Einstein, Modernism, and Musical Life in America, 1921-1945 Public Deposited

Downloadable Content

Download PDF
Last Modified
  • March 19, 2019
  • Portnow, Allison
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Music, Musicology Graduate Program
  • This dissertation explores the relationship between Einstein's theories of relativity and the concepts and products of musical modernism in the United States from 1921 to 1945. The interactions of the musical world with this particular area of scientific thought are traced from the time that Einstein became famous in America until the end of World War II, when the scientist's public persona expanded to include his political activism. During this period, modernist composers working in America took part in the cultural phenomena of Einstein and relativity's celebrity, invoking scientific rhetoric related to relativity in their writings about music and participating in the larger cultural discourse surrounding science, modernism, and life in early-twentieth century America. My research is divided into three large chapters, each tracing one facet of Einstein's reception and incorporation into modernist musical life. Following an introductory outline of the relationship between music-making and science in general in "Chapter 1: Introduction," "Chapter 2: Einstein" explores the reception of Einstein the man. I look at the elements of Einstein's public persona, including his representation as a rebel or revolutionary, as a hero or savior, as a genius, as an understandable intellectual, and finally as a musician. I explore the perceived and carefully constructed parallels between the figure of the modernist composer and Einstein. In "Chapter 3: Relativity" I examine the use of Einstein's relativity theories as models for modernist theories of music, both in terms of methodology and as a source of inspiration for new ideas in music theory. I look especially at how Einsteinian ideas of space and time inspired new theories about the relationships between pitch and rhythm in modernist musical aesthetics. In "Chapter 4: Space-Time" I delve further into how changing notions of musical space and time, inspired by Einstein and his new theories, shaped musical compositions of this period. I conclude my dissertation in "Chapter 5: Conclusions" with an overview of the relationship between music and science after Einstein, which offers an avenue for further investigations. It also serves as a point of contextualization for the vibrant interactions between Einstein and modern music discussed in my dissertation.
Date of publication
Resource type
Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Finson, Jon W.
  • Cohen, Brigid Maureen
  • Fauser, Annegret
  • Katz, Mark
  • Mauskopf, Seymour
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2011

This work has no parents.