Transcribing Greece, Arranging France: Bourgault-Ducoudray’s Performances of Authenticity and Innovation

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Peter Asimov
University of California Press
19th-Century Music

Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray (1840–1910), composer, folklorist, and long-time professor of music history at the Paris Conservatoire, dedicated intense energies to the propagation of ancient Greek modes as a modern resource for French composition. Instigated by his 1875 folk-song collection mission in Greece and Anatolia, Bourgault-Ducoudray’s attraction to Greek modes was bolstered by ideological commitments to Aryanism (nourished by his relationship and correspondence with philologist Émile Burnouf), and further reinforced by his observation of “Greek modes” in Russian and Breton folk song.

This article examines how Bourgault-Ducoudray translated his quasi-philological analyses into an artistic agenda through techniques of transcription, arrangement, and composition. Beginning with a close reading of his important collection, Trente mélodies populaires de Grèce et d’Orient (1876), a continuity is established between his transcriptive and compositional practices, with particular attention paid to Bourgault-Ducoudray’s performances of authenticity through calibrated scientific and artistic rhetoric. I then turn to the reception of Bourgault-Ducoudray’s collection by two composers—Alfred Bruneau and Camille Saint-Saëns—who rearranged his Greek songs in different contexts. Treating the songs with remarkable plasticity, they appropriated Bourgault-Ducoudray’s authority to enhance representations of “oriental” and “ancient” worlds, negotiating a balance between scholarly research and artistic integrity. The article concludes by returning to Bourgault-Ducoudray’s work in the 1880s—a period during which the musical and ideological ambitions of his song arrangements were magnified to an operatic scale—culminating in a rereading of his Thamara (1891) in light of his ethnic nationalism.