Philip Ewell

Octatonic or Diminished? Russian Modal Interpretations of Stravinsky’s Pitch Organization

Recently, American music theory has tried to show that Stravinsky’s music is primarily octatonic, yet no one mentions how octatonicism is viewed in Russia, the country of Stravinsky’s formative years. There his music is considered modal, based on the modal system of Boleslav Yavorsky. My paper offers Russian views on Stravinsky’s music and, specifically, on pieces often considered octatonic in America. I will suggest new ways of interpreting this music, and delve into the historical bases of Yavorsky’s search for a new music theory.
In a letter to his teacher Sergei Taneev from 1906, Yavorsky spelled out the inspiration for his system: “From my studies of folk music I’ve come to the conclusion that the basic cell of musical speech is the tritone and its resolution.” Yavorsky’s system was universal. The universality of Yavorsky’s system makes it applicable to Azerbaijani modes and Polish music, for example. Further, Hugo Riemann had a large impact on Yavorsky — for instance, when he was only 22, Yavorsky translated Riemann’s Systematische Modulationslehre into Russian. Understanding Riemann’s impact on Yavorsky looms large in explaining Riemann’s impact on music theory in China via Soviet theory, the topic of the fourth paper in our session.