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Natural Theology and the Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams

BLAKEY, CHRISTOPHER,JEREMY (2023) Natural Theology and the Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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Author-imposed embargo until 04 December 2024.
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY).


Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote much about his belief in musical transcendence, defining music as ‘reaching out to the ultimate realities by means of ordered sound’. Such statements put his thought in dialogue with theology, understood in a broad Anselmian sense as ‘faith seeking understanding’. Furthermore, Vaughan Williams’s entanglement with the science-religion discourse of his intellectual context saturates his theology with issues of evolution, nature, and progress. Whilst ideas of religion permeate Vaughan Williams scholarship, the more specific category of theology has not been considered. The present thesis addresses this lacuna by arguing that Vaughan Williams’s music affords theological interpretation.

In order to pursue this argument an interdisciplinary method is constructed using elements of theology, musicology, and music analysis. The ontological and epistemological underpinnings of music analysis and theology are explored thoroughly. In arguing for their complementarity, this method draws on literature addressing the relationship between science and theology. Nattiez’s tripartition and Hopps’s concept of affordance structures are employed to engage with issues of musical meaning. Analysis of Vaughan Williams’s vocal music reveals potent theological affordance structures: the interaction of these structures points to a deistic theological paradigm. These observations also extend to his symphonic music. Symphony No. 5 evokes an ambiguous but positive natural theology that resonates with Vaughan Williams’s deistic, evolutionary intellectual context. In contrast, the Sinfonia Antartica expresses a failed natural theology which reflects trends in twentieth-century ideas of nature and progress.

Thus, this study interprets Vaughan Williams in new ways; introduces new perspectives on how art, science, and theology interact in the milieu of late-Victorian and modernist ideas; and introduces new interdisciplinary methods appropriate for studying the relationship between music and theology.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:Music;Theology;Music Theology;Ralph Vaughan Williams;Science;Science and Religion;Music Analysis
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Arts and Humanities > Music, Department of
Thesis Date:2023
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:04 Dec 2023 12:34

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