Dr Nathan Mercieca

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Thesis Abstract

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.

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Nathan has assisted on first- and second-year musicology courses, including 'Contemporary Debates in Music' and Schenkerian Analysis. He was a Teaching Associate at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge from 2015–17, and has also supervised at Peterhouse and Robsinson Colleges, Cambridge. He is a co-founder and committee member of the Critical Theory for Musicology Study Group, which runs monthly student-led reading groups as well as organizing an annual international conference. He has presented at conferences at Royal Holloway, York, Oxford, as well as chairing the CTFMSG's associate panel at the RMA Music and Philosophy 2017 Conference. His essay 'To Be in Time: Repetition, Temporality, and the Musical Work' will appar in The Oxford Handbook of Music and Time (under contract).

Nathan is also a countertenor, maintaining a parallel career as a performer. He has appeared as a soloist at venues including LSO St Luke's, St John's Smith Square and Wigmore Hall, as well as working with the Royal Opera, Southbank Sinfonia, and le Concert d'Astrée. Equally in demand as a consort singer, he has worked with some of the UK's premier choral ensembles.

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BA(Hons) in Music, First Class. Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. College Scholarship, Senior Choral Exhibition.


MMus (Musicology), Distinction. Royal Holloway, University of London. Master's Scholarship.


PhD Musicology. Royal Holloway, University of London. AHRC Studentship.


Advanced Certificate, Vocal Performance. Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

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