Illuminating the mediating function of mythology in twentieth- and twenty-first-century British art music through spatial form analysis

Jessica Williams

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Mythic opera became an exemplary site of ideology with Wagner, bequeathing an important legacy for twentieth-century British composers that is not yet fully appreciated. This thesis investigates the role of mythology in mediating aspects of the ‘universal’ as expressed in twentieth- and twenty-first-century British art music, and individual subjectivity, focusing specifically on three case studies: Tippett’s King Priam (1958-62), Vaughan Williams’s Job: A Masque for Dancing (1931), and Maxwell Davies’s Sea Orpheus (2009). The central contention of the thesis is that inherent in mythological materials is the potential for mediation not only of ideological constructs and the realities of life in British society, but also of aspects of human experience which we are ordinarily unable to rationalize and comprehend; further that the foundational mythology of these three works is vital to their comprehensive understanding by contemporary and more modern readers. The methodological approach is predicated on the hypothesis that spatial interpretation, formulated on the basis of the spatial form model of modernist literary theorist Joseph Frank, opens up a vital perspective on the reader’s individual, active engagement with myth, which illuminates its mediating function. The contrasting parameters of the sources for each work’s mythology – Greek epic, visual illustrations, and modern folk-poetry – are compared, as are the strikingly different musical language and compositional techniques of the composers, and various paratextual sources for the works, both musical and non-musical. The thesis concludes by demonstrating that despite the striking contrasts between the three works, they may be interpreted in complement to one other by expanding the horizon of analysis to encompass a revision of our concept of the ideological space their composers inhabit within British musical modernism; and further reinforce the case for musicological study in which technical analysis and contextual history mediate one another, not only by design, but by their very definition.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Harper-Scott, J. P. E., Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Sept 2015
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015


  • Music
  • Music Analysis
  • musicology
  • spatial form
  • Tippett
  • Maxwell Davies
  • Vaughan Williams
  • Myth
  • narrative
  • mythology
  • iliad
  • Blake
  • Orpheus
  • drama

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