From ‘Good Other’ to ‘Ideal Self’: Images of Russian Otherness in France and the Iberian Peninsula at the Turn of the 20th Century

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


If collective identity seems predicated on the distinction between “self” and “other”, the notion often entails a further dichotomy, that of “positive” and “negative” otherness. This dichotomy was recast by Debussy in terms of the opposition between the “savage” and the “barbarian” – an opposition with roots in Schiller’sLetters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, an early account of the malaise inherent in the experience of modernity. The stage was thus set for the conquest of Paris by the “noble savages” of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes from 1909 onwards, as the embodiment of a regenerative Slavic energy in an age of global decadence. Through the alliance of the aesthete and the savage, a decisive impetus was given to the resurgence of the “primitive” and its gradual assimilation into modernism.
In the Iberian Peninsula, in turn, the Russian “other” was increasingly perceived as a “model self” worthy of emulation, as part of the quest for a viable expression of Spanish and Portuguese identities. The examples set by Glinka, the “Five” and Stravinsky (themselves occasionally drawn to Spanish local colour) became the object of unprecedented scrutiny, as potential templates for the fruitful exploration of the national element in music, reinforced by the belief in a natural affinity between Russian and Iberian sensibilities. In this paper, I offer a discussion of French and Iberian discourses on Russian alterity, with a focus on the ideas of Debussy, Felipe Pedrell, Manuel de Falla and Luís de Freitas Branco, as reflected in their writings and compositional practices.

This study deals with representations of Russian otherness in France and the Iberian Peninsula at the turn of the 20th century. The spread of Russian music in the West was driven by the omnivorous taste for the exotic characteristic of the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie of the second half of the 19th century. Further on, the Franco-Russian political and military alliance was to act as a powerful catalyst for French Russophilia. The case of Spain and Portugal is particularly relevant, because the Iberian Peninsula in many ways appears to mirror Russia’s location at the edge of the European continent, in more than a merely geographical sense. Special attention is paid to the Portuguese composer Luís de Freitas Branco and his Suite Alentejana. This work can serve as a curious document of the circuitous nature of musical nationalism, by showing how an identity could, on occasion, travel all the way from Iberia to Russia, returning, so to speak, by the back door.

Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2016
EventMusical Identities and European Perspective: an Interdisciplinary Approach - University of Arts, Belgrado, Serbia
Duration: 12 Oct 2016 → …


ConferenceMusical Identities and European Perspective: an Interdisciplinary Approach
Period12/10/16 → …
Internet address


  • Imagem
  • Música
  • Semiótica


Dive into the research topics of 'From ‘Good Other’ to ‘Ideal Self’: Images of Russian Otherness in France and the Iberian Peninsula at the Turn of the 20th Century'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this