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Faculty of Music


Dr Peter Asimov (University of Cambridge)

The Hidden Poetics of Messiaen’s ‘Serialism’

The interpretation of Messiaen’s piano etude Mode de valeurs et d’intensités (1949) as an exercise in the application of Viennese dodecaphonism to parameters other than pitch—notably rhythm, as well as dynamics and timbre—was propagated most loudly by Messiaen’s students, and retroactively embraced by Messiaen himself. The composition’s role as the launchpad for ‘total’ or ‘integral serialism’ has since enshrined it as a milestone in modernist music historiography.

Without denying the relevance of emergent serialist thought to the development of Messiaen’s rationalism in the 1940s, this paper unearths another intellectual current which played at least as significant a role in his rhythmic experimentation: that of philology and poetics. I begin by sketching how Messiaen’s concertedly ‘additive’ rhythmic techniques built upon linguist Antoine Meillet’s defining breakthroughs in the (now obsolete) field of ‘comparative metrics’ (1923)—specifically, his efforts to reconstruct ‘proto-Indo-European rhythm’. Then, I focus on the efforts of two little-known Romanian expatriate scholars—Pius Servien (1902–1959) and Matila Ghyka (1881–1965)—whose efforts to rationalize poetic lyricism, tone, and stress via numerical (and numerological) techniques of literary analysis—inflected with an ideology of pan-Latinism that veers into interwar discourses of race—shaped Messiaen’s thought in the 1930s and ’40s, but whose contributions have been marginalized by hegemonic serialist discourses of the post-war years.

Drawing together published texts, unpublished sketches, and newly accessible documents from Messiaen’s archive and library, this paper addresses both historians and analysts while also engaging the emerging literary field of ‘critical rhythm’, in order to expose contingent networks and practices of knowledge production later concealed beneath the universalizing and objectivizing discourses associated with postwar ‘high modernism’. This historical depth, in turn, helps to resolve—and perhaps even obviate—longstanding debates regarding Messiaen’s ‘serialist’ practice in relation to those of his predecessors and students.

Peter Asimov is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge, and Lumley Research Fellow at Magdalene College. He is also chercheur associé at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Previously he was a Fondation Wiener-Anspach postdoctoral fellow at the Université libre de Bruxelles. His research on 19th- and 20th-century French music has been published in 19th-Century Music, the Journal of the Royal Musical Association, and edited volumes in the U.K., France, Belgium, and Tunisia.

Wednesday, 31 May, 2023 - 13:00 to 14:30
Event location: 
Recital Room, Faculty of Music