Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Prince Edmond, Octatonic Explorer

In October we posted a series of extracts from Sylvia Kahan’s superb biography of Winnaretta Singer, Music’s Modern Muse. This week we turn the spotlight on her second husband, Prince Edmond de Polignac, and his discovery of the octatonic scale which is the subject of Professor Kahan’s latest book, In Search of New Scales. ‘A fascinating and valuable contribution to modern French musicology,’ enthused Robert Orledge in the Winter 2009 issue of the Musical Times, ‘Kahan shows herself ever aware of the social and cultural milieu in which Prince Edmond operated…[her] enthusiastic advocacy makes one long for recordings.’ Orledge concludes, ‘Prince Edmond was far more than a mere social appendage to a famous wife; as well as being far more than the “charming…big ironic bird” of Colette’s description.’

The ‘discovery’ of the octatonic scale by Edmond de Polignac—and, later, by Alexandre de Bertha—entirely independent of the collection’s earlier applications by German and Russian composers, can be attributed in part to a logical development in a tonal system that was rapidly becoming chromaticized. However, it may also speak to a deeper cultural need. If we look back on the history of another art form, for example, the first photograph was taken in 1826, but photography as a science was not invented until 1839. The imagination that wanted photography was ready for its reification only when it had reached a certain state in its technical advancement. Similarly, the Romantic musical imagination that dared to break the mold of conventional diatonic procedures, moving gradually into the realm of mediant-related harmonic progressions, would have to wait until 1867 for the scale governing some of those procedures to be reified, and another dozen years until that scale was theorized.

In the musical realm, a similar process of ‘evolutionary’ revolution in musical composition was surely at work as well. The time that has passed between Rimsky-Korsakov’s first version of Sadko—the tone poem, Op. 5 (1867), which introduces his first octatonic scale—and the second version—the full-length opera of the same name (1897), whose second scene is based, in large part, upon triads drawn exclusively from Scale C—is a full thirty years. And, as Allen Forte has demonstrated, Franz Liszt experimented with proto-octatonic thirds related constructions as early as 1858, but it was not until the composer’s very late period (1880–83), when he was writing highly atonal experimental works, that, according to Forte, ‘[Liszt’s] conscious manipulation of such structural properties seems incontrovertible.’ At the end of the manuscript of one such experimental work, Ossa arida (1879), Liszt wrote the following postscript: ‘Professors and apostles of the conservatories most strongly disapprove of the dissonance of the continuous thirds-construction of the first twenty bars, which is not yet customary. Nevertheless, so has he written. Liszt (Villa d’Este, 18–21 October 79).’ The year 1879 also marks the period of Polignac’s octatonic discovery: by then, the idea was unquestionably ‘in the air.’

It is not inconceivable that the early French modernists might have been influenced by Polignac’s music and theories. The public debates and articles surrounding Polignac’s ‘octatonic wars’ with Bertha would surely have been followed with interest by composers who read Le Figaro and the leading journals of music and culture. Claude Debussy, an octatonic composer (of the ‘fortuitous’ type, according to Taruskin), was introduced to the Prince and Princesse de Polignac in 1894 by musical salon hostess Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux, and subsequently frequented the Polignac salon; an 1895 letter to Pierre Louÿs attests to Debussy’s interest in—and implied admiration of—Polignac’s music. Maurice Ravel (in Taruskin’s terms, a ‘true’ octatonic composer) began to attend the musical gatherings in the late 1890s, in the company of his teacher Gabriel Fauré. While both composers—especially Ravel—were influenced by the Russians, both would also have had many occasions to hear Edmond de Polignac holding forth on ‘his’ scales. It is impossible to prove Polignac’s influence with absolute certainty, but what is certain is that Debussy and Ravel can be placed in the Polignac salon—in Ravel’s case, well before the date of his first octatonic essays; therefore this indigenous source of influence cannot be ruled out.

In any event, Polignac’s octatonic compositions and treatise (transcribed, translated, and analyzed in part two of In Search of New Scales), and Bertha’s subsequent writings on the same subject, must now take their place in the history of the theoretical recognition of the collection. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1867 description of the ‘halfstep, whole-step’ scale will remain its first written reification, the first published description of the octatonic scales, originally attributed to Berger in 1963, must now be moved backwards to 1888, and attributed to Edmond de Polignac.

More information about Music’s Modern Muse may be found here, while further details of Prince Edmond’s octatonic adventure are here.

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