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Music in Relation to its Times

Govindan Nair

By Antony Copley
Primus Books, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 352, Rs. 1095.00


To assess music as the purveyor of the spiritual is Antony Copley’s project in this compelling and erudite study. He undertakes his exploration by approaching the music of 20th century Europe through the biographical, cultural and philosophical planes. He tackles his mission as Everyman, he emphasizes apologetically, and not as a musicologist. Dismissing ‘art for art’s sake’ as an ‘extraordinarily arrogant’ assertion that the artist and art are somehow separate from their context, Copley insists on seeing music in relation to its times. A central premise of the study is ‘the impossibility of escaping politics in the intensely political 20th century’. This was ‘an Age of Extremes, an Age of Anxiety’ and above all ‘an Age of Fear’. Citing Jonathon Glover’s representation of ‘unspeakable evil’ demonstrated in Nazism, Stalinism and tribal civil wars in the Balkans and elsewhere, Copley asserts that ‘confronting evil is one inescapable challenge to human creativity in the 20th century’.   The role of music and the spiritual as a response to the palpable evil emanating from the politics of the century is the central narrative of this study. Copley believes that human beings naturally seek out the transcendent and are thereby ‘hard-wired for religion’. However, there is an inherent tension between religion and spirituality: religion can be a constraint on expression of the spiritual and, equally, spirituality can be indifferent to religion. Spirituality need not relate to religion or God. Copley describes it as ‘an existential awareness of a link with the sacred’; that which provides meaning either in terms of the referential or the absolute. The composers covered in this book range from the non-religious who, in Copley’s words, expressed a referential ‘this-worldly humanist spirituality’, to those who articulated an awareness of the absolute in the form of a transcendental ‘other-worldly spirituality’.   Music is said to be the art form closest to spirituality. It has been inseparable from religious expression, but it also goes beyond. Nietzsche held that the concert hall had replaced the church as a place where the divine could be encountered. Roger Scruton summed it up beautifully as follows: ‘Music is heard as though breathed into the ear of the listener from another and higher sphere: it is not here and now, the world of mere contingency that speaks to us through music, but another world whose order is only dimly reflected in the empirical realm.’ Copley adds: ‘...

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