Celestial resistance

Ground-breaking study of 20th-century musicians who sought to range the human spirit against totalitarianism


By Dan Cohn-Sherbok, January 25, 2013
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In his monumental and ground-breaking 'Music and the Spiritual: Composers and Politics in the 20th Century, (Ziggurat Books, £14.95), Antony Copley provides a panoramic study of seminal 20th-century musicians who sought to express the spiritual within the dehumanising confines of Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism.

Surveying the works of Eastern European composers (Scriabin, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Penderecki, Gorecki, Part, Schnittke, Gubaidulina), and French and German composers (Messiaen, Poulenc, Stockhausen, and Henze), Copley explores the varied ways in which these musicians struggled through their compositions against the political regimes that sought to crush the human spirit.

According to Copley, music as an art form seeks to transcend human experience and provides a means of approaching the Divine.

The true role of the spiritual in music, he writes, is to raise our awareness of the mystery of being and strengthen our sense of ultimate purpose. In the face of Nazi and Stalinist horror, such a quest was more important than ever. Throughout his discussion, he traces the various means by which these composers responded to the evil that surrounded them.

In his 8th quartet, for example, Shostakovich identified with the plight of the Jewish people and was appalled by the resurgence in Russia of antisemitism following the creation of the Jewish state.
“It is an outrageous thing,” he stated, “and we must fight it. We must shout it from the rooftops.”
Those seeking to understand the tragedies of the last century will be informed and inspired by this work by a leading British cultural historian.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is Emeritus Professor of Judaism at the University of Wales

    Last updated: 3:50pm, January 25 2013