Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


Music and Early Twentieth-Century French Thought: A Research Workshop

13 October 2023, 1:30 pm–4:30 pm

early twentieth century headphones

This workshop comes out of a UCL & Royal Academy of Music Interdisciplinary Collaboration, bringing together researchers at UCL and the Royal Academy of Music, a large university with no music department and a small music specialist institution.

This event is free.

Event Information

Open to

All | UCL staff | UCL students






Institute of Advanced Studies


IAS Forum
G17, ground floor, South Wing
UCL, Gower Street, London
United Kingdom

Workshop programme

13.30–13.40: Welcome by Tom Stern (Professor of Philosophy, UCL, and Vice-Dean for Interdisciplinarity, Faculty of Arts & Humanities)

13.40–14.40: Keynote lecture 
Joseph Acquisto (Professor of French, University of Vermont, USA): ‘Getting the Questions Right: Music, Intuition, Intelligence, and Memory’
Introduced and chaired by Patrick Bray (Professor of French, UCL)

14.40–15:00: break

15:00-16:00: Panel discussion
1.    Emily Kilpatrick (Professor of Music, RAM) 
‘“I believe it had to be said”: Maurice Ravel and the construction of musical identity, 1912–14’
2.    David Evans (Reader in French, University of St Andrews)
‘Matrilineal Composition and the Canon, or, Writing Motherhood in Song with Claire Delbos and Cécile Sauvage’
Chaired by Daria Chernysheva (recently completed PhD in Creative Critical Writing and PGTA in French, UCL)

16:00-16:30: Conversation between Alex Hills (RAM) and Tom Stern (UCL) about composing new music inspired by Proust

16:30: End of event

Please note that this is an in-person only event. Please register to attend: https://music-french-thought.eventbrite.co.uk

Supported by Music Futures, UCL Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL's Centre for French and Francophone Research and The Royal Academy of Music

Please also join us on Thursday 12 October at 6.30 pm for ‘Music History According to Marcel Proust’, a concert featuring Proust-inspired compositions by Alex Hills (RAM) alongside 20th-century French chamber music, taking place at the David Josefowitz Recital Hall, Royal Academy of Music. For more details see: https://tickets.ram.ac.uk/sales/categories/other-events/music-history-according-to-mar.


Joseph Acquisto: ‘Getting the Questions Right: Music, Intuition, Intelligence, and Memory’

The early twentieth century was an eclectic time for thinking about music, featuring many competing and influential accounts of how we could or should listen to music.  Many of what would become the central preoccupations of 20th and 21st-century work on that question were present in germinal form at the dawn of the century.  While Eduard Hanslick’s notion of absolute music was still highly influential, emotion also played a major role in accounts of musical listening, and newly nascent developments in psychology were then added to the mix.  Could psychological approaches stand alongside the esthetics and metaphysics that had guided thinking about music in the nineteenth century, or would it supplant them?  Above all, I will argue, the early twentieth century is a time of concern not just with answers but with getting the questions right.  My test case example will be Lionel Dauriac’s Essai sur l’esprit musical; I will suggest that, in 1904, he sets up an approach to asking questions about musical listening and its relation to emotions and intelligence in ways that resonate with Marcel Proust’s approach in the years to come.  Together, they set the stage for new ways of thinking about musical listening that still inform, preoccupy, and perplex us today.

Emily Kilpatrick: ‘“I believe it had to be said”: Maurice Ravel and the construction of musical identity, 1912–14’

Ravel’s slim output of musical criticism, produced almost entirely across two eventful years, is notable for its rather perfunctory observations on actual performances, and its compensatingly lively perambulations through musical history and practice. Since his public début fifteen years earlier, Ravel himself had been a continual focus of polemical debate, his music continually appropriated to serve diverse (and sometimes conflicting) critical and aesthetic narratives. In these articles, we see the composer attempting, for the first time, to shape those narratives on his own terms. This paper explores Ravel’s musical criticism in the context of his concurrent musical endeavours, and the broader landscape of French musical thought.

David Evans: ‘Matrilineal Composition and the Canon, or, Writing Motherhood in Song with Claire Delbos and Cécile Sauvage’

The names of violinist/composer Claire Delbos and poet Cécile Sauvage are usually associated with Olivier Messiaen, since both were central to both his life and his work. Delbos was Messiaen’s first wife – it is to her that his song cycle Poèmes pour Mi (1935) is dedicated – and he frequently insisted in interviews upon the formative role played by Sauvage, his mother, in nurturing his poetic and artistic sensibilities.

In this paper, I shift the critical focus to the work of these women by studying two sets of songs by Delbos, Primevère (1935) and L’Âme en bourgeon (1937). The latter shared a premiere with Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi in April 1937, but has not received anywhere near as much attention since. All the poems set by Delbos were written by Sauvage, her mother-in-law: Primevère was an unpublished volume left unfinished at the time of Sauvage’s death in 1927, while L’Âme en bourgeon, an extraordinary collection published in 1910, was written while Sauvage was pregnant with Messiaen, her first child. In a compelling parallel between the two women, Delbos was also pregnant with her first child, Pascal – Sauvage’s first grandchild – while she was setting Sauvage’s poems to music. In these texts, maternal pride in creation, and delight at a profound connection with the irrepressible generative force of nature, is tempered by a painful sense of postpartum loss and grief for the child’s mortality.

This interdisciplinary paper was prepared collaboratively by myself, a literary scholar, and a musicologist, Prof. Stephen Broad (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). We trace the dialogue between the two women as it emerges from close readings of Delbos’s song settings, which offer an intriguing reflection on modes of female creation and creativity in the early twentieth century.