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Reconsidering the Musical Surreal through Poulenc’s
As ‘the most profoundly confusing’ of all arts, figurehead André Breton dismissed music as irrelevant to the Surrealist movement. Yet many composers were keenly involved in such Parisian circles. Poulenc’s acquaintance with major figures led him to set much of their literary work, but his engagement with their methods extends deeper into the structures of the music itself. Through assessing Poulenc’s flirtation with the movement’s various methods and ideas, this paper will build a method of conceptualising Surrealism in music. For both Apollinaire and Breton, Surrealism focuses on the juxtaposition of familiar clichéd expressions in bizarre contexts, that is, ‘the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations’ (Breton 1924). Thus my theoretical entry will be Hatten’s conception of musical markedness, used to explore various ways through which markedness itself can be central to such an aesthetic. The familiar yet flexible musical type of fifth relations will provide an avenue into these concepts.
I focus on three major works. Litanies à la Vierge Noire exemplifies a basic juxtaposition of languages, the basis of collage. An overdose of cadential progressions from the Sextet parallels Apollinaire’s conception of semantically-saturated calligrams. Finally, the Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani demonstrates more formal concerns: the source of an initially marked “rogue” chord is gradually rationalised over the work. In situating these examples within recent work on genre, I develop a continuum of musical markedness, bringing together the various strands which characterise the musical Surreal.
James Donaldson is a PhD student in Music Theory, focusing on twentieth-century instrumental music. He holds a bachelor's from Christ Church, Oxford and Masters from King’s College, London and has presented work at conferences in the UK and North America. Previously, he taught at schools in the UK and Switzerland.