In Search of New Scales

In Search of New Scales

Prince Edmond de Polignac, Octatonic Explorer

Sylvia Kahan


University of Rochester Press



The first publication and exploration of a pathbreaking treatise on what would become a crucial element in the music of Stravinsky and Ravel: the octatonic scale.
In 1879, French amateur composer Edmond de Polignac (1834-1901) painstakingly devised a new way to create melodies and harmonies using a scale that alternated half and whole steps. This scale -- known today as octatonic -- was an important element in the music of Liszt and Rimsky-Korsakov, and would later figure prominently in the works of Ravel, Stravinsky, and many others. Sylvia Kahan, author of Music's Modern Muse: A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac, here publishes the Prince's octatonic treatise for the first time -- in both the original French and in English translation -- and comments extensively on what the treatise, and the Prince's little-known compositions, reveal about musical thought in late nineteenth-century Paris.
Given his aristocratic lineage, Polignac might seem an unlikely precursor of musical modernism, yet he was known as an advocate of "advanced ideas." Late in life, he married wealthy heiress Winnaretta Singer, who sponsored prestigious public concerts of her husband's bold works, interpreted by the greatest musical artists in Paris. Debussy and Fauré were admirers of Polignac's music, especially the 1879 octatonic oratorio Pilate livre le Christ (Pontius Pilate Hands Christ Over). Marcel Proust lauded his compositions and the "essence of genius of their author."
In Search of New Scales is based on bibliographic material in private archives, as well as letters and other documents in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Sylvia Kahan's new book will become a permanent point of reference for all future studies of post-Romantic and twentieth-century composition.

Sylvia Kahan is Professor of Music at the Graduate Center and College of Staten Island, City University of New York. Her previous book, Music's Modern Muse, was published by the University of Rochester Press in hardcover and paperback.


August 2009
16 black and white illustrations
405 pages
9x6 in
Eastman Studies in Music
ISBN: 9781580463058
Format: Hardback
University of Rochester Press
BISAC MUS020000, MUS041000, MUS050000
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Edmond de Polignac and the Discovery of Octatonicism
Ch. 1: Childhood and Education (1834-1859)
Ch. 2: A Young Composer (1859-1877)
Ch. 3: Scales A, B, C: Polignac's Invention of Octatonicism (1877-1879)
Ch. 4: "Nothing of the Usual Tonality" (1880-1888)
Ch. 5: The Unexpected Woman (1889-1894)
Ch. 6: Alexandre de Bertha and the Guerre des gammes (1894-1896)
Ch. 7: Years of Plenty (1894-1899)
Ch. 8: Endings and Echoes (1900-)
Ch. 9: Edmond de Polignac's Octatonic Music
Preface to Polignac's Octatonic Treatise
Polignac's Octatonic Treatise, "A Study on the Alternating Sequences of Whole Steps and Half Steps, (and on the Scale Known as Major-Minor)"
Edmond de Polignac, "Etude sur les successions alternantes de tons et demi-tons (Et sur la gamme dite majeure-mineure)"


Kahan's musical analysis, and her publication and translation of Polignac's treatise alone are sufficient to position this volume as an important addition to octatonic scholarship. MUSIC AND LETTERS

A fascinating, well-researched book--the product of an imaginative research project, . . . supplying a previously "missing link" within the nineteenth-century history and theory of octatonicism. JOURNAL OF MUSIC THEORY (Deborah Mawer)

One can only admire the mammoth research that S. Kahan has carried out regarding (Polignac's) life. . . . Polignac surveys the possibilities of a new musical language more deeply than did his contemporaries. . . . I should emphasize how excellent the translation is of Polignac's treatise. . . . The numerous musical examples have been set with great skill. REVUE DE MUSICOLOGIE (René Champigny)

Fulsome indexes (in this book and Kahan's "Music's Modern Muse") make them easy to dip in and out of. . . . Real digestible coffee table books. TEMPO (Anthony Gritten)

A compelling amalgam of biography, history, music theory, and cultural studies --Joseph N. Straus, author of Stravinsky's Late Music and Remaking the Past: Musical Modernism and the Influence of the Tonal Tradition

Kahan's elegant transcription and translation of Polignac's octatonic treatise brings to light a new document that will prove important not only for the history of music theory but also for a richer understanding of the story of musical modernism in fin-de-siècle Paris. --Jonathan Cross, Professor of Musicology, University of Oxford

Tells a history-altering story . . . Kahan's presentation and commentary are superior to those of Polignac's own. . . . The (musico-)theoretical equivalent of a page-turner. . . . Will force scholars to rethink the current understanding of the octatonic and its dissemination in France. MUSIC LIBRARY ASSOCIATION NOTES (Mark McFarland)

Historical musicology at its best. . . . Deftly situates Polignac's work in both chronological and intellectual history. (Kahan) reads Polignac's text closely and provides expert editorial clarity to bring to life a document of great historical significance. In doing so, she pushes the theoretical explication of the octatonic scale from 1963 back to 1888. NINETEENTH-CENTURY MUSIC REVIEW (Benjamin Ayotte)

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