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In this study of the various types of relationship between music and trauma, Maria Cizmic uses four compositions as case-studies – the concerto for piano and strings by Alfred Schnittke, the sixth piano sonata by Galina Ustvolskaya, Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt and Górecki’s third symphony. Discussion of both the Pärt and Górecki works includes close reference to fi lm – Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance (which uses Tabula Rasa as soundtrack) and Tony Palmer’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (images of 20th-century atrocities against a complete performance of the third symphony).

In the 1970s and 1980s, eastern European countries witnessed a ‘cultural preoccupation … with the meanings of historical suffering, particularly surrounding the Second World War and the Stalinist era.’ ‘Themes related to pain and memory, truth and history, morality and spirituality’ were negotiated by journalists, historians, writers, artists and film-makers during glasnost and the years preceding it. Examination of the four selected works shows how so-called postmodern ‘compositional choices’ – such as quotation, fragmentation and stasis – may create musical analogies to trauma and grief.

Cizmic is assistant professor of humanities at the University of South Florida and it must be stressed that, for full appreciation of this book, an interest in other fields – psychology, sociology, philosophy, and literary and cultural studies – is as important as an interest in late 20th-century music. I found the attempts to show that these musical works ‘metaphorically perform the psychological effects of trauma, loss and recovery’ intriguing but not always convincing. Analysis of psychological states may be meaningful to a student of psychology or sociology, but may well prove more difficult to grasp for the musically based reader. The author tends to repeat herself by making the same point in different ways. Also, within a few pages we are told that Ustvolskaya’s sonata (frequently requiring ‘hammering’ force in the playing of clusters) ‘can certainly cause discomfort’, and ‘is certainly uncomfortable to play’.

I am sure this is a valuable study, but I would not unreservedly recommend it to musicians.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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