Tatiana Tsaregradskaya

Boris Asafyev and the Ideas of Energeticism in Russian Music Theory

In Music Theory from Zarlino to Schenker David Damschroeder and David Russel Williams call Boris Vladimirovich Asafiev (1884-1949) “one of the most influential scholars in Soviet music theory”. His contributions fall into three categories: 1) musical intonation (Russ. ‘intonatsia’) as socially predetermined phenomenon; 2) musical form as a process; 3) mode (Russ. ‘lad’) and harmony as the manifestations of ‘intonatsia’.
Asafiev’s idea of ‘intonatsia’ has been inspired by various achievements in humanities and in music theory by Ernst Cassirer, Ferdinand de Saussure, Antoine Meillet, Ernst Kurth and Boleslav Yavorsky. Intonatsia is rooted in the aural experience of a musician that provides the material for building relationships among various elements of music (sounds, scale steps, keys etc.). In the process of emergence and renovation of these relationships one can witness musical ‘becoming’ and ‘unfolding’—the qualities that manifest energetic essence of music.

Since music reveals itself in the process of unfolding, musical form is defined by a ‘process’, the most important aspects of which are the ‘relationships of identity and contrast’. Asafiev’s interest toward process was inspired by Ernst Kurth and his work Foundations of Linear Counterpoint. Asafiev’s interpretation of musical energy is distinct from pure psychological interpretation of Kurth. It is based upon the idea of ‘ntonational energy’ and presents the process of unfolding as ‘i-m-t formula’ (initio-motus-terminus); its main premise is functionality.

Mode (Russ. ‘lad’) and harmony are also placed under the auspices of intonatsia.  In Asafiev’s own words “lad is the intonational combination of melodic-harmonic relations” lead to understanding of mode as a dynamic phenomenon which is opposite to scalar concepts of mode.

Asafiev did not create a school but his ideas exerted immense influence on theorists of both competing traditions of Leningrad and Moscow.