“Gamelan in the Blood” by Joss Wibisono

An earlier version of this essay has appeard on CSEAS Newsletter Number 65, Spring 2012, pp 21-4

The role of colonialism has often been overlooked when examining the merging of musical genres. Yet in the case of gamelan (traditional music of Java and Bali) there are some interesting conjunctions with western classical music. Influences in the compositions of Eurasian composers were also born out of unexpected unions that developed through colonial encounters. Renowned composers such as the French composer Claude Debussy [1862-1918] watched and listened to Sari Oneng, an ensemble of Sundanese gamelan from West Java in Paris, and it is these influences which resonate in places in his repertoire.

How Debussy was influenced by gamelan is widely known, yet little is known about the new brand of Eurasian composers who, unlike Debussy, were more ‘natural’ in their encounters with the gamelan. Some were born in the Indies, lived and died there. However, these non-Europe-based composers were also educated in classical music, with one of them even making a visit to Leipzig to study at the famous conservatoire there. In the era of colonialism, other hitherto unknown composers and musicians lived under the shadow of Debussy’s encounter; these people produced compositions that enthusiastically incorporated gamelan into their music. However, this raises an interesting question: in contrast to Debussy, why was their use of the gamelan sound or structure not given the same attention as that which Debussy received? In other words, what is the significance of the lack of recognition in their influences in adding to Western classical music?

It is well known that in 1889 Debussy visited the Paris Exposition Universelle that commemorated the centenary of the French Revolution. The Dutch pavilion at the exhibition, called le village javanais, depicted a real Javanese village replete with inhabitants, yet it was not a state-sanctioned pavilion, as the king as head of state, The Hague had refused to take part in the celebration commemorating the demise of the French monarchy.

Gate to the village javanais
Gate to the village javanais

The result of this effort could be called an innovative mixture or, for those who were attached to tradition, a mixture of nonsense. While perhaps the village itself was a result of the excellent Batavian artisan work, the gamelan players who performed were not professionals. These could only be reached through official channels. The players of Sari Oneng were in fact workers of the Parakan Salak tea plantation in Sukabumi, West Java. Interestingly, in Paris, they accompanied professional dancers from Mangkoenegara, one of the courts of Solo in Central Java. A Dutch businessman with close palace connections managed to convince Mangkoenegara’s authorities to dispatch four teenage female dancers. It is questionable whether he told the authorities the whole truth – that these dancers would accompany a Sundanese gamelan led by the plantation’s owner, a Dutchman called Adriaan Holle. The fact that these dancers were called tandhak (street dancers) requires further research to clarify what their role was. One tends to speculate that they were not really palace dancers. Yet, combining Sundanese gamelan with Javanese dance is, to use a crude analogy, akin to a rock band accompanying ballroom dancers. Indonesians today would still raise their eyebrows at the idea of collaboration between Sundanese gamelan and Solo court dancers.

Javanese Dancers at the Paris Exhibition
Javanese Dancers at the Paris Exhibition

That Debussy was mesmerized by Javanese gamelan is well documented (Fauser, 2005; Bloembergen, 2004). He was quite impressed by gamelan’s counterpoint, as can be read in one of his much quoted reviews of Sari Oneng: “Javanese music is based on a type of counterpoint by comparison with which that of Palestrina is child’s play” (Bloembergen, 2004: 126). But the music he heard was not performed by a first-class gamelan ensemble and the combination with Solo’s court dance was far from the real thing as practiced in the day. One wonders how Debussy would have been impressed, had he been present at the first professional gamelan performance in Europe. A decade earlier, in 1879, the first professional gamelan ensemble performed in Europe, in the city of Arnhem, Holland. It was an ensemble of 13 musicians from the Mangkoenegaran court of Solo (Cohen, 2010: 10; Terwen, 2009: 73-112).

Gamelan performing in Arnhem 1879
Gamelan performing in Arnhem 1879

Would Debussy have been impressed by its counterpoint and not by other aspects? Solo’s gamelan is certainly different from Sundanese gamelan such as Sari Oneng. The instruments are different, requiring different kinds of tuning and the Solo’s ensembles have more instruments distinguishable by their very different repertoires. Debussy was, however convinced of his own musical language after listening to Sari Oneng and his compositions matured by incorporating these impressionistic influences, which are clearly audible in his work Les Estampes No.1 Pagodes. In this composition for piano solo, published in 1903, Debussy’s accords are floating and never resolve. He achieves this by employing a pentatonic scale, which happens to be the scale of gamelan.

Francis Poulenc (1919)
Francis Poulenc (1919)

Paris would be host to other similar exhibitions in the years following the Exhibition Universelle of 1889 and Debussy’s music would continue to be informed by the mix of musical influences brought to Paris. However, it was not only Debussy who was attracted to gamelan while visiting one or more exhibitions; other composers were also heavily influenced by the various exhibitions held in Paris. Francis Poulenc [1899-1963] was another prominent composer and in 1931 he visited the Exposition Coloniale Internationale, a six-month long event held in Paris where a Balinese gamelan ensemble from Peliatan performed. This was the first ever performance of Balinese gamelan abroad and one cannot miss the Balinese influence in Poulenc’s concerto for two pianos in D minor. In 1944, Poulenc wrote his surrealist short opera Les Mamelles de Tirésias which also incorporated a Balinese motif at the end of the prologue.

Colin McPhee (1920)
Colin McPhee (1920)

Colin McPhee [1900-1964] is a transitional figure who deserves mention. Not only did he watch Peliatan’s gamelan in Paris, but he also visited Bali in the 1930s and stayed on the island for several years. McPhee belongs to a second group of composers — those influenced by native Indonesian music and had the opportunity to visit the Indies. The Balinese influence is clearly audible in most of his music. Tabuh-Tabuhan (1936), for instance, sounds like a concerto of Balinese gamelan but is in fact performed by a western orchestra without a single gamelan instrument present.

The second group also includes the British composer Benjamin Britten [1913-1976], although, unlike Debussy, Poulenc or McPhee, he never saw gamelan performance in Paris. Britten stayed in the same house as McPhee when he and his life-long partner Peter Pears, both pacifists, lived in a self-imposed exile in New York during WWII. McPhee introduced the Balinese gamelan to Britten and both of them recorded some of McPhee’s piano transcriptions. After the war Britten met Poulenc and the two composers were the soloists of Poulenc’s concerto for two pianos in a performance at the Albert Hall in London, on 16 January 1955. A year later, in January 1956, Britten and Pears went to Bali to stay for several weeks.

Benjamin Britten (1950s)
Benjamin Britten (1950s)

Balinese influence was indistinctly audible in Britten’s first opera, Peter Grimes, which he composed after returning from America and shade of Balinese music become more clearer in the music he created for the ballet Prince of the Pagodas, composed in 1956, the year he went to Bali. Most of all, full-fledged Balinese sounds are unmistakably audible in his last opera Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann’s novella (Der Tod in Venedig published in1912).

Death in Venice, production of Hamburg Opera
Death in Venice, production of Hamburg Opera

Death in Venice is different from other Britten’s operas and others in general. Although there is no distinctive aria in it, it is mainly about the protagonist’s contemplation of his own life. As such, the opera is one long aria of the main character, Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer troubled by writer’s block. Around half an hour into the opera, a scene plays out where Von Aschenbach encounters the Polish boy Tadzio. It is here that Britten employs the gamelan scale, which he later develops more fully through the opera. This is the Tadzio motif, a musical manifestation of a mute role in the opera. But there is more. The Greek god of music Apollo appears to Tadzio and his friends while they are playing games, a scene known as the Games of the Apollo. Apollo, a role for a countertenor, sings enchanting melodies employing the Balinese pentatonic scale. This is one of Britten’s most ingenious inventions, since, unlike Javanese gamelan, the Balinese counterpart does not include much singing. Death in Venice as such places emphasis on singing, solo or in ensemble with the choir, distancing itself from the standard use of the gamelan in Bali.

Apollo in the center
Apollo in the center

The list of gamelan-influenced composers goes on to include other personalities such as Leopold Godowsky [1870-1938], Maurice Ravel [1875-1937], Olivier Messiaen [1908-1992], Michael Tippett [1905-1998], Lou Harrison [1917-2003], John Cage [1912-1992], Steve Reich [1936] and Philip Glass [1937] — all western composers who incorporated gamelan sounds, motives or structures into their compositions.

We have seen how gamelans from Sunda, West Java, and from Bali have inspired different Western composers yet gamelan music can be found throughout Java and Bali with different variations. So what about the gamelan from courtly Central Java of Yogyakarta and Solo where the Mataram kings still reign in the present? Here we will encounter the Eurasian composers, for they were mostly influenced by Central Javanese gamelan. They appear to predominately fall into two schools: those who stressed the importance of unfettered creativity and those who attached importance to sources employed in tradition. Constant van de Wall [1871-1945] belongs to the first school and saw the gamelan as a mere source of inspiration for his own creative processes. The second, spearheaded by Paul Seelig [1876-1945], saw gamelan as more than just a source of inspiration; they were faithful to the gamelan tradition, and their compositions sound like original Malay, Sundanese or Javanese songs.

For Debussy, Gamelan convinced him to employ the pentatonic scale; he had been searching for something different and was perhaps tempted to use it before finally coming into contact with it at the Paris Exhibition. Such conviction was hardly needed by Constant van de Wall. For him Java was not only a depiction of village or kampong, but also of two big cities as well, Surabaya, his city of birth in 1871, and Semarang where he grew up. In Semarang, the capital of Central Java, we can be sure that Van de Wall heard gamelan on a daily basis. It is not surprising that he considered himself one of the composers whose “exoticism is in their blood, to such an extent that they do not need to borrow native melodies and motives” (Van de Wall: 1928). Almost all of his compositions expound Javanese musical elements and he considered himself as being more familiar with Javanese gamelan than any other outsider could ever be.

Constant van de Wall
Constant van de Wall

In a sense, he was right. In Rhapsodie Javanaise II (1930) Van de Wall revealed his unrivalled understanding of gamelan. This composition for piano solo starts in sléndro and continues in pélog, the two scales of Javanese gamelan. These can be regarded as the equivalent to major and minor scales in western music. The theme, in pélog, sounds so distinctive that no ear can mistake it for purely western music. Debussy was not aware of the two scales in Javanese gamelan, as 19th century Sundanese gamelan such as Sari Oneng did not differentiate between scales. Van de Wall also composed Jeu d’ombres (1918), an art song in French and Dutch about Javanese shadow puppets, which is probably the only song about this tradition for Javanese theater. Javanese gamelan motives are scattered all over this composition for middle voice accompanied by piano, and it also contains some Debussy-like accords.

In his major work, the opera Attima that premiered on 8 January 1917 in The Hague, Van de Wall demonstrates his extensive knowledge of Javanese culture. More importantly, as this opera deals with a group of Javanese dancers, Van de Wall breaks through the strict distinction between opera and ballet. Opera is commonly known as a singing art while ballet focuses on dancing. In overcoming the separation between these two art forms, Van de Wall made use of the Javanese form of theatre wayang wong (human wayang) in a ‘western’ opera.

Annemarie Kremer as Attima
Annemarie Kremer as Attima

Not only are wayang wong players supposed to act and sing, they must also master bekso, the Javanese dance. By composing music for a drama about Javanese dancers, Van de Wall successfully merges two distinct forms of art, opera and ballet. Living in Nice, south of France, in 1920s, Van de Wall was known as compositeur javanais or Javanese composer and although he had a typically sounding Dutch name, this title came to epitomize his knowledge and understanding of Javanese culture.

Paul Seelig
Paul Seelig

Paul Seelig was not born in the Indies, but he spent most of his life in Java and died of exhaustion after being released from a Japanese prison camp in Batavia in June 1945. Being educated in Leipzig, Germany, Seelig had spent most of his life in Asia, hopping from one South East Asian court to another. Firstly he was active in Solo, and then he moved to Bangkok and Johor before finally settling down in Bandung.

Pakoe Boewono X of Solo appointed Paul Seelig in 1899 to set up a palace symphony orchestra and he had to start from scratch, practically training every single musician. Yet, a year later the twenty-member orchestra performed for the first time. Seelig was satisfied by the response of an enthusiastic audience and at the time noted “the players played properly and admirably,” (Mak van Dijk, 2007: 157). In its heyday the orchestra consisted of 90 players and during his time at the palace Paul Seelig managed to collect 200 gamelan themes, which he published as Gending Djawi (1922).

Most probably, during his Solo years Seelig was introduced to King Rama V of Siam when he visited his Javanese counterpart Pakoe Boewono X in June 1901. Also another possibility is that Seelig was introduced to the King’s son, Prince Paribatra, later known as the father of western classical music in Thailand. The fact is that, at the invitation of the King, Seelig went to live in Bangkok for the second half of 1910. This was followed by several visits during which he stayed for several months at a time in Bangkok. Seelig also studied Siamese music, which he later published as a collection, as well as his Rhapsodie siamoise (1932). He also orchestrated Maha Chay, Thailand’s Royal Anthem for a complete orchestra. Although his Johor connections still need further research, Seelig composed a collection of five Lieder (German art song), and his Opus 7, entitled Fünf Lieder (Malayische Lieder) published around 1902, was dedicated to Her Royal Highness Sultanah Khatijah of Johor.

Cover of Trois danses javanaises
Cover of Trois danses javanaises

He eventually chose to settle in Bandung and established a music publishers company Matatani, which disseminated many of his works, among which were songs with piano accompaniment (e.g. Tembang Sunda, Tembang Tjitro Kusomo Sekar, Djalak Idjo, Hastaka Kuswala), piano solo pieces (Danse de Masque javanaise, Pentul Tembem), music drama Dewi Anggraeni and piano concerto in F Sharp minor, and many more.

In a pioneering book, the Dutch pianist and anthropologist Henk Mak van Dijk [2007] devotes special chapters not only to Seelig and Van de Wall, but also Linda Bandara [1881-1960] and Bernhard van den Sigtenhorst Meyer [1888-1953]. He also mentions Theo Smit Sibinga [1899-1958], Daniel Ruyneman [1886-1963], Frans Wiemans [1889-1935], Hector Marinus [1902-1952], Berta Tideman-Wijers [1887-1976] and a few more hitherto unknown composers who have all lived under the shadow of Debussy’s influences.

Historically, Debussy’s role is unquestionable as a pioneer of musical impressionism, partly thanks to his encounter with the Sundanese gamelan of Sari Oneng performed in Paris. But for the Indonesian music history other Eurasian composers have by far played a more prominent role. They are unmistakably the first to have composed a unifying music of East and West and thus succeeded in creating a unique musical fusion. However, the question remains as to why these Eurasian composers never attained the same acclaim as Debussy or other composers who encountered gamelan in Europe?

One important answer is that firstly, among Eurocentric Dutch music critics, there was little or no appreciation of them in comparison to “home grown” Dutch composers. In fact Van de Wall’s quote earlier is taken from his essay entitled “Een Causerie over Indische Muziek en Indische componisten” (a lecture about music of the Indies and Eurasian composers), published in daily Het Vaderland in 1928 in which he tried to defend why he employed gamelan scales and motives.

Another answer is Holland’s role in the European power game. This seemingly distant factor from the world of music had a great impact on Eurasian composers in the sense that their work ‘became unknown’ due to the fact that, among others, Holland had and still has little influence in Europe. This fact did not change notably in the possession of her colonies, no matter how big they were. His own artistic quality notwithstanding, Debussy’s fame was also due to the fact that France was and still is influential in the world. If we consider the influence of the Paris Exhibition, despite the fact that a second-class gamelan ensemble performed there, two centuries later it is still in the public memory, rather than the National and Colonial Industrial Exhibition held in Arnhem in 1879, where the first ever-Javanese professional gamelan ensemble performed in Europe.

Colonialism can be a catalyst for creating a marriage between different musical genres, as that which occurred between gamelan and Western classical music. Regrettably, however, Dutch colonialism, while teeming with such marriages, failed to generate sufficient appreciation and public awareness of their offspring and led to the burial of a large body of music influences. These require a more detailed inquiry to clarify the musical convergences that arose through colonial encounters. These can deepen our knowledge of the different forms of exchange that took place in Europe’s colonial entanglements in Southeast Asia.


Bloembergen, Marieke. 2004. Koloniale Inspiratie, Frankrijk, Nederland, Indië en de wereldtentoonstellingen 1883-1931 Leiden: KITLV Uitgeverij

Cohen, Matthew Isaac. 2010. Performing Otherness Java and Bali on International Stages, 1905-1952. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cooke, Mervyn. 1998 Britten and the Far East, Asian Influences in the Music of Benjamin Britten. Suffolk: The Boydell Press.

Fauser, Annegret. 2005. Musical Encounters at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.

Mak Van Dijk, Henk. 2007. De oostenwind waait naar het westen: Indische componisten, Indische composities, 1898-1945. Leiden: KITLV Uitgeverij.

Lombard, Denys. 1992. Le Kampong javanais à l’Exposition Universelle de Paris en 1889. Archipel. Volume 43: 115-130. doi:10.3406/arch.1992.2810, (Accessed 10 November, 2011)

Terwen, Jan Willem. 2009. Gamelan in the 19th Century Netherland, An Encounter Between East and West. Utrecht: KVNM.

Van de Wall, Constant. 1928. “Een causerie over Indische muziek en Indische componisten” published in daily Het Vaderland, 26 April 1928.

14 pemikiran pada ““Gamelan in the Blood” by Joss Wibisono

    1. Thanks for your comment Walter Schwager. As you may have noticed my essay deals with the influence of Sundanese, Javanese and Balinese gamelan to the Western (classical) music. As I don’t play gamelan myself, I feel not in the position to write something about gamelan. Besides, I think there has a lot written about gamelan abroad.

    1. Thanks Walter, I’ve read the book. But apparently he also wrote “Music in Bali” published posthumusly in 1966. Have you read this magnum opus of his? In it he approached Balinese gamelan from ethnomusicological point of view.

  1. very nice article; I shared it with various friends. did you see/hear my 3 fragments of the 2008 Attima on you tube (BarbaraPurba)?

    1. Thanks Barbara, not only for your nice words but also for sharing my article with other friends of yours. I’ve heard those Attima fragments, but I don’t think they’re suitable for this article. Cheers.

  2. Most interesting.

    Worth to mention also Éva Gauthier. She, helped by Seelig, probably was the first western woman who studied gamelan in Kraton Solo

    1. Thanks for your comments Sergey Belenky. My article deals mainly with composers who were influenced by gamelan. Accordingly, I have to ommit Gauthier, as she was a performer. Linda Bandara would suit better for my purpose, but alas, my space is limited.

      1. Absolutely.
        There is an interesting account on circular reference between Debussy’ and gamelan music in Matthew I. Cohen’ article “Eva Gauthier, Java to jazz”:

        ‘I sang to them a bit of colorateur and they thought the screaming on the high notes was hideous; they thought I was going to burst. Then I sang to them a melody. But they looked bewildered. They could not grasp it in the least. Then I sang Debussy to them, and they went into raptures. Him they understood, for he tried his best to introduce into his music the quarter tone. (Fleischman 1915.)’
        Gauthier was looking for cultural connections, and found one in Debussy’s modern harmonies and modes. Later commentators, rightly or wrongly, saw a genetic relation between Debussy and gamelan, claiming that the experience of hearing gamelan at the 1889 Exposition Universelle de Paris influenced Debussy’s pentatonicism. Gauthier lacked the theoretical vocabulary to give a precise account of why her Javanese audience liked Debussy, but she had sound musical instincts.”

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