Peter Asimov: Comparative Philology, Musicology, Composition

Here, Peter Asimov (University of Cambridge) explores a historical moment – fin-de-siècle and early twentieth-century France – when the discipline of musicology and practices of composition were overtly allied with the science of comparative philology, perhaps absorbing some of comparative philology’s more troubling ideological affinities.

Comparative Philology, Musicology, Composition: Disciplinary Interfaces and Musical Boundary Objects

From Franz Bopp, Vergleichende Grammatik des Sanskrit, Zend, Griechischen, Lateinischen, Litthauischen, Gothischen und Deutschen, 1835, p.496


What if we thought of a dictionary as a scientific instrument? Or a table of conjugations or declensions?

For nineteenth-century philologists, a table like the one pictured above could constitute a powerful scientific tool indeed. In a much-exalted 1786 address, William Jones, the Calcutta-based jurist and founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, proposed a linguistic relationship between Sanskrit and a staggering range of other languages which came to be known as the ‘Indo-European’ languages. In his wake, philologists and linguists such as Franz Bopp, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Max Müller honed the techniques of the discipline that would become linguistics.[1] For these linguists, dictionaries and tables were not simply a means of learning a foreign language; they were a tool, serving to chart linguistic similitude and divergence. Such tables facilitated the dissection of language into component parts, enabling the close comparison of, say, morphological characteristics (i.e., the internal structures of words). By dissecting languages side by side according to a common field of grammatical concepts, tables like these facilitated the transformation of linguistic observations into matrices of rules and principles. As Siraj Ahmed has put it, for these comparative linguists, language shifted from being the ‘medium’ to being the ‘privileged object’ of knowledge – while grammar itself became a new universal, capable of transcending linguistic difference.[2]

Consolidating linguistic data points, and applying principles of classification borrowed from the natural sciences, historical linguists sought to chart linguistic relationships – and extrapolating from there, conflating similarity with historical consequence, they sought to trace a teleology of language origins and development. In this spirit, a linguist like August Schleicher a generation later could add another column to a declension table for the theoretical proto-language. (Schleicher even penned an original fable in his reconstructed ‘proto-Indo-European’ – a thought experiment which continues to be updated by linguists to this day…)

From August Schleicher, Compendium der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen, 1861, p.644; see leftmost column, in which Schleicher proposes reconstructed declensions for an ‘Indo-germanic Ursprache’.

The scientific study of language was not disinterested: building upon post-Herderian convictions of the relationship between expression and identity, the study of language was imbricated with a quest for human, and racial origins. It did not take much for the linguistic project of reconstituting an ‘Indo-European’ Ursprache to elide into the raciological project of Aryanism. This projected distillation and recovery of an essential ‘Aryan’ culture was premised on an ideology of racial difference (and most often, ‘Aryan’ superiority); philology nourished this ideology with the stamp of scientific authority.[3]

It has been argued that comparative philology was the ‘hegemonic’ academic discipline of nineteenth-century Europe;[4] Foucault has suggested that the mark of comparative philology upon our intellectual consciousness was far more subtle than that of biology or archaeology, even though (might we suggest, because) ‘its consequences have perhaps extended even deeper in our culture’.[5] If this is the case, where might we locate the imprint of comparative philology and linguistics within the formation of the musicological discipline? And by extension, might we trace this imprint further? How did the epistemology of comparative philology itself infiltrate the music and sounds conjured by musicians and composers?

To examine these questions, I look to fin-de-siècle and early twentieth-century France, a time when Parisian centres of philological research were thriving, and driving the emergence of the musicological discipline. As philologists were staking their ground, musicians took notice. To witness this, we might closely revisit these interdisciplinary encounters between philology, musicology, and composition, to examine the interfaces between constructed realms of ‘science’ and ‘art’. How, for example, was the boundary between scientific and artistic production negotiated variously by philologists, musicologists, and composers? What did ‘science’ offer musicology, and by extension, music? And what did music – as an epistemology, as an artform – offer ‘science’ in return?

‘Philologising’ music

One early example is the case of François-Joseph Fétis’s Histoire générale de la musique. As Jann Pasler and Thomas Christensen have pointed out, Fétis was an avid reader of Arthur de Gobineau, and was eager to engage music history in support of sweeping anthropological and racial arguments.[6] From a methodological perspective, Fétis turns to comparative philology and linguistics to shape his arguments. Citing dozens of philologists and linguists, Fétis also maintained a correspondence with a number of philologists across Europe, and affiliated his scholarship on music with their prestigious discipline. Exhorting music historians to study the science of linguistics, he claims that ‘what is true for languages is also true for music’ (v.I/iii). This equivalency, expressed by Fétis with such an intuitive facility as to forestall any objection, undergirds (overtly or not) several generations of musico-linguistic interdisciplinarity.

Fétis confidently adapts philology to music, appropriating its authority while manipulating its methods. Where linguists could make comparative tables of conjugations and declensions, Fétis found one musical analogue in ‘scales’ or ‘modes’, of which he could similarly construct comparative tables. Following the philologists in constructing a lineage between ancient Indian, Persian, and Greek musical scales on their path to European tonality, Fétis remarks:

It is important for me to declare here that what we have just read with respect to the origin and transformation of the diatonic system of the Greeks does not emerge from positivist historical data…. The basis of the generation and transformation of the tonalities of this music can only be discovered by the assemblage of data points which can only be connected by induction. I would be tempted to call this detailed and meticulous study the comparative philology of music history (v.I/134–5).


From François-Joseph Fétis, Histoire générale de la musique (1869–76). Two comparative tables of scales from Fétis’s chapters on various ‘Aryan’ musics.

We can easily zoom in on Fétis’s arguments throughout the Histoire and observe the logical breakdowns resulting from this interdisciplinary encounter. Discrepancies did not threaten to undermine his theories of musical or racial kinship, or the applicability of philological procedures to musical objects. Rather, they gave Fétis the occasion to posit historical contingencies: thus, for example, he attributes an ‘anomaly’ in the comparison of Persian and European modes to Genghis Khan’s 1225 conquest – Mongolian pentatonicism having ostensibly distorted the semitones of the original scales (v.II/365–6). The main basis for this conjecture is not historical research or received tradition, but rather Fétis’s own desire to preserve a notion of Indo-European continuity in music mirroring that which the philologists see in language (with Persian, at this point, classified as an Indo-European language somehow ‘between’ Sanskrit and Greek).

For all Fétis’s faith in the ethnological findings of comparative philology, however, he evidently concludes that ‘science’ is not sufficient to tell the history of music. Music is, after all, an ‘art’ – and this ineffable, ‘unscientific’ essence provides Fétis the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card. Despite the great lengths to affiliate the Histoire générale with the methods and figureheads of comparative philology, Fétis pulls rank, concluding that only a ‘musician, entirely versed in art and science’ could gain a understanding of the ‘true state’ of Indian music (v.II/265). We can see the moment of conflict between his philological and musical impulses in Fétis’s revisions to William Jones’s transcription of an air from the Rāgavibodha, a seventeenth-century Indian text. On the one hand, he accuses Jones of being influenced by performance practice instead of music theory, comparing Jones’s air to the suite of available modes and finding no direct match; on the other hand, in his own transcription, Fétis takes ample musical liberties himself, as when he judges certain diacritical markings to indicate various sorts of ornamentation. And when confronted with a linguistic quandary, Fétis’s ultimate recourse is to his musical instincts: having encountered an unexpected Sanskrit letter in Jones’s facsimile of the manuscript that he interprets as ‘ḍa’, and thus not one of the syllables associated with the Indian modal system, Fétis justifies his course of action in musical terms, concluding, ‘it seemed to me that the B was the best note for the melody’ (v.II/255). Who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in this translation exercise is neither here nor there. What fascinates me is how knowledge, scholarship, and ultimately music take shape in the friction of this meeting of philological means and musical impulses. Fétis attempts to reconcile his own musical training with the standard-bearing scientific methodology; ultimately, however, it is his own musical sense which prevails in this act of musical reconstruction.

Over the decades, the encounter between comparative philologist and musician/‘musicologist’ replays itself many times over. We can also draw links between different realms of philological projects. French musicologists interested in plain-chant, for example, described their research as ‘philological’ and drew connections to the broader linguistic project. As Dom Mocquereau of the Solesmes monastery wrote in 1889:

The science of linguistics…has already begun to trace for us, not only an isolated sketch of this or that language, but a magnificent scene of the whole, in which the evolutions of the principal idioms, dialects, and patois spoken in Asia and Europe were unfolded before our eyes, from the most remote times up to the present day. Why shouldn’t musical experts, then, try to create in their turn—if you will permit me to use the word—a musical philology?[7]

The text-centred perspective of philology contributed to notions of ‘urtext’ in critical edition projects undertaken around the turn of the century – although here, too, eminent musicians were typically at the helm of such editions, having the final word on musical decision making. Calls for musical ‘philology’ – including a keen interest in Indo-Europeanism in particular – persisted into the twentieth century with figures like Pierre Aubry, Jules Combarieu, and Maurice Emmanuel.[8] And the currents flowed both ways: the philologist Théodore Reinach sought the help of composers (Fauré, in particular) to animate his research on ancient music through modern musical accompaniment.[9]

Sounding musicological objects

At this point in my research, I’m examining the relationship between composer-historian Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray and the Aryanist philologist Emile-Louis Burnouf. Bourgault met Burnouf during two residencies at the French School in Athens, and maintained a close friendship and correspondence with him throughout the following decades. It was in the wake of this encounter that Bourgault developed his theory of an essentially Aryan connection between ancient Greek scales and the modes of French folksong, which he elaborated in a range of published writings and public addresses.[10] Yet, Bourgault was clear in his ultimate commitment: to compositional innovation, and to the modern-day exploitation of the fecundity of ancient ‘modes’. Unlike Fétis, Bourgault did not try to reconstruct ancient music as such; rather he aimed to reclaim the techniques and theories of the ancients for the contemporary compositional toolkit. As he wrote to Burnouf, ‘the aim of my research in Greece is certainly scientific from one point of view, but it is much more artistic… For me, this work is a means and not an end.’ He spent his career as professor of music history at the Paris Conservatoire transforming these theories into an artistic – and ethnic – agenda, advocating ‘modes antiques’ as the basis of a new compositional resource to be used melodically as well as harmonically, while echoing these ideas in public lectures and in his own compositions. In turn, Burnouf, assisted by Bourgault in his own forays into musicology, worked in the opposite direction, attempting to restore the rhythm of plainchant with his 1887 publication, Chants de l’église latine.

In some quarters, there was resistance to this facile interdisciplinarity. The Belgian musician and Hellenist François-Auguste Gevaert, entering these debates, maintained that ‘despite the new sciences which, in our time, have transformed the history of religions, mythologies, races, and languages…there can be no question of an Aryan music, or even a Greco-Latin music.’ Without refuting the effectiveness of comparative philology on its own terrain (including with respect to race), Gevaert maintained that music was ‘exceptional’ in its ability to ‘transplant itself’ from one place to the next.[11]

Notwithstanding such protests of ahistoricism, the use of ‘modes’ spread among French composers at a rapid pace amid these debates, further stimulated by the related embrace of church and folk ‘modes’ promoted by clericalist and regionalist composers. While this stylistic spread itself might have stood as evidence for the free-floating and ‘transplanting’ quality of musical sound mentioned by Gevaert, instead, notions of modality in musical-critical discourse continued to accrue nationalistic as well as racial connotations, bolstered by appropriated lineages: from ancient Indo-Europeans (most often Greeks, but also ancient Indians), through the medieval Church or preserved (‘fossilised’[12]) in the folk music of the French provinces, ‘modality’ became embedded as a distinctly French compositional technique and musical quality, or so the story went. Many composers, such as Massenet, Roussel, and Emmanuel among others, kept abreast, each in their own way, of the ‘scientific’ discoveries of philology and related disciplines, while invoking musical ‘modality’ as a strategic signifier in their own work.

Taking a concept from the sociology of science, we might consider whether musical ‘modes’ can be thought of as ‘boundary objects’ – objects or ideas which are common to ‘intersecting social worlds’, but which afford different meanings depending on local concerns and priorities among the different communities that make use of them.[13] For philologically minded musicologists, collections of modes represented reconstituted quasi-linguistic artefacts which could in turn be systematically defined, classified, and compared – often, as we’ve seen, as a means of charting human origins, defining ‘racial’ identity, or recreating ancient culture. For historically and nationally minded composers, however, a table of modes might serve a promise of compositional inheritance – a resource which could be combined with modern techniques of harmony and counterpoint to revivify a national musical style, or to legitimate experimentalism. For later generations of musicologists and musicians, the use of ‘modes’ in French composition had spread epiphenomenally – more a response to contemporaneous musical trends than an engagement with the underlying intellectual histories – infiltrating music to an extent such that today musicologists often use the notion of ‘modality’ as a casual analytical heuristic. (We know what we mean in a musical sense, for example, when we say that a passage from Fauré or Roussel is ‘modal’.) Our generally accepted musicological conceptions of ‘modal’ pitch classes have long outlasted our realisation that ‘what is true’ of linguistic history is not true for music history (or human history for that matter) – yet it seems difficult to separate the emerging prevalence of ‘modality’ in fin-de-siècle French music from the intellectual contexts which gave it meaning as a musical technique. We might therefore ask: can a mode, or a sound object, or even something as abstract as a pitch-class set separate from such a context, or a moral purpose, in which it was constructed? If so, under what conditions? What do we accomplish by recovering those contexts? The philological baggage of ‘modality’ may be largely forgotten – but perhaps not shed.


Peter Asimov is a PhD student at the Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge (Clare College), where he is also a Gates Scholar. He holds a Masters degree in musicology from the University of Oxford, and an undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature (French and Sanskrit literature) from Brown University. He has presented research across Europe and the US, and is an accomplished pianist. He was also étudiant-chercheur at the Conservatoire de Paris in 2016.

[1]The history of comparative philology and linguistics in the nineteenth-century has been told and retold many times. For a recent account, see James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), esp. chapters 5 & 9. For a more technical history, see Morpurgo Davies, Anna, Nineteenth-Century Linguistics, trans. by Addison Wesley, History of Linguistics, vol. 4 (London: Longman, 1998). For one critique of the William Jones–centred historiography, see Lyle Campbell, ‘Why Sir William Jones got it all wrong, or Jones’ role in how to establish language families’, Studies in Basque and Historical Linguistics in Memory of R.L. Trask, ed. by Joseba Lakarra and José Ignacio Hualde (Bilbao: Universidad del País Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea), 245–64.

[2]Siraj Ahmed, ‘Notes from Babel: Toward a Colonial History of Comparative Literature’, Critical Inquiry, 39 (2013), 305–7.

[3]On this intellectual history, see two classic studies by Léon Poliakov (Le Mythe Aryen, Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1973), and Maurice Olender (Les langues du Paradis, Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 1989).

[4]William Clark, quoted in Sheldon Pollock, ‘Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World’, Critical Inquiry, 35 (2009), 936.

[5]Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses(Paris: Gallimard, 1966), 294.

[6]See Christensen, Stories of Tonality in the Age of François-Joseph Fétis(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming); and Pasler, ‘Theorizing Race in Nineteenth-Century France: Music as Emblem of Identity’, The Musical Quarterly, 89 (2008), 465–7.

[7]Quoted in Katherine Bergeron, Decadent Enchantments: The Revival of Gregorian Chant at Solesmes(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 94.

[8]Not without irony, as it was around this time that many were beginning to turn away from the methods of nineteenth-century comparative philology, grasping the importance and contingency of contexts and practices – see Rémy Campos, Nicolas Donin, and Frédéric Keck, ‘Musique, musicologie, sciences humaines : sociabilités intellectuelles, engagements esthétiques et malentendus disciplinaires (1870-1970)’, Revue d’Histoire des Sciences Humaines, 14 (2006), 5. Franz Boas’s critique of comparativism in 1896 is a pertinent example here (‘The Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology’, Science, 4 (1896), 901–8).

[9]This and a number of kindred case studies are discussed in Samuel Dorf’s recent book, Performing Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[10]For an excellent introduction to Bourgault-Ducoudray’s thoughts and legacy, see Vlagopoulos, Panos, ‘“The Patrimony of Our Race”: Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray and the Emergence of the Discourse on Greek National Music’, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 34 (2016), 49–77; see also Pasler, 468, 472.

[11]François-Auguste Gevaert, Histoire et théorie de la musique dans l’antiquité(Gand, 1875), 2–3.

[12]The trope of ‘folk’ cultures as ‘living fossils’ of earlier manifestations of culture is longstanding; for a discussion of this conception in connection with music, see Matthew Gelbart, The Invention of ‘Folk’ Music and ‘Art’ Music, Emerging Categories from Ossian to Wagner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[13]Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer, ‘Institutional Ecology, “Translations” and Boundary Objects’, Social Studies of Science, 19 (1989), 387–420.