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  • Neo-Mythologism in Music: From Scriabin and Schoenberg to Schnittke and Crumb
  • Anatole Leikin
Neo-Mythologism in Music: From Scriabin and Schoenberg to Schnittke and Crumb. By Victoria Adamenko. (Interplay Series, no. 5.) Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2007. [xv, 299 p. ISBN-13: 9781576471258. $36.] Illustrations, music examples, bibliographic references, index.

This is an ambitious interdisciplinary undertaking that brings together various aspects of music, mythology, semiotics, philosophy, religion, and anthropology. The subject is complex and, at times, speculative, but Victoria Adamenko's lucid writing and thoughtful organization of the book, with detailed subheadings, make the reader's job much easier.

The author introduces the concept of neo-mythologism in order to shed negative implications that are occasionally associated with myth (for example, myth as an obsolete and untrue view of the world). She defines neo-mythological as "newly constructed, . . . desirable, vital—that is, culturally inspiring" as opposed to "those myths in need of de-mythification" (p. 2). Ac cording to Adamenko, "neo-mythologism is a trend rather than an artistic movement in the conventional sense, such as expressionism or symbolism" (p. 3); therefore, it can manifest itself in the works of vastly diverse composers. Indeed, it is difficult to find a more divergent group of twentieth-century composers than those chosen by Ada menko for her study: Scriabin, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, Crumb, Stockhausen, Schnittke, Denisov, and others.

From the outset, Adamenko places neo-mythologism within a historical context and traces its origins from earlier music. The romantic movement, with its acute interest in folklore, fantastic images, fairy tales, and oneness with nature, is, of course, the most immediate predecessor of the neo-mythological trend. Adamenko also points out examples of mythological treatment of certain subjects in pre-romantic music, citing Haydn's The Creation and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as cosmological projects (p. 18).

Chapter 2 opens with an inquiry into the structural procedures in mythology and music that were introduced by Claude Lévi-Strauss. In his seminal works Structural Anthropology (trans. by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf [New York: Basic Books, 1963]) and The Naked Man (Introduction to a Science of Mythology, vol. 4. trans. by John and Doreen Weightman. [New York: Harper & Row, 1981]), Lévi-Strauss viewed binary opposition (e.g., life-death, nature-culture, day-night) as a major attribute of mythic thinking. The system of binary oppositions usually involves mediating elements that directly or indirectly smooth over the polarities.

This mythic aspect can be seen in Hinde mith's approach to harmony, which is built on the antagonism between tonalities a tritone apart. In Hindemith's opera Die Harmonie der Welt, E symbolizes universal Harmony, while B-flat indicates Earthly imperfection. The remaining ten keys, while mediating the main opposition, also include inner pairs of tritone-based opposition: Kepler (C-sharp) and his opponents (G), Heaven (C) and Earth (F-sharp) (pp. 29–31).

Adamenko then considers the role of binary opposition in the music of other composers. Schoenberg's binary thinking stemmed largely from the concepts of "old" (tonal) and "new" (twelve-tone) harmony, as well as mediating elements between the two. Scriabin's thinking "attached a highly sacred meaning to opposites and their reconciliation" (p. 39). Stravinsky's binary approach, by contrast, was "light and ironic" (p. 40). His oppositions include sharps vs. flats and odd vs. even in Les Noces, and black vs. white keys in Petrushka. The latter arguably mirrors black vs. white in [End Page 314] Pagan Slavic mythology as exemplified by the White God (Belbog) and the Black God (Chernobog) (pp. 39–40). Crumb likewise used the interplay between the white and the black keys in Makrokosmos II. Elsewhere Crumb "wrote about the opposition of 'light' and 'dark' in regard to Star-Child (1977)" and defined certain sounds and structures as either "godly" or "devilish" (p. 43). Polarities in the music of Stock hausen, asserts Adamenko, are closer to Schoenberg in the sense that both composers preferred dealing with opposing categories. For Stockhausen these extremes were, typically, "determinacy and indeterminacy, static and dynamic, and the discrete and indiscrete" (p. 44).

Another mythic and ritualistic characteristic that is embodied in musical compositional procedures is repetition. The...