Beauty and Innovation in la machine chinoise


Falla, Debussy, Ravel, Roussel . . .

Richard E. Mueller

April 30, 2018



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During the first decade of the 20th century, Falla, Debussy, Ravel, and Roussel composed minor works laced with exotic coloration, a type of piece that Debussy termed la machine chinoise. Various historical factors at the time, including two world fairs and the vogue for Japanese prints, brought the rage for musical exoticism to a peak. But interest in Far Eastern forms of music among composers seeking innovative forms of expression coincided with avant-garde tendencies in the treatment of tonality and form. Innovation within the machine chinoise includes structural factors only indirectly involved with exotic coloration. Although musical beauty is intuited and cannot be described in words, it exists and can be located on the basis of ideas shared by philosophers, musicologists, and composers. The role Benedictus’ Javanese transcriptions play in the germination of these works fails to account for their musical beauty: these machines chinoise are minor masterpieces for the unforeseeable ingenuity and imagination with which they are composed. This book strikes a balance between history and criticism by bringing together new forms of structural analysis with newly discovered exotic influences and broader frames of historical reference.


Richard E. Mueller: Richard Mueller, an independent scholar and a native of the Midwest, is a pianist, organist, musicologist, and composer. He received degrees in music from Harvard (’66), Indiana (Music Theory, ’70), and the University of Chicago (MA, composition, ’75 and PhD, musicology, ’83). An expert on Indonesian music and its influence on Western composers, he became interested in exoticism in music when he lived in Freetown, Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps music teacher in the late ‘60s. He was the accompanist for the Chicago Children’s Choir from 1976 to 1988. He has taught at Holy Cross and the University of Connecticut. His work as a private piano teacher and church organist and choir director spans his entire life. Awarded membership in the National Guild of Piano Teachers’ Hall of Fame, he has been active as a recitalist in far-flung locales, Freetown, Rome, Guatemala City, and Tepotzotlán, Mexico, as well as familiar venues in Omaha, Boston, Chicago, and Connecticut. His article “Javanese Influence on Debussy’s Fanataisie and Beyond” (19th Century Music, ’86) has been widely cited in the literature. Two years living in Granada, Spain and carrying out research at the Falla Archive brought his book on Falla, Debussy, Ravel, and Roussel to completion. Various fellowships enabled him to carry out research on exoticism at the Newberry and J. Pierpont Morgan libraries, the Royaumont Foundation and the Bibliothèque Nationale in France, and Cambridge University in England.