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Faculty of Music


The fantastic and the human: understanding the relationship between octatonicism and tonality in Messiaen’s Le Banquet Céleste and Back to the Future

The connection between the octatonic scale and the idea of the ‘fantastic’ can be traced back at least as far as late nineteenth-century Russian music: Richard Taruskin (1996) has identified a tradition of distinguishing ‘human’ and ‘fantastic’ worlds by setting tonality against octatonicism. In Rimsky Korsakov’s Sadko (1897), for example, the octatonic collection is associated with the magical underwater kingdom of the Sea-King, in contrast with the diatonicism associated with the humans of Novgorod.

In this paper I argue that the ‘fantastic’ and the ‘human’ continue to map onto octatonicism and functional tonality respectively in more recent repertoire. Furthermore, because the octatonic collection is not diametrically opposed to tonality, the ‘fantastic’ and the ‘human’ can relate in more complex ways than a simple binary opposition.

I begin by briefly setting out the theoretical framework for my hermeneutic approach, drawing on the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer to develop a non-historicist hermeneutics based on dialogue and play. I then consider two sophisticated examples of octatonicism and tonality interacting to generate meaning. Messiaen’s Le Banquet Céleste (1928) attempts to hold octatonicism and tonality in tension, which I evaluate with reference to the relationship between Christ’s humanity and divinity as set out in the theological doctrine of the hypostatic union. In Alan Silvestri’s score for Back to the Future (1985), the octatonic collection is most strongly associated with the ‘magical’ DeLorean time machine, but permeates the entire score so as to create a narrative about technology and the global role of the USA in the Atomic Age.

​​Dr James Olsen is a composer, and a college supervisor at the University of Cambridge. His PhD was supervised by Professor Nicholas Cook. His research interests include the analysis of music from the eighteenth century to the present day, and the application of philosophical hermeneutics to music analysis.

Wednesday, 26 January, 2022 - 17:00
Event location: 
Recital Room, Faculty of Music and online via Zoom (email for link)