Music and Transcendence: A Review

I had the privilege of attending the initial conference ‘Music and Transcendence’ in Cambridge in 2011, organised by Férdia J. Stone-Davis, so I was very pleased to be sent a copy to review. Having just submitted my PhD in Theology (of Music) – in which I explored many different understandings of transcendence in music – I was keen to read a book that brought together the variety of approaches. What was a fruitful day of insightful discussion has blossomed into an interesting read, which is well worth investigating for anyone with an interest in musical meaning. On the day, Christopher Page and Roger Scruton gave the talks I remember most vividly, and their chapters offer a good reflection of their thoughts. Just as the conference included the practical experience of music, in the form of a conference, so the book includes detailed musical analysis in parts. It is also worth reading Stone-Davis’ Musical Beauty: Negotiating the Boundary between Subject and Object for further insight into Stone-Davis’ thoughts on the liminal nature of music.

Music and Transcendence edited by Férdia J. Stone-Davis (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015)

This edited collection contains a variety of different perspectives on the relationship between music and transcendence.  A variety of understandings of the concept of transcendence are employed in the chapters.  Some of these emphasis that the nature of this musical meaning that cannot quite be captured linguistically.  Others use transcendence to describe the relation between humans and an ‘other’. As in her earlier work Musical Beauty, Stone-Davis draws on the thought of Boethius and Kant to outline the two traditional understandings of transcendence: vertical transcendence towards the absolute, or God, and horizontal transcendence, an immanent form of going beyond the self.  Instead of a dichotomous understanding of transcendence, however, Stone-Davis adopts Schrag’s concept of transversality, thus allowing musical transcendence to have many dimensions at once.  In this way, music can interrupt the horizontal-vertical axis.

Stone-Davis’ chapter represents the key strand of contemporary engagement between music and theology noting the ‘world-making’ propensity of music.  Stone-Davis highlights the importance of an understanding of place in discussing borderlands of music and body.  She develops the argument put forward in Musical Beauty, that music in some way suspends the boundary between subject and object.  This liminal propensity of music allows for musical transcendence.

This collection offers a balance between theory and the practical application of it in musical analysis of specific works.  It covers a range of popular classical music from Bach to Beethoven, but goes beyond this, as in Christopher Page’s chapter which begins in the Middle Ages.  Likewise the expected theologians – Scheleimacher, Otto, Tillich – make an appearance, but their work is employed in innovative ways.  This book demonstrates that there remains much to be said about the long-standing perceived relationship between music and transcendence.  Several chapters highlight the importance of the cultural backdrop to the music studied.  Oane Reitsma’s chapter is a particular highlight, constructing a logical argument with Gadamer’s hermeneutics of play in application to music.

Music and Transcendence is an accessible collection of theological and philosophical thought about the experience of music that many struggle to put into words.  Whilst some musical terminology is used in some chapters, the meaning will remain clear to readers who are not musicians.  It is a worthwhile read both as an introduction to the topic, and as a development of existing thought on theology and music.

This book provides much food for thought for anyone interested in investigating the mechanisms which create musical meaning.

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