people from a world worth exploring, rather than just strange "others", the identity of whom had often been watered down by pop culture.

    THIS is what would make life as an artist so exhilarating during and after the exposition. Rather than simplified imitations of other cultures, the artist is now faced with a hands on, (relatively) authentic encounter with completely new sounds and movements, as well as being supplied with an entire society that is excited to hear more. As I have observed in my own studies and work lately, the most thrilling musical experience is one from which I come away feeling like I have permission to break more of the rules and boundaries that have been placed on me as a musician and performer.

    When a brilliant composer like Debussy experienced all of these sounds, which functioned outside of all the compositional approaches he had been taught, he must have been overwhelmingly inspired. I think his ability to absorb, process, and musically express so much of what he was experiencing speaks highly of his mental and compositional capacity. Truly a thrilling time to be alive. One in which artistic expression must have been a necessary part of life in order to fully explore and understand all that one was experiencing!

  11. Gamelan seems like something that is significantly harder than it appears. Each part looks simple, but in the context of the whole I could see holding your own as an ensemble member as a challenge. This music makes it evident where Debussy, and some other French composers for that matter, may have gotten some of the inspiration for their more texture-like piano writing.
    The orientalist fascination is something that I have found very enjoyable with French music. It is nationalistic yet progressive and very absorbing of outside sources, while a lot of German music was so pointedly intolerant in its nationalism.

  12. It's been interesting listening to the harmonies of Debussy in comparison to the French music we've studied up until this point in the class. I'm also doing extensive research on jazz for my masters project, and hearing the connections is brilliant!
    Seeing the architecture of many places in France also puts the music into perspective.

  13. In a way, having been to Paris for a short vacation once, I don't understand why Debussy didn't write more music about his own native land. He seems to have been mostly inspired by the lands of others, orientalism. When the World's Fair came to Paris, it really was a complex blending and gathering of ideas, but perhaps everyone already knew so much of Paris that the interesting nature of the Montmartre district or the many fascinating cathedrals like St. Chapelle were not really considered of much notice.
    Beside that, the confluence of Asian and African art and music must have really been astounding to the civilized world, especially considering the false conceptions that had been fostered in art and literature for much of the past couple centuries with orientalism and the simple lack of exposure to the rest of the world running rampant. I had the privilege of being a gong-bearer in the Gamelan ensemble at Montana State a couple years ago. The program there is under the direction of Dr. Alan Leech who has studied that music in Asia with a master of that art. We have some works by him in the library, by the by. The intonation is fascinating because they intentionally tune all of their like instruments in quarter tones to create a shimmer when two instruments are in unison. In essence, the wide open spaces that you hear in the music are actually filled with all of the colliding overtones. My favorite sound is the big gong, though! Talk about a sound that emanates from the earth! That seeming connection to the elements is what seems to me to be an important part of Debussy's style. His music is almost always comparable to some elemental force like the trickling of water, the sound of the waves, the gentle breezes, etc. Whereas Gamelan music uses the mis-tuning to create that shimmer of overtones, Debussy writes those shimmering overtones into his music to create these wonderful harmonies!

  14. I can only imagine how exciting it must have been to have been at the 1889 Paris Exposition. To see side by side the future and the past, the familiar and the exotic. We take for granted today the global connectivity of a post-internet world. Just imagine how fantastic it would be for these people to be exposed to distant cultures which they otherwise never would have seen. It is really no wonder that this experience made such an impact on Debussy. I don't know if I agree that Debussy was anti-German since he was fascinated with Wagner's Tristan prelude, but I do think it's true that he was very interested in the exotic. I think that the Javanese influence is easier to hear in his piano pieces than it is in his songs. Javanese Gamelan music is very interesting (I've been fortunate to hear it performed live with authentic instruments.) but I wonder what it was about this music in particular that struck Debussy so profoundly when there surely must have been other exotic musics to be heard there. For example, the music that accompanied the bellydancers in the Egyptian exhibit must have been very different to 19th century European ears.

  15. I actually wonder if two later Debussy piano pieces were inspired by this Egyptian connection... I don't know for sure, but now that I have seen how diverse was the 1889 exposition, it wouldn't surprise me...

    Those are the pieces: from Epigraphies Antiques (1914), originally for piano 4 hands.

    4 - Pour la danseuse aux crotales (reminds me of the letter mentioning the finger cymbals)

    5 - Pour l'Egyptienne

    The scales used (specially on the higher registers) are obviously not the whole-tone, so maybe Debussy borrowed them from (or was inspired by) the Egyptian instead?

    I totally wish that we had another of those fairs... I can't help but wonder how much work was required on the backstage of that exposition... If it is hard to put such an event together nowadays, imagine more than 100 years ago...

  16. The gamelan music was very interesting and I really enjoyed listening and seeing how it is performed.

    What really interested me about the World's Fair is that the Eiffel Tower was built as the gateway for it. It must have been so exciting to see that whole lawn full of people and tents with exotic things to see and share.

  17. Reading all the comments is almost as fascinating as the post! I wonder if it's possible to recreate that sense of discovery in a world where, as Beverly mentioned, so much is at our fingertips? There's an excitement that comes with experiencing something firsthand as opposed to researching it through the internet.

  18. Emily, the UO musicology department owns a slew of Javanese gamelans. I had the pleasure of observing a class conducted by Dr. Levy, even tinkering on the gamelans. It was exhilarating. I was fun to play the smaller gamelans, but the bigger once were mystifying. I can almost see how a young composer like Debussy searching for completely new sounds and nuances could be mesmerized by these exotic instruments from a far away land. The sounds must have been so foreign to his ears, yet the fluidity on the tone is still close to his native language.

  19. I loved the video about the world's fair. I can only imagine the excitement one must have felt at meeting people and seeing culture from non-European areas. In addition to the sounds he heard, I wonder if Debussy felt a new sense of liberation to continue to explore the boundaries of "formal" composition.

  20. I really enjoyed watching the video and looking at the photos of the world's fair. The voiceover was such an interesting window into the world of Paris at that time. I thought it was interesting that the woman was fascinated with how things looked but seemed affronted by the actual music coming from the east. An interesting contrast to Debussy who was so open and stimulated by the sounds he was hearing.

  21. Everything about the world's fair was just fascinating! It was interesting to see how dancers were treated so differently in the east and the west. Western people were so impressed by the dancers' performance but indeed, the dancers were looked down upon in the east.

  22. I agree with Maya that is interesting to hear the narrator of the video describe her fascination of the dancing yet a disgust for the music that accompanied the dancing. It makes me wonder if Debussy truly was of the minority in his fascination for these exotic sounds. Also, I had the opportunity to spent some time in Paris this past summer, and it seems to me that the city has a strong sense of sharing multiculturality, at least in its restaurant selections.

  23. What an interesting experiment in cultural exchange. Honestly, I think the most interesting part of the video was the narrators rejection of the music of the other countries. The 1889 world's fair was a groundbreaking moment in cultural exchange, and a huge step forward for multiculturality in the western world, but I was glad the video included that small moment of dissent, which I think is indicative of a lot of the cultural misunderstanding to come. It must have been thrilling to be a young composer, trying to avoid the german sound, to stumble upon all of this music that was unlike anything that had been heard in Europe at the time. Suddenly you would have been presented with this immense and overwhelming selection of traditions and aesthetics in which to wet your beak. I imagine it must have been invigorating. There is nothing quite like the unfamiliar to breathe life into an art form.

  24. A fascinating time in history and one of those special "time and space" moments never to be recreated. Really, it seems as though the coming together of foreign cultures for the Exposition, the emergence of so many French inspired composers, along with the painters, writers, and poets, could have had no less an effect than what actually transpired with the genius of Debussy and other composers. It's one of those special moments that can occur within any culture with a leap forward of technology and cultural cross-fertilization. My years in Hawaii were fascinating for just this reason. An island in the middle of the Pacific was a melting pot for both European and Asian cultures to mix and the resulting fusion was fresh and unique. The Gamelan, by the way, is alive and well as a tool for living composers and performers in Hawaii.

  25. This was absolutely fascinating, and I had no idea how controversial the Eiffel Tower was upon its construction, nor of the influence of Javanese music on Debussy's composition style... a style we now think of as so characteristically French! I loved hearing the translation of the letter the woman Elizabeth sent to her sister from the world's fair, it really brought to life how novel these exibitions were, and was a fascinating peak into the experience.

    I found a beautiful video of older style of Javanese belly dancing, perhaps something similar to what Debussy may have seen himself. Very interesting to see the shapes they make with their bodies, circular, flowing shapes with constantly flowing movement and hear that in his arpeggiations and harmonic fluidity.

  26. I really enjoyed the gamelan music. I find music from different cultures to be fascinating. The instruments used are beautiful and ornate in their stylings. The Gender is probably my favorite. The sound of this instrument is almost soothing and the design is beautiful. Here is a video of the Gender being played:

  27. How wonderful! I have been to Paris a handful of times and have always appreciated the history of the city, however, I did not know about all the festivities involved in the 1889 Exposition (aside from the Tour Eiffel). I had to look up "Javanese" to find out from where this ethnic group originated (Indonesia). I have heard Eastern influence in Debussy's music (whole tone scales, etc) but never really understood how it came about, so the post and film were very insightful. What an exciting time for Debussy and many other French composers and poets to be creating.

  28. What a time to be alive! The amount of exposure from a broad range of cultures that Debussy was able to receive right in Paris is incredible. While I was a tad familiar with these influences Debussy had, the extent of which was really brought to life through the pictures and imagery presented. I would have loved to have been at the exposition of 1889. It was wonderful to hear the reading of the letter send by Elizabeth telling her stories of visiting the exposition; it was also interesting to note her reaction to the music specifically. For gamelan music clearly had its influences on Debussy and what we consider the French style in a 21st century context, but I wonder if Elizabeth's reaction was similar to sentiments held by many people of the time.