James G. Mansell – Music as a Religion of the Future: Theosophy, Sound and Esoteric Modernity

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Sacred Modernities: Rethinking Modernity in a Post-Secular Age

19 September 2009

James G. Mansell (University of Manchester)
Music as a Religion of the Future: Theosophy, Sound and Esoteric Modernity

Modernism has been remembered principally for its innovations in visual and literary representation. Less frequently noted is the extent to which music and the experience of sound inspired such innovation. In the futurist movement, for example, music offered a model for the perception and representation of urban flux. For the avant-garde cinema theorist Ricciotto Canudo, author of Music as a Religion of the Future, music alone among the arts was capable of matching the dynamic forces of the modern world. Composers, too, were committed to the idea that music was a unique force for reconciliation with modernity.  Such ideas were commonly debated by theorists and their critics in the first two decades of the twentieth century.  The common link in this lineage was the influence of occult spirituality, particularly that of the Theosophical Society. Emerging in the 1890s, modern occultism included both alternative spiritualities such as Theosophy and scientific groups such as the Society for Psychic Research. In this context the occult was defined as a set of scientifically-provable natural laws which, as a result of the character of post-Enlightenment science, were not admissible into the cannon of scientific truth. These included clairvoyance, the possibility of communicating to the spirits of the dead and magical healing. Across the range of its manifestation, as this paper will argue, modern occultism was fascinated by the mysterious qualities of music. In turn, modernist theorists and practitioners were profoundly influenced by Theosophy and the significance which it invested in musical sound. By 1914 the French cultural critic Julien Benda had identified music as ‘a profound signature of the modern spirit’. By taking insufficient account of this enchanted strand of modernist creativity, we have assumed too readily that religion and spirituality were marginalized in modernity. Throughout the 1910s, 20s and 30s, Theosophical modernism sought to develop music into a religion of the future, undertaking many artistic and social experiments to this end.

Dr James G. Mansell is Research Associate in Modern European History at the University of Manchester. He completed a doctoral thesis in 2008 entitled ‘Sounds Modern: Perils and Possibilities in the Audible Metropolis, 1889-1939’. His first article ‘Musical Modernity and Contested Commemoration at the Festival of Remembrance, 1923-27’ will be published by The Historical Journal in June. He also contributes as a reviewer to the journal The Senses and Society. He is currently working on a project about everyday rhythms, local identity and documentary film in Britain, 1928-1945.

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