top of page

Claude Debussy’s Gamelan


The year 1889 marked the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution and the nation celebrated with the Paris Exposition Universelle, an extraordinary World’s Fair. The importance of the event was emphasized by the construction of the Eiffel Tower, built for the occasion. Twenty-seven year old Claude Debussy frequented the many exhibits from all over the world and was enthralled by the gamelan music and the dancing it accompanied that he witnessed in the Javanese pavilion. The experience inspired him later to capture the sounds of the gamelanin his 1903 piano composition Pagodes. This article examines how he did so and also places Pagodes’ composition within the contexts of contemporary documentation of the Exposition, his other works, and recent scholarship about exoticism. Four principal elements of gamelan music—timbre, tuning, polyphonic layering, and rhythmic structure—are examined through the eyes of twentieth century ethnomusicologists. The same four elements are analyzed in Pagodes. Elements of Western musical composition complement the analysis. What emerges is nota vague impression but, rather, a remarkably successful rendition of the Eastern gamelan on the Western piano.

1889 Paris Exposition Universelle

Edward Said, in his classic study entitled Orientalism, writes of the Orient’s special place in European Western experience:

The Orient is . . . the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.

Against a backdrop of fascination with this “Other,” the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle took place over the course of six months between May 6 and November 6. Of five Expositions Universelles roughly a decade apart, a special significance graced this one, timed one hundred years after the French Revolution. Twenty-five million people visited the grounds along the Seine River in what is now Parc Champs de Mars, headed by the newly constructed Eiffel Tower and featuring displays in the form of concert halls, galleries, cafes, boutiques, villages, andpavilions. (See Figure 1 for the General View of the grounds.) France’s colonies Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Gabon- Congo, Oceania, Cambodia, Annam, Tonkin, and Cochin China (these last three comprising today’s Vietnam) were all represented. Countless other countries brought their own exhibits at France’s invitation. One of the most successful world’s fairs in history, it had enormous political, technological, historical, cultural, and musical significance.…Continue reading Sylvia Parker’s article online at

Published in College Music Symposium, March, 2013

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page