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Lakshmi Subramanian

MUSIC AND THE SPIRITUAL: COMPOSERS AND POLITICS IN THE 20TH CENTURY
By Antony Copley
Primus Books, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 352, Rs. 352.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 2 February 2016

Copley’s work is by his own admission a project of cultural history. It has for its focus, a select number of composers, Russian, Polish, French among others, whose oeuvre (mostly produced in the twentieth century) provides the entry point to examining themes and categories such as ‘spiritual’ and ‘secular’ especially in a period that was dominated by politics. Broadly speaking, there are two issues that animate Copley’s concerns; one is to see how we can identify personal spiritual experience as constitutive of the music produced and two more generally to understand the very idea and valence of the ‘spiritual’ in a period that had turned back on religion and saw some of the most outrageous violations of humanitarian principles. How then are we to understand the subjective experience of composers who lived in difficult times, and responded to their contexts—personal and social—to produce music? To recover meaning and meaning-making is certainly not easy and what one can do with some degree of attention is to situate the music within its context. This what Copley’s work does. What follows therefore, is a lucid introduction of some of the more general concerns of music history—the multiple ways of telling its history and interpreting its meaning—followed by a close reading of the composers and their personal lives and musical experimentation. A number of questions arise on reading the introduction which is an excellent and comprehensive review of literature on spirituality and modernism in art and its historicist treatment. The first and most obvious one is what marks off a cultural history of music. How does it differ from say a social history of music or cultural musicology? Is it about accessing the role of meaning making in the music that is being produced and occasionally consumed, is it about balancing the understanding and centrality of form and repertoire in music history with that of paying greater attention to context, to history and politics? It is worthwhile reflecting on this question especially in view of the blurring boundaries between disciplines such as cultural and historical musicology and cultural history. It would have helped if Copley had indicated just how his project bears the marks of a distinct methodology that mark it as new cultural history which takes for its agenda a closer reading of meaning and symbols, and to that extent takes its cue from interpretive anthropology. ...


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