Towards a Global History of Music? Postcolonial Studies and Historical Musicology

Recent discussions in historical musicology suggest that there is a growing interest in the relationship between Western music and the position of Europe in world history. This incipient “global turn,” if it can be characterised as such, reflects an increased awareness of globalisation within other academic disciplines and in contemporary world society and politics. Perhaps the most important intellectual influence, which has been felt across a range of disciplines, is the growth of postcolonial studies. While postcolonial theory has been most thoroughly applied in the social sciences—and has long been integral to disciplines such as anthropology and ethnomusicology—its impact can also be seen in the rise of global historical studies. Some historians may reject postcolonial theorists’ distrust of large-scale narratives or empiricist methodology, but there is no doubt that much historical work now recognises the interdependency of European history with that of the rest of the world.

Key to this global conception of history—and, implicitly, to traditional European historiography—are debates surrounding the notion of a “great divergence” between the West and the rest, leading to the emergence of modernity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet while the exceptionalism of Europe has been challenged in many quarters, other scholars have sought to defend this model, and it continues to have considerable purchase in the media and in popular consciousness (e.g. Ferguson 2012). Indeed, as Dipesh Chakrabarty and others have argued, the construct of history itself, with its emphasis on development and progress, is deeply intertwined with ideas of Western superiority and the mechanisms of imperialism (Chakrabarty 2008; Young 1990). From this perspective, the opposition of a European “history” of music versus a non-European “ethnography” of music (evident in the still common use of the “ethno-” prefix for research about non-European musics) is not simply a matter of disciplinary boundaries, but is the product of habits of thought which have their roots in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonialism. As Gary Tomlinson writes:

Across the century from 1750 to 1850 music lodged itself at the heart of a discourse that pried Europe and its histories apart from non-European lives and cultures. Perched at the apex of the new aesthetics, it came to function as a kind of limit-case of European uniqueness in world history and an affirmation of the gap, within the cultural formation of modernity, between history and anthropology … It arose, it is not too much to say, in complex alliance with Europe’s increasing domination of foreign territories and societies around the world. (Tomlinson 2007:285)

One type of response to the absence of the non-European in historical musicology, therefore, has been to explore precisely these narratives of Self and Other in European musical thought during and after the Enlightenment. Thus, several authors have detailed the way in which European music writing has represented non-European cultures as a means of self-fashioning and in order to reinforce various ideological constructs, from universalism to romanticism and evolutionism (Tomlinson 2007; Zon 2013; Bohlman 2013). Other scholars have researched the role of music in the colonial encounter, emphasising the way in which cross-cultural musical experiences shaped identities both in the colonies and in metropolitan centres (Agnew 2008; Irving 2010; Woodfield 2000). Non-European musics—or imaginings of them—became increasingly present in the cities of Europe during the later nineteenth century, whether through world exhibitions, musical exoticism, or new compositional techniques, and these issues too are well represented in musicological literature (Fauser 2005; Locke 2011; Cowgill and Rushton 2006).

Despite the obvious merits of these studies, what they have in common is an almost exclusive reliance on European-language sources and an overwhelming focus on European music. Where non-European musics are discussed, it is invariably through the prism of colonial literature, or with reference to their appropriation by European composers. This is perhaps in keeping with a particular approach to global history, which emphasises the colonial roots of modernity and sees globalisation as an aspect of the European project to map, conquer and subjugate economically the rest of the world (e.g. Nussbaum 2005). Echoes of this are also found in rgen Osterhammel’s recent global history of the nineteenth century, where he describes the spread of opera to Asia and the Americas in order to illustrate the globalisation of aesthetic practices (Osterhammel 2011:28–30). There is a certain inevitability to such accounts of European “cultural imperialism,” which suggest that, historically speaking, local musical practices are of little consequence in comparison with the universal adoption of Western art music and its aesthetic conventions (see e.g. Cook 2013). Yet the problem here, at least as far as musicology is concerned, may lie in the paradoxes of postcolonial theory itself, and more specifically in the influential work of Edward Said (1978, 1993).

Dealing as it does with representations of the Other in European culture (and, it should be noted, examining only European sources), there is little room in Saidian discourse for the Other to emerge as a historical actor. As Robert Young points out, “if Said denies that there is any actual Orient which could provide a true account of the Orient represented by Orientalism, how can he claim in any sense that the representation is false?” (Young 1990:130). (A further irony here is Said’s patronage of the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra [led by Daniel Barenboim], which, as Rachel Beckles Willson [2009] has trenchantly argued, serves to reinforce ideas of European cultural superiority and to obscure political conflict while claiming to foster “harmony” in the Middle East.)

Such contradictions have, of course, been discussed at length within postcolonial studies, and are certainly recognised by some scholars who have studied Orientalism in relation to European music. Matthew Head, for example, acknowledges that “anti-imperialist and anti-Orientalist theory … may express political and ethical concern for the Other but it does not itself cut through the web of Orientalist discourse to provide insight into the reality of the Other’s attitudes”—though in the final analysis, Head reaffirms his belief in the validity of Said’s theory (Head 2000:137). Other musicologists too have offered valuable critiques of Orientalism, adding historical depth and nuance to the somewhat bleak and undifferentiated picture of Western imperialism suggested by Said’s reading of European opera (de Mascarenhas 2010; Locke 2005; cf. Said 1993:133–59). But although such studies give us an increasingly refined understanding of how Europeans perceived the Orient in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the focus on representation (fostered above all by Said’s own work) means that they tell us nothing about the historical reality of music-making outside of Europe. While this may not be the aim of the authors, it is problematic in as much as it has led to further distortions of the historical record and, I would suggest, has perpetuated inaccurate perceptions of non-European musics.

The literature on European appropriations of “Turkish” music is particularly instructive, since the Ottoman Empire, as a major Islamic power that posed a threat to Christendom throughout the early modern period, has often functioned as Europe’s paradigmatic Other. The fashion for turquerie in early modern Europe was thus mirrored by a politicised discourse that portrayed the Ottomans as corrupt and despotic (Çırakman 2001). A number of scholars have analysed musical depictions of the Ottomans during the eighteenth century—e.g. those by Rameau and Mozart—as well as Orientalist writing on Ottoman music. In a contribution to the recent Cambridge History of World Music, for example, Sebastian Klotz (2013) discusses perceptions of “world music” during the Enlightenment, with particular reference to an essay on Ottoman music by Charles Fonton (1725–93) (for a critical edition of Fonton’s essay, see Neubauer 1999). However, by analysing it solely within the framework of European history, Klotz fails to take into consideration the broader (“global”) context of Fonton’s essay, which is essential to explain what distinguishes it from the work of, say, Jean-Benjamin de Laborde (1780).

Most importantly, Fonton was a Levantine, or a person of European descent who lived in the Ottoman Empire, and a member of a dynasty of dragomans (interpreters) who had been resident in Istanbul for several generations. He was born in Istanbul, and although he spent nine years (1737–46) in Paris for his education, he passed most of his life in Istanbul and Izmir (Smyrna), where he died in 1793 (Touzard 1997). Fonton’s subject position is therefore not “European” in a straightforward sense—indeed, the Levantines of the Ottoman Empire (perhaps in a similar way to the “Eurasians” of India) were often regarded with suspicion and distaste by “real” Europeans (Coller 2010).

“Air de Cantimir.” A peşrev in the mode Bestenigar by Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723), transcribed by Charles Fonton (1751, p. 137)

So while Klotz is undoubtedly correct to argue that aspects of Fonton’s essay reflect the values of the French Enlightenment, in order to properly contextualise it one must also place it within the framework of Ottoman history; or rather, one must attend to the complex entanglement of European and non-European history. Klotz’s lack of engagement with Ottoman or Middle Eastern studies literature is typical of musicological analyses of Orientalism, which tend to locate the site of “cross-cultural” encounter squarely within Europe. This approach effectively silences the actual music of the Ottoman Empire, substituting for it a close reading of European sources and musical practices that reaffirms the Eurocentrism it ostensibly seeks to displace. This is emphatically not due to a lack of historical evidence: in comparison with many other non-European music cultures, there is an abundance of primary sources on Ottoman music, many of them including notation, not to mention a large and accessible secondary literature (İhsanoğlu et al 2003). Yet in his discussion of Fonton, Klotz repeats the canard that there is “an absence of notational systems” or “written clues” in relation to non-European musics, thereby reiterating the idea that the Orient is knowable only through European perceptions of it (Klotz 2013:281).

However, by actively engaging with the written sources of Ottoman music, we can begin to move away from a one-sided discussion that concentrates solely on European perceptions of the Orient, and instead attempt to understand the historical reality of musical practices during the Ottoman period. Fonton’s transcriptions of Ottoman music, for instance, may usefully be compared with contemporaneous Turkish-language sources such as the Kevseri Mecmuası (c. 1740), which reveals that, far from being imaginative exotica, they correspond (albeit with inevitable distortions) to the music played in mid-eighteenth-century Istanbul (Ekinci 2012; Wright 2007:22–5). An awareness of correspondences such as these allows us to distinguish between real musical contacts with the Ottoman Empire—facilitated here by the particular circumstances of Fonton’s life—and European representations of “Turkish” music. It also shifts the debate away from representation and towards a more historically situated discussion that takes into account the material conditions which enabled musical encounters. By avoiding this approach in favour of an analysis that focuses only on discourse, we risk setting up a solipsistic debate about Self and Other in which the Other is nowhere to be found.


Der makam bestenigar, berefşan.” Cantemir’s Bestenigar peşrev, transcribed by Mustafa Kevseri (c. 1740, fol. 47v)

Of course, as many scholars have pointed out, “authentic” representations of non-European musics may be equally as problematic as orientalist imaginings of them (see e.g. Head 2003:211–12). Partly for this reason, musicologists may feel more comfortable critiquing European perceptions of the Other than attempting to engage with actually existing non-European musics. Furthermore, it should be emphasised that any move towards a less isolationist narrative of European music history is surely to be welcomed. Nevertheless, to quote Gary Tomlinson again, “[w]e should say not that Europeans have begun to hear non-European musics, but that [we] have begun to scrutinize the peculiar deafness that at once constitutes our modernity and conceals the global forces in it” (Tomlinson 2007:196). However well-intentioned and self-critical our attempts to acknowledge the Others of Western music may be, the disproportionate weight given to European perspectives at the expense of local worldviews and practices gives rise to a worrying sense that we have been here before. If we are really interested in moving beyond Eurocentrism—towards “a history of many different voices” (Strohm [2013])—it is therefore imperative that we also attend to the very real sounds, documents and practices of non-European musics.

Audio: Peşrev in makam Bestenigar / usul berefşan (16/8 meter) composed by Dimitrie Cantemir


Jacob Olley is a research associate on the long-term project "Corpus Musicae Ottomanicae: Critical Editions of Music Manuscripts from the Near East," based at Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster and funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). He is currently completing a PhD entitled "Writing Music in Early Nineteenth-Century Istanbul: Ottoman Armenians and the Invention of Hampartsum Notation" in the music department at King’s College London.


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Peşrev in makam Bestenigar / usul berefşan (16/8) - Dimitrie Cantemir.” From the album Cantemir: Music in Istanbul and Ottoman Europe around 1700. Ihsan Özgen, Linda Burman-Hall and Lux Musica. Golden Horn Records, 2002.


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