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Poetics of Music

Poetics of Music

The Project

The term ‘poetics’ derives from the Greek po(i)tikos (‘relating to poets’) via poisis (making poetry), poiein (to create) and the Latinpoeticus. Among the ancients it was used for tracts that dealt principally with the craft of writing and secondarily – if at all – with general precepts, criticism and analysis. The main examples were Aristotle’s Poetics (on the making of tragedy and comedy), Horace’s Ars Poeticus and (implicitly) Longinus’s essay On Sublimity, all of which are collected in a single volume of Classical Literary Criticism edited by D. A. Russell and M. Winterbottom (Oxford, OUP, 1972/89). The term was not surprisingly revived on many fronts in the Renaissance and by musicians in volumes ofMusica poetica by Listenius (1537), Dressler (1563), Burmeister (1606) and Herbst (1643) among others. There the effort was to align poetics with rhetoric, and the Ciceronian aim for the composer and performer to ‘instruct, move and delight’ the listener. And in the last century, Stravinsky harnessed the term for hisPoetics, or Poétique musicale (1942): his concern was now not with the nuts and bolts of craft and communication but rather with a modern composer’s aesthetic stance. In other words, although there has been agreement in the last two thousand years over a general field of creative theory, there has been none over where its emphasis should lie. Add to that the enormous developments in our modern understanding of musical theory and analysis, performance practice, psychology and aesthetics, and even the possibility of arriving at a contemporary poetics seems to buckle under the profusion of topics.

Nevertheless, the Poetics of Music project based at King’s College London attempts to make sense of the diversity by accumulating writings in book form under the direction and editorship of Christopher Wintle (Senior Research Fellow). The writings approach the subject from as many points of view as possible – even if they can never hope to encompass everything – in the belief that the hitherto separate emphases belong together: theory, craft, precept, compositional stance, performance, rhetoric, critical reception, analysis and so forth. The writers are suitably heterogeneous and include (to date) a scholar-performer (Julian Littlewood), a composer-historian (Hugh Wood), a composer-critic (Bayan Northcott) and an analyst-critic (Christopher Wintle); and the readership is intended to include those who are interested directly or indirectly in how music is composed, performed and heard, and who are open to music of different times and even cultures: it does not attempt to create or reinforce a ‘new music’ stronghold, however much it welcomes new music. To date (2010/11) the series has been supported financially by King’s College London, the Britten Estate Ltd., the Institute of Advanced Musical Studies (KCL), the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust and a private source; it has been published by Plumbago Books ( in association with its distributor, Boydell & Brewer Ltd. ( A personal entry on the editor may be found on the Plumbago Books website.


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