Tom Dixon – Multiple Modernities, c.1700: Richard Roach’s ‘Natural Musick’

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Sacred Modernities: Rethinking Modernity in a Post-Secular Age

19 September 2009

Tom Dixon (University of Manchester)
Multiple Modernities, c.1700: Richard Roach’s ‘Natural Musick

At the turn of the eighteenth century the London clergyman and theosophist Richard Roach (1662-1730) developed a little-known and (by what are generally accepted as the standards of the time) somewhat eccentric theory of ‘natural musick’. Extending the techniques of Italian operatic recitative, Roach sought to realise through music some of the implications of a holistic vision of divine nature rooted in the theosophy of the German mystic Jacob Boehme (1575-1624). Hidden away in the pages of an obscure religious journal, in his diaries and in private correspondence, Roach’s thoughts on music have been virtually ignored by historians of music theory.

In Weberian terms, Roach’s magically informed concepts suggest a futile attempt to stave off a process of disenchantment already well advanced in the quantification of musical sound being developed by his contemporary experimental philosophers. And yet there are good reasons for recognising Roach’s own ‘modernity’: at first glance, in his adaptation of current operatic fashions and in his conviction of the unprecedented progress being made by the arts and sciences in his own time; on a deeper level, in support of the claim that ‘the grounding of music in the “natural” is [itself] a symptom of modernity’ (Daniel K.L. Chua). In this paper I intend to place the supra-rational aspirations and feminine sympathies of Roach’s musical Behmenism in a longer-term context, demonstrating his radical re-working of the musical models of some of his acknowledged predecessors as well as addressing the relation of his theory to later conceptions of the musically natural. In doing so, my underlying contribution to the conference theme is to suggest ways in which such contexts help to pluralise our still rather one-dimensional view of modernity’s emergence.

Dr Tom Dixon completed his doctorate at the University of Manchester, where he now teaches history. His initial exploration of Richard Roach as a musician appeared as ‘Love and Music in Augustan London; Or, the Enthusiasms of Richard Roach’, Eighteenth-Century Music 4/2 (2007), pp. 191-209. He is currently preparing a book on music and spirituality in England, c.1630-1730.

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