Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cenotaphs in Sound

Volume Two of the Proceedings of the European Society for Aesthetics for 2010 carries a paper by James Schmidt of Boston University on “Cenotaphs in Sound: Catastrophe, Memory, and Musical Memorials.” This paper examines the peculiar status of musical compositions that are intended to serve as memorials of victims of political violence. It considers four examples of this genre: John Foulds; World Requiem (1923), Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), Steve Reich's Different Trains (1988), and John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls (2002).

Foulds [1880-1939] had a long-standing involvement in the various spiritualist and occultist movements that flourished in England during the first quarter of the twentieth century. His interests were shared by Maud MacCarthy [1882-1967], who had been a close associate of Annie Besant, the former socialist and feminist activist who, by the last decade of the nineteenth century, was a central figure in the dissemination of the ideas of Helena Blavatsky, one of the founders of Theosophy.

Theosophy offered a non-denominational form of spirituality coupled with an allegedly scientific approach to occult phenomena that proved attractive to a broad spectrum of British intellectuals and artists during the period. Because of the prominence it gave to music as a means of apprehending higher spiritual truths, it held a particular appeal for musicians including, most famously, the composer Gustav Holst.

The paper can be read here.

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