The reification and theorization of the octatonic scale, arguably one of the principal organizational devices of twentieth-century music, have been long in coming. Rimsky-Korsakov was the first to describe the scale, in an 1867 letter, discussing its use as a Leitmotiv in the symphonic poem Sadko. Stravinsky used the collection as the basis for many of his groundbreaking works, especially The Rite of Spring, but never acknowledged the fundamental role that the "Rimsky-Korsakov scale" played in his compositional technique. It took another thirty years for Messiaen to identify the collection as one of the "modes of limited transposition." And another twenty years would pass before Arthur Berger, in a 1963 article, coined the name "octatonic scale."The post-Berger generation of scholars, beginning with van den Toorn and Taruskin, have continued to shed light on the functional and formal uses of the octatonic scale. Taruskin has traced the influence of Schubert's and Liszt's use of harmonic progressions based on mediant and diminished-seventh relations on Rimsky-Korsakov, who in turn influenced a whole generation of early modernist Russians. However, the fact that Rimsky-Korsakov never wrote down in any systematic way the theory underlying the scale that bore his name--in the same way that he codified his theories of orchestration--meant that its presence in early modernist compositions, although used frequently and conspicuously by his followers, remained obscure to those outside his circle. Therefore, the presence of the octatonic collection in the music of non-Russian early modernist composers cannot be easily explained, and the sources of influence are harder to trace. Interestingly, it appears that an important historical link between nineteenth- and twentieth-century octatonic composition--a link with particular implications for the presence of octatonicism in early modernist French music--is found in the music and theoretical writings of Prince Edmond de Polignac (1834--1901), an aristocrat and amateur French composer, who, in 1879, penned not only the first pervasively octatonic composition, but also what appears to be the first treatise on octatonic theory; he went on to write several other compositions based on the "gammes chromatico-diatoniques." In 1894 one of PolignacÕs contemporaries, musicologist Alexandre de Bertha, wrote and lectured extensively about his "discovery" of the "gammes enharmo-niques." In this article, I examine the reception of the works and ideas of Polignac and Bertha by contemporary critics and composers, and PolignacÕs role as an important precursor of modern octatonic theory.
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Research Article| November 01 2005
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Sylvia Kahan; "Rien de la tonalite usuelle": Edmond de Polignac and the Octatonic Scale in Nineteenth-Century France. 19th-Century Music 1 November 2005; 29 (2): 097–120. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2005.29.2.097
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