Applied in the context of Classical music Multiculturalism is neither a new concept nor is it as contentious as some agenda-driven socio-political discourses of today. Strictly speaking, multiculturalism is not cross-pollination either, although the distinction is often blurred. It is however akin in some respect to 'Historicism' in the evolution of the western musical tradition.

By its very nature classical music has always been historicist or multicultural in some way or other, more often as musical osmosis involving adaptation of melody, rhythm, instrumentation, idiom or modal characteristics of the music from a different time, or from an alien or distant culture irrespective of time.

Multiculturalism in Music

The guiding criterion is how alien or distant that culture is. For instance, Mozart’s use of Turkish themes in his Turkish March Piano Sonata, in his last Violin Concerto or in his iconic ‘Turkish’ opera Il Seraglio was considered musical multiculturalism at that time, although the proximity of the Ottoman Turks also meant that the culture was not that ‘exotic’ or alien either. Consequently, these westernized versions of the perceived Turkish music are not always deemed as instances of multiculturalism.

Similarly, the French, like many many other European nations, have always had a fascination for Spanish music which applies to both classical music and popular culture. But one might not consider Bolero or La Soirée dans Grenade instances of multiculturalism insofar as both Spanish and French music belong to the same western classical tradition. Yet by virtue of its closeness and involvement with cultures in the Levant and the New World, the music of Spain has been enriched into a treasure trove of musical multiculturlism, assimilating the music from the Moors, Turks, Jews, as well as the Aztecs and Incas, over the past centuries.

La Follia

A true multicultural genre, also referred to as La Folia or Follie, this could simply be just a musical theme, a folk song or dance music, or a serious composition involving complex chord progressions. Its origin and the meaning of the term are uncertain, sometimes associated with a folk tune from the Canary Islands or more often with a celebratory song brought to Brazil by African slaves during the 18th century.

Altre Follie 1500 - 1750 / Savall, Hespèrion Xxi, Et Al
La Folia 1490-1701 (Sacd) - Jordi Savall, Rolf Lislevand, Pedro Estevan

But the music probably existed in both the Iberian Peninsula and Italy, before this. The word “folia” can be traced to its Tuscan root meaning ‘mindless’, ‘crazy’, ‘unhindered’ etc., which is appropriate for these folk dances. The so-called ‘Italian Folias’ were highly developed art music perfected by Correlli and Vivaldi among others. Other seventeenth century exponents of La Folia included Jean-Baptiste Lully and Marin Marais in France, and John Playford in Britain.

However the most striking example of multiculturalism must be the Peruvian version of La Folia from around 1500, as well as some other Folias or variations from both the old and new worlds dating back to 1490 or earlier. As parallel development from the slave trade and other areas of interchange came later progression to Folias Crriollas and other variations of the form, some of which had distinct African flavors including many words and phrases in Yoruba and Bantu.


From Mozart and his predecessors to Saint-Saëns, Rimsky-Korsakov, Verdi and many others, classical or romantic composers of the time embraced orientalism more as a novelty rather than multiculturalism, not unlike the faux-Asian craze of the twentieth century popular music, Jazz and cinema.

Some of these fit the stereotype of Orientalism as posited by the Palestinian-American Edward Said, although Said mostly wrote about western attitudes towards the middle eastern, in particular Arab, culture, the same inference can be applied to the musical orientalism of the European colonial era as paternalistic and nominal.


As probably one of the first to go beyond this ‘nominal’ orientalism, not only did Mahler base his ‘song-symphony’ Das Lied von der Erde on ancient Chinese poetry (in Hans Bethge’s German translation “Die chinesische Flöte” ), he also used Chinese motifs, intervals, scales (pentatonic) and instrumentation.

Mahler: Das Lied Von Der Erde /Klemperer, Ludwig, Wunderlich
Das Lied Von Der Erde (In Chinese)

It is interesting to note that Mahler’s Chinese-inspired song-symphony must have appealed to so many Chinese music lovers that a Cantonese version of Das Lied von der Erde was published in 2005, and premiered later that year by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Debussy & Ravel

Beyond their fascination for Spanish music and culture, both Debussy and Ravel ventured into different forms of ‘exoticism’ in addition to their usual association with impressionism, and for Debussy at least, symbolism. Trying to break free from the stifling romanticism and the sway of Wagnerism, they both sought to go back to the pre-classical renaissance and baroque masters like Peri and Caccini, or Couperin and Rameau, for inspiration. No wonder this restlessness would also lead them to orientalism.

Debussy was greatly impressed by the Javanese Gamelan music he heard at the 1889 Exposition Universalle in Paris, studying the music and absorbing the rather complex ideas underlying the apparently simple and linear music. His experiments led to his adoption of whole tone and pentatonic scales, unusual harmonies and modality. Examples can be found in Pagodes from Estampes, the Prélude from ‘pour le piano’ or Poissons d’or from Images II, among others, and in many other chamber works and also the opera Pelléas et Mélisande.

Ravel was the iconic ‘exoticist’ in many ways. Besides his Hispanophilia and orientalism, he famously adapted Jazz, most notably in his G-major Piano concerto; Jewish music, as in Deux mélodies hébraïques (Kaddisch and L'Énigme éternelle); Greek music (5 mélodies populaires Grecques); music from Madagascar (Chansons Madécasses), plus Chants populaires ( a collection of Spanish, French, Italian, Hebrew and Scottish folk songs). Of course, the most acclaimed ‘orientalist’ music, Shéhérazade,  is more than nominal in character which becomes evident from the very first bar with Ravel’s unique modal style and colors.
Songs by Ravel

Other Multiculturalists

According to musicologists multicultaralism, nominal or otherwise, has always existed in music. Apart from the obvious ones like Mozart or Rimsky-Korsakov, Dvorak comes to mind. As an ardent admirer of Native American and Amerindian musical traditions during his visit to America he championed some of these, and exhorted others to eschew European traditions in preference to these native ones. In more recent times, Max Bruch - who was not Jewish but often thought of as one following his Kol Nidrei - and Mendelssohn, both wrote Scottish-themed music, which might not be considered multicultural. However the music of Messiaen, who drew inspiration from Greek, Japanese (cf. Sept haïkaï ) and ancient Hindu ( e.g. in his Turangalila symphony) sources, is undeniably multicultural.

Alan Hovhaness

The music of this Armenian-American composer is both exotic and multicultural. His vast oeuvre can be divided into different stages of his creative life, e,g, his Armenian period, Middle Eastern, Oriental period (including Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and Indian), and Amerindian phase, each producing notable compositions.

Too numerous to list, notable among these are Lousadzak, Shalimar, Majnun-, Nanga Parbat-, Arjuna- and Vishnu- symphonies, ‘And God Created Great Whales’. Irrespective of genre are his most popular pieces, like, Mysterious Mountain, Mount St. Helens, which are more accessible than many other contemporary music, and are therefore often considered ‘low-brow’ by some.

Hovhaness: Symphony No. 2; Mysterious Mountain; Lousadzak; Lou Harrison: Symphony No. 2 Elegiac

Lou Harrison

A contemporary champion of Hovhaness, Harrison was often considered a ‘Musical Outsider’. Many of his early works were for percussion instruments conmprising ‘junk yard’ stuff, hiding a germinal, more synthetical musical analytics, of his later years. His musical multiculturalism is a well developed inter-generic system of effortless transitions, embodying an aesthetics of, as Harry patch called, his musical corporeality.

Harrison’s orientalism is difficult to pin down on, but his Concerto for Slendro , the Concerto for pipa with String Orchestra , the suite for Violin and American Gamerlan are iconic works to start with. In other fields of multiculturalism, La Koro Sutro and, especially, the Song of Quetzalcoatl are supreme examples of his multicultural genius.

John Tavener

The tortured mystic who overcame multiple crises of faith,Tavener by nature was multicultural. His restless spirit led him over the years from his conventional Catholic liturgical background to the Byzantine Tone systems, Sufi music, Hindu Ragas and the very complex microtonal modes which he introduced in his music. The Whale, and the Lamb were immensely popular during his early creative years which he quickly outgrew, and were replaced by the modal Mary of Egypt, and one of his most recent work Towards Silence scored for “four String quartets and a Tibetan Bowl”, which probably needs no explication beyond the sub-title.