Music, Writing, and Subjectivity: The Ethics of Musicology

Nathan Mercieca

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis examines the ethical implications of writing about music, focussing on the analysis of tonal art music. While some recent publications have studied various ethical situations involving music, none has taken the theoretical engagement with Western Art Music as its starting point. I argue that the role of such theoretical engagement within contemporary philosophical and political debates should be re-evaluated.

The thesis is divided into three parts: Part I comprises Chapters One and Two, Part II comprises Chapters Three and Four, and Part III comprises Chapter Five. Part One is concerned with the philosophical underpinnings of the postmodern current of contemporary musicology. Chapter One examines recent literature on the intersection of music and ethics, including the directly political work of the New Musicology, and proposes an alternative methodology. Chapter Two grounds this methodology in modernist metaphysics, and thus proceeds to a philosophical and political critique of postmodern musicology.

Part II is a case study of the ‘Andantino’ from Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A major, D. 959. Chapter Three counters the claim that traditional analytical engagement fails in Schubert’s music with two complementary analyses, which contribute to an understanding of the construction of subjectivity in Schubert’s oeuvre. In so doing I advance the concept of ‘materialist dialectics’, a method of engaging both with the idealist elements that characterize traditional music theory, and with the material elements of both politics and performance. Chapter Four generalizes this approach, grounding it in early twentieth-century Marxist thinking, and applying it to a wider discussion of gender in music.

Part III expands the materialist consideration of music to encompass musical performances. I demonstrate several inconsistencies in the discourse of ‘Music as Performance’. In order to resolve them, an analysis of the second movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony—applying the materialist dialectics of Part II—shows how a theoretical approach can take account of performance. As a result, a Marxist reading of the work-concept, generated by a materialist dialectic understanding of subjectivity, is proposed.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Harper-Scott, J. P. E., Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Mar 2018
Publication statusUnpublished - 2018


  • Musicology
  • Ethics
  • Subjectivity
  • Theory
  • Analysis
  • Metatheory
  • neo-Riemannian Analysis
  • Schenkerian Analysis
  • Music and Philosophy
  • Communism
  • Marxism

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