Musical Working in Imperial London: Coloniality, Decoloniality, and Modernism in the Music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Gustav Holst

Simeon Smith

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


The thesis is a historical ethnography of music and colonialism that uses music analysis to theorize and document a recursive relationship of structuration between musical systems of composition and social systems of power. Shifting the focus of study from the ‘musical work’ to a process of ‘musical working’, the thesis investigates musical scores ethnographically as material inscriptions of structure and agency in time and place. The primary objective of the thesis is to interrogate the socio-structural entwine of ‘modernity/coloniality’ through the lens of musical composition as a social practice in early-twentieth century London. Focusing on works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Gustav Holst, the thesis explores how racial and cultural Otherness is replicated, reflected, renewed, and resisted within early-twentieth century modernist epistemologies. The method pursued balances history with anthropology and uses techniques of music analysis to draw specific conclusions about how social relations and cultural processes are embodied and inscribed in musical systems and sonic phenomena.

The fundamental contention of the thesis is that subjectivity and agency within social structures of modernity/coloniality were articulated in musical composition through two competing repertoires of modernist practice: ‘modernism/expansionism’ and ‘modernism/créolité’. Both modernisms emerge in response to a critical awareness of Otherness—across colonial metropoles and peripheries alike—that rendered the hierarchical orthodoxies of nineteenth-century Romanticism/imperialism unsustainable. Modernism/expansionism, characterized as a metropolitan British response to the colonized Other, is explored through the analysis of several works by Gustav Holst. Laying foundations for a global musical subjectivity, Holst commoditized Otherness through music-theoretical relativism and sonic fetishism with consequences on the expansion of coloniality in music under globalized capitalism. Modernism/créolité, exemplified by the compositional practices of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, is characterized as a resistive response to the double consciousness of modernity/coloniality from marginalized and racialized voices in the diaspora (and on the periphery). Through the lens of these dual modernisms, ‘musical working’ is revealed as a complex practice capable of both colonial and decolonial consequences.

The thesis attempts to make a twofold scholarly contribution. (1) In the domain of critical theory and modernism studies, it complicates the macronarrative of modernity by proposing it not simply in terms of modernity/coloniality, but as a dialectical structuration of coloniality and decoloniality (through modernism/expansionism and modernism/créolité). The dialectic imagines the radical possibility of posing a threat to the structure from within the logic of the structure itself. (2) By reimagining the ‘musical work’ as a process of ‘musical working’, the method pursued is a conscious entwinement of embodied and aesthetic approaches to music study with potential for future application.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Downes, Stephen, Supervisor
  • Ramnarine, Tina K., Advisor
Award date1 Mar 2024
Publication statusUnpublished - 21 Feb 2024


  • Holst
  • Coleridge-Taylor
  • postcolonialism
  • decoloniality
  • analysis
  • modernism

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